On Sophrosyne: An Orthodox Christian Perspective
~ by Presbytera Maria Koulianos ~
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
~ Proverbs 22:6
In the Orthodox Tradition, this poignant icon painted in 1809 in Tver, Russia called “Goodwill” represents the lineage of the Mothers of the Church and their sons. At the center is the Mother of God with her Son Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to her right is Saint Elizabeth with Saint John the Baptist, and to her left is Saint Salome with Saint John the Beloved, also known as the Theologian. These holy women were all first cousins; their mothers were all sisters, daughters to the Righteous Priest Matthan and his wife Maria.
It is in this depiction that we clearly are shown the importance and beauty of our Orthodox Faith which was given to us by Christ and has been preserved for us for generations upon generations through love, sweat, and blood of countless saints from the beginning of creation, to whom we are eternally grateful.
God’s plan of salvation was put into motion from the fall of Adam and Eve, and it was at that moment the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Savior to come was thereafter declared by every prophet of old alongside humanity praying, sacrificing, holding true to God’s promise that one day we all would be released from the bondage of death. Generation after generation these prayers were heard, and so were the prayers of Sts. Joachim and Anna who yearned for a child; regardless of being well advanced in years and shunned by their community for being childless, they continued to pray day in and day out until their prayers were heard! During the height of their pain and anguish, God answered their petitions, and a daughter was born unto them.
Mary was born as a prayer answered and joy ensued. As she began to take her first steps and grew, hand in hand, she was walked to the Temple and presented as a thanksgiving to God by her parents at the age of three. Yes, Sts. Joachim and Anna dedicated their only daughter to Him, our Loving Lord, from which all things good are given. She was brought to the Temple of Jerusalem and was received by the Priest Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist. Little did they know that Mary, their daughter, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the Mother of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Jesus Christ, would grow up to be declared higher than the Cherubim and the Seraphim.
It is in the hallowed atmosphere of the Temple that the pure daughter Mary grew up, listening to hymns and Old Testament readings, and was in constant communion with God through prayer. These years in the Temple were her spiritual preparation for what was to come later: she would be a part of fulfilling God’s plan to bring into the world our Lord and Savior. Sts. Joachim and Anna joyfully and willfully dedicated Mary as a thanksgiving for prayers answered and, in their conviction, an act of serving God.
Their model rooted into the heart of the Theotokos and in turn, when she was called to be the Mother of Christ Jesus, she said yes; she too raised her Son in all that is good, true, and beautiful! As a young girl of 14 or 15, she did so with courage, obedience, and joy! She said yes to the will of the Lord, and contemplated all within her heart.
Anna the mother of Mary the Virgin; Mary the mother of Christ Jesus; Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist; Salome the mother of John the Beloved, known as the Theologian; all who are descendants of Maria, their mothers’ mother, raised their children with love, faith, and sophrosyne.
Sophrosyne, also known as temperance, is a Greek term meaning mindfulness, moderation, balance, self-control; ultimately, sophrosyne encompasses all the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All these women raised their children in being steadfast, faithful, and patient in waiting for and becoming that which God created them to be—saints! They are the epitome of Christian parents who offered a witness to their children that they should love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. It was this type of upbringing that created the foundation of faith which caused each of them to say yes to becoming servants of the Lord.
Saint John Chrysostom, one of the Fathers of the Church, explains:
We are so concerned with our children’s schooling [and worldly success]; if only we were equally zealous in bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (67). This, then, is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise, what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment-seat (72)?
Upbringing children of God is the most important task because it is a responsibility that has an eternal impact. This requires us to live as Christians every day of our lives and model this for our children. The stories of these mothers are our example to follow, for God so loves the world, he brought forth miracle after miracle born as children of God.
Our number one priority to our children is to raise them close to God. We want them to grow to be good, responsible, and faithful Christians. Isn’t this why we bring them to the Church in order to participate as active members of the Body of Christ? Each of us should connect children with God and His Church from the beginning. Our children should love the Church and participate in the Sacred Mysteries. If this is done, then surely they will have a fortified life, which will be rooted deeply in the unconditional love of God! The constant communication with God will help children grow, develop their skills and talents, and promote growth in their lives.
In the Orthodox Tradition, each year during the Matin Hymns of Great and Holy Friday, we hear from the perspective of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, emotionally grasp this life-giving love:
Beholding her own Lamb led to the slaughter, Mary, the Ewe-lamb, followed with the other women, in distress and crying out: “Where do You go, my Child? Why do You run so swift a course? Surely there is not another wedding in Cana to which You now hasten to change water into wine? Shall I come with You, my Child, or shall I wait for You? Give me a word, for You are the Word. Do not pass me by in silence, You who kept me pure for, You are my Son and my God” (The Lenten Triodion 619-620)
The Fathers of the Church are clear that our children’s spiritual well-being should take priority over their material needs, temporal education, and preparation for worldly satisfaction. Let us prioritize our children’s spiritual growth and cultivate their relationship with God so that we offer them more than worldly success, but also offer them the path of being a Christ-like example of love in the world. It is a difficult path, but like our foremothers before us, it is vital to raise children who will grow to love God and their fellow man, and who will joyfully proclaim glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever, amen.
Chrysostom, John. On Marriage and Family Life: St. John Chrysostom – Popular Patristics Series Number 7. Edited by Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986.
Icon Goodwill-«Доброчадие». 1809. Painting. Private Collection, Tver, Russia.
The Lenten Triodion. Translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. Faber and Faber, 1978.