Category Archives: Church Fathers

Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of St. John Climacus

This is the sixth in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn more about that particular Sunday’s focus. We will share each blog early, so that you have time to read it before the forthcoming Sunday, in case you find any of those ideas helpful for your particular class.

Here’s a meditation on the Sunday of St. John Climacus for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

Today we commemorate St. John Climacus and his work “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” both of which have had a great impact on the Holy Orthodox Church through their influence on the monastic community and on the Church at large.

St. John was given the name “Climacus” because of his writings. “Climacus” means “ladder” and thus his name is a nod to the work by that name. From a very young age, John desired to serve God with all of his heart. He became a monk at the Mt. Sinai Monastery when he was only 16 years old, and he served there faithfully for years before going into the desert to live a hermit’s life.

The fight against the devil and his passions was difficult, but John faithfully prayed and focused on Christ, and over time he became holier because of his refusal to give in to those passions. His holiness drew people to John, and even monks would come to him to ask for advice. God gave him the gift to be able to help people who were severely tempted and/or upset to be at peace.

God used John to work some miracles during his lifetime. For example, one time his disciple Moses was far from their dwelling, searching for dirt for their garden, when he got very hot and tired, so he took a rest under a big rock. As this was happening, John was back at his cell, praying, when he had a revelation that Moses was in danger. John began to pray fervently for his disciple. Later in the evening, when Moses returned home, he told John that while he had been sleeping under the rock, he heard John calling him, so he woke up and moved quickly, just as the huge rock crashed down right where he had been sleeping! God had heard John’s prayers and saved Moses with this miracle.

Many years passed, and John continued to faithfully pray and read from the lives of the saints. He continued to live a holy life. At age 74, he was made the abbot at the Mt. Sinai Monastery. The monks there asked him to write down all of the rules that he’d followed for his whole life, so that they could follow his example. He wrote about thirty steps that can lead monks (and any Orthodox Christian) closer to God. He called the steps “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” Although this book was written about 1,400 years ago, it is still considered the ultimate guide to the Christian ascetic life.

St. John Climacus, please intercede for our salvation!

 

Here are a few suggestions of ways that you and your students can learn about St. John Climacus, if you choose to teach a lesson about him and/or the ladder of Divine Ascent.

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“The ascetic example of this great Saint of the Church inspires us in our Lenten journey.” Before teaching your class about him, you may want to read this thorough account of the life of St. John Climacus here: https://www.goarch.org/sunday-stjohnclimacus

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Teachers of young children may want to incorporate this art idea into a lesson on St. John Climacus and his Ladder of Divine Ascent: http://www.creativehandscreativeminds.com/2014/03/st-john-of-ladder.html

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Find ideas of ways to help your students learn from St. John Climacus’ life, and from his “Ladder of Divine Ascent” (including craft ideas) here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/lenten-learning-st-john-climacus/

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Middle-years students (and older ones) will benefit from reading or listening to this article by Fr. Andrew Lemeshonok from St. Elizabeth Convent: http://orthochristian.com/102249.html Here is a sample from the article:

“The forthcoming week is devoted to a great ascetic – Saint John Climacus. Spiritual life is a ladder, which leads to the Heavenly Kingdom. We climb it, we fall down, we hit the ground, we stand up and we fall again. The thing is, we need to stand up over and over again… The main thing is to humble yourself – to acknowledge your own weakness and to let God enter your life. You do not need to surprise people with your feats and talents. The Lord speaks simply in the Gospel: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls’ (Matthew, 11:29).”
After reading the article, discuss it together as a class. Talk together about ways that we fall from the ladder, and what should be our response when we do fall (get back up and start climbing again). Encourage each other to get back up and climb again. You may want to close this class with an art activity: consider allowing your students to create a poster that reminds them of this lesson. Perhaps it could be an encouragement to keep trying, to keep climbing the ladder, even when they fall; or a reminder that they are on a ladder in the first place; or a quote from St. John Climacus himself. Encourage them to hang the poster in their room or to give it to someone who needs encouragement to keep climbing.

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Have you ever read “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by St. John Climacus? It is available as a pdf here: http://www.prudencetrue.com/images/TheLadderofDivineAscent.pdf

Consider printing off a step (or two) that could be the most beneficial to your older Sunday Church School students, and engage them in a discussion about that step. How does St. John recommend that we climb towards God in that way? Has anything changed in the years since he wrote this, or is this step still relevant to us today? How can we, right now, work towards climbing that step of the ladder?

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Classes of older middle school students or older could benefit from reading this article, “Why Do We Need the Ladder?” The article offers reasons from a deacon, a priest, and an archpriest of why it is important for modern-day Orthodox Christians to read and learn from St. John Climacus’ “Ladder of Divine Ascent.” After a quick review of the life of St. John  (which the students may be able to contribute, depending on their previous studies), divide the class into three groups. Give one interview from the article to each of the three groups. Allow the groups some time to read their interview/portion of the article and come up with a few main points to share with the other groups. Encourage them to come up with a creative way to share their points with the rest of the class. Allow time for each group to present their portion of the article with the rest of the classroom, so that you can all learn together how we can benefit from St. John’s writings. http://orthochristian.com/102181.html

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This three-minute video takes a closer look at the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent and could be a helpful addition to a lesson on St. John Climacus. http://orthochristian.com/92323.html

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Teachers and older students will benefit from listening to this talk on the life and teachings of St. John of the Ladder: https://orthodoxlivonia.org/files/Adult-Ed-Classes/2018-03-18-Ad-Ed-Class.mp3 (The talk is 33 minutes long.)

