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An Interview with Rev. Dr. Philip Zymaris

As a father of five children, a parish priest and a professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology you often talk about the significance of children partaking in worship. How important is it for families to worship together in church and why?

It is very important because it is the natural way for people to be.  We are made in the image and likeness of God, we are made for God, we are made to be “doxological” (glorifying) and “eucharistic” (thankful) beings—and this includes children, of course.  They cannot be excluded for “convenience” sake or to make a more “prim and proper” worship service.  The main concern in church is not to train people to have socially acceptable behavior but to become a true worshipping community gathered around Christ.  Everybody worships and glorifies God the way they can. We believe that the Liturgy is an icon of and participation in the Kingdom of God and there will be plenty of children in the Kingdom of God so those who are disturbed by children in our worship services must get used to this fact now!

However, for many families, the reality is that it is not always easy to worship together in church.  They sometimes feel unwelcomed when their children “misbehave.”  What advice would you give them, especially for those who have little children?

We have to realize that children glorify God by being children, not be being something they are not.  They are part of the worship experience.  Remember how Christ said “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14) when the apostles tried to hinder them for “convenience’s sake.” This in fact is why the Orthodox Church baptizes infants.  Because we believe the worship of God is not only for someone old enough to “understand” it intellectually (as if someone could understand the mystery of God intellectually!).  No, it’s not an intellectual exercise, rather it is a total experience—and everyone, even babies, even embryos can experience things.  Our worship therefore is an experience, a way of life and not the intellectual conceptualization of life.   Therefore, in our worship the whole human being—body and soul together as icon of God—is involved.  For this reason all five senses participate in our worship and our worship is in this sense very “physical.” Indeed, Orthodox worship is like a symposium, a “feast for the senses.” Therefore, we even can say that religious education actually starts from the womb—even the embryo somehow experiences the atmosphere of worship when the mother attends church.

Are there any practical things families can do to prepare for church services?

Parents need to understand that the liturgical experience begins with preparing for it at home everyday.  But even on Sunday morning from the moment everyone wakes up, everyone is moving in the direction toward God.  However, parents need to see this whole process in a discerning and flexible way and not expect that their families will worship in the way other people who might have less practical restrictions do.  For example, they need to forgive themselves if they’re not at every service from the very beginning; of course the earlier the better whenever possible but this can sometimes be unrealistic and this is OK.  God sees the whole effort and the whole picture.  The whole question of behavior is—depending on the maturity of the children—how well we train them by our own example in our whole lives.

Regarding children and their participation in the sacramental life of the church, what advise would you have for parents?

From the very beginning if the parents are living the sacramental life of the Church, this is the best form of religious education.  For example, if they are bringing their children to receive Holy Communion but they themselves do not receive, children pick up on the hypocrisy.

Drawing from your knowledge of liturgical history as a professor of Liturgics at Holy Cross, how has worship changed over the centuries and, in particular, how has it affected families?

The more people participate, the better, including, of course, families and children.  This has always been the tradition of our Church.  Today this has been forgotten and popular liturgical participation and liturgical actions are now largely limited to the clergy and altar boys.  Liturgy actually means the work of the people—all the people.  Our worship therefore used to be more linear, meaning it was like a great big march toward God, going from our homes and our city streets into the church building, i.e. we literally had true entrances into the church that were performed by all the people.  These are what now have been limited to the so-called Small and Great Entrances.  The Small Entrance was literally the entrance of all the people into the church and the Great Entrance was a true entrance of the deacons from outside the church into the church bearing the gifts of bread and wine.  So, in general our worship was more extroverted and more geared towards popular participation, whereas now it has become more introverted and limited to specific “players.”  Even the churches have become comparatively smaller.  All this has hindered this very traditional aspect of worship in the church.  In order for people to realize this they need to be taught this, so the adults, first of all need to learn this aspect of the liturgy, so that they can communicate it to their children. Then, what is done in liturgy, even in today’s form, will be interpreted differently as coming from a beautiful venerable tradition that had specific meaning.  Unfortunately, most adults understand the liturgy as something that exclusively belongs to the clergy and that everyone else must be, for the most part, passive.

We often speak of the Church of the Home and its importance in a family’s spiritual life.  How would you define it, what are some of its expressions and how does the Church of the Home complement life in the parish and vise versa?

It is very important because in our tradition what goes on in the home and what goes on in the church building are always connected.  Our Church makes the distinction between personal prayer (home alone) and liturgical prayer (in church all-together).  The two go together, they feed each other according to this teaching and both are absolutely necessary.  Similarly, the life in the church is fed by the life in the home (the kat’oikon ecclesia).  The whole Orthodox life and ethos demands that we have a good foundation from the home.  And when we go to church, we bring that good foundation with us so that everything falls naturally into place.  If this is not taught in the home, going to church is going to become a mere duty and not something necessary for true life.

St. John Chrysostom, in one of his homilies instructs us, “Let us raise our children in such a way that they can face any trouble, and not be surprised when difficulties come; let us bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord…” How difficult is it for parents to raise children in the world today?

St. Basil talks about the bees that go to the flowers, gathering the good and rejecting the bad.  That’s the way in which we need to train our children to face the world, by giving them a good starting point, a good foundation, which happens in the home.  This way, they can learn to discern correctly the quality of what is out there.  The Church affirms what is good in the world and doesn’t see it in a dualistic way, as if we are living in a bubble and we are only doing good, vis-à-vis the world.  Having said that, evil does exist and we have to be an example to our children—not by way of preaching but by way of our life, in order to give them the tools to discern this and be able to face life in the world.  We’re psychological beings and therefore the foundations of our character are laid in early childhood.  This is not to say that this cannot change at a later age, but it’s more difficult.  Our duty as parents therefore is to help our children to acquire a good foundation, so even if they revolt against their parents and the Church at some point—which is natural (usually at adolescence)—they will ultimately return.

The Rev. Dr. Philip Zymaris is assistant professor of liturgics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA and pastor at the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Pawtucket, R.I.