Q&A with Fr. Peter Heers - On Education
West Conference April 2018
It seems like there is a pattern already established by the Church for spiritually and educationally forming our children. Could we, and why don’t we, have a pure Orthodox curriculum that could be followed by parents, of course along with the support of a spiritual father?
That’s a good question. I’m not in the homeschool education business, so I’m not sure why there hasn’t – if there hasn’t – been a particular effort made to have a purely Orthodox curriculum. I think that there’s not a lot of discussion along the lines of, “what’s wrong with classical education as it is?” I don’t think many people are saying, “look, we’ve got a problem,” or “we’ve got to refine things.” A lot of us are converts, we’re bringing in what we know, and there’s not a lot of discussion whether any of this is problematic. And I’m not saying a lot of it is. Our family has used, and we continue to use, Classical Learning Resource Center. So my talk should not be taken, as I said several times, as just a carte blanche "we don’t use it" or "we don’t want it" or "we don’t read it," but it was trying to give criteria of how and to what degree and in what hierarchy this should go. My talk was an attempt to be a corrective to what I see as going too far in one direction. So I guess what is necessary in terms of a curriculum is a thorough and good discussion on the principles that I laid out – and other principles – of what an Orthodox curriculum should be.
Father Seraphim Rose advocated the use of western music and literature for the cultivation of the soul. We are told of him and of other spiritual fathers having novices read Dickens and Dostoevsky in order to develop normal feelings and warmth of the heart. Would you consider this a proper use of western literature?
First of all, regarding that statement "Father Seraphim Rose advocated the use of western music and literature for the cultivation of the soul" – I’ll take issue with that, that’s not completely accurate.
One of the things in the talk that I stressed is that there has to be an application case by case, with discernment. And I remember this story from Fr. Seraphim – I was actually thinking about quoting it. The context is that he’s dealing with young men coming out of the nihilism of the 60’s, and he sees that basic human behavior and normal feelings of kindness and love are not entirely present, and he starts with them where they are. So in that case it’s very applicable. But we’re talking about Orthodox parents raising children from the get-go in an Orthodox environment to the degree that they enjoy that, and so the ideal – where do we start? How do we approach this with our own children from a young age? Most of the students going to Fr. Seraphim were late teens at least, if not in their 20’s, and so he’s starting from where he can with them. I think the context justifies his approach, but I don’t know if it would justify that approach in my house or your house, if we have small children who we can raise somewhat differently. But Dickens and Dostoevsky – I don’t know if Dostoevsky would be considered western literature, perhaps – but Dostoevsky is not something I would give to a young person. I think they need to be a mature child of 15 or 16 at least. And Dickens, of course, would be applicable. Discernment and the context would determine what literature is appropriate in each case.
I don’t know if you can say though, that Fr. Seraphim advocated the use of western music and literature for the cultivation of the soul in the sense of spiritual cultivation. It was more as a preparatory stage, to get to the point of the spiritual life. One of the things I was trying to say in the talk was let’s not mistake the spiritual life for the intellectual life, and talk about cultivation of the soul, when we’re really talking about cultivation of rational intellect, or the feelings, or things like this. The spiritual life pertains to the spirit of man; it pertains to the nous; it pertains to communion with God. That is not the same as the moral life; it’s not the same as the intellectual life. One of the problems is to determine what goes where. We have a lot of things, and we’re pretty much saying “this is all for the spiritual life,” but actually it’s not. We have to fit things in rightly, in the right place, and make sense of them.
Please clarify what you include in the category of pagan knowledge, and worldly knowledge. Are you speaking about literature only, or other subjects like logic, rhetoric, etc? Would education of the theologians and orators, and persuasive speaking, logic, etc, be beneficial to our kids in terms of understanding truth and combating fallacy in the world?
We said that the Fathers’ approach to literature and philosophy was that it's a tool. It was a practical way to reach people in their day and age, and they used that knowledge as a tool. So absolutely we can use that knowledge as a tool, but not see it as the spiritual life or the end of what we’re doing. It’s akin to, if someone’s going to be an orator, then they need to learn that practical tool; if someone’s going to be a mechanic, or work with wood, obviously he’s going to learn to work with those tools. It’s on that level that we’re seeing things like oration and the honing of the mind for logic. That’s definitely applicable and acceptable, but again, in its place and for its purpose.
Could you talk a little bit about why St. Basil, being raised in a pious Christian family, went off unbaptized to study pagan wisdom?
In the 4th century, there was a waning practice among Christians not to be baptized as infants. I’m not sure exactly why St. Basil wasn’t. He was from a very pious family; his grandmother, his mother, his sister, were all pious people, and they had martyrs in their family. So, I'm not sure why his family practiced this. It was somewhat common, but it did wane, and the Church did frown on it, and it eventually ended. We don’t hear much about it in other saints as time goes on. It was partly out of reverence and fear of God, because they took baptism so seriously. And they said when you were baptized, you have to live a different life. Somewhat like when someone becomes a monk, or in the monasteries when someone becomes a great schema. They take it so seriously that they have to change their life, and change their ways. That’s part of why people approached baptism with such fear of God, and they put it off. But I don’t have a better answer than that, of why St. Basil's family followed that path.
