On Pursuing Virtue: Humility

This is the first in a series of articles on pursuing virtue. There are many virtues that we as Orthodox Christians should be working to attain in our own lives, while also teaching our Sunday Church School students to pursue them, as well. We have chosen to focus on the seven capital virtues mentioned in “the Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians.” As the book mentions, each virtue is the positive counterpart of a grievous sin. In order for us to help ourselves and our students to grow in theosis, we must learn to not only resist and repent from those sins, but we must also learn to desire and labor to attain the virtues. May the Lord have mercy on us and on our students as together we pursue these virtues!

The first virtue we should teach to our Sunday Church School students is humility. Why? Because it takes humility of heart for a Christian to pursue any of the other virtues! So, until we humble ourselves, we will not be able to properly obtain any other virtues. That is what makes humility a necessary starting point for Christians of any age who are pursuing virtue.

What is humility, and how can we teach about it to our students? Merriam-Webster.com defines it as “freedom from pride or arrogance: the quality or state of being humble.” We can demonstrate this definition in a hands-on way as we introduce the concept of humility to our Sunday Church School students. Before class, we will need to cut many pieces of string 2-3 feet long, and slip a small piece of paper (with a hole punched in its corner) onto  each piece of string. Pile the strings and some writing utensils where all of your students will be able to reach them when they arrive in your Sunday Church School classroom.

Begin the class by asking your students what they are proud of: ie. accomplishments they’ve achieved, things they can do well, etc. Then have them draw or write each thing on one of those pieces of paper. Select one student to be a model of an Orthodox Christian, and have them stand before the class. One by one, have the class members present the thing(s) they are proud of and gently tie the string attached to the paper around both ankles of the model, as though the model were proud of that item or thought. Once the model has all the things/thoughts around their ankles, have another student read the Merriam-Webster definition of humility. Have the class look at the model Orthodox Christian, and ask, “Is this person humble? Are they free? Can they easily walk?” (If it seems safe for them to try to take a step or two, encourage the model to do so. Stay nearby so that you can spot them and catch them if they begin to fall.) Then talk about what the string-tied ankles represent. “This model is each of us! We all have things we are proud about. Many times, those things tie us up and make it hard for us to walk with Christ. Can (model) walk in God’s ways right now? Or are they tied down by pride? If we want to be humble, we need to let go of these things so that we can be free, the way God created us to be. Then we can be a true Christian, one who is really walking with Christ in the way that He meant for us to live!” Have the class suggest ways that the model can become free. Some of the things they may be able to just step away from (if they’re loosely tied); other things they may have to bend down (or humble themselves) to free themselves from (if the string is tied tightly but in a bow); and still others they may not be able to undo and only the teacher (with a scissors, representing God) can release them from those prideful things/thoughts (if the string is tied tightly and in a knot). Compare the model’s release from the “pride ties” to real life release from pride: some things are easier for us to release, some require us to exercise a good bit of humility in order to let them go; and still others only God can release us from, and then only if we ask Him to do so (again, requiring humility). Throughout this lesson, we must be sure to emphasize to our students that it is not bad to have accomplishments. For example, it is not wrong to win a trophy for a fast race. But when we think about those accomplishments, brag about them to others, think we’re better than others because of them, or focus so much on trying to win them again that we don’t think about God – THAT is when those accomplishments become pride and trip us up from walking with Christ. We want to be free so we can walk with Him better. The way we can be free is to let go of those things, to be humble.

Have each student gather their tags from where the model discarded them, and spread them out where they can look at all of their own tags at once. Ask each student to think about the things that they are proud of, and decide if that thing is tying them down, keeping them from walking with God in humility as they should. Encourage them to begin to become more humble by selecting one of those things (more if you have time) and planning how they are going to humble themselves with regard to it. You may want to suggest ideas: ie. in the case of the trophy for the fast race, the student could take down the trophy from their bedroom shelf; purpose to not mention it when others are talking about racing; and/or deliberately allow someone else to win the next time if they’re struggling with feeling proud about their win. Perhaps you will want to invite the students to write or draw about their plan, or tell a friend what they intend to do; or simply offer quiet time in which each student can think and pray, telling God about their intention to become more humble in this regard: whatever will work best for your class.

