This article is from 2007, in the wake of the release of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film, and is thus rather dated. Harry Potter mania seems to have waned a bit since then. Nonetheless, the popularity of Halloween has certainly not waned, nor has the importance of approaching the spiritual education of our children in creative and sensitive ways. I hope it is helpful to our families!
Parents, are you on Harry Potter overload yet? For the past few years, have your homes become over-crowded warehouses for plastic magic wands, multiple and broken pairs of "Potteresque" spectacles, nylon wizarding cloaks that don't even fit anymore, and various other forms of Hogwart's paraphernalia? Has Quidditch—the official sport of the magical school—replaced baseball, football and basketball as your favorite family sport?
If so, it's important for you to know there's probably no immediate end in sight. In fact, the latest Potter movie installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is currently dominating theatre marques and the hearts and minds of so many of our children (and adults for that matter). As has been the case for several years, toy stores, book stores and internet merchandisers offer a staggering myriad of Harry Potter items beyond the books and films themselves: action figures, coloring books, video games, interactive CDs, Lego kits, posters, costumes—and the list goes on and on. There's no doubt Harry Potter is big, big business. In addition, the main characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione, have become heroes to many of our kids.
So of course when most people hear the name "Hermione," they think of the clever, bookish little sorceress from the book and movie series. This has certainly been the case at my house. My seven-year old daughter, Phoebe, has been a big fan for quite some time. She has pictures of Hermione in her room, Hermione shirts, Hermione dolls—and even has asked her Mom for "Hermione hair" over the last few months (talk to my wife about how she handled that styling challenge!). So as Orthodox Christian parents, we have struggled with this "Potter onslaught" as much as anyone; we've wondered how to handle things and have been perplexed at times. We've tried to strike a balance between allowing our daughter simply to like what she likes, and also protecting her tender sensibilities from the darker, magical elements of the series. This always has to be a concern to parents: our children are intellectual, spiritual and emotional sponges, and we have to make sure they are soaking up good things. One way we've made some progress, I think, is by discovering the story of our own St. Hermione, a true Orthodox Christian saint, whose memory we commemorate every year on September 4th. What follows is a very brief, rough sketch of her life—much more can be learned, but it might serve as a nice introduction to her inspiring story for your family, especially the little ones and teens.
Born in Caesarea of Palestine in the first century, St. Hermione was the daughter of one of our greatest saints, St. Philip the Deacon. According to holy tradition, after the death of her father Hermione began to take up the cause of Christian ministry with remarkable power—in addition, it was soon discovered by friends and family that she had amazing skills as a healer. In the coming years, she studied medicine and dedicated all of her time, energy and creativity to this ministry of healing, working with those who were suffering from the most dire of ailments, both physical and spiritual. After leaving Caesarea for Ephesus (she had went there in search of the Apostle John), she worked with her sister, Eukhidia, to found a medical clinic. The clinic was devoted to the treatment of the poor and homeless. In fact, this clinic is believed to be the first of the "xenodukia," hospital-hostels, which form such a vital part of Orthodox tradition.
When the Emperor Trajan heard of her gifts, he attributed them to sorcery and commanded that she appear before him, thinking he might put her abilities to use for his own selfish reasons. When she appeared before him and refused to be exploited, he had her publicly flogged and beaten. Trajan's successor, Hadrian, had a similar dislike and fear of Hermione and her gifts. Under his rule, she suffered much in prison—but all the while preached the Gospel to her fellow captors. In fact, she even won converts among those Roman soldiers guarding her. Even they could not help but be moved by the strength and passion of her faith, by her willingness to share her blessed gifts with those around her. It is believed that at one point, her guards even helped her escape to the safety of the local hills, granting her more time to heal and minister to the people of God.
Eventually, though, St. Hermione was re-captured—despite her old age—and beheaded for her faith. Each year, on September 4th, we remember and celebrate this truly inspirational woman of immense faith, bravery and compassion.
Now, could there be a connection between Hermione of the books and big screen and Hermione the saint—a link between the fictional sorceress and the real life healer? Is there a creative way we as parents can use this narrative and our children's love of all things Potter to increase their spiritual lives? We've tried with some success in our home. First of all, it was always apparent to us that Phoebe is not at all obsessed with the fact that her little heroine is a wizard; she barely ever talks about this, and if she watches Hermione on video and DVD, she hides her eyes when anything magical or scary happens. What she loves about Hermione Granger is what you might expect: that she's a little girl with a big heart; that she looks out for her friends; that she's self-confident; that she's loyal; that she's smart as a whip; and that she's brave, even when she's very scared. These are the traits that attract, and I would guess that this is what draws many of our children to all of the characters in the Potter series.