What is the value, if any, of studying ancient, or current philosophy at the upper school or college level?
As I’ve said before, the value is, if someone has been well-grounded in the life of the Church, the lives of the saints, if they’ve approached the Scriptures and the saints and been grounded in that, if they’ve understood the Orthodox ethos to some degree as children, and have acquired an Orthodox worldview as much as possible, then there is a maturity to look at other forms of literature and philosophy. If that’s judged as appropriate for that particular child, and beneficial, then that would be applicable to college or high school. But it has to be on a case by case basis. The understanding should not be that every child does this because that’s how you are cultivated and become a spiritual person, or a refined Christian. That’s problematic, because that implies that this particular form of education – the honing of the mind, and logic, and understanding philosophical terms – is somehow a universal need of every Christian, and part of the spiritual development of every Christian, which is not the case. Maybe I’ve given the impression that I’m rejecting these, and I’m not. I’m just rejecting an extreme view of them, and an imbalance.
How would you define the Greek word "παιδεία" (paideia)? What components of development does it encompass? Does it encompass spiritual formation? Is there any better word in Greek to describe the education and formation of a child?
How would you define the Greek word "παιδεία" (Paideia)?
It’s defined as the rearing of a child, the training or instruction of a child, education. There are actually several words that define it; the result is a learning culture, a mental culture. St. Paul uses the word in Scripture in many places – in Ephesians, Timothy, Hebrews – and it’s used usually as chastening or discipline in those contexts. So that’s the word "paideia."
What components of development does "Paideia" (παιδεία) encompass?
It’s a general term for whatever goes into raising children and instructing them.
Does "paideia" encompass spiritual formation?
Yes, but not usually. When we speak about spiritual formation we don’t really use the word "paideia," maybe spiritual formation (μόρφωση) or spiritual life (πνευματικότητα). I don’t think there’s an equivalent of "paideia" just for spiritual pursuits; it doesn’t come to mind, in any case.
Is there any word in Greek to better describe the total education & formation for a child than paideia?
No, I don’t think so. Although, it's not usually thought of as pertaining to spiritual formation.
What should be the classical language of choice? Why are most Orthodox classical educators in America pushing Latin over Greek? What are the advantages of having Orthodox children learn Greek over Latin?
The obvious advantage is that the Holy Scriptures are written in Greek. The Old Testament Septuagint is in Greek, the Church Fathers are in Greek – I mean there are a lot of reasons why we should be studying Greek and not Latin. I’m not sure why most classical educators prefer Latin. Maybe this is indicative of the problem we have in America, that we’re approaching classical education in a passive way, and so when we see everybody else doing Latin, we think, "well let’s do it too." Not that I’m against Latin – my son is in his sixth year of Latin, but he’s also in his sixth year of Greek. If I were to choose between the two, I would choose Greek, because it’s going to open up more to him, in terms of access to the Fathers and the Scriptures. So I think absolutely, in an Orthodox context, Greek is preferable.
And you know, interestingly, there aren't a lot of texts in Latin in terms of Orthodoxy, very few. Even though Latin was taught in Constantinople until the seventh or eighth century, nobody was writing in Latin. Some people think that Latin was only taught in the West, but no; in Constantinople and in the schools in the east, they taught Latin as well as Greek, and it was actually even used for a time in certain aspects of the Empire in the east. So, even though some of the Fathers were learning Latin and people were being taught Latin in the east, they were not using it to theologize.
I have heard the words "heart," "nous," "eye of the soul," and today "spirit" used in close association. Are these terms synonymous? If distinct, how are they different? Is the term "phronema" distinct from the terms above? How does the phrase "mind of Christ" relate to these other terms?
REGARDING "HEART," "NOUS," "EYE OF THE SOUL," AND "SPIRIT" USED IN CLOSE ASSOCIATION:
That’s right, those are almost synonymous. The heart and the nous are not synonymous, but "nous," "eye of the soul," and "spirit" are pretty much describing the same thing.
Are these terms synonymous?
Almost; there are shades of difference.
If distinct, how are they different?
It has to do with usage, where they’re used. In Scripture, you find the word "spirit" used, and it means what the Fathers mean by "nous." St. Paul talks about the "spirit" crying out, so in that context that’s essentially what the Fathers mean by the term "nous." And "eye of the soul" also is a term referring to the nous; it’s not talking about the rational intellect, or the imagination, or the feelings, but it’s talking about the nous – you might call it "spiritual intellect." Intellect could have been a perfectly good word, if it hadn’t been ruined by heterodox theology, and we could have had that intellect/mind – with mind being the rational function of the soul, and intellect being the equivalent of the nous. But because there’s such confusion in English, most Orthodox translations have chosen "nous." You could also refer to it as the "spirit of man."