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Raising Them Right” by St. Theophan the Recluse

St. Theophan the Recluse may have lived a reclusive life, but his was a life of prayer and asceticism, and that closeness to God granted him much wisdom. His writings and teachings have been recorded, preserved, and translated from the Russian so that we are able to read them and learn from them. “Raising them Right” is a collection of his writings and teachings for and about young people, intended for youth and those who raise or teach them. It is a small but powerful collection of teachings.

“Raising them Right” begins with a few pages telling about the life of St. Theophan the Recluse. That is followed by 7 chapters of his teachings: “The Christian Adult”, “Baptism: the Adult and the Child”, “The Developing Child”, “Forming Attitudes”, “The Years of Youth”, “Understanding a Young Person”, and finally “Preserving God’s Grace”. Each chapter contains timeless wisdom. Even though St. Theophan was born more than 200 years ago, his words are applicable to adults and children today.

This book is small but wise. We recommend that parents and teachers alike read it, ponder its words, and allow St. Theophan to help us in our task of training children. As we learn, may we truly raise the next generation of Orthodox Christians right.

St. Theophan, please pray for us and for our students!

 

Purchase “Raising Them Right” here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/raising-them-right-a-saints-advice-on-raising-children/. The ebook and audiobook will soon be available, as well.

Although the book is about raising children, quite a lot of it pertains to teachers and young people. Here are a few quotes from the book which we thought would be helpful to our teaching community, either as a challenge/encouragement to teachers, or to be used in a discussion with older students:

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“One may ask, how does one reach the point where the desire is born to walk toward God on the path of Christ? What does one do so that the law will imprint itself on the heart, and the sowing and development of the Christian life are different in essence from the sowing and development of natural life, owing to the special character of the Christian life and its relation to our nature. A man is not born a Christian, but becomes such after birth. The seed of Christ falls on the soil of a heart that is already beating.” (p. 13, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“One of the first tricks of the enemy against us is the idea of trusting in oneself: that is, if not renouncing, then at least not feeling the need for the help of grace. The enemy as it were says: ‘Do not go to the light where they wish to give you some kind of new powers. You are good just the way you are!’ And a man gives himself over to repose. But in the meantime the enemy is throwing a rock (some kind of unpleasantness) at one; others he is leading into a slippery place (the deception of the passions); for yet others he is strewing with flowers a closed noose (deceptively good conditions). Without looking around, a man strives to go further and further, and does not guess that he is falling down lower and lower until finally he goes to the very depths of evil, to the threshold of hell itself.” (p. 24, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“The Lord gives grace freely. But He asks that a man seek it and receive it with desire, dedicating himself entirely to God.” (p. 27, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“…so, let the child be surrounded by sacred forms, objects of all kinds, and let everything that can corrupt in examples, depictions, or things be put away. But later, and for all the time that follows, one must keep the same order. It is well known how powerfully corrupt images act upon the soul, no matter in what form they might touch it! How unfortunate is the child who, closing his eyes, or being left alone and going within himself, is stifled by a multitude of improper images—vain, tempting, breathing of the passions. This is the same thing for
the soul as smoke is for the head.” (pp 46-47, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“The most effective means for the education of true taste in the heart is a church-centered life, in which all children in their upbringing must be unfailingly kept. Sympathy for everything sacred, pleasure in remaining in its midst for the sake of quietness and warmth, separation from what is bright and attractive in worldly vanity—all this cannot better be imprinted in the heart (than by a church-centered life). The church building, church singing, icons—these are the first objects of fine art in content and power.” (p.54, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“And this is the chief aim of a Christian upbringing: that a man as a result of this might say within himself that he is a Christian. And if, when he comes to full awareness of himself he will say, ‘I am a Christian, obliged by my Savior and God to live in such a way so as to be vouchsafed the blessed communion with Him and with His chosen ones in the future life,’ then in the very midst of his independent existence or the unique, rational ordering of his life, he will place for himself as his first and essential duty to preserve in an independent way
and to warm the spirit of piety in which he previously walked under the guidance of others.” (p.60, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“A young blossom planted in a place where the wind blows on it from all sides only endures a little and then dries up; grass on which people frequently walk does not grow; a part of the body which is subjected to friction for a long time becomes numb. The same thing happens to the heart and to the good dispositions in it if one is given over to day-dreams or to empty reading or to enjoyments.” (p.69, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“It goes without saying that good naturally strives towards good and avoids the evil; there is a certain taste for this in the heart. But again, how often it happens that simplicity of heart is enticed by cunning. Thus, every young person is rightly advised to be careful in the choice of a friend. It is good not to conclude friendship
until the friend has been tested.” (p.72, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“The educator should go through all the degrees of Christian perfection in order later to know how to behave in the midst of action, to be capable of noticing which way the students are going, and then to act upon them with patience, successfully, powerfully, and fruitfully. This should be a group of the most pure, God-chosen, and holy people. Of all holy works, the education of children is the most holy.” (pp. 83-84, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“But the chief form of moral perfection which belongs to one who has preserved himself whole in the years of youth is a certain unshakability in virtue for his whole life. Samuel remained firm in the presence of all the temptations that scandalized in the house of Eli and in the midst of the agitations of the people in society. Joseph in the midst of his evil brothers, in the house of Potiphar, in prison and in glory, equally preserved his soul inviolate… A right outlook is converted, as it were, into nature, and if sometimes it is a little violated, soon it returns to its original state. Therefore in the lives of saints we find for the most part those who have preserved their moral purity and the grace of baptism in youth.” (pp. 86-87, “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

