Category Archives: spiritual labor

A Handful of Resources to Help Us Better Care for Children with Invisible Disabilities

About a month ago, I came across an offer for a small book about children living with mood disorders. Since we at the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education are always looking for resources for families and teachers that we can then share with you, I requested a copy. My intent was to read the book and offer here a few gleanings from it, highlighting it as a resource. As I inquired about the availability of the book (it was published in 2003), I learned that there are not many hard copies left. However, Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski, who sent the book to me, has so many other resources up her sleeve that this journey has ended up being not so much about the book itself as about helping us to become more aware of invisible disabilities (including those that the book addresses) and offering resources that can help us to best care for (and about) those living with such disabilities.

The little book that started all of this is called “The Storm In My Brain: Kids and Mood Disorders (Bipolar Disorder and Depression)”. It was written by Martha Hellendar, one of the founders of the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation. It was published by CABF and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. It introduces mood disorders in child-friendly terminology, explains how it may feel to experience the disorder, recommends ideas of what to do when you’re feeling that way, and offers reassurance that the disorder does not make the person experiencing it a bad person. In addition to this helpful information for children, the book contains a page of tips for parents, and another for teachers. Anyone living or working with children with mood disorders will benefit from reading this little book. You will find a link to the pdf of the book below.  But there are many invisible disabilities besides mood disorders. We will share a few resources related to those, below, as well.

Perhaps you do not know a child with a mood disorder or any other invisible disability, and this is not part of your personal experience. Believe it or not, these resources still apply to you! Why? Well, chances are that you DO know a child (or adult) struggling with an invisible disability; they are just working very hard to keep it invisible, and succeeding – at least keeping it invisible to you. This means they are carrying this cross and struggling this struggle, alone. In order to better understand and help, we encourage you to familiarize yourself with these disabilities and the resources available to help those living with them. And why should you do that? St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, wrote, “the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” (1 Cor. 12: 25-27 NKJV) The statistics are such that we can safely say that all of us have fellow parishioners who are part of our Body (the Church), living with an invisible disability as part of their cross, their struggle. If we take the time to learn a little about what they are experiencing, we can more easily pray for them; more effectively care for them; and more joyfully welcome these brothers and sisters. In that sort of atmosphere, these precious ones will be better able to contribute their valuable gifts to the Body, and, together, we will all be blessed!

While “The Storm in my Brain” is not readily available as a hard copy, you can find it online here: http://www.dbsalliance.org/pdfs/storm.pdf

Note: Since the book was published, The Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation has joined forces with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, whose mission statement reads, “DBSA provides hope, help, support, and education to improve the lives of people who have mood disorders.” Find them on the web at www.DBSAlliance.org.
Here are some of Matushka Wendy’s writings and other links that can be helpful as we meet, love, and care for others with invisible disabilities. What resources are you aware of, which the community would benefit from knowing about? Please share them!

***

Matushka Wendy started a Facebook group called “Koinonia for Exceptional Orthodox Families”, which is described as “a place for Orthodox parents of Exceptional Children to find support from other parents – sharing ways to help keep our children(and us) on the Spiritual Journey of Orthodox Christianity.” It is a private group, so if you would like to join, you’ll need to find it on Facebook, request to join, and then await approval. This group is an excellent resource for parents and teachers. It is also a place where families with exceptional children can safely ask fellow Orthodox Christians for help, ideas, and prayers.

***

This document by Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski encourages us to embrace all of God’s children (including those with special needs). It offers simple definitions for a number of “invisible” disabilities which, just like any other illness (although these are not contagious), are very real challenges for children and their families alike. It is a useful place for parents and teachers to begin to understand the challenges that some children face. Especially useful to anyone not living with an invisible disability are the “How Can I Help?” and “Other Suggestions for Inclusion” sections.  https://www.academia.edu/9255990/Children_of_God

***

How can we be family, the Body, to a child (and his/her family) who is living with an invisible disability? “These families need to have spiritual support to face the sometimes overwhelming challenges that these disorders bring to their households… Offer to help in some way, even if you are turned down. Just the act of offering shows that you are supportive…” Read more of what Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski has to say on the subject in her article at the top of this page:

https://oca.org/parish-ministry/familylife/church-and-the-child-with-invisible-disabilities

***

“Children with special needs come to church with two strikes against them: (1) they are a child and (2) their particular challenge may not have visible signs like crutches or a wheelchair would, leading those around them to make judgments and even ask the family to leave because they are ‘disturbing the worship of others.’” Read what our Orthodox theology has to say about children with special needs in Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski’s graduate school research paper (which is very informational, but not so academic as to be unreadable), found here: http://www.academia.edu/7399622/Embracing_All_God_s_Children_Orthodox_Theology_Concerning_Disability_and_Its_Implications_for_Ministry_with_Special_Needs_Youth_in_the_Orthodox_Church
(Incidentally, she completed all of her coursework 30 years before she wrote this paper: and in the meantime, God granted her and her husband children with some invisible disabilities which greatly enhanced her research!)

***

“In my experience, many people are not clear on exactly what ‘hidden disability’ means. The following is a list of what the term may encompass:
Autism
Developmental delay
Emotional disability
Deaf and hard of hearing
Mild mental developmental disability
Other health impairments e.g. osteogenesis imperfecta, otherwise known as fragile bone disease, carpal tunnel syndrome
Speech/language impairment
Brain injury
Visual impairment
Reading this list, which is not exhaustive, the reader can see that it covers a wide range of individuals who require special assistance from community resources.” Read about how people with hidden disabilities can benefit from community support and assistance in the article “Additional Observations and Resources for Parents of Children with Hidden Disabilities”,
by Michele Karabin, found at the bottom of this page: https://oca.org/parish-ministry/familylife/church-and-the-child-with-invisible-disabilities

(Also, just before that article, in the middle of the page there is a list and links to a variety of websites that can be helpful to someone wishing to learn more about invisible disabilities.)

