For many Orthodox Christians, the only time they talk about their spiritual life is in confession. While confession is a good thing, an essential thing really, only discussing our spiritual life in confession can give us an unhealthy view of what it means to follow Christ. These misunderstandings of the spiritual life will often be passed on to the young people around us.
So there are two things we need to do in our work with young people.
First, we need to help them have a good and wholesome view of confession. In many parishes, confession is done quickly and immediately before Liturgy. There’s nothing wrong with this but it doesn’t really give the penitent and the priest much time to discuss anything but the most obvious of sins. It also works against the priest and penitent getting to know and trust each other.
Typically in some convert parishes, confession is understood as the Orthodox version of accountability. If the quick confession before Liturgy minimizing the personal quality of confession, confusing confession with accountability turns it into a stick and the priest into a judge or gatekeeper. And like with the brief confession before Liturgy, this too works against our getting to know and trust our priest.
In my own spiritual life and now as a priest, learning to do a basic examination of conscience has been helpful. You can an examination of conscience in many Orthodox prayer books. While these are good tools for adults, they can sometimes be a bit much for young people. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has a good resource for helping prepare for confession (here). The article includes two examinations of conscience. The first is based on the Ten Commandments, the second on the Beatitudes. With young people, I recommend that you use the one based on the Beatitudes.
One way to use an examination of conscience is to use the questions as the basis for group discussions. Doing this will not only help young people understand what is and isn’t a sin but also help them have richer, deeper spiritual lives. How? By teaching them to think and talk about what it means to follow Jesus Christ as Orthodox Christians.
Especially with younger children a discussion about sin might not seem practical (or even do-able). I understand why you might think this.But kids can fool us, especially when we underestimate them.
No, we can’t discuss the kinds of things with children that we would with adults. But children have a sense of moral right and wrong. Inviting them and helping them talk is a good way to form their conscience.
Having this conversation with peers also teaches them how to talk about their own spiritual lives. In addition, it also creates an atmosphere in the parish that says that it’s ok to talk about our spiritual lives with each other. We can even talk about our struggles.
Talking about our struggles doesn’t have to be something we do in any great depth or detail. But we do need to help young people begin to understand that not only do we all struggle, we struggle in surprisingly similar ways. Like Steve says in Be the Bee #36 “we all make mistakes.”
So, what can you do in your parish to help young people not only have a healthy view of confession but also to start talking to each other about what it means to follow Christ as an Orthodox Christian?