My friend Seraphim Danckaert published an article today on the O&H site that I think every Christian (Orthodox or not) should read: Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church. Why? Almost every kind of church throughout America is losing kids. So read it first before reading the rest of this.
First, some bad news: If you’re counting on your church having awesome programs for your kids to make them be and keep them being good Christians, you’re going to be let down. There is only so much they can do, and expecting that they will do all the heavy lifting in your child’s spiritual life is extremely unrealistic. On a personal note, I’ve spoken with many 20- and 30-somethings who were very active in youth groups, Bible studies, outreach projects, etc., who all checked out of church after they left home. Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t active in public religiosity. It goes deeper, to the day to day stuff. Follow the path home. That’s where they learned to be adults. If the faith isn’t visible at home, which should be regarded as a “little church,” then it’s not going to be visible when your children start their own homes. You cannot outsource the spiritual side of parenting. And simply taking them to Sunday School (even consistently, which itself doesn’t seem to happen often any more) isn’t enough, either.
Okay, some good news: This piece is good news for all those parents who are striving to make their faith real in the home. Mothers especially are the heroes here, but fathers are critical, as well. Pray together with your kids, and not just over meals. Pray before they go to bed and at other times. Read the Bible to them. Read saints’ lives to them. Talk with them about what you read. Let your kids hear you talk about your faith, your hopes, your trust in God, your wish that you could spend more time in church, more time in prayer. Let them see you reading the Bible and other spiritual books. When you’re alone in your study and praying and your toddler sneaks in to play with forbidden things, pick him up and keep praying. All that agonizing you’re going through to make faith alive in your home is not in vain.
Another obvious conclusion is that you shouldn’t choose godparents for your kids based purely on familial or friend relationships. Your child needs to have an adult spiritual mentor who will model adult faith. Your pastor probably cannot be that person, not just because he cannot be an at-home part of your child’s life with great frequency but also because his status as a clergyman puts him outside the “role model” world for most kids. Most kids don’t imagine themselves as clergy, but they are more likely to imagine themselves to be like an aunt or uncle or close family friend. Imagination is critical in terms of spiritual possibility. If a child knows what it looks like to be a serious Christian adult, he’s more likely to be able to do it.
Regarding Seraphim’s third point, that a child needs not only authentic home spiritual life and a non-parent spiritual mentor, but that he also needs to have a spiritual experience of some kind before he hits his late teens, well, that can be a bit harder. You can’t make a kid experience the grace of God. But one thing we can count on is that there will be crises. And the direction we go when we experience a crisis will very much determine whether we experience grace. Do we model for our kids that we take such things to our pastors and into the sacrament of confession, that our first remedy is prayer and fasting? Or do we look for other solutions? (This is not to say that sometimes medical help may not be validly required, but it shouldn’t be sought out to the exclusion of spiritual guidance.) Someone who is raised going to confession regularly (not just once a year!) will likely think of his confessor as a go-to resource for dealing with a crisis. And while there’s no guarantee, he’s more likely to experience God’s grace there than if he turns to some other remedy.
I write all this in the context of working on the youth ministry in my own parish. It seems to me that it should probably mostly be geared to teaching how to make all these things a part of daily life, not just making time to get together and be spiritual and/or religious for a while and then go home. I also write this in the context of learning how to be a better father to three little Christians. I’m no expert. But I’m working on it. And I’m glad my wife is working hard on raising our children as Christians, too.
In the past few weeks, I’ve learned of impending relocations of more relatives west of the Mississippi River, including one family that has been in the same state for decades and one elderly relative who has even been in the same house since the mid-1960s. One by one or in clumps, over the past several years it seems that both sides of my family (or at least the parts I stayed in touch with) are gradually relocating at least two time zones to the west, with all indications that they mean the move to be permanent.
I couldn’t quite place how I felt about all that when I learned it. It seemed a combination of anger, disappointment, betrayal, regret, helplessness and loss all bound up together into one unnameable emotion.
I don’t blame the individual members for their reasons, to be sure. For some, it is for work. For some, it is health. For others, it is simply a desire for a major change of scenery they’ve never had before. For still others, it is to be close to those who were already headed that way. And even though we haven’t lived less than hundreds of miles from most of them for many years, this series of relocations seems to me far more tragic than when we at least lived in the same time zone, within a day’s drive.
It all seems just wrong, like a violation of some sort. And of course, I suppose I have little room to talk. I ran off and went to seminary, offering up my locus and domus on a platter to the hierarchy like a good soldier. I just happened to get assigned to my native time zone at something relatively near my accustomed latitude. So my loyalty to—what, exactly?—only remains vaguely intact for reasons mainly beyond my control. But I still nevertheless feel that it is right I should be here (even though it is no credit to me) and that my family ought to be somewhere accessible to me and to my children. Shouldn’t they be allowed to know them?
