WASHINGTON OF MY HEART
Why children lose their faith in God?
Fr. Sergius Chetverikov, Washington, USA
Before answering that question, I want to say a few words to those who assert that one should not “impose” religious beliefs on children.
Religious faith cannot be imposed upon a person. It is not something extraneous to a person, but rather an essential, necessary requirement of human nature, the principal content of a person’s inner life.
When we take care to see that a child should grow up truthful, kind, when we nurture within him a proper understanding of beauty, taste for excellence, we do not impose upon him something alien or contrary to his nature; we merely help him to extricate him from himself, as it were to take him out of diapers and allow him to perceive for himself those attributes and impulses that are entirely characteristic of the human soul.
The same must be said about apprehension of God.
Following the principle of not imposing anything on the child’s soul, we would have to entirely refuse to participate in the child’s development and strengthening of his spiritual powers and abilities. We would leave him entirely to himself until he grows up and distinguishes between what he should and should not be.
However, in doing so, we would not rid the child of outside influences, but would merely give him up to influences of a disorderly and arbitrary type.
Let us return to the question of why some people, to the very end of their lives, preserve within their souls a constant, unshakable faith, while others lose their faith, sometimes utterly losing it, and sometimes returning to faith only with great difficulty and suffering.
What is the reason for this phenomenon? I think that it depends upon the direction the impulses of a person’s inner life take in early childhood. If a person manages – whether instinctively or consciously – to preserve a proper relationship between himself and God, he will not fall away from faith. Should his ego occupy in his soul an inappropriate, superior place, faith in his soul will become eclipsed. Ordinarily, in early childhood the individual identity has not yet taken precedence, has not yet become an object of worship. This is why it is said, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” With the passing years, the personality, the individual’s self-identity grows ever greater within us, and becomes the center of our attention and something to be pleased.
And this self-absorbed, selfish life ordinarily follows two impulses – the drive toward sensuality, serving the body, and the drive toward pride, narrow reliance on and worship of reason in general and one’s own judgment in particular.
Usually one individual does not have within him both of these impulses. In some, the temptations of sensuality are predominant, while in others the temptations of rationality. With advancing age, sensuality turns into frank sexual sickness, something of which rational, proud natures are free.
Sensuality and pride, two ways of serving one’s personal “self,” are those very attributes that we know were manifested by the first-created people in the commission of original sin, and that raised up the barrier between them and God.
What happened to the first-created people is happening to us.
Following an unhealthy direction in our inner life from childhood, one that engenders in us the development either of sensuality or pride, sullies the purity of our inner, spiritual vision, and deprives us of the capacity to God. We depart from God, and remain alone in our selfish way of life, with all of the attendant consequences.
Such is the process of falling away from God.
In those people who manage to preserve the proper relationship to God, the process of development of selfish, sensual, and proud attitudes encounters a barrier by their keeping God in mind. Such people keep within themselves both purity of heart and humility of mind; both their body and mind function within the boundaries of their religious consciousness and duty. They look upon everything that happens to them in the soul as if from a certain height, from the height of their religious consciousness; they make the appropriate assessment with their senses and aspirations, and do not give them free rein. In all of the temptations they encounter, they do not lose the principal religious impulse and direction in their lives.
Thus, the problem and difficulty of religious direction rests in helping a child, then preserving in the young boy or girl the proper relationship between him/herself and God, and not allowing the development within the self of the temptations of sensuality and pride, which besmirch the purity of inner vision.
Remembering my youth, I must confess that I experienced the very internal process, the loss of religiosity of which I am speaking, at the age of 13 or 14. A developing attraction for sensuality and excessive reliance on the intellect, and pride in reason, were killing my soul. It was not just me – many of my friends were suffering from the same thing. Had an observant, experienced spiritual director been nearby and looked into our souls, perhaps he would have found something good, but the main things he would have observed would be laziness, self-indulgence, lying, secretiveness, self-reliance, excessive faith in our own powers and abilities, a critical and skeptical attitude to others’ opinions, a penchant for making hurried and not well-considered decisions, stubbornness and a gullible attitude toward any negative theories, etc.
What he would not find in our souls is remembrance of God and the inner calm and humility that [keeping God in mind] engenders.
We did not have such a director. Our teacher of the Law of God, a very respected archpriest, barely had enough time to ask us about the lesson in the Law of God and then to explain the following one. For us, those classes were of a type with our other classes – just as external/superficial, and making no difference for us. Outside of class, we never saw the teacher. We approached our annual Confessions with little awareness [of the Mystery].
And nothing kept us from spiritually failing and becoming spiritually numb.
Fr. Sergius Chetverikov
Parish Life, A Monthly Publication of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Washington, DC, June 2018