The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM - Lessons on Education: Part IV

We will conclude our reading of St. John Chrysostom's 39 instructions on educating the child today with Part IV. St. John wrote this wonderful treatise as a guide for parents on how to raise up a Christian child whose education would be not only secular, but also spiritual and moral and would thus be a complete person. 


31. Furthermore, wishing to acquaint our children with sciences we not only remove any conflicting teachings, but give them everything that will support it; we thrust mentors and teachers upon them, give them financial support, free them from all other occupations; and even more than trainers at Olympic games, we scream at them about poverty that results from not studying and wealthy from studying. We ourselves and through others do and say everything just to lead them to finishing their studies; and at that, we do not always succeed. But do modest manners and diligence over honorable behavior, in our opinion, come by themselves, regardless of all the many obstacles? What can be worse than this insanity -- spending so much time and energy on what is easy as though it were impossible to succeed in it otherwise, while what is infinitely more difficult seems to us as something empty and insignificant that will come to us even as we sleep? For exercise of the soul in the pious life is so many times more difficult than the study of sciences, so much harder to fulfill than it is possible to say; it is the difference between action and words.

32. "But why," you say, "do our children need such wisdom and strict behavior?" This is the very thing that is so all-destructive -- that such an important matter, the support of our life, is considered extravagant and unnecessary. Having seen your son sick in body, no one would ask why he needs perfect and strong health. To the contrary you would take every measure to return his body to a good condition, so that the illness would not return.

But when children have sick souls, they say that they need no treatment; and after such words they dare to call themselves fathers! "What?" you say, "Shall we only seek after wisdom and let everything earthly fall apart?" No, most respected ones, it is not love of wisdom but the lack of it that has destroyed and disrupted everything. For who, tell me, disrupts the present condition of things -- those who live continently and modestly, or those who invent new and unlawful means of delighting themselves? Those who only try to grab other people's things for themselves, or those who are content with what they have? Those who love mankind, who are meek and do not seek honor, or those who demand honor from their brothers above all obligation, and cause a thousand annoyances for those who do not rise when they enter, do not say the first greeting, do not bow before them, or do not agree with them? Those who love to submit, or those who seek power and positions of authority, and for this are ready to do and endure anything? Those who consider themselves better than everyone, and therefore think that they may say and do anything, or those who consider themselves to be last, and thereby tame their unreasonable self-willed passions? Those who support harlots and defile the marriage beds of others, or those who are continent even with their own wives? Are not the first in human society those who are like tumors on the body and lashing winds over the sea, who with their lack of restraint drown even those who if left alone might have saved themselves? And are not the last those who are like bright lamps amidst thick darkness, calling the shipwrecked to their safety, and, having lit on high in the distance the lamp of wisdom, thus lead those who desire it into the peaceful harbor?

Is it not those others who cause disturbances, wars and fights, and destruction of the cities, and captivity, and slavery, and loss of freedom, and murder, and innumerable catastrophes in life -- catastrophes not only wrought on people by people, but also everything sent from heaven, for example: droughts, floods, earthquakes, inundation of cities, famines, pestilences, and everything that is sent to us from there? They debase the social order and destroy the general good; they bring countless misfortunes on others, obfuscate people who seek peace, draw them in and then tear them apart from all directions. Courts and laws, sentences and all manner of punishment were created for these people.

33. If we wanted to educate our children from the earliest age and give them to those who wished to educate them, our children would of course be able to stand in the very forefront of battle; because God would not disdain such fervency and zeal, but would stretch out His hand to complete the sculpture. When His hand acts, it is impossible not to succeed, or rather, it is impossible not to reach the highest degree of brilliance and glory, if only we fulfilled what depends upon us. If women have been able to incline God's help in the upbringing of children, how much more so could we do the same if we so wanted. In order not to over-stretch this homily, I shall pass over in silence all other women and cite only one, though I could have cited many.