Again, I am not blaming any of them individually or even as a group. Their reasons are all pretty decent reasons. But for many of them—for many of us, I should say—there is nothing to violate. There is no home. There is no hometown. There is no ancestral land, no place where we all once were from, no place to go back home to. There’s just nothing.
For generations now, my family on both sides has been mobile. They usually didn’t head this far out, to be sure, but they were mobile. There hasn’t been a home for… well, I don’t exactly know how long. Maybe a century. Home seems to me some kind of artifact hanging on the wall of a museum, fashioned by hands long cold and dead. I can see it and see how beautiful it is, but I can’t quite touch it. It is out of reach, behind the glass, above my head, somewhere else. But not here.
One of the curiosities of what it means to experience the peoples of Orthodox Christianity in America is that we are always encountering immigration. In one form or another, immigration touches everything we do. Everyone here either is or knows someone who is far from home, who has left family behind somewhere, stranded on a map somewhere. We continually are confronted by uprootedness, an unsettled restlessness where the heart is always somewhere else. But even the immigrant has a home, a place to locate his heart, even if it is not here. I’m not really sure what my family has. It’s not that.
My wife and I made a commitment to try to give our children this thing we’ve never had—a home. It’s kind of laughable, though, isn’t it? I’ve moved twenty-two times, and she’s moved twenty-three. We’re not experts on home, not by a long shot. But we want roots. I want them really badly.
Roots are a curious thing, though, something that can take generations really to put down, even for trees. And some trees will never come to their full glory within the lifetime of those who plant them. I feel that way sometimes about my now 15-year-old move into Orthodoxy. I know so many families whose whole lives are bound up in this faith, bound together with cords that are centuries old, and I am deeply covetous. I don’t know of anything that binds my family together like that. Even though most of them are all Evangelicals of one sort or another, they’re distributed nearly randomly among a post-denominational handful of churches that happen to be close to them and are mainly the kind of thing they’re used to.
But I dream of “the Orthodox Damicks,” and I don’t know if I will ever see such a thing. Right now, we are the only ones. Will my children remain in the Church? Will they marry Orthodox Christians and raise Orthodox Christians? Will they know Emmaus as their home and remain in the Lehigh Valley so that we all will celebrate Pascha and Christmas and Theophany together, so that I will get to baptize and marry them, so that many cousins will go to church together, so that love will not only be something we do over the telephone?
Forgive me all this. I know it’s self-indulgent. But I do have a point in all this. Even though it’s true that we have no continuing city, that we seek the one to come, we best reflect and preach that city that is to come by making the homes we have into Paradise as much as we are able.
I think it will be long after I am dead before the Orthodox Damicks will have their earthly Paradise, at least the incomplete, contingent one that will help them along to salvation toward the true Paradise. But like a monk I know once told me, you still plant the tree, even though you know it may be a century before it’s truly grown.
Gardening is hard. We do it anyway.
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.
Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)
He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.
As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.
I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”
That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.
I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”
We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.
So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.
If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.
All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.
We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.
Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.
And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.
The following is a repost from September of 2008, when our first child (now 5, the older one you see in this photo) was only 18 months old. Since my wife just gave birth to our third child (also pictured) on Monday—a boy named Raphael Joseph Caedmon—I thought it apt.
Children and saints cling to You, O Lord, the rest rebel against You.
Children and saints are the boundary between the Kingdom of existence and the shadow of nonexistence.
It occurred to me recently in becoming a father that I am even less of an atheist than I was before. (This is predicated upon the truth that we are all atheists to one degree or another—the only truly perfected believers are the saints.) This quote above from St. Nikolai which I ran across this morning alludes directly to this thought that I had sometime last week.
In looking at a little child, most especially one’s own, we are enabled to become acutely aware of the awesome reality of creation. Here is this person who until recently was defined only by non-being. Before her conception, my daughter simply was not. To be sure, there were cells and proteins and molecules and atoms which would go into her constitution. But they were not my daughter.
And then, into the nothingness, God stepped once again and called her forth ex nihilo, just as He did the universe itself. It is only with the eyes of faith that one can even begin to perceive this boundary between the total non-being of a person and the sudden, yet secret and mysterious, truth of personal existence.
Here, before us, is this new person, created by God in the hidden and sacred interior of womanhood and then revealed to the world in due time. She is unrepeatable, unique, a singular event in history which has never before been seen and never will be seen again.
And this is the same power which Christ holds out to each of us for our re-creation, that having hurled ourselves toward the nothingness from which He called us, we may repent (turn around) and be renewed in that same life-giving energy and power.
How the heck can we ever allow ourselves to become nominalists? We can only stand in rapt wonder.
