Monthly Archives: May 2017

On Virtuous Year-End Awards

For many of us in North America, the Sunday Church School year is coming to an end. The end of a year offers the opportunity to note growth and accomplishment in all of us, but especially in our students. This a good time to review their growth and celebrate with them the positive ways we have seen them change.

Perhaps your Sunday Church School offers awards at the end of the year, such as certificates celebrating perfect attendance, most improved, best at ____, etc. Those achievements are important, and should be noted. But there are even more important ways for a child to improve than curriculum and attendance. As Orthodox Christians, we should constantly be evaluating and celebrating our spiritual growth and that of our students. The end of a school year is a great time to do so! Let us take a little time to think about each of our students and note their growth in the virtues. Growth in virtue is one way to measure their growth in The Faith. Perhaps this year would be a good time to begin giving our students virtues awards as well!

Not sure where to start? Check out our recent blog posts on the virtues (see https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/on-pursuing-the-virtues-an-introduction/, the beginning of the series), which offered suggestions of ways to teach our students about each of the virtues. Each of these blog posts can offer us helpful information about the virtue on which it focuses, which we can then apply as we think about each child. How have they grown in humility, liberality, chastity, mildness, temperance, happiness, and diligence? Which of these virtues do they best exemplify in their life? In which virtue have they grown the most?

Once we have answered some of the above questions, it would behoove us to find a way to acknowledge our observation of our children’s growth. This could be as simple as setting aside time with each child to privately encourage them and congratulate them on their growth in this area. Or perhaps we could take part of our last class together and have a “virtues awards” ceremony, wherein we note and celebrate each child’s growth in virtue.

If we choose to do an official “ceremony,” we can begin the discussion by showing the students a picture of them from the beginning of the school year (if we have one!) and compare it to how they look now. We can talk a bit about how they’ve grown physically this year. We can ask them to share other things they’ve learned over the course of the year (for example, how to ride a bike or play lacrosse or cook dinner). We could discuss academic growth as well, including the awards they’ve gotten at school. At this point, we can segue into a discussion of the children’s growth in the virtues. We can take time with each virtue as it applies to each child or we can talk about each child in turn and celebrate all the virtues in which we have noted growth for that child. Perhaps we will want to present the children with a tangible award celebrating their growth in a particular virtue. We may even want to present them with a gift such as an award certificate, a playful token representing the virtue in which they’ve grown, or a donation to a charity of the students’ choice in honor of their spiritual growth. How we choose to acknowledge the growth will vary, according to what the class needs. The important thing is that we notice the growth and encourage our students to continue to grow in virtue! When others see the good that is happening in us and acknowledge it, it makes us want to press on – and become even more godly! Let us do this for our Sunday Church School students, and press on together with them!

 

Here are ideas of tangible awards for each of the virtues, in case you want something to give to your students and need ideas. (You can choose to do just a verbal award, give a token gift, or maybe a donation to the charity of your class’ choice. Whichever works best for you!)

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Humility:

This printable certificate: Humility Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a slinky, some silly putty, or a container of slime. All three seek to return to the lowest point, just as we should continually try to be completely humble.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Liberality:

This printable certificate: Liberality Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a pack of stickers or a large container of bubble solution – something that can be freely and easily shared, to continue practicing the virtue of liberality!

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Chastity:

This printable certificate: Chastity Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a playful bar of glycerin soap (perhaps with a toy embedded in it) or a kid-friendly liquid soap pump. Either offers a way to continue to keep (your hands, at least!) pure.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Mildness:

This printable certificate: Mildness Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a stress ball or a liquid motion bubbler. Both are calming and can offer a way to remain mild in the face of an opportunity to be angry or anxious.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Temperance:

This printable certificate: Temperance Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a box of cookies, fruit snacks, or other beloved treats that can offer the child the opportunity to continue to practice temperance.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Happiness:

This printable certificate: Happiness Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a smiley face pin – actually, anything with a smile emoji on it! Wearing a smile will make others smile as well, and will remind you to continue to choose to be happy.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Diligence:

This printable certificate: Diligence Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a hoola hoop, jump rope, or puzzle. Whichever your child would enjoy the most, while working at it and being reminded to keep trying and not to quit!

