Monthly Archives: November 2015

On Living a Life of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is the time of year when most Americans pause to be grateful for the blessings in their life. In recent years, some have begun “30 Days of Gratitude” and write down (some, publicly; for example, on Facebook) one thing for which they are grateful every day of November. Then the end of November comes, Thanksgiving passes, and that’s that. On to the next challenge.

Perhaps we should not stop being cognizant of our blessings just because Thanksgiving is over, or when our 30-day challenge is up. As Christians, we are commanded to “in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:18) Giving thanks for everything is a much more daunting (but longer-lasting) project. Should we decide to truly live according to St. Paul’s directions, gratitude will change our life. Someone once said, “it is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.”

August Gold has written a sweet picture book called Thank You, God, for Everything, which follows a little girl on her journey to learning to be grateful for all around her. Gold says in the introduction: “one important thing I discovered is that [happy people] didn’t wait to say ‘Thank you, God’ until after they received what they wanted. Instead, throughout their day they said, ‘Thank you, God’ for everything. They saw everything as a gift in their lives… and gave thanks for everything …even the things most people take for granted.” Reading this book with your students is an excellent way to introduce the concept of continued gratitude.

Let us find ways to continue living gratefully. Let us keep on expressing our gratitude for everything in our lives as well, long beyond the Thanksgiving season. We will be living in obedience to God, and we will be happy.

Blessed continued Thanksgiving!

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One way to continue to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. It can be weekly, daily, or occasional. It can be a large journal, with whole pages dedicated to a theme. It can even be small; just enough to write one thing for which you are grateful each day/week. Help your Sunday Church School students create a gratefulness journal of their own. Transform a dollar-store week-at-a-glance calendar a small personalized gratitude journal. Need ideas? http://snailpacetransformations.com/make-your-own-inexpensive-gratitude-journal/

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Another idea for becoming more grateful is to write about it in a public forum. Perhaps your class could create a blog, and regularly write what you are thankful for, in that blog. One person blogged their gratitude once a week for a year. Check out their list of topics here: http://localadventurer.com/52-weeks-of-gratitude-challenge-complete/

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Create “gratitude jars” in which your students can store bits of paper on which they have written their gratitude. Some days they may add many new grateful notes; some days none: but the jar will always be there, reminding them that God is good and providing for their needs. (And those notes can be revisited anytime they feel otherwise!) See http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-11062/how-to-create-a-gratitude-jar.html for one suggested way to do so.

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Some say that it takes 21 days to create a habit. If your class intends to work towards becoming grateful people but do not know how to begin on that journey, here is a bookmark featuring 21 journal/blog/gratitude jar prompts: http://a.dilcdn.com/bl/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2013/10/21-Days-of-Gratitude-Prompts-Printable.pdf

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Whether your students take on journaling, blogging, or gratitude-jar-filling, sometimes their hearts will be naturally full of thanks, and they will know right away what they want to write about. Other times, they may be stumped or just need something to get the grateful “juices flowing.” For those times, check out: http://ripplerevolution.com/17-gratitude-prompting-questions-for-your-gratitude-journal/ and http://ripplerevolution.com/17-more-gratitude-prompting-questions/

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Check out these quotes about gratitude. Select a few to help you be more grateful, and share them with your students: http://www.quotegarden.com/gratitude.html

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The scriptures have much to say about gratitude. Look these passages up with your students: http://www.openbible.info/topics/gratitude. Challenge your class to select a verse to memorize or to make your theme for the week.

 

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To Celebrate Picture Book Month With Books About Thankfulness

Did you know that November is International Picture Book Month? It’s the month of the year when people of all ages are encouraged to enjoy carefully worded writing paired with beautiful illustrations. For those of us living in the United States, November is also the time when we focus on Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving season is a welcome change from the norm, offering a break from school and perhaps also from work. Let us consider spending some of this extra family time in reading together. Many happy memories can be built during family read-aloud times, so why not add to the fun of Thanksgiving memories by reading and discussing some related picture books?

