Category Archives: Saints

Gleanings from a Book: “Spyridon’s Shoes” by Christine Rogers

Christine Rogers’ new book, “Spyridon’s Shoes” is a comfortable fit for its readers. The language is simple enough for mid-elementary-level readers to read on their own. The story line is intriguing, though, and will capture the attention of younger or older children as well as the adults who read this book.

Young Spyros’ family is hard-working, but nonetheless they experience one hardship after another. The book tells the story of how Spyros (a nickname for Spyridon) and his family face each of their struggles with faith. It also reveals the ways in which God chooses to send help.

The grandfatherly man who arrives and helps Spyros when he badly cuts his foot early in the story is, interestingly enough, also named Spyridon. Spyros offers to call the grandfather “Abba” and the man accepts that nickname. After the first meeting, Abba continues to show up in Spyros’ life, helping him as needed and inspiring him to do what is right. It takes the reader almost the entirety of the book to realize that “Abba” is actually Saint Spyridon himself, appearing to and physically assisting his young namesake who truly needs his help.

Although “Spyridon’s Shoes” is a work of fiction, it is a highly believable and delightful read. This book very naturally shares much of the wisdom of St. Spyridon, challenging readers to growth in their own Christian walk, without the reader feeling at all that they are being preached at by anyone. It incorporates some true stories of ways in which God has used St. Spyridon in the lives of those who have asked for (and received) his help. The book offers a glimpse into the saint’s real life on earth, within the context of a fictitious story.

Besides the story itself, there are a few extras that make this book so helpful to its readers. Vladimir Ilievski’s cover and occasional illustrations throughout the book are true to the story, giving readers a face for each Spyridon, while also bringing to life the setting on Corfu. The pages about St. Spyridon himself, found near the end of the book, help readers to learn even more about this wonderful saint. His troparion and icon are at the end of the book, for those who wish to ask for his prayers and see his icon.

This book is an enjoyable read for young and old alike. If you choose to read this book to your Sunday Church School students, it will probably take two or more class periods to finish, but your students will be engrossed in the story, and they won’t mind at all. Children will resonate with Spyros and love his story so much that they will probably ask to borrow the book when you finish, so that they can slip back into the story, re-reading it on their own. Just like St. Spyridon’s shoes, this book will be well-worn by the classes that own it. We can’t help hoping that Christine Rogers writes more books!

 

Purchase your own copy of “Spyridon’s Shoes” (available in paperback or ebook) here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/spyridons-shoes/

Here are some gleanings from the book (mostly quotes from “Abba”/St. Spyridon, so as not to give away any of  the story line), as well as a few additional resources that you may find helpful if you choose to teach your Sunday Church School class a lesson about the saint:

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“‘Prayer is our link to God, young Spyros. We should give our problems, whatever they are, to God, as we say in the Divine Liturgy that we “commend our whole life to Christ our God”.’ Abba stopped to cross himself and readjust his position on the boulder. ‘We leave everything to the Lord. Whatever He wills… Prayer is beneficial for everything, even the simplest things.’” (p. 33, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

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“Abba looked out over the waves. ‘With God, as with people, we seek to form a relationship, a friendship. The more you converse with God, which is what prayer is, the more natural it will become. Like speaking to an old friend.’

‘Like you, Abba,’ Spyros said, smiling.

Abba chuckled. ‘You are so young to have such old friends.’” (pp. 55-56, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

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“Father Theodore nodded. ‘You can pray to Saint Spyridon too and ask for his prayers. The saints in heaven, they are there with Christ, surrounded by His love and interceding for those of us on earth. Their prayers are great gifts.’” (p. 88, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

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“The miracles Spyros and his family learned about are all true. Saint Spyridon’s shoes continue to wear out every year, even to this day, and they are replaced on his feast day, which is December 12. The worn-out shoes are sent to churches all over the world, and many miracles are worked for the faithful who venerate them.” (p. 99, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

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St. Spyridon was present at the first ecumenical council. Around that time, he used a brick to demonstrate the unity of the Trinity. He held the brick in his hand and then squeezed it. Miraculously, fire shot up from it, water dripped out of it onto the ground, and then all that was left in his hand was dust. “There was only one brick,” Saint Spyridon said, “but it was composed of three elements. In the Holy Trinity there are three Persons, but only one God.” Read this and more about the life of St. Spyridon, including many miracles worked in his lifetime, here: https://oca.org/saints/lives/2000/12/12/103526-st-spyridon-the-wonderworker-and-bishop-of-tremithus

If you choose to share this story from St. Spyridon’s life with your students, you may want to bring a brick to class and invite them to hold it and see if there’s anything they can squeeze out of it before (and again after) sharing the story with you.

