Monday, October 1, 2012

On the "quiet' temple

From the blog Praying with my Feet, a post on the ridiculous expectations for children in church. This is a topic I have spoken on quite a few times (see here, here, here, here, and here). As the parent of many children, as a seminarian required to attend many services, and as a person who has been to numerous parishes all over the US and Canada I can say that the response of parishioners to children can best be described as bipolar. Harkening back to Texas, if I drove south a bit to a nearby Orthodox church any noise made by children was met with icy stares and eyes darting like directional markers to the narthex door. If I drove north a bit, children were smiled at and parents even helped out other parents by picking up scurrying children or walking them around to look at icons. Both parishes were in the same jurisdiction and less than an hour away from one another. Which church do you think today can't even fit all the new members in the building on any given Sunday?

The church is a hospital. It is not a palliative care center where the old and crotchety go to die in peace. Kicking children out of church is kicking them out of a hospital - akin to sour-faced people kicking children's gurneys out the front door, past the ambulances, and into the street. A church that is not growing is dying.

I can't imagine kicking a family out for being a distraction. I can, and just might, prescribe an epitimia of penitential silence to a parishioner who told me to "Do something about" a noisy child.

Lastly, let me recount an encounter I once had with a person who thought I might commiserate with them about a particularly boisterous child.

Person: Wow. They (the parents) really need to do something about that kid!

Me: I'm sure they were doing what they could...

Person: Well, if they can't get a handle on him, one of them should stay home on Sundays until he can be quiet.

Me: You could always help.

Person: What?

Me: What's stopping you from going over and walking him around, letting him sit with you for a few minutes, or asking how you can help when you see them at coffee hour?

Person: [Looking at me like I had grown horns and smelled of sulfur] He's not my kid!

Recently I was made aware of something that happened to a friend of a friend. I don't know the particulars, but the family had been attending a local mission and were told by members of the parish council that (and I'm paraphrasing) if they couldn't keep their children quiet and still then not to come back. This just broke my heart. I teared up to think of the pain and humiliation this must have caused them. Goodness knows I have worked hard to keep my own children "still and quiet" over the years but they have certainly had their moments (because they're, you know... children). I have described some of my own humiliating moments to you and they have been a plenty.

Today during the last minutes of the post communion prayers many of the little children (and some adults too) were getting restive. I thought again about the family who had been so rudely shunned. I acknowledge that it can be hard to ignore very disruptive behavior. [And by "very disruptive behavior" I mean seriously disruptive behavior. Not simple talking.] But, honestly, the only solution is to say, "GET OUT"? This is from my post "More on Children in Church":
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. [1 Cor 13:1-2]

Don't let anger, frustration, irritation and impatience get in the way of loving. "An empty church is a peaceful church" - we don't want our churches to be empty.

In the case of the family I mentioned, the priest didn't have a problem with it - some parishioners did. And they took it upon themselves to throw this family out.

When we were in seminary there was a man in the local community who had recently married a woman with a smallish child. They had a baby not too long afterward. The man was Orthodox but his wife was not. Then tragedy struck: the man was flying his small plane when it crashed and he died. His new widow was heartbroken but decided that she wanted to be Orthodox and continue to raise her children in the Orthodox faith. She was rapidly catechized and baptised. She came to Liturgy at the seminary every Sunday, bringing her two children with her. They tended to sit in about the same place every week. Almost always sitting behind her was an elderly woman who, I can say only from my own experience, never had a kind word for anyone. For myself, I stayed as far away from that woman as possible. She would sit right behind this little family and criticize them audibly. Every time a child would make a peep (and really, these were pretty quiet kids) she would have something to say. This went on for weeks and weeks.

One day, it was just one comment too many. In the middle of Liturgy the young mother stood up, turned around, and in a voice that penetrated every corner of the building, told the woman off. She said how horrible it was to listen to her criticize every little thing and talk so badly about them. She said how much it hurt her and she was taking her children and never darkening the doors again. She picked up the baby, took the other child by the arm, and marched out. Needless to say, Liturgy had come to a standstill. Everyone in the altar was looking out the doors and the choir was peering down from the loft. When the doors to the narthex slammed shut, everyone tried to pick up the lost thread and Liturgy continued. Whew.

Some time later (I can't remember exactly how long) I heard that the old woman was sick. She had gone to the doctor who put her in the hospital. She was diagnosed with cancer and was "eaten up with it", to use the common phrase. Only three days later she was dead. I wondered if the pain from the cancer had contributed to her foul personality. A few weeks after this the young mother returned to church.

This is not a story with a happy ending. Mostly it is an object lesson. We do hurt people with our words and actions and we can be responsible for driving them from the Church.