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Here is a link to all seven certificates, if you wish to print all of them: Virtues Certificates – Google Docs

 

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On Living Icons

The Orthodox Christian Faith is enriched by icons. We surrounded ourselves with these prayerfully-written images of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints. Our churches are full of icons, as are our homes. This is as it should be. In our modern self-focused culture, we need visual reminders of God’s work in and through the saints! These reminders in the form of icons challenge us to be strong and live a life accordingly faithful.

There are other icons that enrich our Faith as well. God has surrounded us with His hand-written images of Christ in the form of every person around us. Our churches are full of them, as are our homes. But He has not limited His handwritten icons to the Church. They are all around us. If you are like me, occasionally you may need a reminder that everyone – EVERYONE – is an icon of Christ, written by God Himself, in His image. May this short post remind us of that truth. So, that sweet lady at Church? Yes, she is an icon of Christ. The person who just cut me off when driving? An icon. The persistent child interrupting my phone conversation? An icon. That person who I struggle to love? An icon. The famous person everyone gossips about? An icon. Those people who live far away and very differently from me? They, too, are an icon. My spouse? Also an icon, written in the image of (and by the Hand of) God.


Whether or not we recognize His artistry, God has written (and is writing) each and every person. Therefore, we must remember that He is at work in and through them, then respond with the love and respect that we offer any other icon reflecting His image. When we choose to see His work in each person, we will be challenged by them to be strong and live our Christian life faithfully!  

We must be careful to note that this recognition of God’s work in writing the living icons around us must not be limited to noting it in other people. In truth, we ourselves are living icons, and should also be enriching the Church and our world. In order to be the most reflective image of Him that we can be, we need to cooperate with Him as he works in and through us. As we do so, He will strengthen us and give us what we need to live the faithful Christian life befitting an icon.

May God help us all to live and love His image in every person! And as we do so, may we teach our Sunday Church School children to do the same.

 

Here are some resources that can help us teach our students how to be more aware of the icons of Christ around us; while challenging ourselves to be the best icons of Christ that we can:

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Here is an excellent activity that you can do with a younger-grades class which will help them to review the symbolism in iconography and then apply it to a contemporary icon-like drawing of a living icon who they know. Find the activity, symbolic descriptions, and a link to the printable page the students can use for their drawing here:  http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2008/07/living-icons.html

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Teachers of younger grades may be able to adapt parts of this (non-Orthodox) activity-filled lesson on being made in God’s image: https://www.umcmission.org/ArticleDocuments/150/book2part2lesson5.pdf.aspx
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Talk with your students about this quote by St. John of Damascus: “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.”
If we truly believe this, how does that affect our view and treatment of others? Of ourselves? Of the world itself?

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Share this quote to begin a discussion with a teen or adult class:

“Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. And this is what we must learn to do with regard to each person as an individual, but also – and this is not always as easy – with regard to groups of people, whether it be a parish or a denomination, or a nation. We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty of this group of people. Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there. Listen to other people, and whenever you discern something which sounds true, which is a revelation of harmony and beauty, emphasize it and help it to flower. Strengthen it and encourage it to live.” – Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

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“To be an Orthodox Christian means to proclaim that God has a very special love for us. Our life was given to us a very a sacred gift so that we may grow to fulfill our destiny as His children, to fulfill His plan that He has had for us since before we were even born. We are called to be “living icons,” temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of the Kingdom of Heaven. We must come to value life for the precious gift from God that it is, and make our choices on that basis.” These are the concluding thoughts of a lesson. This lesson (which includes a variety of activities and suggested discussion questions) could be used for a Sunday Church School or for a retreat on the importance of valuing life and living as an icon. https://oca.org/the-hub/life-and-death/session-1-the-living-icon-the-sanctity-of-human-life

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Listen to this 7 minute sermon from Fr. Ted Paraskevopoulos with your teen/adult Sunday Church School class to receive an overhaul on your perspective of yourself (and others), the icon(s) of Christ: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/isermon/orthodox_anthropology

 

 

On Miracles That God Performs Through Icons

Icons are windows to heaven. We have them in our churches, we have them in our homes, and perhaps in our car/locker/workspace/elsewhere as well. They are in these places as visual reminders of Truth. Icons remind us of the power of God at work, either through the written images of Christ Himself or of those gone before us who have followed Him completely and became saints. They help us to better understand the scriptures and to better connect with the person/people written on them. Icons draw us to God by virtue of their beauty, the stories of faithfulness they represent, the Scriptures they unveil. It is a miracle that something so simple as a prayerfully-written icon can do so much to help us on our journey toward Him.

