A friend was recently discussing a man who had a spiritual experience which resulted in his becoming Orthodox. She said she was still waiting for her children to have such an experience. She has very fine children – all of whom are Orthodox – but in her opinion, they have not all really embraced their Orthodoxy. That may be true, but my point in relating this is that I have similar concerns about my children, and many of us have a similar question about the youth at our parish and throughout the Church.
Typically the response to this concern is to immediately start developing programs that will keep the kids affiliated with the Church. Not necessarily make them deepen their Orthodoxy, but that is a different topic. The quest is to try to make the bells go off for them – to generate the spiritual experience. I do think that their is value in this, especially with children whose parents are functionally not Orthodox ( the ones who drop the children off for Sunday school on their way to Starbucks). However, for those whose parents strive to lead an Orthodox life, I think perhaps we need to be more concerned with smells rather than bells.
Fr. Josiah Trenham in one of his talks on the Divine Liturgy, told the story of an Elder to whom a certain priest wanted to speak. The Elder refused to speak to the priest because “he smelled.”. The smell was not a physical smell, but the stench of some grave sin. At that point nobody knew about the sin, but the Elder clearly perceived it. Ultimately, the priest was defrocked. Of course, there are many other similar stories throughout the history of the Church. Similarly, there are numerous stories about these who are more spiritually developed perceiving holiness, the presence of angels, and the like. Young children, interestingly, seem to have the same ability to perceive reality. It is only over time that this capability seems to wane.
I suspect that it is this ability, or the residual ability in older children, that stands at the heart of the challenge to develop children into strong Christians. If their parents, as well as other adults involved in their formation, do not carry the sweet smell of a righteous life, but rather carry, perhaps not the stench of some grave sin, but even so much as the bad smell of a life lived too enthralled to the passions, or perhaps just a bit too hypocritically.
So, while there is much to be said for developing strong programs for our youth, the first place we need to look is to ourselves. Perhaps the person in need of a spiritual experience is us, not our children.