Is the term "phronema" distinct from the terms above?
Yes. "Phronema" is essentially the worldview or outlook, the mindset. So we’re definitely talking here about the rational intellect, the way we think, the way we understand things, the way we look at the world. The Orthodox phronema is usually referring to the way we understand things theologically; it goes along with theology essentially.
How does the Biblical phrase "mind of Christ" relate to these other terms?
We talked about that this afternoon, the passage from St. Paul; he ends this great quote that we took from Corinthians, by saying we have the mind of Christ. But what the context is talking about is the Spirit of God, and he says in particular, “that which is of God is revealed to us by His Spirit; even so, no man knoweth the things of God but the Spirit Who is of God. We speak not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but those which the Holy Spirit teacheth, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” So here, "the mind of Christ," in this context, the way I understand it, is referring to the nous, the acquisition of the mind of Christ. It’s not referring to the created order, but the uncreated, through communion with God and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. So acquiring the mind of Christ does not mean that you become really adept at philosophy or theology, but that you enter into the mystery, and it’s revealed to you – you could perhaps say, intuitively (though I think this word is loaded in English today), so maybe say, experientially acquired. That’s a good point, to make this distinction between "phronema" and "the mind of Christ," which would be interesting to develop.
You said that "heart" and "nous" are not synonymous, so can you explain this more?
The heart is the center of man. We talk about the nous descending into the heart, and the heart being the center of man, both the physical and the spiritual. And so in that sense they cannot be synonymous.
So, in this context [of the nous descending into the heart], the heart is not simply metaphorical? it actually means the heart?
Yes. The Fathers talk about the actual physical heart being also the center of man, spiritually.
My son is thinking about going into psychology. What are your thoughts on how to choose a school for that field of study, and what are your recommendations for how to navigate through the messed-up thought in that field?
In my presentation today, I talked about issues pertaining to the study of ancient philosophy and contemporary literature. These issues are even more exacerbated with psychology - even more problematic - because psychology is a field that from the get-go was not at all consistent with the Christian understanding of man. Somebody who's going into psychology is going to have to do a lot of revision of what they’re learning, and that means they’re going to need a very Orthodox understanding. If they don’t have that, they’re bound to be confused. So there needs to be a lot of effort on his part, when he encounters things, to take refuge in Orthodox sources to make sense of it, otherwise he could come out after four years being very confused, and led astray. Because there are thousands of theories that are presented in contemporary psychology which are not consistent with the anthropology of the Orthodox Church. Psychology doesn't recognize the things we're talking about here: the nous or even the soul.
I’m not sure what is drawing him there. I would ask him what he’s thinking about, what is it he wants to do, if he wants to serve his fellow man, and help him? If he was here, I would ask him to talk about it a little bit and examine why he wants to do it. I’m sure he’s thought about it, I would just be interested to learn. Maybe he’s thinking it’s akin to theology or philosophy and it's interesting to explore, or wants learn about himself?
He is interested in people and their behavior, why they do what they do, he finds it fascinating, he's interested in personality testing and finds it helpful to understand himself
If he was here I’d want to talk with him and say, "you need to sit down and do some serious study of Orthodox anthropology before you start learning all this."
In high school he did a Socratic discussion type program through a protestant University called Biola. And he got into C.S.Lewis there, so he knows C.S.Lewis well.
C.S.Lewis is an interesting figure in contemporary Orthodox America. I’ve been gone for 18 years, so I’m new to Orthodoxy in America, in a way. After my conversion to Orthodoxy, I was here in America for 6 years, and then 18 years in Greece. Now back in America, I notice how much people are interested in his writings. As a former Anglican, I grew up with C.S.Lewis; my mother read us the Chronicles of Narnia. However, coming back as an Orthodox Christian from Greece and having studied dogmatic theology, it is clear that his theology presents many problems. He has a lot of errors, which people don’t talk about, which is also curious.
Could you write some books about that?
(laughs).. Well, I mean, he's got a lot of great things, but he's got a lot of problems too. First of all, his ecclesiology is heretical. He does not believe in the one Church. The fact that Mere Christianity is a great seller should make you pause. It’s very much of the 20th century, his understanding of the Church. But his anthropology is off too; he’s following western anthropology; he's following Aquinas. And he’s not even well-versed in that; he’s not a theologian. So I would say whenever we’re dealing with anyone outside of the patristic tradition of the Orthodox Church, you’ve got to go with a critical spirit, and say “what’s going on here? Let’s be bees." Right? At least be bees! But I would say there’s so much Orthodox material today compared with what there was 20 years ago when I left for Greece, that one doesn’t need to run as much to non-Orthodox sources. But if for some reason we are [going to non-Orthodox sources], we need to go with a critical spirit [analyzing it from the perspective of the Orthodox phronema], but that presupposes we know Orthodox theology and Orthodox anthropology, and most of us don’t. So, it creates problems.
In our culture today, a lot of people are hungering for Orthodox psychologists and some priests want the assistance of Orthodox psychologists...