***

Find a variety of links to helpful sites related to people with exceptional needs here: https://www.goarch.org/documents/32058/2618758/specialneedsresources.pdf/77f65280-5a12-4e7a-b854-7bbf25ea71a0

***

Children living with bipolar disorder, as well as their families and teachers, will find help, support, and information here http://www.bpchildren.com/. The presentation on the home page offers a plethora of information to anyone living with or working with a child experiencing BP, and includes anecdotes from a child living with the disorder. It is well worth the 22-minute investment.
***

 

Advertisements

On the Sacraments: the Sacrament of Ordination

This post is part of a series about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church. In this post, we will look at the Orthodox Christian Sacrament of ordination, or Holy Orders.

The Orthodox Study Bible defines ordination as “The sacramental act setting a man apart for the ministry of the church by the laying on of hands of a bishop.” (1, p. 1784) Fr. Thomas Hopko’s writings about the sacrament of the Holy Orders begin by reminding his readers, first and foremost, that the Holy Orthodox Church believes and teaches that “Christ is the only priest, pastor, and teacher of the Christian Church. He alone guides and rules His people. He alone forgives sins and offers communion with God, His Father.” (2) These statements do not in any way downplay the importance of the “sacramental setting apart” mentioned above: rather, they help to clarify the role of the one set apart. Christ is continually active in the Church through the Holy Spirit, and He is manifested through these men who have been set apart for His service. “The sacramental ministry of the Church—the bishops, priests, and deacons—receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to manifest Christ in the Spirit to men. Thus, through His chosen ministers, Christ exercises and realizes His unique and exclusive function as priest, perpetually offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice to the Father on behalf of His human brothers and sisters.” Through them, He also teaches, shepherds, oversees, and serves. (2)

Why is this sacrament of ordination also called the sacrament of Holy Orders? Fr. Thomas says it is because those who are ordained give order to the church. “They guarantee the continuity and unity of the Church from age to age and from place to place from the time of Christ and the apostles until the establishment of God’s Kingdom in eternity.” (2) The Holy Spirit is given to them in a special way that helps them to do this work, and “manifest Christ’s presence and action in the churches.” (2)

Ordinations have been a part of the Church’s life from the start. Already in the book of Acts, we read, “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23, OSB) The Orthodox Study Bible’s footnote on that verse offers this insight: “Elders are presbyters (priests) ordained by the apostles to nurture and lead the churches they established. The word translated ‘appointed’ (Gr. cheirotoneo) means ‘to ordain by the laying on of hands.’” (1, p. 1495) So, from the very beginning of the Church, per the book of Acts, priests have been ordained by the laying on of hands so that they can carry on the work they have been set apart to do.

“Through ordination, men who have been chosen from within the Church are set apart by the Church for special service to the Church. Each is called by God through His people to stand amid the community, as pastor and teacher, and as the representative of the parish before the Altar. Each is also a living icon of Christ among His people…  the process of ordination begins with the local congregation; but the bishop alone, who acts in the name of the universal Church, can complete the action. He does so with the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of his hands on the person being ordained.” (3)

Ordained leaders have numerous important tasks, and the work varies from order to order. “In the Orthodox Church to this day, the bishops and presbyters are called to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word, with the other ministries being accomplished by the deacons and the laity.” (1, footnotes on Acts 6:2-4, p.1478) The tasks to which those who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders are called are not easy. They cannot be taken lightly, but the Holy Spirit’s extra empowerment enables these men to undertake all that is set before them.

Let us thank God for those who have offered themselves through the sacrament of ordination. Let us support and help them in whatever way that we can. And let us keep them in our prayers, for we know that we are always in theirs.

Glory to God for His gift of the sacrament of ordination!

Sources:

  1. Various editors. (2008). The Orthodox Study Bible. USA: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. (available here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/osb-hardcover )
  2. Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments: Holy Orders. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/holy-orders
  3. Fitzgerald, Rev. Fr. Thomas (1985, June 11). Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments

Here are some resources and lessons on ordination that you may find interesting and helpful as you prepare to teach your students about this sacrament. What resources have you found helpful? Comment below and share them with the community!

***

The Teaching Pics ( http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/teachingpics) offer a series of pictures on that can be very helpful as you teach a lesson on ordination and/or the holy orders. Pictures S17-S19 show three aspects of the holy orders: first, the diaconate, then the priesthood, and finally, the laying on of hands. The text accompanying each picture explains the process well at a level that even young children can understand. Find the teaching pics here: http://orthodoxchristianed.com/files/4114/9885/4473/ocec2017_2018.pdf

***

Although these activities are suggested for parents to do at home, Sunday Church School students of various levels will benefit from the matching game about each of the holy orders; and the paper doll deacon/priest/bishop can be a useful way to teach about the various vestments of each of the orders. http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/3-5-years-old/ordersordination

***

Find lessons on ordination for students at every level, here:

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/3-5-years-old/ordination

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/6-9-years-old/ordination

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/10-12-years-old/ordination

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/middle-school/ordination

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/high-school/ordination

***

These three videos related to ordination and the clergy will be excellent additions to a lesson on the sacrament of ordination.

Episode #116 of “Be the Bee” talks about hierarchy and why the church is set up that way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1Hnqj-6_Eg

We learn about clergy vestments with this episode #117 of “Be the Bee:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlO02rQDQ6o

This episode #118 of “Be the Bee” reminds us that all of us are a royal priesthood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THyitPa5ZVE

***

Older students who listen to this podcast will get to hear what it is like to be a priest. Do you think any of your students may be headed for ordination? You could share this podcast and discuss it as a class. https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/orthodixie/priesthood_you_dont_wanna_do_that (Don’t worry, contrary to the title, it is a positive – but realistic – view of the priesthood!)

***

Older students can read this article to learn more about the Holy Orders. http://www.antiochianarch.org.au/Holy-Orders.aspx
After they read the article, discuss the different Orders, and allow your students to create something to help them remember the different Orders. They could write about it or create a sketch or sculpture that represents first the laity, then the Minor Orders, then the Major Orders.

***

ordination

On the Sacraments: the Sacrament of Confession

This post is part of a series about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church. In this post, we will look at the Orthodox Christian Sacrament of Confession.