There are a plethora of books available today that are appropriate reads for the Thanksgiving season. We will offer a few here, in no particular order, for your perusal as you search for resources that can be used with your Sunday Church School students. Children of all ages (even adults!) will enjoy these books. While they don’t take long to read, they are thought provoking and can offer many opportunities for discussion!

For more on Picture Book Month, see http://picturebookmonth.com/.

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Thankful by Eileen Spinelli is a rollicking rhyme about all kinds of people, each thankful for something that makes their work or their life more enjoyable. Illustrator Archie Preston adds a heartwarming and playful twist in his illustrations. The pictures show a family whose children dress up as those “all kinds of people,” playing their roles, and interacting with each other in ways that will make readers of all ages smile. Watch the trailer for the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXLhjE9J-EU. You can buy the book here: http://www.zondervan.com/thankful. Discussion: Ask each student to share one thing that they are thankful for. Challenge: Together think of how Archie Preston would illustrate what you have just said. How would he show what each person is thankful for? How would he tie them together in the illustrations?

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The Secret of Saying Thanks by Douglas Wood follows a young girl through her day, as she savors the beauty of nature around her. Greg Shed’s gentle gouache illustrations reflect that beauty so that the reader can see it for themselves. Throughout the book, the young girl is looking for something secret. Along the way, she offers words of gratitude for the loveliness around her. In the end, she realizes the secret she had been seeking is this: “The heart that gives thanks is a happy one, for we cannot feel thankful and unhappy at the same time.” You can buy the book here:http://books.simonandschuster.com/Secret-of-Saying-Thanks/Douglas-Wood/9780689854101. Discussion: Ask each person in the class to think back through this day and share one thing of beauty which they saw, for which they are thankful. Then take time to actually thank God for all of that beauty! Challenge: Take a look at the Akathist of Thanksgiving (http://www.stnicholasdc.org/files/Prayers/Akathist-of-Thanksgiving.pdf), and talk about how it compares to this book! If time allows, pray the Akathist of Thanksgiving together, giving Glory to God for all things!

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Thank you, God, by J. Bradley Wigger, is a prayer that thanks God for everything. Jago’s illustrations, created in digital paint with photographic textures, add a deep richness to the book. Watch the trailer and/or buy this book here: http://www.eerdmans.com/Products/5424/thank-you-god.aspx Discussion: After reading the book, ask, “If you were the author, what would you add to this book?” Then page through the book again and take turns adding more things that could have been mentioned on each page. Challenge: Work together to write and illustrate your own classroom copy of the “Thank You, God” prayer. (You could even make it into a book!)

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Bear Says Thanks, by Karma Wilson, is a charming poem-story about a bear who wants to throw a dinner for his friends to show his gratitude for their friendship. Unfortunately, as he prepares to do so, the bear discovers that he has no food left in his house! The friends come over anyway, each bringing food to share, and they assure the bear that his stories are his contribution to the gathering. Jane Chapman’s charming acrylic illustrations make the story infinitely more adorable and sweet! Purchase the book here: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Bear-Says-Thanks/Karma-Wilson/The-Bear-Books/9781416958567. Find a free reproducible pdf (geared to 1st or 2nd graders) with activities related to the book here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Bear-Says-Thanks-A-FREE-Mini-Unit-1546522. Discuss: Talk together about the book. Bear felt like he didn’t deserve to be part of the party, since he didn’t have any food to contribute. Talk about times when anyone in your family has felt inadequate or like their contribution was lacking. How did it end up? Talk about how bear’s friends saw the value in his stories, and considered the stories to be his contribution to the gathering. Challenge: Encourage each other to be sensitive to others’ feelings of inadequacy, and find ways to affirm their strengths! You could begin by helping each student create a “Thank you beary much” card to give to someone that they appreciate, as suggested here: http://d28hgpri8am2if.cloudfront.net/tagged_assets/13330_40818%20cheer%20on%20reading%20activities_bearsaysthanks.pdf.