There was a Jewess named Hannah. This Hannah gave birth to a son and no longer hoped to have another, because she was barely able to conceive this one after many tears due to her barrenness. Although her rival often chided her over her barrenness, she did not do as you do, but having received the child she kept him only as long as she needed to feel him milk. As soon as he no longer needed this food, she took him and immediately dedicated him to God, not asking that he ever return to his family's house, but leaving him to live always in the temple of God. And when out of maternal feeling she wished to see him she did not call the child to herself but came herself with the father to him, treating him carefully, like a sacrifice to God. This is why the boy became so valorous and great that when God turned His face from the Jewish people for its extreme impiety and pronounced no prophecies and sent no visions, this boy again attracted God with his virtue and begged Him to grant the Jews what they formerly had -- to renew the prophecy that had ceased. He did this when he was not yet a grown man, but a little child. "And the word of the Lord," says the Scripture, "was precious in those days, there was no distinct vision" (I Kings 3:1); meanwhile, God often revealed His will to Samuel.

That is how beneficial it is to always give your acquisitions to God, and to refuse not only money and things, but even your own children. For is this has been commanded of us with respect to our souls (Matthew 10:37), how much the more to everything else? The Patriarch Abraham also did this, or rather, he did much more than this, and that is why he received a son with great glory. We especially have our children with us when we have given them to the Lord. For He will preserve them much better than we can because He cares more for them. Have you not seen how it happens in the homes of rich people? There the low-born servants who live with their fathers are not so respected or powerful as those whom the master has taken from the parents, appointed to his service and made guardians of treasures, giving them great good will and freedom. If men are so kind and well-disposed toward their servants, much more so will be the Unlimited Goodness, that is, God.

34. Let us allow our children to serve God, leading them not only to the temple, like Samuel, but to the very heavens to serve together with the Angels and Archangels. For anyone can see that one who dedicates himself to love of wisdom really will be serving with the Angels. Furthermore, such children will be representing with great boldness not only themselves, but us also. For if some children have received help from God for their fathers' sake, so much more can fathers receive help for their children's sake; because in the first case the right to help comes only from nature, but in the second case it comes also from upbringing, which is much more important than nature.

I will prove both to you from Divine Scripture. Hezekiah, a virtuous and pious king but having no boldness according to his own deeds to withstand the great danger which threatened him, was saved by God for the sake of his father's virtue, as God Himself said: "And I will defend this city as with a shield, for my own sake, and for my servant David's sake" (IV Kings 19:34). Paul in his epistle to Timothy said about parents: "She (the woman) shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety" (I Timothy 2:15). The Scripture praises Job because he "was true, blameless, righteous and godly, abstaining from everything evil" (Job 1:1), as well as for his care for his children (Job 1:5). This care consisted not in the collection of wealth for them, and not in attempts to make them glorious and famous, but in what? Listen to what the Scripture says: "And when the days of the banquet were completed, Job sent and purified them, having risen up in the morning, and offered sacrifices for them, according to their number, and one calf for a sin-offering for their souls; for Job said, lest peradventure my sons have thought evil in their minds against God. Thus then Job did continually" (Job 1:5). What justification will we have if we behave with such neglect? For if those who lived before the time of grace and the law, who never received any teachings on the upbringing of children, had such great care for their children as to tremble even over their secret sins – who will justify us, who live during the time of grace, have so many teachers, so many examples and instructions, but meanwhile not only do not fear for their secret sins, but even ignore the obvious sins; and not only do we ourselves ignore them, but even cast out those who do not?  And Abraham, as I said before, stood out for this virtue more than for his many other virtues.

