My mother grew up speaking Russian. Although she moved here at age 7 and speaks flawless English she still says some of her prayers in Russian.
As with many other languages, Russian uses the diminutive a lot – an ending that makes the word “little” in an affectionate way. She has often shared how she grew up using the diminutive of God – Bozhenka (little God) – when addressing God in prayer. The concept is quite lovely – the idea that we would address God in a way that denotes familiarity and affection.
I grew up Old Calendar and still follow the Old Calendar. I have noticed that our prayer books and service books often use the Thee and Thou when speaking with God and I feel very comfortable and familiar with that language. And yet I also appreciate that the formality of that language has the potential to create an appearance or feeling of distance. (Note: Since writing this post a kind reader informed me that actually Thee and Thou are traditionally informal – though they may feel formal from disuse today.)
My mother’s father lived in Venezuela my whole life (long story) and spoke 8 languages but English was not among them. We spoke together in my bits of broken Russian and Spanish – both of which still employ the formal “you” in speech. I remember one time addressing him with the formal you – as an elder and as a sign of respect – and he shook his head disapprovingly, gave me a big hug and made sure I would always call him “you” (informal).
It makes me pause to think about how our language, when we speak with God, could impact our sense of closeness or connection with Him. I would argue this is especially true with children. I hope for my children that they envision God as a sort of grandfather figure much as my grandfather was – distant, perhaps, but extremely loving, wise and unrushed. In truth, in my most vulnerable moments, I also appreciate this sense of God as a grandfather figure – someone I know, love, trust and perhaps even have my own name for.
We use the All Saints of Russia Orthodox Church prayer book for children which keeps all the old language but selects key prayers for the children’s use. I love it because my children know by heart so many of the prayers now in their full format and language. But it isn’t infrequent that one of my children will pause to ask about an unfamiliar word – “what does remit/entreat/impurity mean?” It is always important that we break down prayers to understand their meaning with our children – even a prayer as frequent and basic as the Lord’s Prayer is so complex. I still have a copy of my prayer book I had as a teen where I wrote in the definition of words I didn’t know (eg avarice) so I could know the words I was saying.
So how to help use language to foster this for ourselves and, most importantly, for our children? I do not mean to suggest we all must abandon old language in our formal prayers. No there is something majestic about the old language that I think truly separates the life of formal prayer from just any old chit chat. There is a time for formal respectful attention towards our elders – even when family. But while formal prayers are paramount and serve an important role, I would argue that, if we aim to have a relationship with God, most of our our prayer is informal – our conversing with God.
So I am not planning on trying to come up with a nickname for God for my children like they have with their “Poppa”. But I can make sure I model a closeness when I speak to God in front of my children. “Dear God. Please help N to feel better today and be with us as we go to the hospital” “Father, have mercy on those people in that car accident” “My Lord and my God, help guide our country is this moment of difficulty”.
I don’t know. I am figuring it all out still by God’s grace. I’d love to know how you try to make God familiar and present and accessible to your children. May our heavenly king and comforter guide us in this journey and guide the souls and minds of our little flocks as we try to help shepherd them along His path.
With love in Christ,