Church services are not always perfectly quiet. Elder Porphyrios when serving a church in the middle of Athens had a problem with music blaring from a music shop across the street during Liturgy. The owner refused to lower the volume during services. This caused the elder great distress and he prayed that God would help him overcome it. One day he said this came to his mind: "And if you celebrate here and have your mind on God, who can cause you any harm?"* The next time he served he remembered this and it was as if there was no music blaring - he heard nothing.

We cannot always control the atmosphere in the physical temple, but we do control the atmosphere in the temple of our souls. We cannot condemn people for making distractions when we ourselves are making our own noise in our souls, chattering and complaining endlessly about who is late, who is talking, what someone is wearing, what children are doing, how long the sermon is... When we manage to create stillness in our own hearts, then the noise around us will not bother us.


  1. Call me a radical. But as a parish priest I would have left the altar, followed the young woman and children out the door, announcing that the Liturgy would not continue unless, the woman and her children returned and the elderly woman apologize to them in front of the whole congregation. An then I would tell the elderly woman how many monthes she would be in penance for her heinous act, asking the forgiveness of each parishioner as they entered and left the Church. She would also be required to read the Gospel "Let the little children come to me..." each Sunday as the congregation comes forward to kiss the cross and share in the antidoran. It might sound harsh, but I have had all too much experience with elderly "know-it-alls" destroying a parish. In most cases it is clear why their own children do not practice the Faith.

  2. Yes, Fr Bryan, you are a radical. May your tribe increase!

    I became Orthodox in the early 1980s. My wife and two small children did not, but they came faithfully to Liturgy with me, week in and week out. And we endured the same treatment described in these posts because the behavior of our boys (then aged 2 1/2 and 5 years) displeased some of the elderly Russian parishioners. Not only that, but we were never fully accepted in that parish because we were not Russian (nor any other "Orthodox" ethnicity). Partly (mostly, to tell the truth) because of treatment like that, I am no longer Orthodox.

    I am disappointed but frankly not surprised that this sort of thing has not changed much in the Orthodox Church. I now attend a Protestant Church which has about the same proportion of children (who make just as much noise as my children once did) as the Orthodox parish I once attended. We manage to serve the liturgy with great beauty and reverence, without scolding one another about our children's behavior. It can be done.

    1. Chris, so sad to read of this experience. You know, this is a parish thing--not an Orthodox or Protestant thing. I have witnessed similar treatment of families with young disruptive kids in Protestant churches (where children most often are squirreled off to "children's church" for this very reason), and my Orthodox parish is full of young, noisy children (some of whom are our Priest's grandchildren!), who are patiently tolerated and whose parents are supported by our clergy. Consequently, it is a large thriving parish like the welcoming one one described in the introduction to the article in this post.

  3. You gave the "Person" good advice. Usually my wife and I both go to church, so we can play a man-to-man defense with our two daughters. But this week, I was on my own, and it was a tougher than usual Sunday. The two-year-old wanted to light a candle, but I couldn't lift her up while carrying the six-month-old. So a fellow standing at the back of the church, totally unbidden, picked her up so she could light a candle and made her cross.

    Later, the little one started a loud crying spree while the older one was getting rambunctious, and a kind mom came back a few pews and grabbed the little one to get her off my hands for a while.

    I don't like to bug other people while they are praying, so I would not have asked for this sort of help, yet I was really glad that my fellow parishioners just helped me out without asking.

  4. I have seen parish responses all over the map on this issue. As a parent, I naturally feel kindly toward those parents who make a consistent effort to take proper care of their children's behaviour, and naturally feel noticeably less kindly toward those parents who mentally tune out their children and permit them to act up without any correction attempted. There are some astonishingly arrogant parents who reject ANY observation about, or attempt to help out with their wild children!

    Thanks be to God (!) that when two of our special needs children were too young to have been diagnosed properly, we were members of an Orthodox parish where children were loved and treasured by almost every single member (including the priest). Without forcing overbearing and unkind discipline on the parish children, almost every mother there would exercise obviously loving (even when no-nonsense) correction to a child during services, when needed, no matter to which family the child belonged. I felt as though my children were blessed with multiple parents, and I knew without a doubt that my children were loved. What a joyful environment that was! We were doing our level best to be hands-on, caring and disciplining parents, but the task (at that time) was overwhelming. Twenty-five years later, and far removed geographically from that parish, I still am grateful for those people!

    A depressing and sad alternative is one that I have seen in too many parishes: Poke all children into a Sunday School program that carries on during the Liturgy. Herd the children into the church in time for Holy Communion, then herd them straight back out afterward. Years later, lament, with total perplexity regarding the cause, that their young adult children never set foot anywhere near an Orthodox church.

  5. Fr. Bryan-I too am a priest. I hope that I have the nerve and fortitude to do the same thing that you have said you would do. You are right-in all respects.

    Fr. Peter