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Teachers of young children may want to read the Potamitis Publishing book “Saint Spyridon: the Miracle with the Clay Tile” with their students. http://orthodoxchildrensbooks.com/eng/index.php/Books-in-English/Paterikon-for-Kids-Saint-Spyridon-and-the-Horses/flypage-ask.tpl.html

After reading the book, you could make this craft. It uses three ingredients to make a “potsherd/brick” ornament, on which your students can draw the saint. It will remind your students of how St. Spyridon used a brick to demonstrate the Holy Trinity: http://www.theorthodoxchildrenspress.com/diy-kids/tocp-diy-family-st-spyridon-clay-ornament/

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Listen to the accounts of several miracles of St. Spyridon, recounted by Fr. Peter Shapiro, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9iWjfYTzBM

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If you read “Spyridon’s Shoes” with your class and share some other stories from St. Spyridon’s life and miracles with them, you might find this reproducible page helpful. It allows children to recall some of the things St. Spyridon has done to serve and help others. It then invites them to consider how they themselves can “wear out their shoes” by serving and helping people around them.

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After a lesson on St. Spyridon, you may wish to pray this prayer (also found at the end of the akathist hymn to him) with your class: “O great and all-marvellous Spyridon, holy hierarch of Christ and wonderworker, boast of Kerkyra [Corfu], most radiant beacon of the whole world, fervent intercessor before God and speedy helper for all who have recourse to you and entreat you with faith! Amid the Fathers at the Council of Nicea you expounded the Orthodox faith most gloriously; you showed the unity of the Holy Trinity with wondrous power, and utterly put the heretics to shame. Hearken, therefore, unto us sinners who entreat you, O holy hierarch of Christ, and by your mighty intercession before the Lord deliver us from every evil circumstance…To many living in dire poverty and want you rendered assistance; you abundantly sustained the poor during famine and performed many other signs through the power of the Spirit of God living within you. Wherefore, forsake us not, O holy hierarch of Christ. Remember us, your children, at the throne of the Ruler of all, and beseech the Lord that He grant us remission of our manifold sins, that He bestow upon us a peaceful life unbeset by misfortunes, that He vouchsafe unto us a tranquil and unashamed end and everlasting blessedness in the age to come, that we may unceasingly send up glory and thanksgiving to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.”

 

 

Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt

This is the seventh 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. Mary of Egypt for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

 

On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we focus on the life of St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary was born in Egypt, left home at the age of 12, and spent the next 17 years taking advantage of men for her own physical pleasure. Not until she was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (for all the wrong reasons, but God works even through our wrong choices) did she begin to question the path she was taking. It was when she was unable to enter the church to venerate the Holy Cross that she realized something was wrong. The Theotokos herself helped Mary to understand the severity of her sins, and she repented. She repented so completely that she spent the rest of her days in the desert, fighting against her own fleshly desires and sins. God was with her there in the desert, and he showed His presence to her by providing for her needs and helping her to learn the scriptures and the ways of the Church even without another human there to teach her about them. This allowed Mary to grow more and more holy.

A holy monk, Zosimas, was the lone person she saw, and she did not see him until 47 years after she fled to the desert. They had only two encounters, both of which encouraged each of them. Zosimas was able to learn of Mary’s story, and Mary was able to receive Holy Communion at the hand of Zosimas right before she died. Each of these two people longed for holiness in their own life, and both were humbled by the other’s presence on their journey.