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“God is pleased most of all by what is offered first: the first fruits, the firstborn of men and animals, and therefore also by the first years of youth. An immaculate youth is a pure sacrifice.” (p.87 , “Raising Them Right,” by St. Theophan the Recluse)

Gleanings from a Book: “The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson

Author’s note: I am going to be forthright and admit that I’m cheating, and I’m actually okay with it. Perhaps I should explain. Ordinarily, when I review a book, I read it in one giant gulp before I share it with you. However, there is too much in this book’s 400 pages that I would miss if I did so, and selfishly, I don’t want to miss a thing. I want to experience Angela Doll Carlson’s daily walk through the first volume of the Philokalia as it was written and is meant to be experienced: one bit each day for a year. But at the same time, I am far too enthused about this book to keep it to myself until I have read the whole thing. My compromise is to “cheat” by reading from selected spots and sharing a few gleanings with you right now, so that you get a taste of it. I will be reading “The Wilderness Journal” as it was intended to be read in the year to come. Perhaps these gleanings will encourage you to join me!

Angela Doll Carlson’s book “The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” is a year’s worth of daily meditations on volume 1 of the Philokalia. That volume features writings from St. Isaiah the Solitary, Evagrios the Solitary, St. John Cassian, St. Mark the Ascetic, St. Hesychios the Priest, St. Neilos the Ascetic, St. Diadochos of Photiki, and St. John of Karpathos. “The Wilderness Journal” is divided into sections which feature each of those holy writers. Angela has invited a fellow author to introduce each writer. Thus, there are a few “guest author” days sprinkled throughout the book, one at the beginning of each section, immediately preceding the entries related to that writer’s quotes. Each subsequent day features one thought-provoking quote from the holy writer, and a short meditation related to that quote which Angela wrote as she pondered its message. She invites the reader to amble along slowly with her in this way through the first volume of the Philokalia, so that they, too, may learn “the love of the beautiful”.

I have read enough of the journal to know that I need it. I’ve found quote after quote that speaks to where I am right now: from needing to still my mind and focus on God; to learning to love and care for my neighbor; to being diligent in my pursuit of godliness; and so much more. Every entry offers a delectable nugget that I will be able to chew on all day long. Angela’s meditations grant the reader a glimpse of her take on the quote, as well as the opportunity to stretch their heart and mind in a way that is both good and helpful. She does not want the reader to consider her words as writing “about the Philokalia,” preferring rather that we readers read her words as “a book about [her] reading the Philokalia.”(p. 7) She recognizes that each reader may respond to the quotes in a different way, so she encourages each person to keep their own wilderness journal as they read.

As I mentioned above, I have not read this entire book yet. But I have read enough of it to be convinced that it will be an excellent aid for the spiritual growth of every person who reads it. So, dear community, here we are at the end of a calendar year. God willing, a brand new one gleams before us. As we step into this new year, please consider joining me in reading this book. Together, let’s walk through the year of “The Wilderness Journal,” learning and growing through these meditations on the first volume of the Philokalia.

Find your own copy of “The Wilderness Journal” here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/the-wilderness-journal-365-days-with-the-philokalia/

 

Here are a few gleanings I have gathered from what I read. I will share one quote from each holy writer, then a tidbit of Angela’s reflection on that quote.

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“Like a pilot steering a boat through the waves, he should hold to his course, guided by grace. Keeping his attention fixed within himself, he should commune with God in stillness, guarding his thoughts from distraction and his intellect from curiosity.” ~ St. Isaiah the Solitary

 

“I cannot silence the world. I cannot calm the waves… The world is what it is—noisy and beautiful and enduring. I can only look ahead to the shore and hold to the course. Today it means letting the phone ring, ignoring the dog barking, taking a deep breath and returning to these words when the waves crash against the side of the boat…” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 18)

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“You will recall how Christ did not reject the widow’s mites (cf. Mark 12:44), but accepted them as greater than the rich gifts of many others.” ~ Evagrios the Solitary

 

“Whatever you have, it’s enough. I say this, but I don’t believe it easily… as long as we see ourselves as profoundly lacking, we will not offer ourselves to another person… What is at risk today in knowing that in Christ, I am enough—not perfect, but enough?” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 57)

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“The Gospel teaches us to cut off the roots of our sins and not merely their fruits. When we have dug the root of anger out of our heart, we will no longer act with hatred or envy.” ~ St. John Cassian

 

“Anger is not without its bloom. We are angry sometimes for good reason. Anger, like pain, tells us something. But if left unchecked, it grows out of control and chokes the possibilities of beauty… The deep work of anger is regular maintenance for the soul…” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 93)

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“The intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also: and the wall between them cannot be demolished without stillness and prayer.” ~ St. Mark the Ascetic

 

“Even if it’s only one minute, I’ll take it. Even if, in the middle of the crazy busy-ness of this city, this family, this job, this life, I can contact the stillness, I will take it.

