Monthly Archives: November 2016

Saints of Recent Decades: St. Sophia of Kleisoura (May 6 or 19)


In 1883, a baby girl was born to Amanatiou and Maria Saoulidi. The Saoulidi family lived in Trebizond in Asia Minor (which is now called Turkey). They named their little girl Sophia. Sophia grew up in Trebizond with much love for God and His Holy Church. In 1907, Sophia married a young man named Jordan Hortokoridou. After almost 7 years of marriage, they had a son (some sources say they had a second child as well). Sophia loved her husband and her son. Sadly, soon after her son was born, Jordan was enlisted into the army and soon after that, he mysteriously disappeared and never returned. To make matters worse, a short time later their son died as well. (Both children, according to the sources that list two.) Sophia was very sad. Sophia took her sadness to God. She went up on top of a nearby mountain every day and spent hours praying. She chose to focus more on God than on her circumstances. On that mountaintop, Sophia began her ascetic life.

One day on the mountaintop, St. George appeared to Sophia. He warned her that the villagers should leave their village to escape a coming persecution. So it was that Sophia and her village left Trebizond in 1919, just before the Christians in Turkey were forced to leave. Sophia and the other villagers headed to Greece in a ship named after St. Nicholas. As they traveled, a terrible storm came up. The sea was wild, but they survived. When it was over, the captain of the ship declared that someone very holy must have been aboard his ship, since they all survived. When the captain said this, all the passengers looked at Sophia. She had spent the entire storm praying in a corner of the ship. (Years later when she herself told this story, she said that she could see the angels all over the waves of the sea, keeping them safe!) So Sophia and her villagers made it safely to Greece.

When Sophia arrived in Greece, she lived with her brother for a while. She was not happy in the world, and after a few years, the Theotokos appeared to her. She said, “Come to my house!” Sophia asked her where she was and where her house was, and the Theotokos replied, “I am in Kleisoura.” Sophia went to Kleisoura and found the Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos. She lived with the community of the Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos for the rest of her life.

For most of her years there, Sophia did not have a room at the monastery. Instead, she slept in the monastery’s kitchen fireplace. The fireplace was used for cooking, but when the cooking was finished, Sophia could sleep there. It was cold in the winter, because the cold wind would blow down the chimney; and when it rained, rain would drip on her while she slept. Sometimes she would light a little fire to warm herself, but not always. And she only slept for a few hours every night. She spent the rest of her time kneeling in prayer by the window, lit by the candle she used to light the icon of the Theotokos which was kept there. Sophia ate little and wore rags. The local people called her “Crazy Sophia,” but people would come from all around, just to see her. When people came to see her, before they would even tell her their names, Sophia would greet them by name and talk with them about their problems, which God revealed to her without the people needing to tell her anything!

Sophia did not care much about how she looked. She wore ragged clothes and a black scarf. Her blanket and sandals had holes. Sometimes the people who came to see Sophia would give her gifts of new clothing. She would immediately give the clothes to someone poor who needed them more. Sometimes people would give her money. She would hide the money until she met someone that needed it, when she would go get the money and give it to them. She did not wash herself or her food. She fasted strictly and ate only as much as she had to to survive. She cared much more for her soul than for her body. She chose to cover her holiness with foolishness so that no one would know how holy she was. She said, “Cover things, so that God will cover you.”

In 1967 Sophia got sick. She had sore spots on her stomach that were open and smelled bad. It hurt a lot. But she did not complain. She said, “The Panagia will come to take away my pain. She promised me.” And she did just that! Sophia remembers a vision she had in which the Theotokos, the Archangel Gabriel, other saints, and St. George came to her side. The Archangel told her they were going to cut the bad parts out of her stomach. She told him that she was a sinner and needed confession and to receive Holy Communion before the surgery so she would be prepared in case she died. The Archangel assured her that she was not going to die, and then he cut her open. Immediately she was healed and normal, left with a tiny, perfectly-healed scar at the place where the Archangel Gabriel cut her open. She would sometimes show this scar to those who came to see her, so that they could see the proof of the miracle God worked in her life. People who saw the scar said it looked as though it had been the work of a very skilled surgeon.

