Five and a half years ago, after retiring from full-time work outside the home, I was privileged to land the best job I've ever had. I am a part-time yiayia-nanny and I love every minute of it. I am constantly thanking God that our five small grandchildren live within a two-mile radius of our home, so that Father Ted and I can see them very often and that I am able to care for them two or three times a week.
And like grandmothers and grandfathers all over the world we take them to the park, the library, and a nearby pond. Like grandmothers and grandfathers everywhere we read many books and play lots of games with them, we make cookies and do gardening together.
But what is the spiritual role of grandparents? There are two quotes that help me in this area.
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"If your heart overflows with love for God, you will find a thousand ways to communicate and pass on these feelings to your children."
These are the words of St. Irenaeus, the most important theologian of the second century. He was from Asia Minor, probably Smyrna. He studied in Rome and became Bishop of Lyon in present day France, and he understood that what counts is not so much what we do with our children and our grandchildren as who we are in Christ. “Faith,” as the saying goes, “is caught rather than taught.”
When we stay connected to Christ by receiving the Sacraments and attending as many worship services as we can, when we stay connected to Him through regular prayer and through prayerful reading of Holy Scripture, little by little our heart does indeed begin to overflow with love for God. If we seek God in our lives, if we abide in Christ, if we turn often to the Holy Spirit for guidance, if we opt for a godly book or magazine rather than a silly sitcom, we are bound to feel God’s warmth in our hearts—and our grandchildren will feel it too. This isn’t something we can necessarily always show our grandchildren, but they will see our faith.
There are some days, of course, when we are legitimately busy enough that we miss the regular quiet time of prayer and reading. But there are also the days when we purposefully putter and aimlessly fritter away our scheduled time with God. And what happens then? Well, not much, and therein lies the problem. When I say, “Well, I’ll just go downstairs first,” or “I’ll just have coffee first,” or “I’ll just have breakfast first,” or “This might be a good time to do a Sudoku or a crossword puzzle—I don’t want to get Alzheimer’s after all,” before you know it a lot of time has passed . And these are the days when things don’t go as smoothly, don’t fall into place as nicely. Speaking from my own experience, I firmly believe there is a connection. God can’t bless us when we’re not abiding in Him. And the spiritual training has to be as regular as possible, or we run around following our own whims rather than allowing Christ to dwell in us and guide us. Those are the times when the fruit we bear isn’t the good stuff, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but rather it is a fruit of trivia or of nothing at all. Our grandchildren will notice this, too, for just as we can communicate faith in unspoken ways, if we aren’t careful we can also convey the opposite.
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"Talk more to God about your children, and less to your children about God."
This quote (by an unknown author) reminds me of what I have read about, and seen with my own eyes, in the now grown and still faithful grandchildren of those who lived under communism in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia. How could their grandparents share their faith? I was told by a grandmother l met in Albania, for instance, of parents who could not even tell their daughters-in-law they were Christian for fear of being turned in to the authorities and facing a six-year prison sentence. When grandchildren came along, what was the spiritual role of these brave men and women?
Thank God that in our society we can take our grandchildren to church, we can pray with them, read to them from the Bible and the lives of the saints we can teach them church hymns and scripture verses without fear of being punished. Yet although we don't live under communism, we do live in a society that doesn't support our Christian faith and in fact is actively hostile to it at times. Some of us might experience this hostility right in our own families from our own grown children, and at those times we learn to treasure our faith in our hearts rather than speaking of it openly. Perhaps in such a situation our spiritual role as grandparents is to pray over the sleeping child we have just had the privilege of tucking into bed. And we must never underestimate the power of our humble and heartfelt prayers for our grandchildren when we live far away from them.
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It is pure joy for me to take a toddler or older grandchild to church for a service their parents aren’t able to attend. As we walk up the steps I might put a dollar in their hand, then once inside help them put it in the tray and take a candle that we light together. I show them the icons, explaining as much as I think they will understand, and when they are restless we walk to the back of the church, looking at the icons along the way. And before or after services Father Ted takes the young ones in his arms or by the hand to point out the many things in God’s house that can strengthen them in their faith. On the days their moms have gone into labor with a sibling, we’ve gone to church to light a candle, then to kneel or sit quietly to pray for a good delivery. And of course it is fun to mark our grandchildren’s feast days with little gifts and treats and to teach them about the life of their patron saint, as well as the troparion of the feast.
So let's have fun with our grandchildren and share our faith with them in many ways. But most importantly, our spiritual role as grandparents is to become more spiritual ourselves, to allow Christ to live in us, to follow His commandments and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If we seek God in our lives, if we abide in Christ, if we turn to the Holy Spirit, we are bound to feel closer to the living God, to act and speak to our grandchildren with God-confidence, with authority, and in a way that will benefit them spiritually.
Pres. Fotini (Faye) grew up in Seattle and is married to Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos who was Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology for many years. They live in Boston and are the parents of four adult children. They are also the proud grandparents of two granddaughters and three grandsons, all under the age of six. Pres. Faye holds degrees in French Language and Literature and in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She has facilitated women’s Bible studies and written articles for Handmaiden Magazine.