The Orthodox Study Bible defines confession in a way that acknowledges both aspects of the word as it is used in the Orthodox Church. Confession is “The sacrament of the forgiveness of sins, whereby the repentant sinner confesses his sins to Christ in the presence of the priest, who pronounces God’s absolution of those sins.” It is also “The avowal or verbal witness of faith in Christ, leading to salvation (Rom. 10:9).” (1, p. 1777) In this blog post, we will not be focusing on the second definition (“confession of faith”), but rather on the first; the sacramental aspect of the word, the sacrament which allows us sinners to be restored to right relationship with God.

The mystery or sacrament of confession, also called penance by the Church, is the means by which we are reconciled to God when we have sinned and thereby cut ourselves off from Him and His Church. We are created for communion with God and each other, that is, communion in the sense of life in harmonious community. When we sin, we sever that communion. But we have also been created to partake in the sacrament of communion (or eucharist). Sin severs us from the eucharist, as well. God has kindly made confession/penance available to us, so that we are able to be restored to both communions.

In Fr. Thomas Hopko’s article on penance, he writes that receiving the eucharist fulfills our act of penance, and restores us to communion with our fellow humans. He also offers steps for right living beyond that reconciliation.  “The fulfillment of penance consists in the reception of Holy Communion and the genuine reconciliation of the repentant sinner with God and all men according to the commandments of Christ. From this there obviously follows the necessity of a sincere attempt by the penitent to refrain from sin and to remain in faithful obedience to God and in uprightness of life before Him and all people.” (2)

“In His mercy, God provides the sacrament of confession (more properly called the sacrament of repentance) to give us deliverance from sin… Thus, we come before the holy icon of Christ, to whom we confess, and are guided by our spiritual father in a cleansing inventory of our lives. When we tell God all, naming our sins and failures, we hear those glorious words of freedom that announce Christ’s promise of forgiveness of all our sins. We resolve to ‘go and sin no more’ (Jn 8:11).” (1, p. 1698)

Fr. Hopko’s article details the three main elements of penance. “The first is a sincere sorrow for sins and for the breaking of communion with God. The second is an open and heartfelt confession of sins… The third element of penance is the formal prayer of absolution through which the forgiveness of God through Christ is sacramentally bestowed upon the repentant sinner.” (2) So, we must begin with genuine sorrow for what we have done, followed by a thorough examination of our hearts, then an equally complete confession. At this point, it is the priest who steps in to complete the act by praying the prayer of absolution. As he does, he extends Christ’s forgiveness to us while covering our head with his epitrachelion as Christ covers our sins with His forgiveness.

“According to Orthodox teaching, the penitent confess to God and is forgiven by God. The priest is the sacramental witness who represents both Christ and His people. The priest is viewed not as a judge, but as a physician and guide.” (3) Fr. Thomas Hopko’s article reaffirms that it is only God who forgives sins, and that He does it through Christ in the Church. God requires that our repentance be genuine and that we promise to change. Confession is the chance for us to acknowledge before God and other humans that we are a sinner.

Glory to God for His gift of the sacrament of confession!

 

Sources:

  1. Various editors. (2008). The Orthodox Study Bible. USA: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. (available here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/osb-hardcover )
  2. Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments: Penance. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/penance
  3. Fitzgerald, Rev. Fr. Thomas (1985, June 11). Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments

 

Here are some ideas of ways to teach your students about this important sacrament, as well as a few suggested resources to help you better understand the sacrament. What resources have you found helpful? Comment below and share them with the community!

***

The Teaching Pics ( http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/teachingpics) offer a series of pictures on baptism that can be very helpful as you teach a lesson on the subject to any age group. Picture S9 shows someone in confession. The accompanying text helps to explain this sacrament in a way that children can understand. Purchase your own copy of the teaching pics here: http://orthodoxchristianed.com/files/4114/9885/4473/ocec2017_2018.pdf

***

This lesson on keeping our hearts clean could begin a discussion of the importance of confession for younger children: https://www.goarch.org/-/cleaning-my-temple. After reading the story in the lesson, ask why the students think it is that the same man could pose twice for DaVinci? How many times have we made choices in our life that turn us from being beautiful to less than beautiful? What can we do to keep our hearts beautiful?

***

This object lesson (not Orthodox, but easily adaptable) can help children understand the need for confession, by comparing our sins to dirty, stinky clothes: https://www.kidsofintegrity.com/lessons/righteousness/hands-options/we-must-confess-dirty-clothes-make-mess

***

This object lesson would be a memorable part of a lesson on confession. It has a very hands on (literally!) way to help children understand the sticky situation we have on our hands when we sin, as well as how perfectly Christ cleanses us when we confess our sins: https://www.christianitycove.com/free-sunday-school-lesson-plans-jesus-cleanses-us-from-our-sticky-sins/848/

***

Elementary or older students will not quickly forget the activity in this lesson that helps to solidify the reality of what happens during confession: http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2008/06/weight-of-our-sins.html

***

Middle years and older students will appreciate the activity in this lesson that helps them think about the importance of the Sacrament of Confession: https://www.goarch.org/-/confession

***

Find lessons on the sacrament of Confession for each age level here:

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/3-5-years-old/confession

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/6-9-years-old/confession

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/10-12-years-old/confession

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/middle-school/confession

http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/high-school/confession

***

Share this article with older students and invite discussion. What do they think of the article? What stands out in their mind after reading it? Do they agree or disagree, and why? http://dce.oca.org/assets/files/inserts/repenting-is-not-just-lamenting.pdf

***

After a lesson on confession, consider sending home a letter encouraging parents to interact with their child(ren) about this sacrament. Perhaps you will want to include some of these suggestions: http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/childrenandrepentance

***

Here are a few books/articles that can be valuable resources as you prepare to teach a lesson on confession:

http://store.ancientfaith.com/if-we-confess-our-sins-preparation-and-prayers/

http://store.ancientfaith.com/the-forgotten-medicine/

http://store.ancientfaith.com/confession-the-healing-sacrament/
http://saintandrewgoc.org/home/2016/11/23/the-holy-mysteries-sacraments-the-mystery-sacrament-of-holy-eucharist-part-iii

http://saintandrewgoc.org/home/2016/11/28/the-holy-mysteries-sacraments-the-mystery-sacrament-of-repentanceconfession-part-ii