In her years at the monastery, Sophia had many animal friends. Several snakes slept with her in her fireplace bed. She was not afraid of them, and encouraged others to not be afraid of them, either. She befriended a bear who was very gentle with Sophia. She once saved its life: someone thought the bear was a threat to the community and nearly shot it, but Sophia stopped him from killing the bear. She called birds “the Birds of God” and would sit down on the ground to feed them as they settled all over her. The birds would sometimes even go chirping along into the church with her to pray with her! Sophia said the birds have been sent to us from the Panagia and Christ to console us and to give us company.

Sophia departed this life on May 6, 1974. She was buried on the east side of the monastery church’s altar. In 1982, her relics were exhumed. Her bones were clean and shining like light, and the casket was full of holy myrrh. In 2011, she was elevated to sainthood.
To this day, St. Sophia of Kleisoura is working miracles through the power of God. For example, before she died, she gave her kerchief to someone so that they could remember her. In 1995 that kerchief began to smell fragrant. It has brought healing to many women who have contact with it. (Those who can’t have children but have the sign of the cross made over them with the kerchief soon get pregnant; and those who are pregnant give birth easily through the prayers of St. Sophia.)

St. Sophia became very wise (so we call her an eldress) and she prayed and fasted a lot (so we call her an ascetic). She prays for all of us, but especially for the poor, those in need, and those who are sad because they have lost a loved one. We can ask her to to pray for us, as well.

St. Sophia of Kleisoura, intercede for us and for our salvation.

You became a treasury of Divine wisdom and all-consuming fear [of God], O mother Sophia; through your motherly intercessions, O blessed one, you offer to all the richness of grace.

Sources: http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2011/11/st-sophia-righteous-ascetic-of-panagia.html, http://www.stgregoryoc.org/st-sophia-the-righteous/, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPYVGneiWpg, and http://www.pravoslavie.ru/50197.html.

Here are additional links to ways you can learn more and teach your Sunday Church School children about St. Sophia of Kleisoura:
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Read more about the life of St. Sophia of Kleisoura, see her photo, and ponder some of her quotes as collected here: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/06/eldress-sophia-ascetic-of-panagia.html.

Read stories of some of her miracles here:

http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2016/05/some-miracles-of-saint-sophia-of.html

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Share this book about St. Sophia of Kleisoura, published by Potomatis Publishing, with younger Sunday Church School students. Read it aloud to them yourself, or play Dr. Chrissi Hart’s reading from her podcast “Under the Grapevine”: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/grapevine/saint_sophia_of_kleisoura

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This 7-minute video tells about St. Sophia of Kleisoura, showing pictures from her life as well as icons of her. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2jnWvuYBEA

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St. Sophia of Kleisoura loved animals. She had special friends who were snakes, birds, and even a bear. Read about some of them here: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2016/05/the-love-of-st-sophia-of-kleisoura-for.html. Bring a (stuffed unless you have access to real ones!) bird, snake, and bear into your middle-years Sunday Church School classroom as a discussion starter. After introducing your students to the life of St. Sophia, talk about how she treated the animals and how they responded to that treatment. Ask the students what her treatment of animals shows her respect for God and His creation. Challenge the class to think of how they can treat animals with the kindness and respect that St. Sophia gave to the creatures that God shares with us.

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St. Sophia said many wise things. Print these quotes (http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-few-quotes-of-st-sophia-of-kleisoura.html and http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2011/11/st-sophia-righteous-ascetic-of-panagia.html) and cut the printed page to separate each quote. Before your older Sunday Church School students come to class, tape one quote to the bottom of each chair. After discussing the life of St. Sophia, have each student find and share the quote under their seat. Discuss the quotes together. How do you see each played out in St. Sophia’s life? How can we continue to live in a way that is shaped by St. Sophia’s wisdom in each quote? Talk about how the Jesus Prayer helped St. Sophia through many of her most difficult challenges. She encourages us to pray the prayer as well! Hand each student a copy of this quote http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_sophia_kleisoura_wherever_you_walk.pdf. Discuss it together, then allow them to decorate it and take it home to place where it will remind them of her and the wisdom of this saying.

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Teens and/or adults will be challenged by this talk by Fr. Panagiotes Carras about holy fools. The talk encourages each listener to work to become different from the world, as is necessary for Orthodox Christians to do if we want to live truly Godly lives. It focuses on St. Sophia of Kleisoura and includes a video about the life of the saint (from 31:00-1:18:00). That video includes photos from her life and even recordings of her speaking (with translation to English). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPYVGneiWpg

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On the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (Nov. 21 or Dec. 4)

On Nov. 21 (or Dec. 4) we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. This feast celebrates the day when the Theotokos, still a child, went to the Temple. The background story to this event is pretty important:

Joachim and Anna were devout Jews who loved God very much. They lived on only a third of their income, tithing and giving away the rest. Yet they had no child. They promised God that they would give their child back to Him, if He would grant them one, and He blessed them with the gift of their daughter Mary.