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Giving Thanks, by Jonathan London, follows a boy and his dad through their day’s walk in the woods. Throughout the book, the father notices and thanks the beautiful items in nature (because he believes that all things in nature are a gift) for being and for sharing their beauty with him. The boy confesses that he feels a little embarrassed by the fact that his father is thanking everything, but his father tells him how much better he feels when he is thankful, and in the end, the boy thanks the stars as they appear in the night sky. Gregory Manchess’ oil paintings are right for this book, a charming combination of generalities in the illustrations with just the right touch of details. Purchase the book here: http://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=0763655945&pix=n. Discuss: Talk about the idea of thanking things in nature. What do you think about that? Is there Anyone else Who we should thank for creating those natural things? Challenge: Go for a hike together, and, like the boy and his dad, practice noticing the detailed beauty of the world around you. Stop at points along the way to listen and look, talk about what you hear/see, and then take a moment to give thanks for it!

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My Book of Thanks by Hennessy offers thanks to God for something different on every page; and asks God for help with regard to that thing/person. For example, “Thank you for the earth. Help me to take care of it for you.” Hiroe Nakata’s playful watercolor-and-ink illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the powerfully concise words of the prayer. (Note: the book is no longer available from publisher Candlewick Press, but can still be found from various online distributors.) Discuss: Talk about the prayer as it is written in the book. Why do you think the author included a prayer for help after each thanksgiving? Is that important? Why or why not? Challenge: Make a personalized extender to the book! Take time to each write down one “thank you” that you would add to this prayer. Remember to also include a related prayer for help! If you have a classroom copy of the book, keep the extender page(s) in the book for future readings.

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Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving edited by Katherine Paterson is a book full of just that! The poems, prayers, and songs from many different cultures and beliefs offer food for thought for an older audience. The book is divided into themed collections, and each collection begins with a personal reflection written as only Katherine Paterson can write, straight from the heart. Pamela Dalton’s detailed scherenschnitte (detailed cut-paper) and watercolor illustrations are mesmerizing, and provide an appropriate backdrop for each page of the book. Buy the book here: http://www.chroniclebooks.com/titles/giving-thanks.html. Discuss: Paterson’s reflections in and of themselves offer good discussion starters! As you read each section, discuss her thoughts before you dive into the selections in the section. Since each prayer/poem/song is from a different part of the world, discuss the thought behind it. Make connections to our Orthodox beliefs: how is this thought similar/different? How do you suppose the people who first prayed/sang this arrived at these words? Challenge: Have each member of the family find and share their favorite selection from the book, and explain why they like it so much. For an added challenge: Learn more about scherenschnitte (see Dalton’s explanation of her work on another book at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wfyIQFYaao) and/or check out Dalton’s website at http://www.pameladaltonpapercutting.com/. Invite students to create their own piece of scherenschnitte art, then copy their favorite selection from Giving Thanks onto your work! Post these around the Sunday Church School room.

On Preparing Our Hearts, Anticipating the Birth of Christ Each Day of the Nativity Fast

Despite the fact that it is early November, some stores and public places have already begun decorating for Christmas and are playing Christmas music. To some, it may seem too early for that to be happening. But think about it: as Orthodox Christians, we will soon begin our own preparations for the birth of Christ. It is nearly time for the Nativity Fast. Like our secular world, we are anticipating the birth of Christ, although in a different way.

Every day of the Nativity Fast offers us the opportunity to be still and prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ into our midst. One way that we can do so is by feasting our minds on the scriptures. This is an especially good time for us to study the scriptures that foretell Christ’s coming and/or describe the events and people surrounding His birth. This studying can easily be done together as a family, throughout the Nativity Fast, and all the way to Christ’s birth!

There are several ways to submerge ourselves in the scriptures during the Nativity Fast. Two of these include the use of a “Jesse Tree” and an (Orthodox) Advent calendar. Of course, there are many other ways to do so as well, but we will look at these two because they are great to do with children.