To me, that’s the sign of a fall in Orthodoxy spirituality. Psychologists are a far cry from spiritual fathers, but that’s how people are thinking about them. They’re not going to provide the healing that people are searching for. They’re going to provide a little help, they’re not useless, but they’re not anywhere near what the Church can offer and should be offering in terms of spiritual help.
I have just begun the book Orthodox Psychotherapy. Is that a different vein from what we are discussing here regarding Orthodox psychologists?
Regarding Orthodox Psychotherapy, the term is not referring to psychology at all. It’s presenting patristic teaching by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos. He uses that term in its real meaning – 'psycho' - 'therapy', the healing of the soul – not the mind. So think about what we talked about, how the mind is not the organ with which we commune with God. Honing your mind and making it a powerful tool is not the spiritual life, or even the beginning of the spiritual life. Think about all we said, and then think about psychology. They’re dealing on the level of the mind, and then they’re talking about healing the soul. They’re not even beginning to heal the soul, because they don’t even understand what the soul is.
I don’t want to oversimplify things, but generally the approach is very lacking. So the fact that we as Orthodox Christians are very interested in going to Orthodox psychologists to me says there’s a serious problem in the Orthodox Church among Orthodox Christians, that we’re looking for health from a science which is not based on the Orthodox tradition. Now are there Orthodox psychologists who are doing it in an Orthodox manner? Maybe, perhaps. Maybe there are some examples. I'm not familiar with them, but maybe there are. I’m sure there are. But generally speaking, that would be the problem with this approach.
The examples of holy elders in the 20th century are many, we can go to them, we can read them. We can see what it means to be a healer of the soul. We have Saints Porphyrios, and Paisios, and Iakovos, we have many examples. We don’t need to guesswork it. Let’s pick up those books, and let's study them closely, to find out from them what it means to be a healthy human being. We can do that - it's all in English now, we don’t have to go searching for non-Orthodox sources.
How does one remove harmful literature from the home without causing the children to turn away from God in rebellion? How do I avoid the introduction of what I think is not useful to my younger children by older siblings?
Well... there might have to be rebellion. I’m not sure you can avoid it. If there's a blatant violation of the family environment, and if they’re affecting other children with this literature or whatever it might be, then it’s not a personal issue, and in such a case I think that the rule or the law has to be laid down for the sake of the child. I’ll tell you what I tell my children: as long as you’re here, until you're gone from this house, this is the way things are going to be in this house. When you’re gone, if you want to change that, that’s up to you. But as long as you’re here, until you’re 18 or 20 – whenever you decide to go on, and get married, or whatever you’re going to do – this is the way it works here. And if that means they’re going to be rebelling, let them rebel. I know there are extreme cases where maybe kids become violent, or reactionary, and so there needs to be lots of prayer and lots of patience. But it’s very detrimental for children to acquire that kind of boldness, ultimately, because it will affect their fear of God and the humility that they need to have before God, if they’ve cultivated that already with their mother and father. But I don’t know if there’s any magic bullet that’s going to make things easy if a child is disposed to rebel, and is not listening to the mother and father. It’s going to be a process of much prayer, patience, but also giving order to the house. And they ultimately, most of the time, they want that. They’re actually seeking that, in a roundabout way, yearning for it. But maybe what’s missing in a lot of these cases is prayer, falling on your knees, and begging God to soften the child’s heart. I think most of us could increase that; I know I can.
Does Christian fantasy, like Tolkein and C.S.Lewis, fall into the same category as mythology, in terms of what you described in your talk earlier today?
Yes, I think it does fall into the same category, for two reasons. One is that it's fantasy literature, and the closest that I can get to its equivalent in the ancient world is mythology. It's pretty close to mythology. And mythology is probably on the list of ancient texts that they would have exposed young men to – not small children, not eight-year-olds, but young men. That list would have been philosophy, poetry, and then maybe mythology. So, for that reason I do think that it falls into that category. The redeeming factor, at least more so in Lewis which is allegory, but also in Tolkein, is that these are attempts to communicate messages of virtue and valor. So there is that redemptive aspect in them. And there was also that in ancient mythology, although less so.
The problem here is - and I didn't get into this in my talk because it would have been another entire talk - in the Orthodox tradition there's definitely a very negative stance among all Church fathers towards the imagination and the cultivation of the imagination. It's throughout the ascetic literature. Now there's some debate as to why they were against it, and if the reasons they were against it is applicable to contemporary fiction.
Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos has an article on the imagination, and in it he specifically says - and we're talking about the cultivation of the spiritual life - that the cultivation of the imagination is essentially opposed to cultivating in the nous communion with God. So, someone might say, "Well, that's different than what's happening in fiction," and I'm not prepared to give a response to that. I am inclined to say that it's problematic; that that distinction doesn't really hold water. It's still the imaginative faculty that's being cultivated. Now how you use your imagination, obviously, is important, right? But cultivating the imagination is a problem if you're interested in the spiritual life. Now, if you're not interested in the spiritual life, then cultivate away. In that case, it's not a problem. But we're here as Orthodox Christians, and we're saying that the end goal is to commune with God. And anything that is going to take us away from that, we should be at least reticent about; we should at least be on guard.