When Mary was three years old, and finally weaned, Joachim and Anna did not forget their promise to God. They gathered young ladies with candles to walk with them, and all together walked to the Temple so that they could present Mary to God and give her back to Him. Many family and friends came along, as well, all carrying lit candles.

When they arrived at the Temple, Joachim and Anna lifted Mary up onto the first of the 15 steps that led up into the temple. As soon as she was on that step, she ran all the way up the rest of them. The High Priest at the time was Zachariah (who later became the father of St. John the Forerunner). Zachariah greeted Mary at the top of the steps, took her by the hand, and led her into the Temple. The Holy Spirit directed him as he led her not just into the Temple, but into the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred part of the Temple (which was so holy that only the High Priest could go in there; and he could only go in once a year after much preparation and prayer!)!

The Most-holy Virgin lived in the Temple for many years. The angels fed her in the Holy of Holies. As long as they lived, Joachim and Anna came regularly to the Temple to visit their daughter. When they departed this life, she stayed on in the Temple until she was betrothed to Joseph.

The holiness that she acquired while in the Temple, along with her own piety and desire to follow God, prepared the Most-holy Virgin to become the new Temple, in which God Himself dwelt. Her willingness to come to the Temple with such joy is a notable part of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.

Most Holy Theotokos, intercede for our salvation!

Here are some resources and ideas for learning about the feast together as a Sunday Church School class:
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Find a lesson plan (Lesson 2 in this series on the Theotokos) for any age group about the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple here: http://dce.oca.org/focus/theotokos/

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Make a copy of this pdf (http://stabcc.org/files/bulletins/Bulletin-Insert-11.17.2013.pdf) for each of your middle years Sunday Church School students. Read it together, and talk about the feast.

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Find a variety of printable pdfs (previous years’ children’s bulletins) that contain information and/or activities related to the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple here: http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Childrens-Word-144.pdf, http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Childrens-Word-92.pdf,

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Provide the icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple for your older Sunday Church School students to look at. Ask them to tell what they know about the icon: what does it depict? How is it teaching us? Then share additional information as presented here https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/entrance-of-the-theotokos-into-the-temple/ and talk about it.

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Encourage your older Sunday Church School students to look up each of the Old Testament scriptures listed here: http://www.stpaulorthodoxcathedral.org/attachments/article/4/SPC%20bulletin%2025%20Pentecost%20Tone%208.2.pdf. Have each student select one, look it up, and then read it to the class. Together discuss how this scripture relates to the Theotokos. How is she the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies?

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With your Sunday Church School students, sing the exapostilarion of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (ie: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/exapost-1121-entry_of_theotokos.pdf). Then look together at the words of the hymn. What do they mean? To what does it compare the Theotokos? The book “Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts” by John Skinas makes a beautiful connection between the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant and the Theotokos, some of which is alluded to in this hymn. The Ark of the Covenant contained God’s words, the 10 commandments, written on the stone tables; manna from heaven; and Aaron’s miraculously budding rod. The new Ark (the Theotokos) went on to contain the Word of God in the flesh; the Bread of Life; and “the Seedless Flower… from the Root of Jesse.” (p. 16) If you have the book, be sure to share this part with your students and discuss the type of the Ark of the Covenant and its fulfillment in the Theotokos. Then talk together about why it was so important for her to spend so many years of her life in the Temple; specifically in the Holy of Holies. (The answer is on page 15 of that book!) Find the book here if you do not yet have it: http://store.ancientfaith.com/heaven-meets-earth

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Print this foldable centerpiece about the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple onto cardstock for each student. After teaching about the feast, allow your students to decorate and assemble it. Send it home with them right away so that they can set it as the centerpiece of their dining room table, add it to their icon corner, or set it up in their room where they will see it often and remember the feast. http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/assets/asset_manager/cacb8660b29bdc97f8e8283ff567634e.pdf

Saints of Recent Decades: St. Nikolai Velimirovich (March 5/18)

On December 23, 1880, Dragomir and Katarina Velirnirovich gave birth to their first child, a son. He was born in the town of Lelich, among the Povlen Mountains of western Serbia. When he was born, he was so weak that they had him baptized soon after birth. He was named Nikola, after the family’s patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra. As Nikola grew up, he grew stronger. (Dragomir and Katarina had 8 other children after Nikola, but unfortunately all of them passed away during WWII.)