Another idea (or an additional idea) is to ask your students to make a connection, to think of people or characters in their own experience who are models of humility. Invite them to share these examples with the class. Who do they know (a friend, a Saint, an example from the Scriptures) or who have they read about in books (historical figures or fictional characters) who lives/lived a humble life? How does/did that person demonstrate humility? What can we learn from them about living humbly? At the top of a large piece of chart paper, write “Humility” in large letters. On the rest of the page, list characteristics of those people: what does humility look like in each of them? Display the poster where you will all be reminded of what this important virtue looks like when it is properly lived.

Consider printing this bookmark as a tool for your Sunday Church School students to use: http://www.antiochian.org/prayer-st-ephraim-bookmark-meditation-tool. This prayer, which we pray throughout Great Lent, is a very daily way to help us gain humility.

At the end of class, pray and ask God to help each of you to become increasingly humble.

Here are some other ideas of ways to help your students to pursue humility:

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This visual comparison of two balls will help elementary-aged Sunday Church School students to think about humility in the context of the familiar story of the Publican and the Pharisee. http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2015/01/publican-pharisee.html
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Although this is written for parents, not teachers, and even though it is not written from an Orthodox perspective, there are many parts of this lesson plan that Orthodox Christian Sunday Church School teachers can easily utilize in a lesson plan about humility! The myriads of scriptures listed, the “fruits” chart (of rotten or good ways to show humility), the experiment, and many of the fun physical activities could help Orthodox students learn more about humility. Download the lesson here: http://www.kidsofintegrity.com/lessons/humility

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Show this episode of “Be the Bee” to your Sunday Church School students. As they watch, encourage them to think about how it relates to humility: http://bethebee.goarch.org/-/-77-first-among-sinners

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Introduce your students to a saint who is a model of humility. Tell the story of his/her life, list together examples of his/her humility, and discuss ways to emulate it. For example, share the life of St. Nicholas Planas, who humbly greeted an enemy with joy every day, eventually turning that enemy to a friend. (See https://lessonsfromamonastery.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/st-nicholas-planas-humble-of-spirit/, http://www.serfes.org/lives/stnicholas.htm, http://www.gometropolis.org/orthodox-faith/feast-days/our-venerable-father-nicolas-planas/, or  http://www.roca.org/OA/56/56e.htm for many more stories of his humility.)

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Invite older students to read, ponder, and discuss these perspectives on humility:

Amma Theodora said said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. She offered as an example the story of an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked the demons, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied, “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils” They replied, “We do not sleep.” “Is it separation from the world?” “We live in the deserts.” “What power sends you away then?” They said, “Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.” Then Amma Theodora said, “Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?”

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“As with the appearance of light, darkness retreats; so, at the fragrance of humility, all anger and bitterness vanishes.” St. John Climacus

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“The heights of humility are great and so are the depths of boasting; I advise you to attend to the first and not to fall into the second.” Abba Isidore of Pelusia

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“The natural property of the lemon tree is such that it lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit, but the more the branches bend down the more fruit they bear. Those who have the mind to understand will grasp the meaning of this.” ~ St. John Climacus

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Abba John said, “Who sold Joseph/” A brother replied saying, “It was his brethren.” The old man said to him, “No, it was his humility which sold him, because he could have said, ‘I am their brother’ and have objected, but, because he kept silence, he sold himself by his humility. It is also his humility which set him up as chief in Egypt.” The Desert Fathers

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Instead of teaching older students about humility, consider allowing St. John of Kronstadt to do the teaching. This blog post is full of his teachings on humility. Print copies of the blog, or portions thereof, and have the students read whatever part they receive, and then share a summary of their portion, as well as their own reaction to what they’ve read. http://livingorthodoxfaith.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-humility-by-st-john-of-kronstadt.html

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