So we researched the story of St. Hermione I just shared, and began to share it with Phoebe, little by little. We'd talk about the saint's life to her at night before bed, incorporate her holy name into our dinner prayers ("and Lord bless St. Hermione and help us to be just as loving and kind as she…."), and talked about how wonderful it is to be a healer in life, just like St. Hermione. We told Phoebe that she can heal people around her by being kind when they are sad, playing with children at school with whom no one else plays, and by purchasing extra canned goods at the market for the homeless and hungry. As we all know, our children are quick studies and they "get" everything, so it was no surprise when within a week, she was really making the connection—realizing that the Hermione to model our lives after is the saint, understanding that the true story of God's Church is more amazing, exciting and vivid than anything that could ever be made up in a novel or movie.
And one incident was particularly striking. Like most children, Phoebe has a vivid, poignant imagination. She loves to make up stories featuring her favorite cartoon characters, and she often tells us them at night, especially before bed. One night, we were doing just this: trading stories and sharing many laughs and much silliness. But then she told a very special story, in which she used both Hermione Granger from the series and St. Hermione. If I remember correctly, the story was about her and her little brother, Bram, being lost on an island with a group of friends. The two Hermiones chartered a ship together—which was a flying ship, by the way—and came to the rescue, fighting off a host of pirates and other assorted bad guys along the way. I could barely hold back a smile (my daughter was very serious about this mighty epic) when the story ended with Phoebe, her brother, their friends, the entire "Scooby Gang," and the two Hermiones sharing a pizza at the local malt shop! If was official: St. Hermione was now part of her world; her story was integrated into the imaginative and moral fabric of Phoebe's consciousness.
And at our Los Angeles parish, about the same time, we even arranged for a visit to our Sunday School children from St. Hermione. A talented young actress agreed to play the role of St. Hermione for the children; we rented her a costume, had a volunteer make-up artist on site, and armed her with an icon of the saint and the story of her life. The actress visited each classroom, talked about her saintly life, took questions from the children, and handled the role with remarkable subtly and respect. The children were awestruck and, after she left, begging to see her again. The parents really enjoyed the learning experience and were excited about using it as a jumping-off point for connecting the sorceress to the saint in their own homes. We were all excited about this successful project, feeling as thought we had, ironically, put Harry Potter to work for our faith—and done it without finger-wagging. Like the majority of the other children, Phoebe learned a great deal and was moved by the visit. Of course, she is only six years old, and the lines were still rather blurry for her: "So Daddy," she asked me just after the visit, "where was her magic wand?"
Last Christmas, as Phoebe was eagerly tearing into her gifts, the most beloved was a simple icon of St. Hermione. Phoebe really studied it intently; she asked me what she was holding in her hands. I told her it was a little box filled with medicine and a spoon for dosing it out. I reminded her that God's special gift to St. Hermione was to heal people, to fix people who were broken; I reminded her that Hermione Granger is a really fun character, but that St. Hermione was a very real person on this earth—and a person who can teach us how to come closer to God. Looking in her big brown eyes, watching her process these thoughts, I knew she understood.
So in the end, Phoebe's walls are still adorned with Hermione Granger; she still loves her movies, and from time to time she still makes her Mom do up the famous "Hermione hair." But those walls are also adorned with that icon of St. Hermione and crayoned drawings of the saint in action, and St. Hermione is still in Phoebe's prayers and in our nightly dinner blessings. Most importantly, the story of St. Hermione's life is deeply imprinted on this little girl's heart. I know it will stay there throughout life, and that someday she'll pass it on to her children.
I've shared this little narrative from my household with you not to suggest that this is the only way to handle Harry Potter or any other character, movie, magazine, video game or phenomenon that attracts children and worries parents. I've shared it with you to remind us all that God has blessed us with the intelligence, creativity, and flexibility to teach our children in unlikely ways. We don't have to react to Potter and the like; we can, instead, respond. And with Halloween right around the corner, we can all use as many ideas and suggestions as possible.
This Halloween, more than a few Orthodox Christian children, throughout the country, may be making the trick-or-treat rounds as Hermione Granger; maybe those children will also have the chance to know the story of the real Hermione. Maybe you and I, summoning our faith, energy and creativity, can take the Harry Potter problem, and turn it into the Harry Potter opportunity!
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