I was sitting in a Sunday School class, and was probably around eight or nine years old. I cannot remember what the Scripture was that day. However, the room was brought into a very serious state of mind as we were presented with something and were asked to sign it. I had never entered into a contract before, but had a sense that it was a very serious thing. The contract was known as the “pledge.” The point was a promise: not to smoke or drink before age 21. I was not entirely sure of the point of the exercise. My father, who was over 21, both smoke and drank, as did his father and his brother. That’s to say that the men in my life smoked and drank. What I gathered that day was that smoking and drinking were bad for children and that I needed to be older before I started. Of course, for the ladies who taught the class, the point was something other. The assumption was that a person would not drink or smoke if they delayed the matter until later. It was an assumption for which I’m not sure there was any proof.
As it was, I did not smoke until I was 13, the same year I had my first serious experience with alcohol (a bottle of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose stolen from the local A&P grocery by a friend, consumed in his daddy’s cornfield). The pledge was dead.
As I look back on the experiment, its failure seems to have been inevitable. The two dear ladies in the classroom were not examples of anything I found interesting or attractive. Indeed, they were pretty much examples of people whom I found stifling and unattractive. They clucked and criticized men like my father and grandfather. The pledge seemed to me to be an instrument of betrayal.
Virtue is something that we acquire over time. On one level, it represents a habitual way of behaving and reacting, an instinct that has matured such that it can withstand the various winds that blow against it. On another level, it is the human stuff that is also transformed into the divine life in the journey of salvation (theosis). Christ Himself is what the truly virtuous person looks like. Our life in the virtues are always properly a reflection of His life.
In my childhood (in the world of the pledge), there was often talk of living a “Christ-like life.” This was largely portrayed as a highly moralistic life. It also seemed completely boring and unlike anyone I had ever met or admired. The virtues cannot be acquired through models that hold no attraction. Mere morality can never be virtue.
In the teaching of the fathers, the first most necessary thing in the acquisition of virtue is desire (eros). Of course, in our present culture, the notion of following our desires would seem like a road to ruin, the path to pleasure and nothing more. However, this is a distortion of desire. The passions have stolen the word (just as we have poisoned eros with the word “erotic”). In truth, we do almost nothing without a root of desiring. If we ignore a passion (gluttony) and choose to fast, it is because we desire something greater and more pure. This is true in the case of all the virtues. But we cannot desire what we do not see.
St. Paul went so far as to say, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” There are no words that could substitute for this embodied lesson in the Christ-like life. In the acquisition of virtue, an essential question is, “Whom do you admire?” or, rather pointedly, “Whom do your children admire?” Children are “copy cats,” and they’re supposed to be. When they “play,” they play at being something or someone: it’s how they learn. I’ve often noted that the many children in our parish engage in Orthodox worship without hesitation (though many are the children of newly Orthodox families). They readily greet the icons, light candles, and cross themselves. I’m frequently presented with pictures (of me!) drawn by children in the liturgy. (A stick figure with a beard pretty much captures my essence!) Our altar is bursting at the seams with young boys (and teens). It is a place where they want to be. In their eyes, men take God seriously and pray.
There are children who find their way into the choir (invited or not) and a significant number that seem to drown the rest of us out when we sing the Our Father. There is a frequent mixing of families as an older god-sister or brother takes on the burden of a toddler, getting them to communion. There are so many and varied examples! As a priest, I’ve never expected children to be “little adults.” However, I want them to see the love of God in the adults around them in such a way that they are not repelled. We don’t frown a lot in my parish.
If you want a child to pray, they should see you pray. If you want them to love God, they should see you love God. If you want them to be able to ask forgiveness, they need to see you do it first. Parenting (and adulting) is often one of the most moralistic events in our culture. We often shame children to make them behave. But shaming never accomplishes its intention. It frequently takes a child into dark places from which they will find it hard to return. You can lose them there.
None of us does any of these things perfectly. But we should not expect our children to become greater Christians than the ones they have seen in their lives. In general, our children will turn out to be mostly like us – for good or ill. As a word of encouragement, I would state it this way: “Be the person you want your child to become.”
Oddly, the virtues I can see some measure of in these later years of my life, I can clearly see in my Father (I can say the same for my vices). I am not the same man, but I am like him. My childhood instinct that preferred him to the moralisms of the religious women around me was not wrong. If I fought with him (and I did), it was myself I fought as well. When virtue prevailed, it was a victory that we shared. We are always later versions of an earlier model. In Biblical terms, we are Adam. Cain and Abel were not made from different stuff – they were two ways the same stuff was lived out. The line between good and evil, between virtue and vice, runs within each human heart as though it were one and the same heart. That same heart beats in the chest of Christ and is now seated in glory.
We are not in this alone. Character is never a private matter (nor is anything else in our lives). We cannot become what we want to become without help – from God and from others. The acquisition of virtue is the work of a whole community (the Church). It is good to be with people who also want to become the same kind of person you want to be – and to know that this is God’s work in us.