I do think there's room for pastoral condescension, and dealing with people where they are. Fr. Seraphim Rose used Dostoevsky, or actually Dickens more, with those young men, but for someone interested in becoming a monk, that's probably not the kind of literature that you'd want to spend too much time on. You'd want to get past that. But maybe that was necessary for them, and I think you could say something analogous with children. If you see that pastorally there's some kind of need, then maybe there's some room for that. But it's generally problematic - in the context of the spiritual life - to cultivate the imagination. Whether there's room pastorally to condescend, as St. Basil did with the youths in the 4th century, or as Fr. Seraphim Rose did in the 20th century, that really depends on a case by case basis. There cannot be a general rule across the board: "Do not do this."
Some do say they're edified by Lewis and Tolkein. I tend to think that the amount of edification that they're going to get is rather minimal compared to what they could get if they were investing themselves in the literature of the Church. That's my two cents on that. I intentionally didn't address that during the talk because I could have written another entire talk just on that topic alone. I was preparing to talk about it, but I decided it was impossible to address it all in one talk.
What do you feel would be an appropriate age to begin reading the Scriptures to children?... my oldest is 9 but sometimes when I try to read to them, it doesn't go how I hope...
What are you reading from? [the Gospels] Do you have a book that’s for children, with pictures? You’ve got to keep their attention, obviously, and you need to start with stories, and get them interested. You can start at a very young age. In our home, we read the Scriptures to a three-year-old or a four-year-old and they sit and listen. It's not an Orthodox Bible, but it has pictures of the scenery. You don’t have to worry about the translation for four, five, or six-year-olds. King James would be the most traditional English translation; I don’t think it’s surpassed except by some of the Orthodox attempts. Language matters. The degree of refinement in language matters if you’re going to communicate things from the Scriptures.
Do you find it helpful to have a dedicated place for your children to do homeschooling, or is the kitchen table fine?
Well, it depends on your house. In our house in Greece, we had a whole area dedicated to homeschooling, and then we had an area where we usually sit and read, and we try to make that a place for the kids that’s inviting and comfortable. We practice what the monks do in the monastery: we read during the meal. We read the lives of the saints, or we read the lives of contemporary elders from Mt. Athos, and that's something that the kids like – or most of the kids. One of my children doesn't like it, but he's so reactionary that he’ll start off saying, "no, I don’t want to read that," and at the end, he'll say “OK, let's read another one." Sometimes you just have to push through and not listen to your children very much. Whatever it is, start it out, and be persistent. There’s a tendency to allow the children to lead us. We think, "Oh, they don’t want to hear it, OK I’ll stop." No! Don't stop, keep reading. Or show them an example for a month or two, of you reading with your wife, or with whoever’s going to listen. And then eventually say, "this is the program, this is what we’re going to do." Make it exciting, as much as you can. Say, "this is going to be really interesting." Choose some stories in the beginning that are really interesting, that will keep their attention. But then it's a matter of just plowing through, being consistent, making sure that this becomes a tradition – something we do every day, every week – and not paying attention to the inconsistency of the children. Children are inconsistent; you can’t be affected too much by their inconsistency.
A what age should we start reading to them the Lives of the Saints?
As soon as they can start following it and sit still. It depends on the child. If a three or four-year-old can sit still, you can read a little bit to them. Whatever you can get in. Whatever you can do. Another thing you can do is just take excerpts, little tiny stories, for the younger children. I don't think there's any reason why you can't start early. Find Potamitis' books. We have those in Greece, but I think they're available in America too. Potamitis has all these little lives of the saints. That's where you should probably start with the very young children.
Does everyone have a complete collection of the lives of the saints? There are three or four versions now in English. If you don't, that is something that you should make a point to buy. There is a five-volume set from Ormelia in Greece; there's the set by St. Dimitri of Rostov; there's the Great Synaxarion; so there are at least three different sets of the Lives of the Saints available in English. If you don't have those and that's not a part of your reading list for yourself and your children, you should definitely get them. It's basic food for everyone, but especially for the young children. I think that's what they should be reading first and foremost – the Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints – throughout their life, but especially as part of their curriculum in the early years. It's something that should definitely be part of their daily spiritual and intellectual food – and not just here and there, but every day.
My personal reading of the lives of the saints has come only from the big books that you buy of an individual saint, but are you talking about something that's concise for each saint?
Yes. The set I have in mind that our family uses is from Ormelia, the monastery in Greece, and it's called the Synaxarion. Every day of the year we have certain saints we commemorate on that day. There are longer versions of all these lives, but in this collection from Ormelia they'll give a fairly long version for the major saints - anywhere from three to five or even seven to eight pages, but nothing like 50 or 100 pages. So every day you're going to get a short life of the saints of the day - some just a few lines, others a few pages. So you're living with them and you're reading them as you go throughout the liturgical year. I think it's the best way to approach them, and then when you want to go deeper, you can search out a fuller life for the saint.