Nikola’s parents were hardworking farmers who loved God and His Church so much that they always stopped their work when it was time for prayers. They kept the fasts and lived their life by the liturgical cycle of the Church. Katarina was a very holy mother, and she taught her children about God, the saints, and the holy days of the Church year. She also would take Nikola to the Chelije Monastery for Communion, even though it was a three miles walk to get there. When he got older, Nikola remembered his mother’s commitment to taking him to church, and he was grateful.

It was in that same monastery where Nikola first started school. His spiritual father, Father Andrew, taught Nikola to read, to write, to do math, and he also taught him about his culture. Father Andrew also taught Nikola the Scriptures and the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nikola loved to learn. Even during summer vacation, Nikola would sneak away to the monastery church’s bell tower and hide there all day so that he could read and pray!

After Nikola had finished 6th grade, he wanted to enter the Military Academy. He was not accepted to the school, though, because he was too small to do everything that military cadets needed to do. Since he could not go to military school, Nikola applied to the Seminary of St. Sava in Belgrade. He was accepted to the school, and he began the life of a seminarian. He did not just study the normal things seminarians study, though: he also read the important writings of famous writers in Europe (like Shakespeare, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Marx to name a few). He especially liked Peter Njegosh’s writing, and gave a speech about him for his final big project when he was finishing at the seminary in 1902. Everyone who heard this speech was amazed: they could tell that Nikolai was very, very smart.

Unfortunately, during his years at seminary, Nikola got sick. He was not eating well, and the housing at the seminary was not good, so he was sick when he graduated. Nikola’s doctor told him to spend time on the sea coast. So after graduation, Nikola taught in a few villages during the school year, but spent his summer break on the seashore. As he rested at the shore, Nikola wrote. He wrote the life of Bokel the Montenegrin and Dalmatin; and he started a Christian newspaper that contained some of his first published writings.

In 1905, Nikola was chosen to study abroad. He went to Switzerland, Germany, England, and Russia during this time of his life, and he studied very hard. In 1908, he received his Doctorate in Theology. The very next year, 1909, Nikola worked for (and got) his Doctorate in Philosophy, this time in Oxford, England. He was so smart and could learn quickly: not many people have two doctorate degrees at age 28!

That fall, Nikola became very sick. He was in the hospital for more than two months. While he was there, Nikola prayed and told God that if He saved him from this illness he would serve God and His Church. God healed him, and brilliant Dr. Nikola laid his possibilities for greatness aside and became a simple monk. Monk Nikolai was tonsured and ordained to the priesthood on the same day, Dec. 20, 1909. The Hieromonk Nikolai served God with all of his heart and mind, and was soon elevated to Archimandrite.

Archimandrite Nikolai was sent to Belgrade to teach at the seminary there. However, before he could teach, he needed to take a test (because the people at the seminary discovered that he had never taken 7th and 8th grades). The test was an oral test: he had to stand before the examiners and answer questions that they asked him. Everyone who heard him speak at that test could not believe how well he spoke. No one could even ask him a question about his answers. So, of course he passed the test! But before he was allowed to teach, the people at the seminary thought it would be good for him to spend some time in Russia. So he went to Russia for a year. While he was there, Archimandrite Nikolai wrote “The Religion of Njegosh,” his first great work.

Back in Belgrade, he went on to write many others, including a collection of homilies that he called “Sermons at the Foot of the Mount” (he said he called it this because “Christ spoke on the Mount, but I dare to speak only at the foot of the Mount.”) He also wrote “Beyond Sin and Death,” which was a very deep book written in a way that ordinary people could understand. Besides his writing, he taught at the seminary, and many of his students went on to become monks, theologians, and clergy because they had been so inspired by Archimandrite Nikolai. He taught philosophy, logic, history, and foreign languages; and his writing made him well known on around the world.

And then World War 1 began. In the summer of 1914, Archimandrite Nikolai was asked to go to England to find help for his Serbian people. Because he had a doctorate degree from Oxford, he was welcomed by the British, who not only agreed to support the Serbian people, but also awarded him a Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge University while he was there!

