We live in an age of materialism and self-gratification. We are surrounded by stuff, and the message of society in general is “do what you want, when and how you want, as long as it feels good to you.” It is easy to begin living a lifestyle that looks much like that of our non-Orthodox counterparts, unknowingly disillusioned by the culture in which we live. Activities, busyness, money, things: all are very important to current culture. It is so easy for us to be sucked into believing that these things are necessary, that they are very important, and that pursuing them is how we should be spending our lives.
But we are Orthodox Christians. We are to be set apart from the world and living our life for Christ. So, what is truly important? On what should we be spending our time and our resources? St. Anthony the Great, considered by many to be the father of Christian monasticism, had the following to say about what is truly important in life. Although he lived on earth in the third century, his words apply just as much to us, today:
“Why do we not voluntarily abandon what must be destroyed when this life comes to an end, so that we might gain the kingdom of Heaven? Let Christians care for nothing that they cannot take away with them. We ought rather to seek after that which will lead us to Heaven; namely wisdom, chastity, justice, virtue, an ever watchful mind, care for the poor, firm faith in Christ, a mind that can control anger, hospitality. Striving after these things, we shall prepare for ourselves a dwelling in the land of the peaceful, as it says in the Gospel.” – St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony, 17
It is important for Orthodox Christians in today’s culture to study these words and keep them in the forefront of our minds. We are also responsible to help our Sunday Church School students to think about these life-changing concepts. In order for us to understand what St. Anthony said, so we can pass it on to our students, we must study his words well and consider how to pass them on.
If we were to truly take St. Anthony’s words to heart, what would that look like? Voluntarily abandoning “what must be destroyed at the end of this life” would mean making a deliberate choice to let go of anything material, to relinquish things’ control over our time, our focus, even our desires. “Caring for nothing that [we] cannot take away with [us]” could mean not only not taking the time to nurture/acquire things, but also not even to have a desire for them. Sometimes we hear kids saying, “I don’t care about ___!” If we choose to live truly Christian lives, according to St. Anthony’s statement, we should be able to say the same about all earthly/material things! We should also challenge our students to do the same!
Releasing ourselves from the grip of earthly stuff opens our time, our hearts, even our very thoughts to the things of God. But don’t worry, St. Anthony immediately offers ways in which to fill the “gap” that worldly concerns take up! “We ought rather to seek after that which will lead us to Heaven…” This declaration is thorough in and of itself, but he goes on with specifics: “wisdom, chastity, justice, virtue, an ever watchful mind, care for the poor, firm faith in Christ, a mind that can control anger, hospitality.” Any one of those can take a lifetime to truly acquire. Aspiring to all of them together will easily fill whatever time we may have previously been pouring into the acquisition of material things! As for teaching these to our Sunday Church School students: each could be a year’s curriculum on its own, but we do not have enough time for that, so the best we can do is lightly touch on them while encouraging our students to continue studying (and applying!) them at home.
So what is truly important? “Striving after these things” (wisdom, chastity, justice, virtue, an ever watchful mind, care for the poor, firm faith in Christ, a mind that can control anger, and hospitality) which lead us to heaven is what we must care about and what we must do. This is the lifestyle that we should be living and teaching to our students. This is how we ought to spend our lives. Pursuing these things is how we can truly “prepare for ourselves a dwelling in the land of the peaceful, as it says in the Gospel.”
Thank you, St. Anthony, for your timeless wisdom. Please intercede for our salvation!
Read about the life of St. Anthony, as well as more of his wisdom (at the end of this page): http://stanthonylc.org/about/who-is-saint-anthony/. Find information on his feast day, as well as his troparion and kontakion here: http://orthodoxsanantonio.org/lifeofstanthony.html.
Read St. Athanasius’ book The Life of St. Anthony online here: http://www.orthodoxebooks.org/node/213
Print copies of this poster for your students, so they can take one home to remind them of how to spend their life: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/poster.pdf.
Following are some related links for each of the specific pursuits that St. Anthony encourages us to work towards. Find ideas of a way to teach each to our students, as well as quotes/readings for further pondering.
This activity can begin a class discussion about wisdom: http://freebiblelessons.net/object-lessons/is-it-wise
Find a quote from St. John Chrysostom on wisdom here: http://charmingthebirdsfromthetrees.blogspot.com/2013/10/teach-them-to-love-true-wisdom.html
As a class, study the life of a chaste saint, such as Venerable Melania the Younger of Rome. (See http://oca.org/saints/lives/2015/12/31/103701-venerable-melania-the-younger-of-rome.)
Read what St. Nicholas says about chastity here: http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/2013/12/05/st-nicholas-of-myra-children-i-beseech-you-to-correct-your-hearts/
The Chastity Project, a Catholic bookstore, offers materials that may be useful in a class discussion on chastity. http://shop.chastityproject.com/
Here is an activity that can be a good discussion starter for a lesson about justice: http://www.playeatgrow.com/2013/12/helping-kids-to-begin-to-notice-needs.html
Ponder justice by reading this blog: http://charmingthebirdsfromthetrees.blogspot.com/2009/09/tribulation-in-life.html
Use these scenarios to help your students use real-life situations to apply the concept of virtue: http://www.thrivingfamily.com/Features/Web/2012/what-will-you-do-scenarios.aspx
Older students can read and discuss portions of this book that talks about how virtue is implanted in the soul: http://www.amazon.com/The-Struggle-Virtue-Asceticism-Secular/dp/0884653730/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=00HNK2N9HY8J1AX1X124
Find a quote from St. John Chrysostom on cultivating virtue in our children’s lives here: http://charmingthebirdsfromthetrees.blogspot.com/2015/05/virtue-in-their-souls.html
Teens can read and discuss this book about watchfulness: http://www.amazon.com/The-Watchful-Mind-Teachings-Prayer/dp/0881414751
Find encouragement to maintain watchfulness in your life here: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/morningoffering/2015/02/watchfulness/
Here is a lesson for teaching young children about caring for the poor: https://teresaklassen.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/caring-for-the-poor-k-1-free-sunday-school-lessons-for-children/
Read about what St. Thomas did to care for the poor, in this story: http://charmingthebirdsfromthetrees.blogspot.com/2012/10/for-consideration.html#more
Challenge your grade school students to fill their lives with faith in Christ with this simple object lesson: http://www.kidssundayschool.com/332/gradeschool/unseen-faith.php
Find encouragement to stay strong in your faith in Christ in this blog: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/morningoffering/2014/07/faith-in-secular-world-being-orthodox-2/
Find practical suggestions for children to apply when they deal with anger here: http://www.kimscounselingcorner.com/2012/09/16/50-activities-and-games-dealing-with-anger/
Read this blog on the importance of controlling one’s anger: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/morningoffering/2014/05/anger-in-every-way-we-must-strive-to/
Here are practical ways to help children learn about hospitality, including a printable chart that they can take home for the next time their family has guests: http://heatherriggleman.com/2013/11/4-tips-to-teach-your-kids-hospitality-includes-sticker-chart/
Find out what St. John Chrysostom says about who should participate in hospitality in this quote: http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/2013/09/06/st-john-chrysostom-every-family-should-have-a-room/