Each moment like that is a small stone I take from the wall that already exists between who I am and who I mean to be…” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 140)

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“A true monk is one who has achieved watchfulness, and he who is truly watchful is a monk in his heart.” ~ St. Hesychios the Priest

 

[On beginning to run again, as she prepared for a 5K]

“I was surging one week and retreating the next, feeling failure, reveling in improvement, rising and falling, and on and on. I did not realize that over time I’d developed a habit of running. ‘I’ve never been a runner,’ or ‘I hate running,’ I had said in the past. I may quit after this race and never run again, but those old statements will never be true again.
Habits show who we are.” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 248)

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“Through our anxiety about worldly things we hinder the soul from enjoying divine blessings and we bestow on the flesh greater care and comfort than are good for it.” ~ St. Neilos the Ascetic

 

“How far do I get from home before I begin to worry that I’ve left the door unlocked or the stove on? Not far…

So many reasons to worry. So many reasons to fear. How far do I get into the muddy pit of fear before I decide to move to prayer, to reach up and take a hand offered and pull myself out? Not far, I hope. Not far.” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 282)

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“We share in the image of God by virtue of the intellectual activity of our soul: for the body is, as it were, the soul’s dwelling place.” ~ St. Diadochos of Photiki

 

“It’s a funny thing about windows: two-way glass means I’m looking out, judging what I see, but if anyone were to look in, what a invasion it would be… This whole journey into the wilderness of the soul—the reading, the study, the prayer, the daily reflection—cannot merely be an exercise in looking out. This journey must allow for some looking in, as well.” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 346)

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“As we look up to Him with cries of distress and continual lamentation, it is He Himself that we breathe.” ~ St. John of Karpathos

 

“When my children were young and got hurt, I would hold them first, tell them I know it hurts, then tend to the wound. That embrace was foundational. Triage of the soul first. That embrace said, ‘I am here, so you are not alone…’
This is what God does for us when we lift up our hurts to Him…” (The Wilderness Journal: 365 Days with the Philokalia” by Angela Doll Carlson, p. 396)

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Gleanings from a Book: “Orthodox Christian Parenting Cultivating God’s Creation” By Marie Eliades

We recently discovered the book Orthodox Christian Parenting – Cultivating God’s Creation by Marie L. Eliades, published by Zoe Press in 2012. This book is a compilation of quotes and writings about raising and educating Orthodox Christian children. The text is gathered both from Church fathers and contemporary Orthodox Christians, and is presented by theme. (An important note: the introduction to the book tells more about the project and encourages readers to discuss what they read with their spiritual father to see what is best for their own family.)

Themes include:

“The Bigger Picture” (addresses why the book’s content is important)

“Marriage and New Beginnings” (sets the foundation for a new Orthodox family, and offers Orthodox perspectives on infertility/pregnancy/childbirth/adoption/loss of a child)

“Raising our Children” (speaks to childrearing from early childhood through youth)

“In the House of the Lord” (offers the basics of Orthodox family life at Church and at home)

“Adolescence and Growing Up” (talks about the issues and challenges that older children and their related adults face)

“So, They’re Leaving Home” (suggestions for launching a young adult)

We found many encouraging and challenging quotes throughout the book, and will share a few of them with you. This book will be of great benefit to any Orthodox Christians who marry, raise children, and/or teach children about the Faith. We recommend that people in those categories consider reading the book because of its insights into what the Church has taught about raising and teaching children of all ages.

Find the book here: http://www.shop.zoepress.us/Orthodox-Christian-Parenting-Cultivating-Gods-Creation-978-0-9851915-0-4.htm

Here are a few quotes from the book:

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“Saint John [Chrysostom] says that the souls of children are soft and delicate like wax. If right teachings are impressed upon them from the beginning, then with time these impressions harden as in the case of a waxen seal. None will be able to undo this good impression… There is no more wonderful material with which to work than the souls of children. Parents create ensouled icons of God, living statues.” (p. 24)

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From a section from St. Porphyrios:
“Teach the children to seek God’s help. The great secret for children’s progress is humility. Trust in God gives perfect security. God is everything. No one can say that I am everything. That cultivates egotism. God desires us to lead children to humility. Without humility neither we nor our children will achieve anything. You need to be careful when you encourage children. You shouldn’t say to a child, ‘You’ll succeed, you’re great, you’re young, your fearless, you’re perfect!’ This is not good for the child. You can tell the child and say, ‘The talents you have, have been given to you by God. Pray and God will give you strength to cultivate them and in that way you will succeed. God will give you His grace.’ That is the best way. Children should learn to seek God’s help in everything.” (p. 86)

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From a section from St. Porphyrios:
“Young people these days say, ‘You need to understand us!’ But we mustn’t conform to their ideas. On the contrary, we need to pray for them, to say what is right, to live by what is right, and proclaim what is right, and not conform ourselves to their way of thinking. We mustn’t compromise the magnificence of our faith… We need to remain the people that we are and proclaim the truth and the light. The children will learn from the holy Fathers. The teaching of the Fathers will instruct our children about Confession, about the passions, about evils and about how the saints conquered their evil selves. And we will pray that God will enter into them.” (p. 90)