Occasionally, God chooses to move beyond that sense of “being drawn,” and to work other miracles through them. The purpose of this blog post is to help each of us to learn about some of the icons He is using in this way (or has recently used in this way), and to read the stories of miracles wrought through them. It is our hope that this post will be encouraging and help each of us to be aware of how God is at work through icons. These stories will also encourage our students, as we share the stories with them.

There are several ways that you could share these miracles with your Sunday Church School Students. One of these accounts could be shared as your students are eating their snack (if you have Church School right after Liturgy), each week for a period of weeks. Or perhaps you could share one at the beginning or end of every class for a season. Perhaps you would prefer to teach a lesson about miracles wrought through icons and wish to select several of the stories to study in a lesson or series of lessons. It is up to you how you utilize these stories. Please consider sharing them with your students! Children are naturally full of wonder, and will benefit from knowing these amazing ways in which God is at work through holy icons.

 

Here are a few examples of miracle-working icons and their stories which you may wish to share with your students:

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What would you or your students do if some of the icons in your prayer corner miraculously began streaming myrrh? Read this account by Subdeacon Nectarios himself, of what happened in his home. In the account, you’ll read about two streaming icons (each with different-smelling myrrh), a cat, a “doubting Thomas” who ends up with a mouthful of “proof,” and a few of the miracles that the miraculous myrrh have wrought. Glory to God! http://www.orthodoxhawaii.org/icons.html

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The Kardiotissa Icon of the Mother of God, at St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, Pennsylvania, has been exuding myrrh ever since it was anointed with the myrrh of the Hawaiian Iveron icon in October of 2011. Many, many lives have been changed as a result. Share some of the miracles that have happened, as accounted in this homily, with your students: http://www.schwebster.org/sermons/2014-sermons/the-miracles-and-wonders-of-god-the-crying-icon-of-taylor-pa

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Begin a discussion with your older students about different kinds of healing (physical vs spiritual) by reading them this quote (and perhaps the entire article): “Over the past ten years there have been many miracles; some I’ve heard about and some I haven’t. There have been many physical healings, external, and there have also been many spiritual, inner healings. Through this Icon many of the faithful have experienced radical transformations in their lives. It’s as if people become liberated from the ‘old man’ and ardently strive towards God.  When the Icon is present in various churches, monasteries and homes, one senses a renewal of love for the Mother of God; almost immediately many people approach for confession, spiritually reborn through a feeling of repentance.  I’d like to say that the Mother of God helps our believers sense their sinfulness before Her Son, Jesus Christ.”


Read this and more of the story and miracles of the copy of the Iveron icon of the Mother of God (the same one whose copy was sent to Hawaii and began myrrh streaming there, and when that one in turn visited the Kardiotissa icon in Pennsylvania it began exuding myrrh as well), which was brought to Canada from Mt. Athos by a Chilean convert to Orthodoxy here: http://www.roca.org/OA/120/120k.htm

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“One can go on for a very long time listing the different holy Icons of the Ever-Virgin Mary and Theotokos and all the wonderful countless miracles of our Panagia. It is, however, important for all Orthodox Christian believers to always seek the holy intercessions of the Mother of God and to turn to Her for aid, healing, comfort and salvation.” Read some of the miracles in this article: http://saintandrewgoc.org/home/2014/8/25/the-miraculous-icon-of-panagia-portraitissa-the-keeper-of-th.html. Ask your students if they have heard any other stories of times when God has worked miracles through an icon of the Theotokos. Then, spend some time praying and asking her to pray for you and your loved ones – and the whole world!

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Watch this 8-minute video that shows miracle after miracle, mostly related to icons, which God has granted through His Holy Orthodox Church. The video is set to parts of the Vespers service chanted by Eikona, and could be a wonder-filled way to end a class about miracle-working icons! (We recommend that you watch it before showing it to your students, however, so you know what they will see and can be prepared to answer related questions.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-AOO903CZA

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Throughout history, icons of the Mother of God have worked miracles. This article shares the commemoration days of many icons of the Theotokos, along with some of the stories of miracles attributed to those icons, set throughout history. These stories are not as recent as some of the above, but they are still miracles and well worth learning about! To read about an icon of the Theotokos and/or a miracle attributed to the icon, click on the month, then which of the days of that month you’d like to read about: https://oca.org/saints/icons-mother-of-god. In order to learn about more of them, consider allowing each student to select a different one to learn about and share their learnings with the rest of the class. (You will need to plan ahead and print things out, unless you have internet access in class or you give the students the assignment to bring back on a different Sunday.)

