I had come for dinner and was staying on for some adult conversation once Annie was in bed. I was amazed as I watched the routine for her unfold. Annie's parents were only in their early twenties, but they'd developed a full set of goals and tools for shaping the young life that had been entrusted to them. As an inexperienced "adopted aunt," I was going to be stepping in as caregiver while Annie's parents attended an out-of-state wedding. That was why I was especially interested in observing and remembering her bedtime routine.
First dishes, then a bath in the kitchen sink, where we also brush teeth and shampoo hair. Jammies, then back to the kitchen for prayers, a little hugging in the rocker, and then bed. "Don't worry if you're a little early or late," her mother assured me. "As long as the sequence is observed, Annie will go to sleep at the end of it, because she knows the routine and what is expected of her. This order gives her security."
The candle was lit, and we sat at the table while Annie's father read the church lessons of the day. I was dumbfounded to see this little child sitting absolutely still and listening attentively, even to words she could not possibly understand. "That doesn't matter," her parents said softly and confidently. "Some day she will understand. Who of us understands completely? The important thing is that we all learn to listen." I thought of the deacon's call before the readings at church: "Wisdom, let us be attentive."
Only 10 minutes ago Annie had been splashing in the sink. Thirty minutes ago, she had been spinning in dizzy circles around the room, obviously enjoying being the center of a guest's attention and clearly wound up a little more than usual on this special company night. Now she was perfectly quiet, somberly studious. Only once during the reading her parents had to remind her, "It's time to be still." She returned instantly to her attentive silence. The readings ended and everyone stood to face the icons. Family prayers were said, with all the relatives and special friends remembered, all names Annie knew. "And now comes her favorite part," grinned her mom. I smiled while Annie puckered to kiss each icon, including the one of her patron saint.
Familiarity. Practice. "Practice makes perfect." The saying is true. Also true is its opposite: we cannot achieve perfection without practice. I never heard of an Olympian or a virtuoso who didn't spend countless hours going over and over the same techniques.
"But this is an enormous commitment on your part, to maintain this routine every night," I countered. "How do you manage it?" Annie's father shrugged again. I could see he was not going to offer an encore. It was a matter of simple duty to him.
This attitude struck me as coming from another age: World War II, when heroism was expected, or some other time when duty came before pleasure. "We belong to a church which cherishes the rewards of daily struggles," he mused and then added as a lighter afterthought, "Otherwise, who would be nuts enough to do all that fasting and attend all those services during Lent?"
In our postmodern world, all kinds of noises clamor competitively for our attention. What an important habit then, to cultivate this ability to achieve stillness, attentiveness. The prophet Elijah looked for God in the whirlwind; he sought him in the earthquake and in the fire. But God was only to be found in a still, small voice, as the first book of Kings tells us. Were I Elijah, I sometimes think shamefully, how easily I might have missed God entirely, not knowing that voice of stillness.
"Be still, and know that I am God," the Psalms instruct us. Annie's parents require her to be still in church. Her toys stay in the car. Her Cheerios are also left behind. She puts on stillness as a garment of righteousness. Her parents believe she can do it, and they provide her with a secure framework for practicing stillness. Annie beams with pride when she pleases her parents, and they do not neglect the art of reassuring and thanking her. It isn't always easy for them to follow this path, when many parents around them choose the more heavily traveled route of indulging their children's propensity to make all the noise they want.
Nor is Annie a child naturally disposed to being still, as the admirers who pinch her cheeks after church and compliment her parents suppose. I should know; when I put Annie to bed after our day alone together, I put myself to bed not twenty minutes later. Annie's antics and energy throughout the day had worn me to the bone. Thanks to her parents' daily sacrifice in establishing a bedtime routine, however, Annie not only calmed down completely during evening prayers and bedtime routine, but she was a perfect angel the next day when I took her to the Divine Liturgy.
That was almost a year ago, and Annie's little brother has now joined the bedtime routine. Annie loves to tell him Bible stories and help him behave. In every other way--vocabulary, energy level, curiosity, and stage of potty training--Annie is going through the "terrible twos." Nonetheless, her capacity for stillness and her understanding of the liturgy persists and grows. She's recently added low bows and the sign of the cross to her repertoire of church gestures.
Watching Annie practice reverence at the close of every day, I know I will be eager to watch what new phases of devotion she will take on as she grows, and how she will teach them to her own children. I am thankful too. I thank Annie's parents for what they are doing for Annie, for what they offer the church, and for what they have taught me. I too, need to practice stillness before my Maker, so that along with Annie, I might hear the still, small voice of God.