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“The Orthodox educator does not project himself as superior because he sees his own self as more sinful than everyone. His students teach him. He cooperates harmoniously with his colleagues; he bases the success of his work on prayer. He educates himself daily in order to be able to educate his little brothers in Christ. How different is this model of educator from that of the various educated people of our age who often, ignoring the education of the Three Hierarchs, set out with a  luciferian egotism of knowledge, of projection, of worldly wisdom and often more based on their individual net worth. In fact, the Three Hierarchs as brilliant stars can serve to enlighten the darkness of our age, to cast light on the facts of ‘education’ of which our purported leaders of education are entirely unaware.” (p. 135)

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“Orthodox holy Tradition teaches us humility, obedience, repentance and love. Tradition can only be passed on by example. ‘Youth ministers’ will not be able to communicate much about Orthodox spirituality unless the young ones are actually seeing this happen in the home or at least in the homes of other church members. SOMEBODY actually has to start living Tradition in order for it to be conveyed. It is no wonder that the Greek word for Tradition, ‘paradosis,’ means to pass along or hand down something that is living and active.” (p. 160)

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From a section by Fr. Artemy Vladimirov:

“We very much pity those Orthodox Christians who think that the best rest for their exhausted soul is to watch television news. This isn’t a bad thing, perhaps, but it’s a dead thing. You may spend all of the earthly time you have been allotted with such distractions, but you will never be at peace. If you want to calm your mind and ease your heart, try calling instead on the most holy name of Jesus Christ, without haste and with only one intent: to attract His attention and repent of your sins.

“Try taking a walk for ten minutes as you invoke his miracle-working name, and you will see spiritual profit. Begin in a simple, humble manner, ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ You may even do this somewhat mechanically, knowing that this tradition has been sanctified by generations of saints, but as you walk and pray, try not to think of anything else. Just walk in the presence of God.

“In these ten minutes you will find that your fevered mind is soothed, that the noisy bazaar of your thoughts has become light, clear, and direct…” (p. 201)

The Church Fathers on Prayer

We recently looked together at the Lord’s Prayer. That is such an important prayer, one of many prayers that we Orthodox Christians should pray regularly, or “without ceasing,” according to St. Paul in 1 Thess. 5:17. We all know that we should pray, and that we should do so continually. But in this busy era, how can we actually do that? What is the best way for us to pray? What should we pray for when we pray? Why is prayer so important? This week we will glimpse at the answer to those questions by studying the words of the Church Fathers. Although they were alive on earth in different time periods, all of them successfully lived Christian lives in a world that flew in the face of their faith. We can benefit from their wisdom, if we take a moment to ponder their words. May these words encourage us each to examine our own prayers. Better yet, may we apply them, begin to actually pray more, and teach our students to do so as well!

How can we pray without ceasing?

“The other day one of our skete schema-monks came to see me. ‘I’ve fallen into despondency, Abba, since I don’t see in myself- in one who bears the exalted angelic habit- a change for the better. The Lord calls one strictly to account if he’s a monk or schema-monk only according to his clothing. But how can I change? How can I die to sin? I sense my total feebleness.’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘we’re absolutely bankrupt, and if the Lord judges according to works, He will find nothing good in us.’

‘But is there hope for salvation then?’

‘Of course there is. Always say the Jesus Prayer, and leave everything to the will of God.’

‘But what kind of benefit can there be from this prayer if neither the mind nor the heart participates in it?’

‘Enormous benefit. Of course, this prayer has many subdivisions, from simple utterance to creative prayer. But for us, even if we were to be on the bottom step, it would be salvific. The powers of the enemy run from one who utters this prayer, and sooner or later he’ll be saved all the same.’

‘I’ve been resurrected!’ the schema-monk exclaimed. ‘I won’t be despondent anymore.’

And so I repeat: say the prayer, even if only with your lips, and the Lord will never abandon you.” Elder Barsanuphius of Optina

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Peaceful, night-time prayer is of great assistance with its calmness and is also more efficacious for our spiritual development, just as the silent, night-time rain is of great benefit to growing plants.”  Saint (Elder) Paisios of the Holy Mountain Athos

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What is the best way for us to pray?

“Prayer consisting of words alone does not help if the heart does not participate in prayer. God hears only a fervent prayer. Abba Zoilus of Thebaid was once returning from Mt. Sinai and met a monk who complained to him, that they are suffering much from drought in the monastery. Zoilus said to him: ‘Why don’t you pray and implore God?’ The monk replied: ‘We have prayed and have implored, but there is no rain.’ To this, Zoilus replied: ‘It is evident that you are not praying fervently. Do you want to be convinced that it is so?’ Having said this, the elder raised his hands to heaven and prayed. Abundant rain fell to the earth. Seeing this, the astonished monk fell to the ground and bowed before the elder, but the elder, fearing the glory of men, quickly fled. The Lord Himself said: ‘Ask and it will be given you’ (St. Luke 11:9). In vain are mouths full of prayer if the heart is empty. God does not stand and listen to the mouth but to the heart. Let the heart be filled with prayer even though the mouth might be silent. God will hear and will receive the prayer. For God only listens to a fervent prayer.” – Saint Nikolai Velimirovich