***

confession

On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: Great Lent (part 4 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

Great Lent consists of the 40 days leading to Holy Week, which, in turn, immediately precedes Pascha. Since its early days, Great Lent has been observed as a time of penitence, spiritual growth, and illumination. Although it is a time of great spiritual struggle, it is also a time of deep joy for Orthodox Christians, as we prepare our hearts to experience Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

In the early centuries, Church practice included baptizing people at the Paschal Vigil. This was also when Christians who had gone astray and returned to the Faith were reconciled to the Church. In order to train and prepare these people for joining (or re-joining) the Church, an “intense period of preparation, which included fasting, began forty days before Holy Week… it gradually became a universal institution, observed by catechumens and faithful alike for its salutary effects on the life of the Christian community.” (1)  

The monk-author of “The Year of Grace of the Lord” points out that the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts reminds us that “Lent… commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, those forty years during which the chosen people…went forward with faith towards the far-off promised land…” (2, p. 109) He goes on to remind us that these years (as well as during Great Lent), God’s people relied on Him fully, and He provided physically with food as well as spiritually with His presence, the Ten Commandments, and many miracles. The monk continues, “Lent recalls the forty days that the Lord Jesus spent in the desert during which he contended with Satan, the tempter. Our Lent must also be a period of fighting against temptation… During the time of Lent, the Church leads us, as if by the hand, towards the radiant paschal feast. The more serious our Lenten preparation has been, the deeper we shall enter into the mystery of Easter and gather its fruits.” (2, p. 110)

Bishop Kallistos Ware said, “The primary aim of Great Lent is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.” (1) We are encouraged to focus on three things during Great Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time for repentance, that we may turn from sins and earthly cares to focus our whole being on Christ and His glorious resurrection, which heals us completely. This truth grants us great joy amidst the struggles we encounter during Lent.

“Let us begin the lenten time with delight.. Let us fast from passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the spirit, that we may be granted to see the holy passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, spiritually rejoicing.” (from Vesper Hymns)

Let us participate fully in the life of the Church throughout Great Lent. As we do, let us also struggle to properly prepare our hearts and the hearts of our students for Holy Week and Pascha. If we do, when we arrive at the Feast of feasts, we will be prepared and filled with joy!

Footnotes:

  1. Calivas, Rev. Alciviadis C., Th.D., (1985, 8/13). “Orthodox Worship”. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/orthodox-worship
  2. A monk of the Eastern Church. The Year of Grace of the Lord. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; 2001.

 

Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about Great Lent:

***

Here is a blog post about Forgiveness Vespers, the beautiful way in which we begin Great Lent: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/13/on-forgiveness-vespers/

***

This blog post suggests ways to help your students begin Lent well. It includes links to resources such as a daily lenten calendar that helps families learn about the themes of Great Lent with suggested activities for each day, among others. https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/on-beginning-great-lent/

***

This blog post about the Presanctified Liturgy is geared towards families, but could be helpful to share with your students’ parents to help encourage them to attend these Lenten liturgies: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/presanctified-liturgy-children/

***

During Great Lent, we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. Here’s a blog post that can help you teach your students about this feast! https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/620/

(An additional helpful resource is the quarterly publication “Blessed Children,” published by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA. Volume 4, Issue 1 is all about the Annunciation and contains articles related to it: ranging from the icon to the church of the Annunciation to a challenge to say “Yes!” just like the Theotokos did.)

***

The second Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas. This blog post may be helpful as you help your students learn more about him: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/lenten-learning-st-gregory-of-palamas/

***

The fourth Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. John Climacus. Here’s a blog post that could be helpful as you prepare to teach your students about him: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/lenten-learning-st-john-climacus/

***

The issue of “Little Falcons” magazine that is called “Fasts” is filled with articles related to fasting. “What Can We Do for Great Lent?” (pp. 20-21) offers practical suggestions of things children can begin to do during Great Lent to grow closer to God and to be more like Christ. It would make a fabulous discussion starter near the beginning of Lent; and your class could return to it later in the fast, to give yourselves a “checkup” as to how you are doing in these areas. “Fasts” is Issue #30 of Little Falcons. It is available as a back issue here:  http://www.littlefalcons.net/pdf/2016_Backissues.pdf).

On Practical Reminders to Pray

“Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) is an exhortation St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Thessalonians. Such constant prayer sounds like a very Christian thing to do, a great idea, and a lofty goal that we should work towards someday. But have you ever read on beyond that short phrase? The very next verse continues, “…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Wait, WHAT? Praying without ceasing is God’s will for us? Oh, boy… I don’t know about you, but I have got an awful lot of work to do if I wish to be living in a way that fulfills God’s will for me! (By the way, “Rejoice always” and “In everything give thanks” are the other two parts of that exhortation revealing God’s will for us, but we will address them at another time…) To be perfectly honest, I truly want to be the human that God created me to be. I want to be fulfilling His will for my life. But how in the world will I actually pray without ceasing? I wonder if you and/or your students feel the same way?

I get so caught up in life, in what’s happening around me, that hours can pass when I do not pray. That’s hours of not living in God’s will for my life. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! I hope that I am alone in this transgression. If so, forgive me (and pray for me!). But in case I am not alone and there are others of us in this community sharing my struggle, I will pass along a few ideas of ways that we can begin to pray more often, stepping closer and closer to “without ceasing.”

It seems to me that the easiest way for us to pray without ceasing is to make a physical connection of some sort to our daily life. We need some practical reminders to do that praying. Perhaps we can gather as a family and talk about creating prayer cues. What in our life can be used as a reminder, to help us to pray? It may be helpful to make a list of cues that we will look for each day, and then match prayers to those cues. (Remember to include scripture prayers as well as other ones!)

Here are a few examples (besides our morning, meal time, and evening prayers) of ways that our family is trying to remember to pray without ceasing. I will share them in case they resonate with you as well. (These are geared towards older people, since my children are now young adults.)

