A couple of Mondays ago, all married students with children were required to attend a meeting on campus safety issues that the seminary both wants to hold and is required by their insurance company to hold. The main safety/security issues were addressed by Father Chad Hatfield. In addition to that, we were treated to the opportunity to hear Dr. Al Rossi speak a little bit about child development and discipline and Fr. Steven Belonick speak on children in church.
I was really nervous about having someone address us on the latter topic, because I have had my fair share of people telling me how I ought to be dealing with my kids in church; I figured that if it was going to be that kind of talk, at least I would not be the lone victim of such an attack, being in the good company of all the other students with children of their own. Father Steven must have anticipated that we would all be holding our collective breath, waiting to hear what complaints he would have for how we deal with our kids in church, because the first thing he said was that he wasn't going to be getting on to us and he knows how sensitive people can be about that topic. I was relieved to hear this, but then I wondered, what in the world is he going to talk about, if not that?
The answer is something that has really changed my life, in the least cliched and most practical sense of the phrase. Father Steven talked about how our primary responsibility, with regards to handling our children in church, is not keeping them quiet. (WHAT?) It is involving them in the services and teaching them, and this means that you must sacrifice your own desire to quietly, prayerfully participate in the services in the way that a childless adult can do for several years of your child's life.
He went on to give some other practical tips and items, but that first point of his is what I keep coming back to. Our parish priest back home in Texas always told us that having kids means that you don't get to attend to the services and pray as you might like to, but if he went on to say that what you should be doing while you're paying attention to your children is constantly working with them and engaging them in the services, I missed it. What Father Steven said was a news flash to me!
Let me tell you that, after having tried it for a week and a half, it is a lot more work to involve my children in the services than it was to just keep them quiet. My two-year-old, K., is more receptive to my attentions in that regard, so when I just have her (because my husband has H., the four-year-old), I hold her and whisper things to her like "Who's coming out of the doors now? (the deacon) "What does he have?" (a censer) "What's coming out of the censer?" (smoke) "What should we do?" (move up, then cross ourselves and bow when he passes by), and so on. H., being older and having become accustomed to being pretty well left alone during church services as long as she was quiet and not bothering anyone, seems to resent my new insistence that she pay attention and answer questions about what is going on. Most of her answers are, "I don't know." I think she'll come around, though. The hardest is when I have both of them in service because my husband is singing in the choir. I feel like the proverbial one-legged-man as I run back and forth between children, making sure that each is doing what she should be for the level she is at (standing at appropriate times, saying/singing the words to prayers she knows, watching what is going on, as well as generally being quiet and not bothering other people). I'm worn out after just a 45-minute vespers service!
One thing that this experience, along with singing in the women's choir, has revealed to me is that I am pretty clueless about the order of services. Maybe I've spent too much time being distracted by keeping my babies and children quiet to follow the services! I've been attending Orthodox services for 8 1/2 years now, so you'd think I would have picked up a little better on the various parts, but somehow, I haven't. I'm going to have to work on that. I think my friend in Texas was on to something when she was talking about making a book for her kids with photos of the major parts of the Divine Liturgy. I could use a book like that for myself (I mean, to show to my kids, of course :) ).