1. The Jesse Tree: Encourage students and their families to set up a tree (or a large wreath, or a swag down the bannister, or a ribbon strung across a wall) just before the fast begins, and then hang one ornament on it each day throughout the season. Each ornament will depict a person or an event that is the focus for that day’s meditation. While creating and/or hanging the ornament, read and discuss the scripture associated with it.

2. The Advent Calendar: Before the Nativity Fast begins, set up a collection of numbered containers (envelopes, painted jars. lidded boxes, etc.), one for each day. Inside each container, place an item (or a picture, or even just a reading for the day) that will guide a brief discussion on a topic related to the Nativity. During the Fast, together open the container of the day, read about its contents, and talk about how it relates to the coming of Christ.

*Note: these ideas would make great projects for you to work on together as a Sunday Church School class! The children could create sets of ornaments and exchange them with each other, or you could make them a week’s worth at a time during class the week before. If you create them together a week at a time, you could talk about the scripture that goes with each ornament as you make it. Although it may be too late for you to accomplish a project of this magnitude with this year’s class, save the idea for a future year! Or make your own Jesse Tree or Advent Calendar set and use it, a week’s worth at a time, with your students in your classroom in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

For future years, consider gathering together as a whole Church School to do an exchange! During the summer or early in the fall, divide up the 40 days’ (52, if you include the 12 days of Christmas) worth of ornaments or items evenly between each family who wishes to participate. Before the exchange, each participating family will make an ornament for each of their allotted days for each member of the group (so, if you have 8 families in a Jesse Tree exchange group, each family would make 8 copies of an ornament for each of the 5 days’ ornaments they’ve been assigned). At some point before the Nativity Fast begins, get together and have a festive exchange. If a few families want to participate but cannot find enough others who are interested in an exchange like this, keep your eye out online for groups that they could join. (For example, in the summer/fall of 2015, there was a Facebook group called “Festal Celebrations” which collaborated on a Jesse Tree ornament exchange.)

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Need a place to start? Here are several options to help you get going:

Find a set of reproducible pictures for your Jesse Tree here. These can be copied, and then children can color them and paste them onto a cardstock ornament shape while someone reads the related text (if you don’t have time to make the ornaments in advance). They could also be reproduced onto shrinking plastic to make longer-lasting ornaments. Download the pictures here: https://festalcelebrations.wordpress.com/2008/11/20/another-twist-to-our-jesse-tree-project/. The extensive readings to go with these ornaments can be found here: https://festalcelebrations.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/festaljessetreeadditonaldays1-52pdf.pdf.

This version of the Jesse Tree text/ornament ideas extends the celebration to include the 12 days of Christmas! http://www.antiochian.org/content/advent-reading-jesse-tree

This Jesse Tree version (from http://www.charmingthebirdsfromthetrees.com/2010/11/tree-of-jesse-for-little-ones.html) offers the scripture passages, reproducible pictures, and the “Children’s Bible Reader” pages related to each day’s theme. http://www.scribd.com/doc/42707446/The-Tree-of-Jesse

Want to make an Orthodox Advent Calendar? Find a daily theme for each of the 40 days of the Nativity Fast, complete with a simple text, here: http://www.theologic.com/oflweb/xmas/advcal.htm.

Here is another Orthodox “Advent calendar” link: “The idea behind this calendar is to give us a different topic each day to discuss to keep us focused on Christ throughout the craze of the holiday season.” Besides a description of how to make the calendar, there is also a printable coloring book to go with each day’s discussion!
http://pdxorthodoxmom.blogspot.com/2014/11/orthodox-40-day-advent-calendar.html?m=1

Should you wish to have the children “open” each Jesse Tree ornament before hanging it, or if you are making an Advent calendar, find inspiration from these ideas. They are not Orthodox, but can easily be adapted for an Orthodox Jesse Tree or Advent Calendar. http://www.doublethebatch.com/diy-christmas-advent-calendar-ideas/