This humility is an interesting contrast to Mark 10:32-45, the Gospel reading for this Sunday. This Gospel reading reminds us of the squabbling disciples, who are fighting for greatness in this passage. It is interesting that the Church has chosen to offer us the opportunity to study the life of St. Mary, who fought her pride and humbled herself in the desert for most of her life; and then contrast it with the disciples’ desire to sit at Christ’s right hand in His kingdom. It is as though the Church is saying to each of us, “Here are two approaches to life in the Kingdom of God. Who will you choose to be like?” We all know who we should emulate, but repenting and humbling ourselves as completely as St. Mary did is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Yet here is her life, offered to us as we approach the end of Great Lent, encouraging us to continue to fight the good fight as she did; to abstain from our passions so completely that we learn from Christ Himself and find ourselves humbled when we are in the presence of even the humblest of fellow humans.

Holiness is not limited to those with a perfect background. Although God can certainly work in and through those who have always lived holy lives (as did Abba Zosimas), He also brings healing and holiness to those of us who repent completely and turn our focus away from the things of this earth and completely on Him (as He did in the life of St. Mary of Egypt). Glory to God who embraces us as we struggle and meets us in that place!

In you the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother;

For taking up your cross, you did follow Christ,

And by your deeds you did teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passes away,

but to attend to the soul since it is immortal.

Wherefore, O righteous Mary, your spirit rejoices with the Angels.

 

St. Mary of Egypt, please intercede for our salvation!

Here are a few ideas of ways to help your students learn about St. Mary of Egypt:

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Find lesson plans about the life of St. Mary of Egypt for various age levels here:

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/3-5-years-old/st-mary-egypt

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/6-9-years-old/st-mary-egypt

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/10-12-years-old/st-mary-egypt

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This child-sized picture book tells the story of St. Mary of Egypt’s life with simplified wording, and illustrates it beautifully: https://www.svspress.com/saint-mary-of-egypt-paterikon-for-kids-25/

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Young children may enjoy this “turn your life around” activity that uses a simple craft to encourage us to learn repentance from St. Mary of Egypt. http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2014/04/st-mary-egypt-turn-life-around.html

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Middle-years students will benefit from seeing this 4-minute video about the life of St. Mary of Egypt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhqzOfWPV4g

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This retelling of the life of St. Mary of Egypt tells her story in a child-appropriate way, and includes a number of icons that could be helpful as you share her story with your Sunday Church School students: http://frederica.com/writings/st-mary-of-egypt-for-all-ages.html

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For a lesson on the life of St. Mary of Egypt including basic information about the her life here: http://dce.oca.org/assets/templates/bulletin.cfm?mode=html&id=17

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Find a beautiful icon of St. Mary of Egypt, including scenes from her life, as well as a helpful description of it, here: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/the-vita-icon-of-st-mary-of-egypt/

 

After reading the icon, you may want to offer each student a copy of this printable graphic-novel-style sheet that tells the life of St. Mary of Egypt. http://manymercies.blogspot.com/2015/03/life-of-st-mary-of-egypt-printable.html

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After a class about St. Mary of Egypt, you may want to print this and send it home with your students. It features a simple meditation about the Sunday, and discussion and activity suggestions for a family learning time. https://www.goarch.org/documents/32058/2618758/familygospellesson_maryofegypt.pdf/e09632ba-fda2-46ed-a631-f3e030c16f98

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Older students will benefit from listening to this talk on part of the life of St. Mary of Egypt, and then discussing it together. This talk includes practical suggestions of things to do if/when you find yourself unable to pray or to make the sign of the cross: https://orthodoxlivonia.org/files/Adult-Ed-Classes/2018-03-25-Ad-Ed-Class.mp3
It is a 25 minute talk, so perhaps you will want to provide paper and pencils for note-taking and/or doodling during the listening.

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There are five “takeaways” from the life of St. Mary of Egypt mentioned in this article that can be applied to students of any age. As you prepare a class about her life, read this article and see if any of these five learnings should be stressed for your particular students: http://www.pravmir.com/5-things-still-learn-st-mary-egypt/

 

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.)

 

Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas

 

This is the fourth 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. Gregory of Palamas for you to ponder before you create a lesson for your students:

On this second Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. Gregory of Palamas’ successful defense of the Orthodox belief that humans can both know and experience God. He asserted that we can know with our minds that God exists, and we can also experience Him through His uncreated energies. This flew in the face of the teachings of Baraam, a critic of St. Gregory’s and of hesychasm in general.

St. Gregory was born in 1296 to a prominent family in Constantinople. His father died when Gregory was still young. The youth was so bright and hardworking that the emperor himself took interest in Gregory, helping to raise and educate him in the hopes that he would one day hold a high government position.