In the summer of 1915, Archimandrite Nikolai was sent out again. This time, he was sent to New York City to gather help from the (now American) emigrants. 20,000 volunteers came back with him to help protect their homeland from the Austrians; and many sent money to help their suffering brothers and sisters back home. During this trip to America, Nikolai had a dream in which an Angel of the Lord told him that he would come back to America to begin the American Serbian Diocese. (That dream later came true.)

At the beginning of 1916, Archimandrite Nikolai went back to England, where he wrote more books and articles. He stayed in England until the end of the war. Again, the British liked his work, and he was given another Honorary Doctorate of Divinity. This one was in 1919, from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Nikolai was chosen to be the new Bishop of Zhicha. On March 12, 1919, when he was only 38, Nikolai was installed as the bishop. He cried happy tears during the consecration service: he had spent years trying to get help for the Serbian people whom he loved so much, and now he would actually be able to help them himself, as their bishop! He spent two years helping the Serbs in Zhicha as well as throughout Yugoslavia. Like Christ, he healed the sick, set spiritual captives free, and preached. In 1921 he was transferred to the Diocese of Ochrid and Bitola. Everywhere he went, Bishop Nikolai worked to help people be united peacefully. And all the while he worked, he wrote more books. One of those books, Prayers By the Lake, is full of prayers that are useful to Orthodox Christians today.

In 1924, Bishop Nikolai was sent to the United States, arriving in New York City again. This time he went around speaking about the situation in Europe, thanking the American Serbs for their help, and beginning to gather the Serbian parishes in America into an Archdiocese.

Six months later, he went back to Belgrade to report on the church in America. He was nominated to become the Bishop of the American Serbs, but not everyone in his homeland was ready to give him up. This made it hard for the Bishop, so he went on a pilgrimage retreat in 1922 to the Holy Land and then to Mt. Athos. He needed this time away to be refreshed and to receive counsel from God. When he returned, Bishop Nikolai nominated another bishop to be the first bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America. The synod agreed with that nominee, who then went to America. This meant that Bishop Nikolai could stay and continue writing. He wrote many books that helped people become closer to God and the Faith. He also encouraged people to pray, which they did, and it started a new dedication to prayer that helped to strengthen the Serbian Orthodox Church. In the next few years, he paid another visit to the United States (in 1927) stopping in London on his way back home to Serbia. During this trip, he challenged people to repent, warning that something terrible would soon happen in Europe. Back in Ochrid, he wrote several more books, including The Prologue of Ochrid, which has become a spiritual classic.

Early in 1930, the bishop went to Vatopedi Monastery, on Mt. Athos. A Pan-Orthodox conference was taking place, and while he was there, he was able to lead the Orthodox faithful of different nationalities in a way that helped them show that the Orthodox Church is united as the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” After that conference, Bishop Nikolai returned home and continued writing until war began in 1941.

When the Germans occupied Yugoslavia that same year, Bishop Nikolai was arrested. He was sentenced to prison in Dachau, the famous prison camp in Germany. Bishop Nikolai spent two years imprisoned in Dachau. While he was there, he saw (and suffered) some of the most terrible tortures against humans that the world has ever known. Even in prison, he wrote. He wrote a prayer to the Theotokos (he said later that her protection is the reason he survived Dachau) and a sort of diary about his time in the prison camp. An American division of the Allied Forces got Bishop Nikolai his freedom on May 8, 1945, and, after a brief stop in London, he moved back to the USA.

He took a little time to recover (his back and leg were giving him trouble after his imprisonment) and then began to lecture again. Just a little over a year after his release from Dachau, Bishop Nikolai was given another Doctorate: this one, a Doctorate of Sacred Theology, was from Columbia University.

For the next few years, Bishop Nikolai taught at St. Sava Seminary in Libertyville, Illinois, and wrote books, some of them in English! In 1951,the bishop moved to St. Tikhons Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, to serve as a professor (then dean, and even rector) of the seminary there. During his years at St. Tikhons, Bishop Nikolai wrote books and articles in a variety of languages (he could read, write, and speak seven languages fluently) so that Orthodox people of various backgrounds could read things in their own language. He also lectured in different seminaries and monasteries on the east coast of the United States. He often lectured and gave his homilies in English so that more Americans could understand what he was saying.