I get so caught up in life, in what’s happening around me, that hours can pass when I do not pray. That’s hours of not living in God’s will for my life. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! I hope that I am alone in this transgression. If so, forgive me (and pray for me!). But in case I am not alone and there are others of us in this community – and perhaps our students as well – who share my struggle, I will pass along a few ideas of ways that we can begin to pray more often, stepping closer and closer to “without ceasing.” Perhaps some of them will ring true to you, for use with your students.

It seems to me that the easiest way for us to pray without ceasing is to make a physical connection of some sort to our daily life. We need some practical reminders to do that praying. Chat with your students about the idea, and invite them to help you to create some prayer cues. What is it in each of our lives that can be used as a reminder, to help us to pray? It may be helpful to make a list of cues that we will look for each day, and then match prayers to those cues. (Remember to include scripture prayers as well as other ones!)

Here are a few examples (besides our morning, meal time, and evening prayers) of ways that our family is trying to remember to pray without ceasing. I will share them in case they resonate with you and/or your students, as well. Pass on any of these to your students which you think they will find helpful! (These are geared towards older people, since my children are now young adults.)

  1. Upon waking from sleep, pray one of St. Macarius the Great’s morning prayers, such as this one: “O Lord, Who in Thine abundant goodness and Thy great compassion hast granted me, Thy servant, to go through the time of the night that is past without attack from any opposing evil: Do Thou Thyself, O Master and Creator of all things, vouchsafe me by Thy true light and with an enlightened heart to do Thy will, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen”
  2. While showering, pray Archimandrite Sophronios’ prayer at daybreak (http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/prayers/daybreak.html).
  3. Our family lives three blocks from a hospital. Every time we hear a siren or helicopter, each member of our family pauses to pray for the person in need and for their family. If we are in a conversation when the emergency vehicle passes, we make the sign of the cross, signaling our desire for God’s mercy on that person.
  4. The same concept applies for any siren: police, fire, etc. Let the noise be the reminder to pray! Clearly someone is in need, their family will be affected, and the first responders need God’s guidance, wisdom, and protection! So, we pray: “Lord, have mercy on them!”
  5. Keep a copy of St. John Chrysostom’s prayers for every hour by your desk or workspace. (I do this, but unfortunately I forget that it is there, so it is underutilized. I need to find a way to remember to pray these simple “arrow prayers.” Any ideas or suggestions? Perhaps I should set a reminder alarm?)
  6. My husband often prays through the alphabet at night if he is awakened and unable to go right back to sleep. He will think of someone whose name begins with each letter of the alphabet, and then pray for God’s mercy on them.

Okay, so I have listed a few ideas. But there are still many, many hours in a day. How else can we pray without ceasing? And how can our Sunday Church School students, especially those who are children, do so? We can encourage them (and ourselves! ) to begin by praying very simple prayers aloud while performing daily tasks. Those simple prayers could include:
* While washing up before or cleaning sticky fingers after a meal, “I will wash my hands in innocence; so I will go about Your altar, O Lord.” (Ps. 26:6)

* While bathing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10) (or “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7))

* When brushing teeth, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14)

*While putting on clothes or a coat, “…he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness…” (Is. 61:10)

*While turning on a light or lighting a candle, “O Lord, enlighten my heart, which evil desires have darkened.” (St. John Chrysostom’s hourly prayers)

*While watering plants, “Oh Lord, sprinkle my heart with the dew of Thy Grace.” (St. John Chrysostom’s hourly prayers)

*When planting or gardening, “O Lord, plant in me the root of all blessings, the fear of Thee in my heart.” (St. John Chrysostom’s hourly prayers)

*When locking a door, “O Lord, protect me from certain people, from demons and passions, and from every other harmful thing.” (St. John Chrysostom’s hourly prayers)

It may take a while for us to learn all of these prayers by heart and incorporate them into our daily routine. We need to encourage our students that that is okay, and work to find ways to help them to succeed in this endeavor. We can print the prayers on small cards and have our students place them where they will see these cards as they go about their day. (In case you wish to use the above prayers, we have created a printable version of them.)

What physical cues do you and your students use for constant prayer? Please share them below! In this way, we can help each other to pray without ceasing and thus walk in God’s will for us.

 

Here are a few links that you may find helpful as you grow in prayer without ceasing:

***

Sign up for Orthodox Motherhood’s free 5-day email course, “Becoming a Family of Prayer,” here: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/. You’ll receive a daily email for five days in a row, each focused on a different aspect of helping your family to pray more. Each day’s email is brief but helpful and comes with printable worksheets that can better help you to grasp what the topic of the day is about. Each email will give you ideas of things to bring up with your students when you discuss this topic in class.

***

Orthodox Motherhood offers ideas of 50 times to pray The Jesus Prayer. We can share these with our students, and help them develop their own list, specific to them: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/50-times-say-jesus-prayer/

***

Find additional morning prayers that you or your students may wish to incorporate into your routine here: http://pomog.org/morningprayers-en/

***

Find prayers for any time of day in prayer or service books, or at online sites such as this one: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/prayers/

***

Encourage your students to utilize a prayer rope to help them remember to pray! The Jesus Prayer is a wonderful way to pray with a prayer rope. Or they could also use the 33 different intercessions found here, one for each knot: https://fatherpatrick.wordpress.com/2008/09/15/33-intercessions-to-pray-using-a-33-knot-prayer-rope/

***

St. John Chrysostom offers a one-line prayer for every hour of the day. Consider printing this, allowing your students to decorate it, laminate it, and then take it home to keep at their desk, sink, fridge, or anywhere that they’ll see it regularly and can pray the hours. Read more about these prayers here: https://frted.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/prayers-for-each-hour-of-the-day/. Here is a printable version that could help you: St. John Chrysostom’s Hourly Prayers

***

This not-Orthodox-but-helpful blog suggests ways to pray using the scriptures. There are even printable prayer-verse cards that your students can put right at the space where they need the reminder! http://paththroughthenarrowgate.com/teach-us-to-pray-easy-verse-cards-set-one/

Gleanings From a Book: “The Sweetness of Grace” by Constantina Palmer

Author’s note: this blog post is for our personal edification. Our own spiritual growth will greatly impact the lives of our Sunday Church School students. We owe it to them to continue to learn to love God to the best of our ability so that we can better serve them. A book like this one can be a great help in our journey!