But Gregory left all of the glamor of Constantinople’s elite behind when he departed for Mount Athos at age 20 to become a monk. (And he was not the only member of his family to do this. Shortly thereafter, His mother and sisters also became monastics.) As a monk on Mt. Athos, Gregory learned about “Hesychasm,” a very calm, still way to pray. He mastered this prayer of the heart, and thus we know him as a “hesychast.”

In 1326, Gregory went to Thessalonica and was ordained to the priesthood. He lived the life of a hermit on weekdays, silently praying alone and away from the world. On the weekends, he would celebrate the holy services in his parish and he would preach so beautifully that his sermons brought his listeners to tears.

When Barlaam, a bright and studious monk, came to Mt. Athos and heard about hesychasm, he proclaimed it to be heresy. He insisted that it is not possible for humans to know God’s essence or to experience His energies such as uncreated light. His dissent caused quite a stir, and Gregory was called to debate with Barlaam about this. Gregory’s studies in the world and his experience as a hesychast put him in the perfect position for this debate.

Gregory first tried to speak to Barlaam about all of this, but speaking did not seem to make any progress, so he began to write prolifically about the prayer of the heart and its validity. Although Gregory was writing a lot, they continued to meet and debate in person as well. One of these debates was before the 1341 Council of Constantinople, which took place in Hagia Sophia. This time, they were arguing about the Transfiguration. Gregory stood by the Orthodox belief that God revealed Himself to the disciples on Mt. Tabor, by using His Divine Energies. Barlaam said theirs was not an actual experience of God: just a helpful gift to the disciples, who couldn’t really experience God because they are humans.

The members of the Council upheld Gregory’s position as the truly Orthodox position. They agreed that God, Whose Essence we cannot approach, chooses to reveal Himself through His Energies. Humans can see those Energies, such as the light that the disciples could see on Mt. Tabor. After the Council ruled that Barlaam’s teachings were heresy, Barlaam fled to Calabria.

In spite of the ruling, some people still argued against Gregory, even locking him up in prison for 4 years at one point. However, the very next patriarch released him and made him Archbishop of Thessalonica. In his later years, God gave Gregory the gift to perform miracles, including healing the sick, and he was granted a vision of St. John Chrysostom on the night before he died. His last words were, “To the heights! To the heights!”

Thanks to St. Gregory Palamas, the Church has maintained the truth that we humans are able to experience God through His uncreated energies. St. Gregory’s life of dedication to God and His Church, as well as his willingness to stand for truth set him apart as a wonderful example to all of us. Sometimes people refer to the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas as “The Sunday of Orthodoxy Part Two”, since his defense saved the Orthodox Church when it was under a second major attack.

The Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Lent is the story of the paralytic whose four friends lowered him through the roof of the place where Christ was so that he could be healed by Him. Our Lord not only healed his legs, making him able to walk again, but also healed his sins, telling him, “Your sins are forgiven you.” How beautiful it is for us to be reminded, right here near the beginning of Great Lent that the truth of our Faith is worth standing up for, as did St. Gregory; at the same time receiving the reassurance that Christ is waiting for us to come to Him so that He can heal both our soul and our body.

St. Gregory of Palamas, please intercede for us and for our salvation.

 

Here are a few ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn about St. Gregory of Palamas:

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Here are printable bulletins for children that talk about today’s Gospel reading and offer a short look at St. Gregory of Palamas. Although they are not dated for this year, they could help in a lesson on St. Gregory of Palamas (and/or the Gospel reading of the day). http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Childrens-Word-163.pdf

http://myocn.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Childrens-Word-213.pdf

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Find lessons on St. Gregory of Palamas, at every level, here:

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/3-5-years-old/st-gregory-palamas

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/6-9-years-old/st-gregory-palamas

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/10-12-years-old/st-gregory-palamas

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/middle-school/church-established-st-gregory-palamas-and-st-john-climacus

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/high-school/church-established-st-gregory-palamas-and-st-john-climacus

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This episode of the “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts” podcast tells about St. Gregory of Palamas, and is worded in a way that young children can understand. http://audio.ancientfaith.com/specials/tendinggarden/ttg_2018-03-04-a.mp3?fbclid=IwAR2Fmeq4DCbcwU9Fc-qgO9DZ29f9jcVoKamJ3fz-URQCOtUqPYjXW8ZNV70

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Find a “Jesus Prayer” craft idea that can be a natural response to a lesson on St. Gregory of Palamas here: https://craftycontemplative.com/2012/03/13/a-childs-lesson-on-st-gregory-palamas/

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Can we know God? This episode of “Be the Bee” tackles this question, which Barlaam and St. Gregory disagreed about all those years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpJYSII4NFU
Teachers of middle-years students may want to watch this with their students as part of a discussion of the life of St. Gregory Palamas, then discuss it together.

