So, why am I taking advice for this monk-bishop? What does he know about children? I think it is because St. John, for all his ascetic ethos, has a knack for saying the right thing, even when it may be an uncomfortable to hear. So, in Homily 21, talking about Ephesians 6,1-3, St. John takes on that uncomfortable task and, as usual, challenges and encourages his listeners to take the formation of our children as Christians more seriously.
The text, of course, is familiar:
Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right "Honour your father and your mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise) "that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the the LordSt. John's reaction to this passage is give instruction in how to raise an obedient child who seeks out a virtuous life. Unsurprisingly, John calls his listeners to make sure that they cultivate this life in their children by practicing it themselves.
He starts with stressing the importance of reading Scripture to our children in forming a child's character. He dismisses the gibe that reading so much Scripture would make one's children into monks or, perhaps, as we might say it, make our children "so heavenly minded that he is no earthly use'. John dismisses this by saying that he isn't interested in creating monks, but Christians. Whether the diversions and distractions of fourth century Constantinople or twenty-first century North America, it is not doubt that our children face a bewildering set of choices, some of which are more superficially attractive than perhaps a Christian life. So we need to find ways to inspire our children. For Christians, of course, Scripture should be the place to start because it helps us define what is virtuous behavior, but, more importantly, it gives us good examples of the faithful and virtuous life for our children; first of all in Jesus, then in the faithful men and women of the past. As the late Rich Mullins wrote in A Boy like Me/ A Man like You:
And did they tell You stories 'bout the saints of old?Our children will hear so many stories in their lifetimes, why not start with our own Christian ones?
Stories about their faith?
They say stories like that make a boy grow bold
Stories like that make a man walk straight
John expects us to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. We can't just tell our children to be virtuous or even just read Bible stories. None of these things will influence our children to be Christian if they don't see it done. In fact, it is pretty much guaranteed to turn them off religion in general and Christianity in particular. One of the most sobering thing that I've heard as a prospective father is that one of the keys to having god-fearing children is a god-fearing father. I don't mean that in the sense that we have to strike terror into the hearts of our children by imposing some kind of bogeyman image of God. God-fearing in this context is knowing our place in the universe--that God is God, our Creator and our Redeemer and we are well-loved sinners learning to be saints. As St. John says at the end of his sermon,
Therefore, let us be concerned for our wives and children, and for ourselves as well, and as we educate both ourselves and them, let us beg God to help us in our task. If He sees that we care about this, He will help us; but if we are unconcerned, He will not give us His hand
Yet, a final caveat is needed here. St. John here is talking about how we form virtue in our children and, because of that, he is focusing on what we can do. Yet, as much as virtue and the formation of virtue is important, fatherhood isn't about setting out a set of rules by which our children had better live--a kind of 'my way or the highway' mode of parenting. Rules without an active sense of grace will create rebellion and disdain for one's parents and all authority. As St. John himself notes earlier in this sermon, we don't want our children to be obedient or virtuous out of fear, but out of genuine love of God. We--myself, my wife and my son--will screw up and it is just as important a test of our faith to see how we deal with that. Will I be open to giving and (which is almost harder) receiving forgiveness for the wrong things I will do as a father and husband? Our failures often give us as much, if not more, chance to strengthen our faith and that of those around us as our victorious displays of virtue. I pray for God's hand both in forming in virtue and in learning how to show God's grace to those in my life. With those prayers, I'll muddle along the steep learning curve of being a father. Perhaps you, my readers, will add a few prayers for my wife and me this week as we enter this great adventure called parenthood.