And then, one night (between the 17th and 18th of March, 1956), Bishop Nikolai fell asleep in the Lord. He was 76 years old, and praying in his cell at St. Tikhons when he fell asleep. There were many services held for him, beginning at St. Tikhon’s, then in New York City and finally in Libertyville, IL, where he was buried on March 27, 1956. Twenty-five years later, his body was returned to Serbia and laid to rest behind the church of the Chelije Monastery, right in his hometown of Lelich, where he used to hide during summer vacations to read and pray.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich, please pray for us and for our salvation!

Loving thy homeland thou didst sojourn as a patriot to secure aid for God’s suffering children,
And as a new Chrysostom thou didst preach to those in darkness
The rediscovery of the Foundational Rock, Christ the Lord,
In the Eternal Homeland of God’s Kingdom.
Thy pastoral love for all, O Confessor Nikolai, was purified in captivity by the godless,
Demonstrating thy commitment to the truth and thy people;
Therefore, O  venerable Bishop, thou hast attained the crown of eternal life.

Here are additional resources and ideas to help you prepare to share the life of St. Nikolai Velimirovich with your Sunday Church School students:

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Find more information about St. Nicholai Velimirovich’s life, including a few pictures and his icon here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/stnikolai.aspx

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Read some of St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s letters to dignitaries, fellow clergy, and others here: http://www.babamim.com/st_bishop_nikolai__his_letters (Don’t worry, the letters in other languages have been translated to English!)

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Consider praying some of the prayers that St. Nikolai Velimirovich wrote in “Prayers By the Lake.” You can find the prayers here: http://www.sv-luka.org/praylake/

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Pray this prayer for your Sunday Church School students. The prayer is for children, and was written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich: http://www.saintgregoryoutreach.org/2014/06/a-prayer-for-children-by-saint-nikolai.html

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St. Nicholai Velimirovich once said that similar things happen when we receive Holy Communion and when we give to those in need. In both cases, we receive Christ. Ask your Sunday Church School students what they think about that. What could he mean? Then share this story that he told: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/st-nikolai-reflection-on-giving-alms-to-the-poor/ After you share the story, talk together about how you can live in a way that reflects this. Consider ideas of things you could do together as a class and/or as a parish to better receive Christ when He appears as the poor in your community and around the world. Plan a hands-on project that you can work on together, and then prepare and do it! Give each student a copy of this part of the quote: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_nicholai_velimirovich_in_holy_communion.pdf Have them decorate it in a way that reminds them of your plan, so that they can bring/do whatever it is that you decide to do as a group to help.

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Talk with your middle-to-older students about suffering. Did St. Nicholai Velimirovich suffer? Who do you know that is suffering? Do your students ever suffer? What do they think about suffering? Do they like it?
Read this quote from St. Nicholai to your students: “Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.” (The oldest students will want to ponder the entire quote, found here: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/st-nikolai-velimirovich-only-the-foolish-think-that-suffering-is-evil/.) Talk together about how this perspective can (and should!) change our opinion of suffering.

With older students, you may want to follow up with a discussion of this related quote: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/st-nikolai-velimirovich-blessed-is-the-man-who-uses-his-sufferings-knowing-that-all-suffering-in-this-brief-life-is-loosed-on-men-by-god-in-his-love/

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Print these quotes from St. Nikolai Velimirovich. Cut them into individual quotes and place them all in a basket. Invite older students to pull them one at a time from the basket and discuss them: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/category/sayings-from-saints-elders-and-fathers/st-nikolai-velimirovich/page/5/

 

Saints of Recent Decades: St. Maria of Paris (July 20 or August 2)

In 1891, in Riga, Latvia, a baby girl named Elizabeta (“Liza,” to her family) was born to the Pilenko family. The Pilenkos were Orthodox Christians, and raised Liza in the faith. When she was 14, Liza’s father died, and Liza was so upset that she gave up her Faith. When the family moved to St. Petersburg, instead of going to church, Liza began to hang out with radical people who, like her, liked to read and wanted to make the world better. They would spend hours talking about revolution and about theology, but (in Liza’s words) they “seemed to do nothing but talk.” She wanted to actually DO something to make a change. Years passed, and Liza slowly came back to her faith.

When she was only 18, Liza got married. Three years later, she left her husband and moved back to the house where she grew up. While she was there, she gave birth to her daughter Gaiana. Three years after Gaiana’s birth, Liza was accepted as a student at the Theological Academy of The Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. She was the very first woman to study there! For a while in 1918, Liza was the mayor of her town. This was during the time that the Bolsheviks were taking over Russia, and she was accused of being part of their Red Army. She was arrested and taken to trial. Her judge, Daniel Skobstova, said she was innocent, and he had her released instead of executed. After she was free, she went to find him to thank him. They quickly became friends and were married only a few days later!