There was a time in my life when I tried to completely cut off all non-Orthodox things and it drove me a little bit crazy because I was constantly questioning, "Is that Orthodox? Is it not Orthodox? Who's the author?" and I feel like I was being a little too paranoid. So, I'm trying to understand: Is it prescriptive? or is it not a set rule?
No, there's not a rule. I would say that you should try to focus more on what you should fill yourself up with as opposed to focusing on what you're trying to avoid. Think of it positively, and go deeper. And don't worry so much about trying to shut out everything that doesn't have an "O" over the entry way. That's not to say that we should be indiscriminate - or without discrimination - but there doesn't need to be a paranoia if something doesn't have an Orthodox label. There are actually things that are labeled "Orthodox" which aren't very Orthodox, so the label is not a very good criteria.
You've got to obtain discernment, and that's only going to be done by going deeper. The best thing is to read the lives of the saints, Scripture, and books on prayer. Until we begin to pray and to make progress in prayer - especially the Jesus prayer - we're going to be limited to how much of the grace of God we're going to be able to receive. It's like a small cup; it can only hold so much. We're going to be thirsty, but we're not going to be able to drink from the well, because we need to enlarge our heart, and that happens through prayer. That happens through opening ourselves up and communicating with God. As long as we're always communicating with ourselves, our thoughts, other people, and the created world, we're going to remain a limited vessel. So, you have to go deeper, and that means mainly prayer.
We need to learn from the saints and be inspired by them in terms of how to pray and how to commune with God and how to struggle. Because when you read the lives of the saints, one of the first things - and best thing - that results is that you become inspired to struggle, inspired to deny the passions, and inspired to imitate them. That's why we read the Scriptures; that's why we read the lives of the saints. We don't read the life of the saint just to celebrate the life of the saint; it's not just a feast day to go and eat and remember a saint. The whole point of the festal calendar - the lives of the saints that we read and the services that were written - is for one reason: to imitate the saints and to follow them. So every time we celebrate a saint, we should be thinking, "how can I imitate this person? What can I learn?"
Most of us spend our lives going broader on a horizontal plane and not going deeper. We acquire knowledge about the Church, about God, about the spiritual life, but we don't actually begin to live the spiritual life because we don't learn to pray. We don't learn to struggle. This is especially problematic in America because a lot of us are intellectuals, and we've come to the church through intellectual reading and study. We think that if we can continue to become experts in everything Orthodox, that means we're doing well spiritually, but it doesn't. That doesn't matter. There are people who are very well versed in Orthodoxy, and they teach in Universities, and they have a miserable spiritual life - miserable! They have problems in their family. I've seen it in Thessaloniki. It doesn't matter what you know. You can become an expert and become well-versed; but it doesn't mean you've begun the spiritual life. I could stand here and tell you wonderful things and go home and be a wreck spiritually. There's no proof of my spiritual life, just because I can stand up here and talk about it. Just because I've developed my rational intellect and become good at it - that's not the spiritual life. We're not even beginning the spiritual life with that; we're preparing. I could be very well prepared; I've learned everything I need to know. But think about Church history; think about the Scriptures. People were close to Christ - they saw Christ; they heard Christ - and they denied Him. They weren't lacking access to Christ - so what's missing? It's obviously something else. It's something deeper. Just acquiring knowledge is not enough. It's important; it's a preparatory stage, but it's not the spiritual life.
We need to go deeper, we need to go vertical. That's not an issue of education as much as it is going inward and acquiring self-knowledge. And we said earlier the key to acquiring self-knowledge is having a spiritual father. The spiritual father's role is to show us ourselves, reveal to us the will of God, and be that mirror. You can see that in the spiritual life - with the spiritual father as a guide - the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are interconnected. The more you know of God, the more you understand yourself; the more you understand yourself, the easier it is to draw close to God. In Greek we call it "θεογνωσια" (theognosia) which is God-knowledge and "αυτογνωσια" (aftognosia) which is self-knowledge. These two things go hand in hand, like two wings. If you are living alone or are living with people who have no sense of the spiritual life, and there's no self-knowledge being cultivated, you could live your whole life and never see your passions, and think you're perfectly fine. Because you've not begun the process of acquiring self-knowledge.
And that's really the process of repentance, isn't it? When do we repent? When we come to ourselves. The prodigal "came to himself" it says in the scriptures. What does that mean? It means he came to self-knowledge. He understood where he was in relation to God. And he said, "why am I here? I'll get up and I'll go back." So, self-knowledge was a prerequisite for him to return to God. What's return? Repentance. If people don't have self-knowledge, they'll never repent. They'll never return to God, right?
That is the great tragedy with most people, even people in the church. I had people in my church - coming to Church on Sunday - who had almost zero self-knowledge. They would say to me, "I'm really a good person, Father. I don't need to go to confession." Of course, that means he's totally blind - entirely blind to himself and has no self-knowledge - and he feels no need to return to God. He doesn't even understand what he's missing. That is a tragic place to be.