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Teachers of older church school students may wish to take in one of the resources mentioned here, along with their class, as part of a lesson on St. Gregory of Palamas. https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/lenten-learning-st-gregory-of-palamas/

After watching or reading one of these resources about his life, talk together about St. Gregory’s holiness, including a discussion of hesychasm. What is hesychasm, anyway? What can it look like for us? How can we ask God to enlighten our darkness, as did St. Gregory? What will happen if we ask Him to do that? Will it make any difference in our life? (An aside that the students may find very interesting is a quick look at uncreated light, as it appears in some pictures or videos wherein God chooses to illumine people in a way that perhaps no one can see at the time, but it shows in the photos. There’s a video posted by a priest about uncreated light that shows three different times/ways this has happened. https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/uncreated6-2/)

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Gleanings from a Book: “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger

The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education’s Staff Assistant for Social Networking, Kristina Wenger, shares some of her side of the story behind the book which she co-authored with her friend Elissa Bjeletich, as well as a few gleanings from the book itself.

It began with an invitation from an online friend, Elissa Bjeletich, who I had met in person just weeks before the invitation came. The invitation went something like this: “I’m thinking about writing a daily meditation for families for Great Lent. Will you help me?”

I was tired. The previous twelve months had drained me. They included a failed business endeavor and the ensuing financial strains; the engagement and marriage of our daughter to our wonderful son-in-law; both kids moving out of our home; 3 trips to other parts of the country to help them get settled (one of them moved twice); additional responsibilities at work to be completed in the same amount of work time; and then an extended illness over Christmas. I felt that I had nothing left to give to the world when this invitation came.

But it came, and I was a little star-struck, to be honest. I had admired Elissa’s work from afar for years, and was tickled to have actually met her in person. And then she reached out and asked me to help her? Unthinkable, and yet there it was! So I stretched through my exhaustion and considered her invitation. How could I say no? Although I was depleted, I knew this project would be good for my soul and I wanted to work with Elissa. So, empty but honored, I accepted, and then the work began.

And it was work. In one month’s time, we chose a name, pitched to Ancient Faith Radio the idea of a podcast special for families, were granted approval, created a website, and wrote and recorded the first three weeks’ worth of daily Lenten meditations. For each episode, we brainstormed together, and shared the writing (Elissa did the bulk of it, thank God: she has more writing experience than I). Early on, we decided that it would be best to offer each meditation at two levels, one for older children and one for younger ones. We each recorded a level for the podcast: Elissa did the older children’s, and I, the younger.

We wrote each meditation with the desire to care for – and encourage – growth in the garden of our own hearts, praying that somehow God would bless our efforts and allow others to grow along with us. We resonate well with St. John Chrysostom’s exhortation, “Fasting is wonderful because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.” We hope that our writing will help readers to embrace such an attitude about fasting (and Great Lent in general), so that truth can grow and bloom in their lives.

We continued to work away at the project throughout Lent of 2018, and by the time Holy Week rolled around, we had finally finished. We went from idea to completion in 2 and a half months (Pascha was only 83 days after Elissa extended the invitation to me!). By the grace of God, we were able to write and record fifty different meditations, each at two levels, in that time.

As Pascha approached, we did not feel that the project was finished. We had grown so much throughout the experience, and we really enjoy working together. We decided to continue our work with a weekly podcast, and Ancient Faith once again accepted our proposal. The continuing podcast is aimed at whole families, and we record it together each week. You can listen in at https://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/tendingthegarden if you are so inclined.

We thought that perhaps our Lenten meditations could become a book, so we approached Ancient Faith Publishing, proposing the idea. They accepted our proposal, so we began adapting and rewriting the older children’s version in a way that would work for entire families to read and discuss together. This book is the result.

“Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” offers one meditation each day for every day of Great Lent and Holy Week, including a final meditation for Pascha. Each week is themed as follows: Forgiveness, Orthodoxy, Prayer, The Cross/Humility, The Ladder/Almsgiving, Fasting/St. Mary of Egypt, and Holy Week and Pascha. (We loosely based our themes on this calendar of lenten activities which I wrote several years ago: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/great_lent_and_holy_week_activity_calendar.pdf.) Beginning each Sunday, every day’s meditation relates in some way to the theme for the week. Some days feature a scripture and thoughts on that scripture. On other days, we learn from the life of a saint. Every meditation concludes with a few questions, then a discussion question that allows the readers to make the book their own by talking together about how to apply that day’s lesson.

The book concludes with a fairly extensive appendix of related ideas for each week’s theme. There are craft and activity suggestions that could be done every week, if the readers are so inclined. The appendix begins with suggestions of ways to count down to Pascha. These countdown ideas are intended to help solidify and mark the passage of time in a way that can help young children for whom time is rather nebulous. Following those suggestions are ideas centered around each theme. As we say in the book, some weeks the reader might want to (and have time to) do some of these things. Other times, they will not. Readers will know which (if any) of these ideas will help their family, and can use the appendix accordingly. At our website, there are a few printable pages and supplemental resources related to some of these ideas. They can be found at https://tending-the-garden.com/supplemental-resources-for-the-book-tending-the-garden-of-our-hearts-daily-lenten-meditations-for-families/.

I am so grateful to God for His mercy and strength that extends beyond our exhaustion. Perhaps it is when we are most depleted that we are best able to allow Him to work in and through our lives. Certainly it is then that we know His kindness, for He extends grace when we feel that we have nothing left to give. This book (and the project as a whole) is evidence of that, for me. The project was a lot of work, but for me personally, it has also been incredibly restorative and helpful. Glory to God!

I want to thank Elissa for inviting me on this journey with her. Together we invite you and your family to join us, and grow alongside us. It is our prayer that “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” will be a help to those families who read it throughout Great Lent.

Although the book is written for families to share and walk through together, we are sharing it with the Sunday Church School community for two reasons: 1. It would make a great (very early!) Pascha gift for your Sunday Church School students to share with their family. 2. If you as a Sunday Church School teacher read through the book, perhaps some of the meditations will inspire you. It could be that some of them could be used in Sunday Church School as part of a lesson.

Purchase your copy of the book here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/tending-the-garden-of-our-hearts-daily-lenten-meditations-for-families/

Here are a few gleanings from the book:

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“Have you ever prayed for someone who was mean to you? God asks us to pray for our enemies, because mean people really need our prayers to help their hearts soften so they will repent, and also because when we pray for someone we begin to see them as God sees them. We begin to love them and to feel sad for them because they are so twisted up and mean and unhappy.” (p. 36, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“We Orthodox love to light candles at Pascha and throughout the year. They provide light for our services, but they also remind us of the fire of God. Our God is light and truth—and He comes to us as a fire that burns away sin but does not consume us. When we light candles, we are reminded who our God is.” (p. 65, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

***

“Imagine if you were to take a piece of clay and rub it in your warm hands. The clay begins hard and almost solid and impenetrable, like our hearts, but as we work it with our warm hands, the clay becomes soft and flexible. God’s warm presence does that for us; He transforms the hardness of our hearts into softness. And just like that clay, our hearts might just grow hard again if we stop praying for a while, but simply returning to prayer begins to warm us up again.” (p. 83, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

***

“Sometimes we expect healing to look a certain way, but in fact what God sends is different from our expectations and much better for us. Like Naaman, when we come to the Lord for healing, if we can humble ourselves we will find that God sends both spiritual and physical healing.” (pp. 119-120, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“When we have become non-possessive (meaning that we have stopped caring so much about owning things), we trust completely that God will send whatever we need, as we need it. Instead of trying to own everything we will ever need and holding it tight, we turn to God. We trust that if we need something, He will send it. We pray to God for our needs, but we don’t mention them to anyone else because of our complete faith that God will send what we need. And then when someone gives us what we need, we thank God and recognize that it was really God who sent it.” (p. 145, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