Right after the wedding, as the Bolsheviks got stronger in Russia, Liza and her whole family left the country. They didn’t want to be part of all the horrible things that happen during a revolution. They traveled through Tblisi and other parts of the country of Georgia; through Istanbul, Turkey; and through parts of Yugoslavia. They ended up in Paris, France, where they settled down to live. In the time that they moved around, Liza gave birth to two other children: her son Yura and her daughter Anastasia. Once the family settled in Paris, Liza made dolls and painted silk scarves to help provide for all of them. She also began to work with the Christian Student Movement to help other Russian refugees who lived there. Many of them had a much harder life than she did. But her bad things still happened to her family: unfortunately, in the winter of 1926, Liza’s whole family got the flu. Little Anastasia died from it. But this time, a death in her family did not drive Liza away from the Faith: instead, it made her faith stronger! She began to work even harder to help the refugees. She wanted to live a more real, more pure Christian life than ever. Sadly, all of this work was hard on her marriage to Daniel, and she left him, moved into her mother’s house, and continued her work.

In 1932, Metropolitan Evlogy tonsured her a nun and encouraged her to develop a new kind of monasticism: the life of a nun living in the city and serving the needy people there instead of living out alone in the countryside. So Liza, now “Mother Maria,” began her work of sharing her life with the poor and homeless.
She started with a small empty house, sleeping her first night on the floor under the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Others came to join her as she served the Russian refugees, and soon her room in the house was needed for others, so instead, she slept in the basement by the boiler. An upstairs room became the chapel, and Mother Maria wrote the icons on the icon screen. Before too long, she was able to set up a home at 77 Rue de Lourmel (77 Lourmel Street) in Paris that was larger and had much more space. In this new space, she and the others serving with her began to prepare dinner for those who needed food. They served up to 120 every night! Sometimes they would turn the dining room into a hall where Orthodox leaders would come to teach about the Faith. At this house, the stables out back became a chapel, and again Mother Maria contributed many of the icons, some of them were icons that she embroidered. Mother Maria rented other buildings around Paris that she then shared with the poor so that needy families would have a place to live. She started a hospital for people sick with tuberculosis. She began schools for children. She visited mental hospitals just so she could look for Russian refugees. Because these people were so poor and didn’t speak French well, they had been labeled as mentally ill and put in mental hospitals – even if they were in their right minds! Mother Maria would rescue them from the mental hospital and help them.

She also helped to start an organization called “Orthodox Action,” which provided safe places for travelers or for the elderly to stay. The people in the Orthodox Action group also helped people who did not have a job, worked in hospitals, aided elderly people, and published books and pamphlets. Mother Maria was living up to her youthful dream of DOING something for change, not just talking about it!

When the Holocaust began and edged closer to Paris, of course Mother Maria did all that she could to help save the Jewish people who reached out for help. Her priest, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, would make baptismal certificates for any Jewish person who asked for one. (Any Jew that had a certificate saying they had converted to Christianity and were no longer Jewish was in less danger.) Mother Maria, her son Yura, and Fr. Dimitri would then plan escape routes for the Jewish people who asked them for help. In 1942, Mother Maria somehow got into the Velodrome d’Hiver. This winter stadium was where many of the Jews in Paris were being kept before they were taken to Nazi death camps. While Mother Maria was in the Velodrome, she did whatever she could to help the Jewish people that she met in there. One way that she helped was by sneaking Jewish children out of the Velodrome to safety! She made arrangements with some of Paris’ trash haulers, who helped her take the children out of the Velodrome inside trash cans, and then drove them in trash trucks to Mother Maria’s house, where she would help to arrange for their escape from Paris.

Mother Maria was finally caught by the Nazis in 1943. They arrested her for helping the Jewish people and took her to Ravensbruck, one of the concentration camps. Even while she was a prisoner in that Nazi camp, Mother Maria was helping people. One survivor talked about her later and said she was adored by everyone, but especially the young prisoners. They had been separated from their families, but Mother Maria became their family and cared for them. She was known to give her “meal” (piece of bread) to anyone that she thought needed it more than she did. She lived this way until she died. On April 30, 1945, Mother Maria was killed in a gas chamber. We are not sure if she was selected to die that day or if she volunteered to take the place of someone else who was. Either way, she died because of the way she lived her faith.