35. Thus, having so many examples, let us prepare pious servants and slaves for God.  If those who prepare competitive fighters for cities, or warriors for the king, are vouchsafed great honor, then what gift shall we receive if we prepare for God such valorous and great men, or rather, angels?  We will do everything we can in order to leave them the riches of piety which abide permanently, accompany us even after death and can bring great benefit not only here, but there (in the other world).  Worldly riches do not accompany people into eternity, and they can even perish here before their owners, often even destroying them.  But the riches of piety are permanent in this and the next life, and preserve those who acquire them in great safety.  This is really so; whoever prefers the earthly over the spiritual will lose both, but whoever longs for the spiritual and heavenly will probably also receive the earthly.  These are not my words, but those of the Lord Himself, Who promises to give us this good: "seek," He says, "first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).  What can compare with this honor?  Concern yourself, He says, with the spiritual, and leave everything else to Me.  A loving father takes all cares of the household upon himself, the governing of servants and everything else, but advises the son to concern himself with love of wisdom.  So does God.  Let us be obedient and begin to seek the kingdom of God; then we shall see everywhere reverent children, and we ourselves shall be glorified with them, and delight also in present good things.  Only you must love the future, heavenly things.  If you are obedient, you shall receive a great reward; but if you are contrary and disobedient you will endure terrible punishments.  For we cannot justify ourselves by saying, "No one taught us this."

 36. Untamed youth has need of many instructors and teachers, guides, observers and educators.  Only with this effort can it be reigned in.  An unbroken horse, an untamed beast – that is youth.  Therefore, if we place limits from an early age we will not need to use such great force; to the contrary, habit will become law.  We will not allow them to do what is pleasant but harmful; we will not try to please them because they are children, for this brings more harm than anything to youth.  But most of all we will preserve chastity.  We should concern ourselves with this more than anything else, and pay the most attention to this.  We will take wives for them early, so that they would unite themselves to their brides with pure and incorrupt bodies.  This kind of love is especially ardent.  Whoever was chaste before marriage is more likely to remain so after marriage.  But those who learned before marriage to fornicate will do the same after marriage.  For it is written in the Scriptures: "All bread is sweet to a whoremonger" (Sirach 23:17).  That is why a crown is placed on the head – as a sign of victory, that they are entering the bridal chamber unvanquished, unconquered by lust.  If someone prone to love of pleasure has given himself to harlots, then what reason does he have for wearing a crown on his head, since he has been vanquished?  We will instill this in them, teach it to them and threaten them in various ways.

 37. We have been given an important security – children.  Therefore we shall take care of them, and take every precaution that the evil one may not steal them from us.  Meanwhile, we do everything backward.  We make every effort to ensure that our fields be in good hands.  We seek out the most experienced mule drivers and overseers, but we take no such precautions for what is the most precious to us and through which all other good things come, namely, that we might entrust our son to a man that would preserve his chastity.  We take care to provide him with property, but take no care for him himself.  Do you see what insanity has taken control of us!  First of all educate your son's soul, and he will acquire possessions later.  If his soul is bad he will not receive the slightest benefit from money.  And vice versa, if he has been given the proper upbringing, then poverty will not harm him in the least.  Do you want to leave him wealthy?  Teach him to be good.  For children who have not received the proper upbringing poverty is better than wealth; it will keep them even against their will within the bounds of virtue.  However, wealth, even for one who does not wish it, does not allow one to live a chaste life, but lures him into a countless multitude of crimes.

 38. You, mothers, look after your daughters.  This should not be difficult for you.  Watch that they sit at home.  First of all teach them to be pious, modest, disdaining money, and not worrying too much about fancy dress.  Give them thus to marriage.  If you raise your daughter this way, you will save not only her, but the husband who takes her; and not only her husband, but the children; and not only the children, but the grandchildren.  If the root is good the branches will spread out more beautifully, and you will receive your reward for this.  Therefore let us do everything as though we are caring for the good not of one soul alone, but of many through the one.  For at the time of marriage, they (daughters) should go forth from their father's houses as fighters from the place of competition; that is, they should know precisely the entire science, by which they might, like a leaven, raise all the ingredients to the increase of them.

39. Again, sons should also be so modest that they might be recognized by their good morals and chastity, and might earn great praise from men and from God.  Let them learn to refrain themselves from extravagant possessions, to be thrifty and tenderly loving; let them learn to submit to authority.  For they can in this way obtain a great reward for their parents.  Then everything will be directed towards the glory of God and our salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom with the Father and Holy Spirit be glory, dominion and honor now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.  END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 329 - 335.