***

“…It is never too late. No matter what kind of life we are living, we can truly repent, and God will help us. While some saints are simply saintly from their birth, others spend years of their lives in sin and do terrible things. But God loves the sinners too, and He will help us in our struggles if we repent.” (p. 174, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

***

“We don’t know when the Bridegroom will come—the Second Coming of Christ could happen today, or it may not happen for a long time. We just don’t know. But we do know that we have today. Today we can pray, today we can fast, today we can show love to the people around us, softening our hearts and building up that supply of oil. When the time comes, no one can give us soft hearts—we will have to work on our hearts now, by loving God and loving one another.” (p. 208, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

***

“On this Holy Thursday, may we all think about how Jesus gives Himself to us. We are not worthy of Him, and yet He comes to live in our hearts. May He live inside of us in Holy Communion, and may we follow His example of humble service and great love.” (p. 214, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“Tending the Garden of Our Hearts” co-author Kristina Wenger shares three ideas of lenten countdowns which are featured in the book:

 

 

 

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Blogger and beautifully creative mom Sarah Gingrich created printable ornaments for each day’s meditation. They can be found in her review of the book, here: https://thelivescript.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/lent-a-hand/

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)

***

“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)

***

“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)

***

“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)

***

“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)

***

“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)

On Learning from the Wisdom of the Three Holy Hierarchs

It is the time of the year when we are celebrating the Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. Do you know why we celebrate the three of them together? If you don’t know, or need a refresher, check out the story here, and share it with your students, so that they know the story as well! https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/learning-about-the-saints-the-three-holy-hierarchs-january-30/

The Three Holy Hierarchs, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom are full of so much wisdom, and they each have contributed so much to the life of the Church. All three loved learning and spent their life continuing to learn not just the Scriptures and the ways of God, but secular wisdom, as well. Their love for learning helped them to become excellent teachers. As we prepare to celebrate their life of faithfulness to God, let us also ponder some of their wisdom, which, though hundreds of years old, is still applicable to modern life.

Some of these quotes will be great conversation starters for a Sunday Church School class. As you read them, decide which ones would be best for your class to discuss, and find a time to share them. They may fit with another lesson, or you may think of related scriptures, Bible stories, or saint stories to share along with the quote. Perhaps you’ll decide to make a lesson featuring their wisdom around the time we celebrate them. We offer a suggestion of how to use each quote as part of a lesson. Or, if you choose to just occasionally share one of their quotes, your students may make their own connections to scriptures or Bible/saint stories! However it works out, you and your students will be amazed to find that, although these hierarchs were on earth so many years ago, their wisdom is still perfectly applicable to us today! May we all learn from them!

If your students enjoy coloring, you may want to check out these free printable pages which can give their fingers something to do as you talk about some of the wisdom of these Holy Hierarchs: http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/3-5-years-old/three-hierarchs (scroll down to find a printable page of all three together) or https://sites.google.com/view/sparks-for-orthodox-kids/coloring-pages/january (each one, individually)

Holy Hierarchs of the Church, please pray for us and for our salvation!

 

The quotes shared here were gathered from OrthodoxChurchQuotes.com, BrainyQuote.com, AZQuotes.com, and Goodreads.com.

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Orthodox Pebbles has just released these wonderful printables related to the Three Holy Hierarchs: https://orthodoxpebbles.com/saints/three-hierarchs/

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“A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts. For, it softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God?…For, a psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense.” ~ Saint Basil the Great

Ask each member of your class to share their favorite Psalm, as well as why it is their favorite. Look those Psalms up and read them together. Test them against St. Basil’s quote. Do they prove it? Talk about when we pray the Psalms. You may even want to read through some of the services to see what Psalm(s) you find there!

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“As a fish cannot swim without water, and as a bird cannot fly without air, so a Christian cannot advance a single step without Christ.” ~ Saint Gregory the Theologian

 

For this discussion, you could bring a fish or a bird to the classroom, if you have one as a pet. Ask the students to consider if a fish can swim if there’s no water, or if a bird can fly without air. Ask each student to try walking without stepping on anything. Can they go anywhere? Why or why not? What was St. Gregory telling us here about the importance of having Christ in our life? Together make a list of things that true Christians do (and do not do). Mark the ones for which we need Christ, and have a student explain how we need Him for each.