Gleanings from a Book: “A Gift for Matthew” By Nick Muzekari, Illustrated By Masha Lobastov

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting in the nave of my home parish while listening to Nick Muzekari read aloud his first picture book, “A Gift for Matthew.” I had already read the book, so I was familiar with the story. Nevertheless, I enjoyed hearing it read aloud with the author’s own inflections. Story lover that I am, I also savored hearing some of the stories behind the book. While listening I happened to glance upwards and I discovered that Mr. Muzekari was reading the book beneath the icon of St. Matthew! Although unplanned (at least as far as I know), it was the perfect spot for this reading to happen!

“A Gift for Matthew” is the story of a young boy named Matthew who is privileged to visit a monastery for a day to observe and assist a monk in the process of writing icons. Brother Justin welcomes Matthew and incorporates him into the writing process, teaching him about icons and how they are made. The wording of the book concisely explains the process in easy-to-understand terminology, and takes the reader through the writing of the icon step by step, through Matthew’s eyes. By the end of the day, Matthew is reluctant to leave the monastery because he is enjoying the experience so much. Brother Justin’s invitation for Matthew to return the next day cheers him, as does the gift he discovers in his backpack when he arrives home.

In case you also enjoy background stories, here are a few stories behind the story:

  1. The author told us that it was while he was reading a picture book about icons that he got the idea for this book. He thought to himself, “It’s great that there are books for children about icons. But why isn’t there a book for children that explains the icon writing process?” and the idea behind “A Gift for Matthew” was born. In my opinion, this book fills the gap perfectly.
  2. To any reader who delights in the beyond-the-story details included in the illustrations of any great picture book, Muzekari would point out the monastery cat, Paizousa. Her name is Greek (παιζουσα) and it was chosen because it means “she who plays” (in this context, it means “she who plays tricks”). The cat’s name is fitting, for the author wanted to add a touch of humor into the story, and this fuzzy trickster does just that in the illustrations without adding a single word to the text. Paizousa can be found snoozing, snooping, and, yes, even getting into trouble in many of the illustrations of Matthew’s time at the monastery. I have enjoyed finding her and observing what she is doing at each moment in the story!

This book is a great read for Orthodox Christians of all ages, but especially for children. It would make a great intro-to-iconography lesson for a Sunday Church School class. The illustrations are simple yet beautifully lifelike. Both the storyline and illustrations work together well to portray the tale, drawing the reader in while effectively teaching them about iconography without them even realizing that they are learning.

Author Nick Muzekari lives in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, with his wife and their five children. He likes to convey truth, mystery, and beauty through stories. He has also founded and published a literary/art magazine for Christian teens. “A Gift for Matthew” is his first picture book.

Illustrator Masha Lobastov is a classically educated figurative artist. After graduating from the Russian State University for Humanities of Moscow in 1996, she moved to the U.S.A. to continue her artistic goals. She is known for painting portraits, especially those of children. Masha has also collaborated with Ancient Faith Publishing and authors E.C. Johnson and Jane Meyer, illustrating “And Then Nicholas Sang,” “What Do You Hear, Angel?” and “The Hidden Garden.”

Listen to an Ancient Faith Radio interview with author Nick Muzekari about “A Gift for Matthew” here: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/exlibris/a_gift_for_matthew

Purchase the book here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/a-gift-for-matthew/

Follow along on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/giftformatthew

Find age-leveled lesson plans for teaching children about icons (intended for use before/during/after a visit to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, but useful even if the field trip is not possible) here: http://museumofrussianicons.org/en/education/family-school-programs/for-teachers-k-12/. Lessons range in topic from the symbolism in iconography, to the science of writing the icons, to the art of iconography, even the math applied to the writing, and more!