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“Venerating a miracle is also a way of acknowledging the importance of its context. A weeping icon is amazing, but it’s obviously not meant to distract attention away from the liturgical, sacramental, and doctrinal life of the Church. If anything, a miracle should amplify the importance of Church practices and teaching, for the God who causes the miracle is also the God who established these as markers of his ‘new and everlasting covenant’ with mankind.” Read more about responding to miracles wrought through icons in this article:  http://myocn.net/miracle-greece-weeping-icon-mean/. After reading the article, be sure to discuss it with your students so that they know how best to respond to any miraculous events they may experience that are associated with icons.

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Icon” by Georgia Briggs

Author’s note: This book will be of great encouragement and benefit to every Sunday Church School teacher’s journey of Faith. However, since the book is geared to older children, be aware of the events of the book and use caution when sharing it with your students. You know them, so you know if they would benefit from reading it, or if the events would be too disturbing and they would not find it uplifting. The book would be an excellent upper grades/teen book study!

I did not want this book to end. That is the first time in a long time that I’ve read a book and felt that way. “Icon” by Georgia Briggs may be aimed at young adults, but it is no ordinary young-adult-aimed fiction book, and is a great read for adults as well.

The story line in this book is believable, though fictional, and I found it hard to put the book down because of both the story line and the Orthodox insights throughout the book. “Icon” is the moving story of a young Orthodox Christian girl in a era similar to our own, except that in this dystopian tale (set in 0000 ET, “Era of Tolerance,” with flashbacks to the Pascha before ET began), it is suddenly no longer legal to be a Christian, most especially an Orthodox one. “Icon” is a story of loss, finding, miracles, death, light, and restoration, written so believably that the reader thinks “this could really happen!” It is a gripping story of Faith put to the test.

This book challenges its readers to think about their own Faith. What if all that we currently do and take for granted with regard to our Faith were suddenly illegal and we were being watched at every turn? What if our family members died/disappeared simply because of their Faith? What if we were left alone and had to move to new surroundings and change even our very name to one unassociated with our Faith? And what if all of this happened to us at the tender age of 12? My guess is that many of us would not react with the same endurance that Euphrosyne does. (But neither is this one of those books that glosses everything over. Euphrosyne definitely struggles with doubt and temptation all along the way, and the reader struggles along with her, knowing what she ought to do, but also understanding the reality of what will happen if she stands strong for her Faith!) The book is written so realistically that one almost feels the need to keep an eye out for “traps” in his/her own life after reading it.

After reading Euphrosyne’s struggles and then thinking through the questions that those struggles point to, the reader is left with the determination to take nothing about the Faith for granted. Readers will continue to realize the blessing that icons are in their life, whether the human-written ones or the icons that are still wearing the flesh that God Himself wrote. When a reader makes the sign of the cross, they will ponder the “streaks of light” that Euphrosyne could “see” traced over her Orthodox friends’ chests near the end of the book. The Divine Liturgy will not be the “same old” liturgy so easily taken for granted… I could go on and on (at the risk of divulging too much of the story) with ways that the reader will be challenged to ponder their faith. Suffice it to say that this book makes its readers really think about their Faith and then value it like never before.

If you choose to share this book with your students, be sure that you read it first (it won’t take you too long: as I mentioned before, it is hard to put down!), so that you have a grasp on what is coming. If you share it with the class, you can read it aloud with them, or have them read several chapters at a time that you can then discuss when you meet together. It would make a great summer “book club” read that you could meet up during coffee hour to discuss the next few chapters, even if you are not having Sunday Church School over the summer! Regardless of how you read it, be sure to talk together about this book. It is my opinion that your Faith (and your students’ Faith!) will be strengthened after reading and discussing this book together!

Purchase your own copy/copies of “Icon” here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/icon-a-novel/

Learn more about author Georgia Briggs here: https://georgiabriggsauthor.wordpress.com/

Here are some quotes from different parts of “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, along with suggestions of discussions your class could hold when you arrive at that part of the book. (With apologies for spoilers: they are difficult to avoid in this book!) We hope that these selections can help to give you an idea of the types of discussions that this book can encourage!
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“Mimi leans closer to me. ‘I’ll tell you a bigger secret,’ she whispers, ‘I am still Orthodox. My name is Mary. And guess what? It always will be.’