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“When, then, you make the sign of the cross on the forehead, arm yourself with a saintly boldness, and reinstall your soul in its old liberty; for you are not ignorant that the cross is a prize beyond all price. Consider what is the price given for your ransom, and you will never more be slave to any man on earth. This reward and ransom is the cross. You should not then, carelessly make the sign on the forehead, but you should impress it on your heart with the love of a fervent faith. Nothing impure will dare to molest you on seeing the weapon, which overcometh all things.” ~ Saint John Chrysostom

 

(A little background on this quote: for the first 300 years or so of Christianity, the sign of the cross was made on the forehead with the thumb or a finger. That’s why St. John talks about making it on the forehead.) Invite students to react to St. John’s quote. Can they give any examples from their own life or from stories that they’ve heard, of times when the sign of the cross gave “saintly boldness”? Why does St. John tell us not to make the sign carelessly? How can we make it – as he describes – fervently? What do your students think of the last part of his statement, that it is a weapon that overcomes all things? Challenge them to look for opportunities to fervently, respectfully make the sign of the cross in the week ahead.

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“The sun penetrates crystal and makes it more dazzling. In the same way, the sanctifying Spirit indwells in souls and makes them more radiant. They become like so many powerhouses beaming grace and love around them.” ~ Saint Basil the Great

“As God illumines all people equally with the light of the sun, so do those who desire to imitate God let shine an equal ray of love on all people. For wherever love disappears, hatred immediately appears in its place. And if God is love, then hatred is the devil. Therefore as one who has love has God within himself, so he who has hatred within himself nurtures the devil within himself.” ~ Saint Basil the Great

 

These quotes by St. Basil go together to some degree. Either or both would easily be illustrated with a prism and/or a magnifying glass and some sunlight (or light from a flashlight if it’s not sunny). Or place a mirror in water to reflect the light and create a beautiful rainbow. Show one or more of these ways to reflect light, and talk about the beauty and intensity of the light that shines through. Then introduce the quote(s) from St. Basil. How does God’s love shine through us to those around us when we imitate Him and let His spirit dwell in us? To remind your students to be ready to reflect His light, frame small mirrors before class, one for each student. Allow each student to decorate their frame with something reflective: for example, pieces of old CDs, small glass beads, or glass gems (adhered with very strong glue or double-stick adhesive).
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“Remember God more often than you breathe.” ~ Saint Gregory the Theologian

 

Before you share this quote, set a timer for one minute. Tell your students to count how many times they breathe in that minute, then start the timer and have them count. After the minute is up, ask them to share their findings. Then ask how many times they thought of God during that minute. Remind them that every breath is from Him, and that we really should thank Him for every breath. Then share the quote. How many times should they have remembered God during that minute? Some people pray the Jesus prayer with every breath. As they breathe in, they think, “O Lord Jesus Christ Son of God.” And as they breathe out, they think, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” If we did that, would it help us to live closer to what St. Gregory said? Can anyone give an example of a time when it would be especially good to calmly pray the Jesus Prayer while breathing slowly?

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“The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others.” ~ Saint John Chrysostom
As you share honey sticks with your students, share this quote. Tell the class that one bee can make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its entire life. See if you can figure out how many bees’ lifetime work you each just ate (you’ll need an extra honey stick and a measuring spoon for this). Ask the class what the bees got back for their hard work to make that honey you just ate. Who do bees work for? Themselves or others? Share St. John’s quote with the class. Ask them what they think St. John was trying to tell us. Why is it important that the bee works for others, not for themselves? How does this apply to us? Challenge each student to find ways to “bee” this week: secretly working for others instead of for themselves. No one else may notice, but God will see! (You could follow up with this the next week, with small printed bee cards like the printable honeybee place cards found here: http://www.our-everyday-art.com/2011/10/honeybee-printables.html. Have each student write down one thing that they did for someone else on each place card, and not sign it. Hang these up at a spot in your classroom, and keep a basket of cards there for future deeds.) The idea is for your class to work together, just like bees do, to help others, and to keep track of some of that work in this way. Not so each student gets their moment of glory, but that all of you together can see that you are making a difference in the world, one little bee-laboring at a time!