Our pairing was (and in some ways, remains) unlikely. When I met her ten years ago, she was actually an atheist with a Lutheran background she had left behind in her teens. Although when I met her I was quite interested in her, I never attempted to convert her to anything, though of course I invited her to church (at our first meeting, in fact). She came, and she stayed.
I proposed to her a little less than four months later, while she was doing dishes. I was fairly sure of her response before I began (by reading her a poem and giving her a ring with an amethyst), especially since she already had her wedding dress purchased. (It had been the tax-free weekend, you know.) We had also actually arranged a wedding date with the priest. I don’t remember when that was, to be honest, so I don’t really know when we had essentially agreed to be married, although without yet going through the ritual of proposal.
We were also something of an unlikely pairing because, although we never really explored it very much at the time, we were probably initially worlds apart politically. We’ve both changed a lot in that regard since then, and now we have nearly identical opinions about politics and even work together to figure out how we want to vote.
Probably the biggest unlikelihood of our courtship and marriage was cultural: I was raised Midwestern/Southern/Missionary/Evangelical, while she represents a hybrid of upper-Midwestern/Lutheran and immigrant/Palestinian/Lebanese/latent-Orthodox, favoring the latter in many respects, though of course she still says melk (rather than milk) like her Wisconsin relatives and was raised with their religion. The curious mix of communication styles that come with each of our backgrounds (not to mention, the basic fact that we are a man and a woman) have made for challenges over the past ten years, but I do think that we’ve largely acquired something of the best of each other’s worlds, especially in our better moments.
I was an Orthodox Christian when I met her (though only about four years into it), and of course now we both are, as she was received into the Church just a few days before our wedding. Yet while we are both Orthodox Christians, we are different kinds of Orthodox Christians. From my pastoral experience, I can see that these differences are partly just the differences that come because we are a man and a woman, though they also come from the different paths we took to get into the Church. Hers was always communal, whether from her father’s childhood background in Orthodoxy (and even her Middle East relatives’ sense of membership that doesn’t much include actually going to church) or her reintroduction to it through the guy she decided to date and marry, while my path was (and in many ways, remains) a kind of personal quest, the quest for beauty.
We still have many differences, and some of the things we used to have in common we don’t have in common any more. But we also have new things in common. And what we truly share between us is life—in all of its rugged, ragged, rickety glory.
As I write this, she is now quite expectant with our third child, a second son. The due date is less than three weeks away, which puts us in the “any day now” stage. (Inexplicably feel like buying us something for this event? Go here.) She took to motherhood quite a bit more rapidly and with surer commitment than I took to fatherhood, something I think is probably true in many families, if only because of the essential and deep link that is shared in the initial period of life between a child and his mother. But as the children gain more and more interface with the world outside our home, I find that fatherhood is making more sense to me, that I am becoming more a father. So I am slower at this than she is, but God gives His grace in His ways and times and completes that which is lacking—and if there is anything fatherhood reveals to a father, it is that he is lacking.
I think that what we most have in common—though often with different iterations of it—is a deep and enduring longing for home. We are both children of itinerant families and have nearly two dozen residences under our belts, and we are weary of moving, of uprooting and restarting. We want to know this place and remain in this place until our deaths, and our prayer is that our children will desire the same thing. And we mean home for all that the word means, both earthly and heavenly.
I have titled this post Conversions, because that is what it is about, really. Over the past ten years, we each have had to convert on a number of occasions—not just trying to put on an idea of what we think we ought to be, but actually having to become different people in order to meet the new demands of communion.
One of the singular insights of Orthodoxy is that man is not simply a lone hero on a quest, searching for his absolute identity and trying to acquire it or to authenticate what he suspects is his true essence. Rather, man is a dynamic being, dependent for identity not only on God but even (as dangerous as this may feel) on other human persons. He is capable of repentance. He is capable of conversion. He is capable of communion. He is capable of union with the Other.
For all of this and in all of this, I am and will always remain grateful to the Creator for my beautiful, beautiful wife Nicole. Her spunk, longsuffering, flexibility, patience and ingenuity are all elements of her beauty. She is a woman brightly-adorned by her Maker. I do not know or wish to know what my life would have been like without her. But from that moment, ten years ago today, when our communion began, I knew that I had found beauty—and that I would, even in my imperfection and frequent failure, try to be with her always.
Rev. Damick: Look! Snow!
Evangelia: Yes! We can play in it! It’s on the ground!
Rev. Damick: Probably not tonight, youngun.
Evangelia: Oh, well. Maybe later.
Rev. Damick: Yes, maybe later.
Evangelia: When you get small!
Rev. Damick: What?
Evangelia: When you get small!
Rev. Damick: I don’t think I’m going to get any smaller, sweetie.
Evangelia: Yes, you will! Turn small!