I was so delighted when I found out that this book was being published! I had already read Presvytera Constantina’s book “The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery,” more than once. I was so spiritually encouraged and challenged by the content of that book that as soon as I found out she had written a second book, I could not wait to read it. And, as expected, “The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory” did not disappoint.

I took this new book along on a trip and despite its 280+ pages, I finished reading it before I was even halfway through my second day of travel. “The Sweetness of Grace” is an easy read. The application of the content, however, is far from easy. Presvytera Constantina’s learnings, which she so readily shares in each of her books left me laughing, crying, covered in goose bumps, and longing to become the human person that God has created me to be.

Each chapter of this book is titled with one of the Beatitudes and consists of stories and encouragement related to that Beatitude. Some of the stories are ones that Presvytera Constantina has heard along her journey. Others are her own personal experiences. Every story points the reader towards godliness, both encouraging and challenging by turns.

In case you are wondering about the name of the book itself, Presvytera Constantina writes, “I’ve called this collection of stories “The Sweetness of Grace” because I feel this title captures the one element of Orthodoxy that does not change, whether one lives in Asia, Europe, or on a Canadian island. Whether one is a priest, monastic, or layperson, the sweetness of grace is offered to us all: through the trials, through the victories, we struggle to acquire and hold onto it, and when we taste it, we want to share that sweetness with others. By sharing these stories I hope to share the sweetness I was blessed to taste.” (p. 11)

The book is available for purchase here:

http://store.ancientfaith.com/the-sweetness-of-grace/

 

Here are a few bite-sized “gleanings” from each chapter. The following quotes were just a few of the many things that jumped out to me in the chapter under which they are listed. I hope that they will both encourage and challenge you, as well as offer you a taste of what to expect when you read this powerful book.

***

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

 

(about a homily by Fr. Andreas Konanas) “He made reference to spiritualizing domestic tasks in our quest for sanctity. He described, for instance, how when we are in our kitchen cutting an onion and our eyes begin to water on account of the vapors, we should use this for our own gain. Even though the tears are not proceeding from a contrite heart in actuality, we can use them for our own devices and reflect on our sins, ‘cry’ for our sins, as Fr. Andreas said. He mentioned using simple things as opportunities for prayer, such as taking off our coat. When we take off our coat, we can say an internal prayer: ‘Just as I take off this coat, so remove mys ins from me, O Lord.'” (p. 21)

 

(quoting Elder Nikon, a Russian abbot) “The measure of a man’s spiritual growth is his humility. The more advanced he is spiritually the more humble he is. And vice versa; the more humble, the higher spiritually. Neither prayer rules, nor prostrations, nor fasts, nor reading God’s Word—only humility brings a man closer to God.Without humility, even the greatest spiritual feats are not only useless but can altogether destroy a person. In our time we see that if a person prays a little more than is customary, reads a little of the Psalter, keeps the fast—he already thinks of himself as better than others, he judges his neighbors and begins to teach without being asked. All this shows his spiritual emptiness, his departure from the Lord. Fear a high opinion of yourself.” (p. 39)

 

***

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

 

“The first time Sr. Ephraimia stepped out of Vespers at the monastery she later called home, she felt as though her heart would burst open with spiritual exaltation. The grace of the monastery was so strong it overwhelmed her. Hidden from the exiting crowd by the shadow of one of the buildings, she sat down.

Tears poured from her eyes… How much longing filled her heart then! It spilled over, she couldn’t contain it any longer, having struggled to restrain herself during the service. She sat there alone and hidden from the world, giving thanks to God for having brought her home…” (p. 45)

 

(On a time when Presvytera Constantina happened upon a humble beggar for the second time) “This time I distinctly remember giving him change… I reached into my pocket and saw that I only had 300 won (about 30 cents). I cringed that that was all I had, but still I reached down and put the nearly useless amount of money into the beggar’s hand. To my shock, he grabbed my hand, pulled it close to his lowered head, and kissed it. A kiss from a lowly beggar: perhaps not something most would consider a great gift—or so it might seem to one not on the receiving end of such a gift. I pulled my hand back in surprise.

He raised his eyes and I saw he was crying. Tears began to well up in my own eyes…

The feeling that energized in me the moment the dear beggar kissed my hand is something very difficult to express. It is humbling to have one’s hand kissed, and even more so considering all I gave to the poor beggar was a mere 30 cents. But that is life in Christ: all we have to offer God is a few cents, and He gives us back one hundredfold.” (pp. 57-58)

 

“…There are so many saints waiting to intercede on our behalf for the numerous things that cause pain and suffering, torment and worry, those things that cast shadows over our lives and souls and make us think the darkness will never depart. All we have to do is cry out, they are waiting for us to do so. St. Nektarios of Pentapolis once said (after his repose), ‘It’s as if we saints are in retirement… the people don’t pray to us, don’t entreat us, don’t ask us for anything, don’t give us any handiwork to do. They don’t give us the opportunity to pray to God for them.'” (p 68)

 

***

“Blessed are the meek…”

 

“…it is one thing to speak with wisdom and quite another to shine with wisdom, and we know from the Scriptures that a spiritual man’s wisdom ‘makes his face shine.’ (Eccl. 8:1)” (p. 79)

 

“There was a baby girl at our church in Thessaloniki that the whole parish was delighted to see every Sunday. Although she was only a few months old, she would begin to squeal, kick her chubby legs, and flail her arms with joy and excitement every time her father brought her up to venerate the icons before Holy Communion. She would continue this ritual of squealing and kicking until the priest exited the Royal Doors and she received the Immaculate mysteries. This went on for months.