‘They made me change mine to Hillary,’ I say, ‘I used to be Euphrosyne.’

‘After St. Euphrosynos the Cook?’

‘Yeah. He was my patron saint.’

‘He still is your patron saint,’ Mimi whispers.

‘What if he isn’t, now that my name is different?’

‘They can’t change the name God gave you, Mimi says.‘Besides… you want to know something really ironic?’

‘What?’

‘Hillary is an Orthodox name too,’ she says with a grin. She shakes her head. ‘And Mimi is short for Miriam, which is just another form of Mary. Somebody didn’t do their research.’”~ “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 44

This exchange between Euphrosyne and her new friend, Mary the librarian, offers the chance to talk about names. What name does each member of your class go by? What is their Christian name? Spend some time learning more about and teaching each other about your patron saints!

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“I’m quiet for a few minutes, considering what he’s saying. It seems so easy, so simple, to believe that goodness is just following your heart and being nice to people.

It’s flat, thought. It’s like Winter Holiday instead of Christmas, warm and fuzzy but not real. It’s nothing like the rich smell of incense, or the warmth in your throat when you swallow communion, or the brightness of Pascha. I’ve pulled a bullet from an icon and watched it bleed. Maybe if I had grown up with my grandparents, I could agree with Dr. Snead, but you can’t go through what I’ve been through and not believe in God. The real question is if I want to follow God or not.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 99-100

Ask your students what they think of these thoughts Euphrosyne has in one of her “sessions” with Dr. Snead. Have them mentally compare their own spiritual life with the life of a non-religious person their age, to see if there are parallels to what Euphrosyne is saying about the emptiness of life without Faith. Invite them to cite incidents of times when they have had the opportunity to see God at work. Encourage them to think about following God as well, even if no one else around them is choosing to do so.

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“He turns the icon toward me, and I see St. Nicholas’ stern eyes and set mouth…

‘I thought Christians weren’t supposed to worship things like this,’ Dr. Wilcott says. ‘Graven images. Isn’t that kind of like idolatry?’

It’s like a picture of a friend, I think. Not an idol. But if I get drawn in, I might say too much, so I just say, ‘I don’t know.’

Dr. Snead chuckles. ‘Same old Hillary, shutting herself off.’”~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 162-163.

After reading this passage, talk with your students about icons and idolatry. How do the students define the difference between reverencing an icon and idolatry? Have they ever encountered someone who accused them of idolatry because of having icons in their home and church? Talk together about Euphrosyne’s personal description of what an icon means to her. Challenge the students to think of the best way that they can describe what an icon means to them, so that when they meet with opposition or accusations, they can clearly express their intent with having and/or reverencing the icon.

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“‘So, I assume you’re here for one of these?’ [Dr. Snead] waves his hand from me to the icon. ‘Or both?’

‘Both,’ says Father Innocent.

‘How about we make a deal?’ says Dr. Snead. ‘I’ll give you one. You choose.’

‘Then I must take Euphrosyne.’

‘The sick orphan instead of a holy icon? Look at her. She won’t make it out to your car.’

‘There are two holy icons here,’ says Father.

Dr. Snead blinks in confusion.

‘And I believe St. Nicholas can take care of himself,’ Father Innocent says…” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 180-181

Talk with your students about this passage. What does Father Innocent mean when he says that there are TWO icons in Dr. Snead’s office? There is St. Nicholas’ icon with the bullet hole and the bloodstain, and what/who else? Which icon is Fr. Innocent choosing to take with him? Do you think that is a good idea? Why or why not?

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“When I get close, I realize I can see more than just the stuff on the outside. I can see her soul too. And it makes me sad. Its silver glow has dark scars across it. There’s a jagged rip over her heart and another on her right hand, the hand she’s holding over her face as she cries. The one across her heart looks old, but the one on her hand is fresh. I hover beside her, trying to touch her.

‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.’ she whispers over and over again. She makes the sign of the cross, and her fingers leave a trail of light that lingers for a moment before disappearing.”  ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 195

Talk together about this passage after reading it. Why do you think her soul glows? Where did the scars come from? Why do her fingers leave a trail of light when she crosses herself? How does this make you think differently about your own soul and your own prayers?