So, we've got to go deeper, acquire self-knowledge, and submit ourselves to a spiritual father who will then reveal to us ourselves, and then we can begin on the path of repentance. This is the spiritual life. Most of what passes as spiritual life is not the spiritual life. It's learning about the spiritual life.
At what age do you recommend that children start confessing?
It varies according to the child, but anywhere from five to eight-years-old. You can start early. At five-years-old it's not going to be much of a confession, but just getting them going and talking to the elder or spiritual father. Explain to the child, "this part of our life, this is our spiritual father, he loves us, we love him" and do whatever you need to do pedagogically to prepare the child that this is a very basic thing in our life.
That relationship is going to be very helpful to you when they grow up and they're teenagers. It's going to save you from many headaches because you're going to say, "I don't know; go speak to your spiritual father." There are going to be times when you think, "If I say 'no' to this child, he's going to go ballistic, or he's going to say this, or who knows what." So, instead you can say, "you have to be obedient to your spiritual father; you need to go talk to him." [audience laughs] It's funny on the one hand, but it's really true, and very, very helpful.
One of the things that was a huge problem for me in leaving Greece was exactly that: I had to leave my spiritual father. It's been very difficult. You can't really have a spiritual father far away. I know Fr. Demetrios said you can have a spiritual father far away - you can, but you can't. You need to see the person. It's a different relationship when you're sitting face to face. My spiritual father is on Mt. Athos, and he said, "If you're leaving Greece, you have to find another spiritual father in America." But the personal relationship is really basic. You've got to go.
Now in America, things are very much harder geographically. There are fewer of them, and it's harder to get to them, so we have to make more of an effort. But you can maintain a healthy spiritual life just seeing your spiritual father twice or three times a year - it's possible. You write a lot of letters.
One of the things I recommend to everybody - if they're not doing it - especially the children, is to keep a little booklet. They should keep a little notepad with them, and when they fall into sins or when they have questions, they write them down. If you don't do that - over the two or three or four month period that you're going to be gone from your spiritual father - you will go with a blank notepad. Because it's just impossible for all of us to remember everything that we want to talk to him about. We don't have to go with everything, but it's a picture. Just that practice helps us acquire self-knowledge, because you begin to see a pattern. You write down each sin: I just got angry, oops - I got angry again, oh - I got angry again. And you come to realize, "I have a passion of anger. It's not just once in awhile. Look how many times I did it? 44 times in the three months I fell into sin and I got really angry at my wife." So, then you can see you've got a passion of anger, and you go to the elder and you say, "I did that 44 times!" And he'll say, "OK, here's what we've got to do" and he can work with you. But if you go there and say, "oh, I get angry once in awhile" and you don't really understand the seriousness of your passion, that's not going to be profitable. So, cultivating confession from a young age is important, but also doing it right. It's not just, "Let's go to the spiritual father, ha, ha, ha," and then we go home again. That's not self-knowledge. Half of the benefit that we get from going to the spiritual father is the work we did before we went to him.
We need to realize that all the mysteries - including confession, communion, ordination, everything in the Church, even the smaller things like the service of the small blessing of the water, or whatever it might be - have presuppositions. Depending on our stance and depending on our preparation, the Grace of God visits us. So, if we do not have preparation, if we have no fear of God, if we have no prayer, then we go and we leave as we went. It depends on us. God is there. He is there in every mystery, but he's not there for us if we're not prepared, and if we're not going with a broken heart, and repentance, and prayer. That's very clear in the Gospels. Everyone who walked away with a miracle came with a broken heart, with a prayerful heart, with a repentant heart, with a faithful heart. These presuppositions are often times not talked about very much, and are not cultivated, and therefore the Grace of God is not visiting us as it should and could.
This always made an impression on me on Mt. Athos. I went many times to Mt. Athos and I was present at a few baptisms. People come from all over the world to Mt. Athos and many times they return to their country after spending months there and after being baptised. In some cases the grace of God was very present in the face of the person who was baptised, in the whole community, and in the whole monastery. The way I came to understand this is that this person had become worthy of this manifestation. It doesn't mean that God wasn't present in every baptism, but it was manifested in this baptism because that person came in prepared ascetically. And what is another word for that? Purification. Purification doesn't begin after baptism - well, it does in a way, that's when you're made new - but it also begins even in the preparation of the baptism. Even as a catechumen, the process of purification begins. It's not to the same degree or the same quality before baptism as afterwards, but it exists.
All of the Mysteries have these presuppositions and depending on our stance, we will enjoy the Grace of God. I think that's a missing ingredient here in America, and not many people stress that. A lot of people go to communion every week; they're in the Church 30 years, and they're not changing. There's something wrong. The Church is a place of healing. If you haven't come to greater self-knowledge and greater communion with God after 20 years of being in the Church, and you're communing regularly, then you're probably doing something wrong.