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“Prayer should not depend upon our mood or good will.  If we are in a bad state, it’s because we are filled with sin.  Thus, we need to repent.  Every day, examine your conscience and repent.  Force yourself to pray regularly every day.  If you don’t want to do that, then you need to repent of that.  You must understand how necessary this is.   Know that the devil lurks and waits to destroy your soul, and that you are always in danger.  Prayer alone will give your soul the strength to resist.  In order to acquire spiritual muscles, you have to go to the spiritual gym.”  – Elder Sergei of Vanves

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“If we want to ask a favor of any person of power, we presume not to approach but with humility and respect.  How much more ought we to address ourselves to the Lord and God of all things with a humble and entire devotion?  We are not to imagine that our prayers shall be heard because we use many words, but because the heart is pure and the spirit penitent.” – St. Benedict of Nursia

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“If you wish to learn how to pray, keep your gaze fixed on the end of …prayer.  The end is adoration, contrition of the heart, love of neighbor.  It is self-evident that lustful thoughts, whisperings of slander, hatred of one’s neighbor, and similar things are opposed to it.  All this is incompatible with the work of prayer.” – The Blessed Callistus, Patriarch

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“Purity of prayer is silence from the converse of bodily thoughts, and the uninterrupted movement of the things which give delight to the soul.” – Saint Isaac of Nineveh

What should we pray for when we pray?

“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God.  But pray as you have been taught, saying: ‘Thy will be done in me’ (cf. Lk 22: 42).  Always entreat Him in this way  –  that His will be done.  For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.” – Evagrios the Solitary (Ponticus)

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“Let us be mutually mindful of one another, of one heart and one mind.  Let us ever pray for one another, and by mutual love lighten our burdens and difficulties.  And if one of us should, by the swiftness of divine action, depart from here first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord.  Let not prayer for our brothers and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.”  – St. Cyprian of Carthage

Why is prayer so important?

The first condition for the attainment of true prayer is a fervent desire to be saved and be pleasing to God, a readiness to sacrifice all for the sake of God and the salvation of one’s soul. As Bishop Theophan the Recluse states: Consider prayer to be the first and foremost duty in your life and as such keep it in your heart. Go about your prayers as to the fulfillment of your primary duty, and not as to something to be done between tasks.” http://www.antiochianarch.org.au/OrthodoxPrayer.aspx

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“Amidst the racket and ridicule of people my prayer rises toward You, O my King and my Kingdom.  
Prayer is incense that ceaselessly censes my soul and raises it toward You, and draws You toward her.  Stoop down, my King, so that I may whisper to You my most precious secret, my most secret prayer, my most prayerful desire.  You are the object of all my prayers, all my searching, I seek nothing except You, truly only You.” – Saint Nikolai (Velimirovich)

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“Oh, what great happiness and bliss, what exaltation it is to address oneself to the Eternal Father. Always, without fail, value this joy which has been accorded to you by God’s infinite grace and do not forget it during your prayers; God, the angels and God’s holy men listen to you.”  – St. John of Kronstadt

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Heaven Meets Earth – Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts” by John Skinas

Author’s note: I had other plans for this blog post. But when this book arrived in the mail this week, I knew that I had to share it with you immediately. It is THAT good. My other plans will wait!

“The Christian story is not ‘just’ a story. It is truth… that transforms, both in the telling and in the hearing. That is why we enter into the great feasts of the Church and build our lives around them. They are not mere commemorations but transforming stories, true in a way that is more profound than the bare search for ‘fact.’ And they determine not only our calendars and schedules but also the way we see and understand the world.” These words by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick are a fitting introduction to the book Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts. The book itself was written by John Skinas, and published by Ancient Faith Publishing this year. This book is an excellent resource for Sunday Church School teachers. It would be a fabulous source on which to base a series of Sunday School lessons.

The pages of this beautiful book are full of information and personal challenges related to each of the 12 Feasts of the Church as well as Pascha. Each feast has several pages dedicated to it. The first spread features the icon of the feast (with a details from the icon pointed out in footnotes), the story behind the feast, and related scriptures. The following pages highlight Old Testament connections, a church or landmark in the world related to the feast, the festal hymns, a quote from the Church Fathers, some Festal Traditions, and personal challenges in both the “Think About It” and the “Where are You?” sections. The pages are colorfully illustrated with icons, photos, and related graphics. Each page is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.

Regardless of the age of the reader, this book will help to nurture a love for the great feasts of the Church. Young children will pour over the beautiful icons and pictures. Older children will enjoy finding connections to the book of “things we sing and hear at church.” Teens and adults will find a plethora of information about each feast. Everyone can be challenged to think about the feast and will find ways to become a better Christian while celebrating that feast. Heaven Meets Earth is an invaluable resource that will be well-loved and much-used in an Orthodox Christian home.

This book belongs in your family’s prayer corner! Find it here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/heaven-meets-earth

The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education offers free printable standup centerpieces that can be used with each of the feasts. They would pair well with lessons based on this book. Read about them here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/introducing-a-resource-feast-day-stand-up-centerpieces/

Find additional information about the 12 feasts in these places: http://www.antiochian.org/twelve-great-feasts; http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8713; and http://oca.org/FSicons-churchyear.asp?Section=twelvefeasts, among others.