People were amazed. They would smile and whisper to each other. It was a beautiful thing to witness, because we all understood that the baby perceived the presence of God and expressed her delight in the only way a baby can.” (p. 95)

 

“Children are so naturally guileless and pure that introducing them to an environment of prayer and good works, such as a monastery, impresses on their malleable hearts from a young age a genuine example of what it is to serve Christ through love…

All we need to do is give our children the proper predispositions toward faith, prayer, and good works, and they will begin teaching us more than we could ever teach them…

If only we were as obedient and faithful as these little ones. I’m sure whole volumes of books could be filled with the wonderful works of faithful children—works that would put us adults to shame.” (pp.101-103)

 

***

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…”

 

“…Work and prayer are not mutually exclusive, but, as Gerontissa Philaret used to say, ‘Work, when combined with the Jesus Prayer, becomes prayer.’ The same thing occurs when we engage in the services with our mind and heart even while our hands work…”

(She points out the many resources we have to be able to listen to services when we are unable to attend.) “…we can listen to them while washing the dishes or running errands in the car. This is not to supplant attending services in our parish or even praying them privately at home, it is rather a means to attend services we would otherwise miss altogether. The point is to put our mind and heart in church even if our body can’t be there.” (pp. 110-111)

 

“We must struggle to keep our attention on worship and prayer. If it strays, we shouldn’t become distraught; we should simply call our mind back. Even if it strays a thousand times, the point is to struggle. Our thoughts have such strength that they can carry us away from church, and so conversely, our thoughts can also carry us to church even when our bodies are elsewhere.” (p. 112)

 

“While we were leaving the monastery after one (chanting) class, a group of us were walking together, and one of the girls lamented that she had eaten too many sweets that night… ‘you know where those calories go?’ (she) asked seriously. ‘Straight to my logismous [thoughts], that’s where!’ Although we all laughed about the calories going to her thoughts, this little observation really struck me… My dear classmate was onto something when she perceived that eating too many sweets goes to her thoughts. Our body is not unrelated to our soul, nor is living in the world unrelated to spiritual exercises. May God help us to see with our spiritual eyes and make an effort even in little ways, so that by struggling and being victorious in the small battles, we might win the great battles and receive great spiritual spoils as a result.” (pp 129-131)

 

***

“Blessed are the merciful…”

 

“Abba Dorotheos writes: ‘The Lord Himself said: “Be merciful, just as your heavenly Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) He did not say: “Fast as your heavenly Father fasts,” neither did he say: “Give away your possessions as your heavenly Father is without possessions’; but he did say: ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’ This is because this virtue—above all—emulates God and is a characteristic of him.” (p. 144)

 

“Giving money to those who need it, offering a dish of home-cooked food to a busy or struggling family, caring for and visiting the sick, taking time to sit and chat with the lonely, and tending to the needs and expenses of Orthodox temples, small and large, are all wonderful ways to offer our money, time, care, and love to others and by extension to Christ Himself: ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Matt. 25:40)” (pp. 149-150)

 

“‘One of the quickest ways to lose grace is to judge your fellow human being,’ the hieromonk told a small group of us after a baptismal service…

‘Justify others. Condemn yourself. Say, “I’m acting like this, feeling this way because of my passions. If I didn’t have passions I wouldn’t act like this, react like this…” Don’t even pass judgement in your mind,’ he continued. ‘Fight thoughts: push them out, don’t let them stay in your head… Be compassionate and loving toward others, just as the Lord was and is compassionate and loving toward you.’

And with those words we left with the weighty knowledge that one of the easiest sins to slip into results in one of the quickest departures of grace.” (pp. 158-159)

 

***

 

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“We go to great measures to preserve the good quality of so many material possessions. Many women, for example, are mortified if their expensive purse is laid on the ground. Why? Because it is valuable and worthy of care so that it will last and keep its beautiful form. Some women even keep their leather purses in special bags when they are not being used so as to protect their quality. And yet, what measures do we take to keep our nous and heart from becoming unclean? Isn’t it true that we leave the doors and windows of our senses wide open, never paying attention to what enters?

We need first to become aware of the fact that our nous and heart become defiled by the things we watch, listen to, look at, and read about, and then we need to take the necessary measures to limit the infiltration of sinful sights and sounds by means of prayer and watchfulness… If we guard our senses and occupy our nous with prayer, our heart will…become an abode for the Holy Trinity…” (p. 177)

 

“Even if the prayer of the heart is not something we can or will receive in exchange for our meager spiritual striving, it is worth the struggle. What is sweeter than to have our whole being in constant and continual communication with God Almighty?” (p. 190)

 

***

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

 

(Quoting an abbess on the Feast of St. Basil) “…My wish for the new year is for everyone to experience divine illumination, for us to truly see ourselves and to truly see the blessings of God… It’s difficult for us to see ourselves, our ‘old man.’ And sometimes, we see him so.. alive, and we have to cast him down: ‘Back off! Don’t think like that!’ We need to see ourselves, our sins. And at the same time bad things can happen: unemployment, illness, difficulties… many view these things as bad. But we, as children of God—as we wish to be called—look at these things as blessings. We should consider these things blessings. Everything that happens to us happens for our own good.” (p. 211)

 

(on identifying with a particular ethnic group in the church) “How we came to the Faith, how long we’ve lived the Faith, or whether we are members of an ethnic group is beside the point. The Christian life is not about where we’ve been but where we’re going. Christ doesn’t relate to us as we were, but who we are and who we are becoming.” (p. 214)

 

“Once Sr. Evsevia read us a story from the “Evergetinos” about a monk who was always displeased with his brotherhood and the monastery he was living in. He went from one to the next, to the next, always dissatisfied with the other fathers.

Finally, he arrived at the conclusion that neither the monastery nor the brotherhood was at fault, but that he himself needed to endure temptation in the place he found himself. So he wrote on a piece of paper: ‘In the name of our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, I will be patient in all things,’ and resolved to remain in his monastery no matter what. Whenever he became upset with the other fathers, he took this piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and quietly read it to himself. Folding it back up and placing it in his pocket, he would exhibit patience.

Seeing this go on for some time, some of the fathers began to suspect the monk was reading a magic spell written on this piece of paper, and they went to the abbot to confess their suspicion. He in turn went to the monk and demanded to see the paper. When he read what was written thereon, he told the fathers, ‘This father does well.’