Mother Maria once said, “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.” And she lived exactly that way. But she went beyond just feeding, clothing, visiting, and helping the others in her care: she actually saw everyone she met as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world,” and she treated them as such. She may even have died in the place of one of those “icons of God,” walking out the Faith to the very last moment of her earthly life.

You became a bride of Christ, O venerable Mother,

And offered your body and soul to Him as a living sacrifice.

You exposed the evil side of humanity’s ways

By allowing the light of the Resurrection to shine forth from you.

We celebrate your memory in love.

O Martyr and Confessor Maria

Pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.

St. Maria of Paris, intercede for our salvation!

Sources:

http://myocn.net/st-maria-of-paris/

http://www.pravmir.com/the-challenge-of-a-20th-century-saint-maria-skobtsova/

http://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

http://incommunion.org/st-maria-skobtsova-resources/

Here are a few ideas of ways to help your students learn more about St. Maria of Paris:

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Find a few pictures of St. Maria of Paris in this article about her life:

http://www.pravmir.com/the-challenge-of-a-20th-century-saint-maria-skobtsova/

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Find several icons of St. Maria of Paris here: https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/icons/

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Younger children will enjoy learning about St. Maria of Paris through the picture book, “Silent As a Stone,” by Jim Forest. It tells the story of when she snuck Jewish kids out of captivity in trash cans. Find it here: http://www.svspress.com/silent-as-a-stone/  Before Sunday Church School begins, roll a big (clean, wheeled) outdoor trash can into the middle of your classroom and have it sitting there at the beginning of class. The students will be curious about it, and you can tell them it makes you think of faith and how to live as a true Christian. Entertain their ideas and suggestions of why that is. Then, share the book about St. Maria with them, and then talk together again about the trash can. Can they now tell you why a trash can reminds you of faith and how to live as a true follower of Christ? Give each of student a turn to “be” one of the children being saved from the velodrome while you act the part of St. Maria or one of the Parisian trash workers. Help them into the trash can, close the lid, and push it around a little, then help them out. After whoever wants one has a turn, talk about how it must have felt for the Jewish children in Paris to be in the trash. Their people were being treated as (less than) trash, but St. Maria knew that because they are people made in the image of God, they are not trash but treasures, and she therefore rescued as many as she was able before being caught. Talk together as a class: how can WE see the people around US as treasures, not trash, and rescue them when they need help? Invite the students to draw, tell, or write a plan of how they can do that. Encourage them to look out for those around them who may feel like trash, and be ready to help however they can. (In future weeks, remember to offer the opportunity for students to share any times that they were able by God’s grace to help someone who needed it.)

st-maria-hauls-treasure

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Because St. Maria loved to read and write, we have many of her quotes. Discuss this one with your Sunday Church School students: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” If that is true, how should we treat each person? Describe different types of people to your students (some wonderful, some terrible) and invite them to tell how they should treat each person described as an icon of Christ. Give each student their own copy of the quote: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_maria_of_paris_each_person.pdf and invite them to draw or write their responses to the quote around the edge of the quote itself.

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With older Sunday Church School students, listen to this podcast about St. Maria: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/socialjustice/mother_maria_skobtsova Talk together about the saint’s life and the challenge that the podcaster, Mariam Youssef, extends to the listeners as a result of St. Maria’s life.

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With teens, discuss this section of Bev Cooke’s article about St. Maria of Paris (found here: http://myocn.net/st-maria-of-paris/) “It wasn’t enough to just feed the hungry. ‘I should say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us,’ she wrote. And she meant it. Late at night, she would travel to the Parisian market, Les Halles, to a restaurant that stayed open all night. For the price of a single glass of wine, anyone could sit (and sleep) there. It wasn’t unusual for St. Maria to bring several people home from the place, or to tell them, while collecting the food that the merchants in the market donated to her, to come to her house for dinner that night. She would often skip liturgy, or leave it early in order to begin preparing a meal for up to 120 guests. 

“Her legacy to us is clear: we need to help each other, and look upon everyone – every single human being with whom we interact, whether our family, our friends, or a stranger on the street – not only as a brother or a sister in Christ, but as the very icon of God in the world. For, as she pointed out, ‘About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person, the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . It fills me with awe.’ ”

How did St. Maria live that demonstrated that? How can WE live like that? What can we do as a parish, a Sunday Church School class, as individuals to show that we know that Christ is every hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned person?