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Here is a sample quote from each feast’s pages to get you thinking and/or for you to discuss with your Sunday Church School students:

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Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept. 8): “Salvation is near! The first feast of the liturgical year celebrates our new beginning. Mary, the Mother of God, is born, bringing great joy to her parents and hope to the world. It is here that the story of her Son’s Incarnation and our liberation from sin and death begins, since it is in Mary that the Lord will find a place to dwell when He comes down from heaven.” (p. 7)

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Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14): (from the “Where are you?” section) “The excitement of the new liturgical year may already be gone, and maybe we’ve slid back into our old sinful ways. The Church holds the Cross up to remind us of our calling.” (p. 13)

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The Entrance of the Theotokos (Nov. 21): (from the “Old Testament Connection” section)“The Ark of the Covenant contained: The word of God written in stone; manna that came down from heaven; the rod of Aaron that miraculously budded without water. The Theotokos, the New Ark, contained: The Word of God Himself in the flesh; the Bread of Life who came down from heaven; the Seedless Flower that sprang from the Root of Jesse.” (p. 16)

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The Nativity of Christ (Dec. 25): “Jesus the Messiah is wrapped in swaddling clothes that resemble His death shroud; the manger is the same shape as is tomb; the cave of His birth resembles the cave of His burial. Church Fathers such as Ephraim the Syrian emphasize that God the Word was made flesh so that He could enter Hades and leave it powerless, freeing us from sin and death forever.” (Festal Icon footnote #1; p. 18)

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The Theophany of Christ (Jan. 6): (from the “Festal Tradition” section) “…In joyful continuation of Christ’s act of sanctification, priests immerse a cross into a container of water three times… The priests sprinkle water in every direction, blessing churches, people, and all of creation…. Through this cleansing, Christ continues making everything new…. This is also the season when priests bless the homes of the faithful, reminding us that hour home life should never be separate from our church life; it all belongs to Christ, who has sanctified the waters through His Baptism for the life of the world.” (p. 24)

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The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (Feb. 2): (from the “Think About It” section) “In preparing to meet Christ, Simeon and Anna stayed connected to the temple, to scripture, to God… every Sunday we meet Christ more intimately than Simeon and Anna could have imagined: in the Eucharist… Appropriately, Simeon’s famous words are used not only at the end of the day, but also after Holy Communion. Having united with Christ, we can ‘depart in peace’ to wherever God calls us to go.” (p. 29)

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The Annunciation (March 25): “In the days of the creation of the world, when God was uttering His living and mighty ‘let there be,’ the word of the Creator brought creatures into the world. but on that day, unprecedented in the history of the world, when Mary uttered her brief and obedient, ‘so be it,’ I hardly dare say what happened then — the word of the creature brought the Creator into the world.” ~ St. Philaret of Moscow (p. 32)

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The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: (from the “Old Testament Connection” section) “Jerusalem was crowded with visiting Jews who had come to celebrate Passover (Pascha in Greek), the commemoration of their deliverance from slavery and death in Egypt. Little did they know that this man whom they hailed as their deliverer from slavery to the Romans was entering the city as the Passover lamb being led to slaughter. This sacrifice will release them from their slavery to sin and the eternal death that results from it.” (p. 36)

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Pascha: The Resurrection of Christ: (from the “Where Are You?” section) “Pascha is the highlight of our liturgical year, the feast so great that without it the twelve feasts would lose their light and meaning. No matter where any of us find ourselves, there is nothing to fear now. ‘The Light has shone forth, awakening those who sleep in darkness and turning tears into joy.’ All we have to do is reach out, and Christ will pull us into His everlasting glory.” (p. 45)

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The Ascension of Christ: “For forty days, since Pascha, Christ has been appearing to His disciples, eating with them, showing them His wounds, testifying to the accomplishment of His Crucifixion and proving the reality of His Resurrection. Now they stand watching as the Son of God ascends, raising earth up to meet heaven.” (p. 47)

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Holy Pentecost: (from the “Festal Tradition” section) “Pentecost is the gift Jesus gives to His bride. We’ve received something even greater than the Law; we’ve received the grace of the Spirit of God. Now we are called to be faithful to our Bridegroom.” (p. 52)

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The Transfiguration of Christ (Aug. 6): (from the “Think About It” section) “Even Christ’s clothing shines brightly, showing that everything and everyone connected to Him can shine with His light. In fact, this is our calling: to shine with heavenly beauty in a darkened world.” (p. 57)

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The Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug. 15): “The way in which Christ is holding her soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes, reminds us of the icons in which Mary is holding her Child. Christ is now accepting Mary on behalf of heaven in the same way that she accepted Him on behalf of earth.” (Festal Icon footnote #3, p. 58)

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“Each year, our spiritual journey around this circle of feasts is meant to bring us closer to the One who is at its center, the One who calls us to let His Light shine through our being in an endless day of brightness and joy.” (p. 61)

Lenten Learning: St. John Climacus

The fourth Sunday of Great Lent is called “The Sunday of St. John Climacus.” This blog will help us learn more about the life of St. John and why we commemorate him on this day, so that we can better teach our Sunday Church School students about his life. Here are two ways that we can begin to learn about him:

  1. Watch a 2-minute video about St. John of the Ladder, which introduces him and his book as well as the icon inspired by the book. The video ends with a challenge to young people to keep climbing! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VTtpllgQTk.
  2. Read this blog about his life and see pictures of the cave where he lived: https://orthodoxword.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/the-cave-of-saint-john-of-the-ladder/ or here: http://myocn.net/blessings-desert-st-john-ladder-climacus/

Would you believe that we do not actually even know St. John Climacus’ family name?!? Climacus is a Greek word that means “of the Ladder.” He is so named because of the book that he wrote primarily for ascetics. The book is also both challenging and helpful to lay people, and it is called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. St. John Climacus is known for what he lived, taught, and passed on; not for where (or who) he came from.

