by Michele Latham
I recently read about a certain culture which is known to produce an abundance of talented musicians. The children were observed playing instruments at a very young age. This is not to say that the parents enroll their three-year-olds in Suzuki violin lessons, but rather when the adults gather to play music together (which is frequently), the children are welcomed.
They are encouraged to hold and experiment with various instruments, joining in while the adults play. The experimentation may cause a little discord in the songs, but the adults didn’t seem to notice.
By the time the children are of an age to receive musical instruction, they are familiar with the instrument; the way it feels and the sound it makes. People are amazed at the seemingly large a number of natural musicians born in this region, when in truth, the environment and early exposure to music plays as important a role as heredity.
As a visitor to an Orthodox church many years ago, I was surprised and a little distracted by the number of small children and even babies in the service. They were walking around or sitting on the floor, some being held by their parents. The service was long and some children were escorted out of the nave a time or two, presumably for bathroom breaks or snacks.
For the most part, the children behaved as if they were in a place that was comfortable to them, as if they were home.
The adults didn’t seem to notice the undercurrent of movement and noise coming from the children, they were focused on the prayers and scriptures being read. When a restless baby had to be soothed, no one turned to stare. And when a toddler lunged toward a vase of flowers, no one gasped. The nearest adult just bent and swooped up the child to avoid a mess.
All of this was new to me as a Protestant. Upon further study, I noticed that the children were not just marking time like they do while waiting for mom to check out in the grocery store.
They were aware of what was happening. Maybe they didn’t listen carefully or understand the all words being said, but when the jangling sound of the censor alerted them to the activity near the altar, they would turn their attention to the priest. They respectfully kissed the icons and were lifted up by their parents to light candles. When the congregation began to sing “Lord, have mercy”, some small voices joined in. And when it was time to receive communion, all ages expectantly lined up to approach the chalice.
I then understood that these children were in the process of absorbing the Christian faith just like the children in my example above were absorbing music. They were surrounded by worship and were being encouraged to participate with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Having this knowledge, it was still hard to break old habits when it came to bringing my own kids to church with me. I had been raised in a church where the worship service was for adults only.
Once my family had become Orthodox, I had to fight the urge to remove my children from the room when they made noise. One of my sons, before he could talk, would chant in nonsense syllables along with his dad, the reader. Rather than clamp my hand over his mouth, I reminded myself he was learning to pray and instead I gently whispered in his ear, asking him to use a quieter voice.
Today, our little parish has several families with young children and some Sundays it seems the adults are outnumbered! I would never describe the sounds I hear during services as discord. Rather, it is the beautiful sound of our children learning to love God.