We're very strict about what we let our kids watch. We don't let them watch very many of the Disney movies. They've seen very few movies that are rated above PG. Some G movies we don't let them see because some of those cartoons are just terrible. How do I encourage them so that they don't feel bitter or resentful? How do I help them avoid feeling like they're missing out on something?
How old are your children?
[They range from 3 to 14-years-old.]
Is the 14-year-old also in this category?
[She's been allowed to see a few other movies, when we've watched them with her, so that we could discuss the parts. The issue is now they're going to Orthodox camps, and are being influenced by other Orthodox kids. They're coming home and saying things like, "why can't I do this or that?" For example, they are saying things like, "why can't I watch The Little Mermaid? It's just a cartoon. They're making fun of us because we haven't seen The Little Mermaid." And I say, "just go ahead and say, 'well, you know, my mom's just that way,' and let it go."]
That's a good answer. What's the question? Are you doubting your pedagogy?
[No. My question is: how do I encourage them so that they don't feel bitter or resentful? How do I help them avoid feeling like they're missing out on something?]
You could expose them to something that the other children aren't exposed to - I don't know what that might be - maybe some really good literature or something. It's always movies today, isn't it? Everything has to be visual, but as much as you can, avoid the visual, for as long as you can. Expose your kids to something else, and then send them back to their friends to say, "I didn't see Little Mermaid, but you haven't read this book that I read with my mom, and you're missing out too."
Instead of always having this inferiority complex - and thinking, "I've got to do what everybody else does" - we need to be fools for Christ today. Fools for Christ intentionally provoke other people to judge them. That's what fools for Christ do. Does everybody know what a fool for Christ is? Are you familiar with this? It is often referred to as the highest form of sanctity in the Orthodox Church. It's people who've reached such degrees of sanctity that they live as if fools to the world and their actions appear mysterious and don't make sense, but actually many times they do make sense because they're clairvoyant as well. We need to live like fools for Christ today. In other words, we need to learn how - in the face of this zeitgeist - to teach our children to resist this spirit of pressure to conform and to go with the masses. This happens even on the level of the young children, and that's really where it all begins. This is why people, when they reach age 20, have lost all sense of direction. Because they've given into this again and again, and their value is in what other people are going to tell them to do, essentially. They've lost direction. You've got to fight against that. You can fight against it by essentially ridiculing it.
I used to ridicule the secular society, ridicule the mentality, and expose it for what it was, so that my children wouldn't feel an inferiority complex before the world. You could say for instance, "why would I want to watch some stupid movie about something that doesn't even exist? Some half-man, half-fish? What is this?!" Instead of saying, "oh, I'm sorry," and being so apologetic. Why do we have to be apologetic? We always have this approach, as if we have to apologize for not being like everybody else.
Teach them to look at what they're doing. Tell the child, "If it's good, let's do it. Tell me what's good about it, and I'll send you tomorrow to do it." Get them to analyze it, instead of just accepting it at face value and saying, "that's a good thing since everybody's doing it." That's the implication: It's good because all the children are doing it. Ask, "what is it? What are they doing?" "Oh, everybody has their nose pierced" "And? That's what they used to to in Africa when they didn't have Christianity and they weren't educated. This is something that comes from tribal practice." Say whatever you want to say, but don't allow it to become a given that we need to feel that we're missing out.
Convey to them, "It's the others that are missing out. The others are doing things that are not according to the Image and the Likeness. You are special because you are a Christian," and be proud of it instead of being ashamed. I'm not saying we're ashamed of being Christians, but that's what the world wants. The spirit of the world wants us to reply apologetically, and we shouldn't. We don't have to apologize for being Christian.
The other problem with this is that if you have an older child who has lost his way a bit, or has rebelled, or is in a rebellious state, and you give in to these pressures, because they're being pressured, you will pay for it with the younger children. Stand your ground, because it will become much harder. The younger ones are watching you. "What's mom doing with him? What's he doing? How's mom going to respond to that?" The consequences are exponential as time goes on.
My son came back a couple of days ago and said, "everybody in the world - every single human being, about 14 zillion, billion people" - I can't remember what number he used, but it was something like that - "14 zillion people are playing this particular video game." I said to him, "Really? The numbers matter? There are millions of people who have rejected Christ!" and I started to reason with him and say, "that's not criteria." The kids need to learn how to think. That's not criteria.
We have to react proactively and not be ashamed, and not be at all afraid to be different. The irony of it is there are so many kids out there who are doing exactly that to get attention. They are doing the thing that nobody else is doing, to get attention, and yet, we are afraid to be Christians and to be something different. Why? It's very serious, actually, because on one level you can say, "oh, it's just a mermaid" - but it's not. It's a pattern of wanting to conform to the culture, and if that starts, it becomes a way of life at 15 or 20. It's very important to nip it in the bud.
Fr. Peter Heers is scheduled to speak at the St. Emmelia West Conference in November 2018.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2018
Seeking Truth: Forming Children in the Love of Truth