Go on an icon hunt in your parish! Print this reproducible page so that your students can keep track of the icons that you find as you go. http://www.scribd.com/doc/173729877/I-found-Icons

Find line-art patterns for writing icons here: http://www.betsyporter.com/patterns.html

Here are other books about icons that you could also read to your Sunday Church School students:  

  1. “What is an Icon?,” a picture book by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, explains what they are. It can be found here: http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/ccp7/index.php?app=ecom&ns=prodshow&ref=3WHAT_EP.
  2. “Pictures of God,” John Skinas’ multi-leveled picture book explaining icons in a way that children can love and understand (which also happens to be the book that Muzekari was reading when he got the idea for “A Gift for Matthew”) can be found here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/pictures-of-god-a-childs-guide-to-understanding-icons/.
  3. “From God to You,” also by John Skinas, can be found here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/from-god-to-you.

This 8-minute video shows the complete process of writing an icon (of St. Nicholas), from preparing the wood through the finished product. It would add much to a class on iconography, particularly if you do not have an iconographer in your parish who could demonstrate the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZh6geY4hMc

Children interested in writing their own icon may want to consider attending an iconography camp program such as this one: https://avcamp.org/summer-camp/sacred-arts-camp/iconography-camp/.

The Creed: I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to Come. Amen.

The union that we experience with God, “theosis,” will continue after our death and resurrection. We believe that we will have a glorified body, as Jesus Christ did after His Resurrection. We believe that all people will be raised from the dead and that creation will be transformed. At the end of time God will reveal His presence and will fill all creation with Himself. For those who begin theosis now, this experience will be eternal joy and beauty. But for those who turn from God in this life, His presence will be eternal hell.

Orthodoxy does not teach that we can judge the destiny of OTHERS. We do not say that someone is damned because he or she is not Orthodox. We know the Truth and we have been shown the Way. It is for us to live the Life. So WE OURSELVES will be judged as to whether or not we were faithful Orthodox Christians!

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Try this: Use a soccer ball to introduce a discussion about goals.

  1. Show the ball, and ask, “What is this? What it it used for? In the game of soccer, what is it that soccer players really want? What is their ultimate goal? To win, right? To kick in more goals than the other team. And how do they do that? It doesn’t just happen on game day, they show up and can win… What has to happen for weeks, months, even years before a team is consistently successful?!?” (discipline, practice, teamwork, more practice, etc.)
  1. Turn the discussion to life goals: What do the children want to be when they grow up? What is their plan for how to do that? Will they go to school? Find work in the field? Learn from a master? Life goals, like soccer goals, will take discipline, practice, teamwork, and more practice!
  1. Direct the discussion to beyond-life goals: “What is our spiritual aim, our final goal that goes beyond this life? What do we want to have achieved to the best of our ability by the time we depart this life? Theosis!” Brainstorm ideas of how to achieve theosis.* Theosis, too, takes discipline, practice, and teamwork! Commit to working together to become more like God. Create specific, attainable goals (ie: “We will take a deep breath and say a prayer before responding to someone when we are angry;” “We will attend one service each month that we have not attended before;” “We will go together to the local soup kitchen and serve the poor of our community;” etc.). Revisit these goals from time to time, and, at each visit, “kick them up a notch” to help each of you become closer to God.

You may also want to incorporate these quotes from the Church fathers if you are having this discussion with older children:

  • “True, one may know man’s final goal: communion with God. And one may describe the path to it: faith, and walking in the commandments, with the aid of divine grace. One need only say in addition: here is the path-start walking!” ~ St. Theophan The Recluse
  • “The aim of all those who live in God is to please our Lord Jesus Christ and become reconciled with God the Father through receiving the Holy Spirit, thus securing their salvation, for in this consists the salvation of every soul. If this aim and this activity is lacking, all other labour is useless and all other striving is in vain. Every path of life which does not lead to this is without profit.” ~ St. Simeon the New Theologian
  • “A man in this world must solve a problem: to be with Christ, or to be against Him. And every man decides this, whether he wants to or not. He will either be a lover of Christ or a fighter of Christ. There is no third option.” ~ St. Justin Popovich