We do know that St. John was a monk who chose to live his life to the fullest for Christ, beginning at an early age. He was only 16 years old when he went to live at St. Catherine’s Monastery. When he was 20, he was tonsured a monk. One source mentioned that his elder waited those four years to tonsure him in order to test his humility. He lived as a monk for more than 70 years, many of those years in solitude, in a “cave” which was actually a small shelter formed by boulders: a truly humble dwelling. He lived a life of humility.

We also know that St. John’s pursuit of holiness has influenced the lives of Orthodox Christians for every century since he walked on earth. His words in The Ladder of Divine Ascent (which he wrote because the abbot of another monastery asked him to do so) encourage all of us to continue our journey towards the Kingdom of God. His entreaty that we “let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath” has challenged Orthodox Christians to live their lives in hesychasm, or the quietness that leads a person to God through constant prayer. (This constant prayer has come to be known as the “Jesus Prayer.”) He humbly led his monks and all Orthodox Christians since then, passing down tools that we can use to grow deeper in our faith.

So, what can we learn from what we know about St. John Climacus? How can we apply that learning and teach our Sunday Church School children to do so, as well?

1. Perhaps we can begin by emphasizing to our students how important it is for Orthodox Christians to live in a way that leads others towards God. Each family’s name is important to that family, but how much more important is the name which all of us bear, “Christian?” Let us evaluate how well we live up to that name, consider how our life is impacting those around us and those who will follow after us, and take steps to “kick it up a notch.” Let us encourage our students to do the same!

2. Another thing we can do after studying the life of St. John Climacus is encourage our students to live godly lives wherever they are! We need to support them in their pursuit of the Faith, doing all that we can to encourage their spiritual growth. We must encourage our students to incorporate themselves into the life of the Church, to continue to be involved with the Sunday Church School and JOY/SOYO, etc. We should encourage our students to attend Orthodox Christian summer camp so that they can meet other Orthodox kids and be strengthened in their faith. We can invest in icons, books, music, etc. to give as gifts to our Sunday Church School students, that will help to point them towards the Faith. We also need to work to inspire our students to offer themselves to God for His service, whether that happens now (serving in the altar, choir, etc.) or later in life (as short- or long-term missionaries, as monastics, or as clergy). Regardless of their age, when our Sunday Church School students take steps like this, whether they are small or large steps, let us support them, release them, and pray for them.

3. We can pursue holiness together as a Sunday Church School class by using the tools that St. John Climacus left for us. We should be praying constantly, pursuing hesychasm with more fervor. We can read The Ladder of Divine Ascent and study the steps with our students. (Download the book here: http://www.prudencetrue.com/images/TheLadderofDivineAscent.pdf. Listen to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast about it here: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/4th_sunday_of_lent_st_john_of_the_ladder. Or read this new book that takes a look at each of the steps of St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent: http://store.ancientfaith.com/thirty-steps-to-heaven. Print a copy of the basic steps of the ladder to hang in your classroom as a reminder: http://saintannas.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/30-Steps-of-Ladder.pdf. Read about the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent here: http://saintannas.org/sunday-of-the-ladder-of-divine-ascent/.) As we practice constant prayer and daily continue our ascent of the ladder, we will become more like Christ.


“Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend and hear Him who says: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God, who makes our feet like hind’s feet, and sets us on high places, that we may be victorious with His song.

Run, I beseech you, with him who said: Let us hasten until we attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, who, when He was baptized in the thirtieth year of His visible age, attained the thirtieth step in the spiritual ladder; since God is indeed love, to whom be praise, dominion, power, in whom is and was and will be the cause of all goodness throughout infinite ages. Amen.” St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 129

 

Here are a few ideas of ways to teach about St. John Climacus:

This blog suggests ways to teach about the life of St. John Climacus, and also offers directions for a “ladder” craft to help children remember his book: http://kellylardin.com/activities/2014/03/20/fourth-sunday-of-lent-st-john-climacus/

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Send a copy of this page home with each child, so that their family can discuss St. John and the ladder, as well as Sunday’s Gospel reading: http://saintanna.org/assets/forms/st_john_climacus.pdf

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Give each child a copy of an icon of St. John Climacus for them to color and hang up in their home, to remind them of him and his holiness: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/icons/clip/johnclim.gif or http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/icons/clip/climacus.gif

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Let younger Sunday Church School students color this icon of the ladder while you read to them a few of the steps on “the ladder” from St. John Climacus’ book The Ladder of Divine Ascent: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/icons/clip/ladder.gif

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Provide materials for students to create their own artistic version of the “ladder of Divine Ascent” as suggested here: http://illumination-learning.com/main/2014/04/23/st-john-of-the-ladder-craft/

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Read some of these quotes from St. John Climacus with older Sunday Church School students, and discuss their meanings and application together: http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/category/sayings-from-saints-elders-and-fathers/st-john-climicus-of-the-ladder/page/2/