All of us were moved and impressed by this story, and one of our classmates brought a number of small pieces of decorated cardstock to class the next week. On each she had written the monk’s helpful words in a beautiful script. She gave one to each of us so that we too could remember to be patient in the face of all the trials and tribulations life throws at us.” (p. 222)

 

(on making a commitment to safeguard the peace of the community in which we live) “This simple commitment brings with it immeasurable protection. Many times we allow ourselves to vent. We convince ourselves that it is better to get it all out than to allow our anger to boil up inside us, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, we are wrong on two counts for engaging in such behavior.

First, venting allows our thoughts and suspicions, our hurt feelings and offenses, to become solidified. We confirm our thoughts by justifying them, explaining why we are right and the other person is wrong, how we are wounded and the other is a cruel offender. Second, we pull the other person or persons listening to us into sin with us. We infiltrate their thoughts and perceptions, tainting the way they think and feel about the supposed offender. This is actually worse than the first wrongdoing, because we are not only sinning but creating a stumbling block for someone else.” (p. 237)

 

***

“Blessed are those who are persecuted…”

 

“…our spiritual life is not a game easily won. As Elder Joseph the Hesychast says, the powers and rulers of darkness ‘are not fought with sweets and marshmallows, but with streams of tears, with pain of soul until death, with utter humility, and with great patience.'” (p. 253)

 

“Once, when St. Euphemia the Great Martyr appeared to Elder Paisios the Athonite, he asked her how she managed to withstand the physical afflictions of martyrdom. She answered him, ‘If I had known what glory the saints have I would have done whatever I could to go through even greater torments.'” (p. 262)

 

“‘We should always make the sign of the cross, before we do something, before we speak,’ Sr. Silouani instructed us. ‘While caught up in a conversation, even if we can’t make the sign of the cross over our mouth externally, we can do it internally, noetically, so as to be protected, to say what is necessary with the right words in an appropriate manner.'” (p. 264)

 

“How easy it is to think, ‘I’d willingly die for Christ,’ but how hard it is to live for Him.” (p. 273)

 

Learning from the Saints: St. Nina (January 14/27)

Late in the 3rd century, in Cappadocia (central modern-day Turkey), a young girl was born to a Roman army chief named Zabulon, and his wife Sosana (who was the sister of Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem). This girl was named Nina (or Nino, as she is called in the Republic of Georgia). Nina and her parents were well off, but decided to sell everything when Nina was 12 and go to Jerusalem to live in the Holy City. Soon after they arrived there, Zabulon was tonsured a monk and went to live in a monastery in the desert, Sosana became a deaconess and helped her brother the patriarch serve the poor of Jerusalem. Nina went to live with a godly woman named Nianfora, who continued to teach her to love and follow God through His Church.

When Nina was 14, she began to wonder about Our Lord’s robe and whatever happened to it. She asked Nianfora how something so precious could just be lost for hundreds of years? Nianfora answered that it was somewhere in Iberia (now Georgia) because it had traveled there after the soldier won the robe with the dice toss at the cross. Nina was very pious and thought that this holy item that had belonged to Our Lord should not be lost and forgotten, so she began to pray, asking the Mother of God to make a way for her to go. One night she had a dream in which the Theotokos blessed her with a cross made of grapevines tied together with hair. The Theotokos told Nina that the cross would be her protection as she traveled to Iberia. When Nina woke up, she was still holding the cross in her hand! She kept that grapevine cross with her for the rest of her life. Soon after this dream, Nina set out to find Christ’s robe with the blessing of her uncle, the patriarch.

Nina traveled first to Rome. While she was there, she met Princess Ripsimia and her teacher Gaiana, and let them to the Faith. The emperor at that time was Diocletian, who was persecuting Christians. Diocletian wanted to marry Princess Ripsimia because she was so beautiful, but she and Gaiana and Nina (and 50 other young ladies) ran away to spare their lives because they were Christians. They escaped safely to Armenia. Unfortunately, Diocletian was so angry he had sent soldiers to follow the young ladies (and to warn King Tiridat of Armenia about them). When the now-warned King Tiridat saw the beautiful Princess Ripsimia, he wanted to marry her! When she refused, he killed her, Gaiana, and the other 50 young ladies with them. Nina narrowly escaped this martyrdom by hiding in some rosebushes.

Alone, Nina continued her journey to Iberia. When she first arrived in Iberia, she befriended some shepherds who gave her food and helped her know where to go to find their capital city of Mtskheta. Along the way, Nina was very discouraged. She began to wonder why she was doing what she was doing. One night as she slept, she had a dream. In her dream, a heavenly visitor appeared to her and gave her a scroll. When she woke up, Nina still had the scroll in her hand. She could even read the scroll: it was written in Greek! It was full of scripture verses which encouraged her to continue on her journey so that she could help others learn more about Christ and His Church. This gave Nina the strength that she needed to continue her journey, and she made it to Mtskheta.

Soon after her arrival in Mtskheta, Nina was saddened to watch a ceremony where the people of Iberia were gathered to worship idols covered in metal. The people shook before the idols as their priests prepared sacrifices for the ceremony. Nina was so sad that she began to pray hard and loudly for the people, that God would enlighten them and show them that He is the true God. Suddenly, a storm came up and all the people had to take cover! Lightning destroyed the idols, crumbling them to nothing. The rain washed away the crumbled pieces. Nina had taken cover in the cleft of a rock, so she was safe, but she saw the whole thing happen. After the idols were washed away, the sun shone once again, and the people came looking for their idols. Of course they found no trace of them. This made the Iberian king wonder if there is another God greater than the gods that they worshiped.

Nina was welcomed into the palace garden by the gardener and his wife, who allowed her to live in a corner of the garden (some sources say in a hut; others say under a bramble). The couple was unable to have children, but Nina prayed for them, and God blessed them with many children after that! They became Christians, and so did many others in the land, as Nina prayed for them and told them about Christ. She became well known because of her godliness and her kindness. God worked other miracles through her prayers as well. For example, once a mother was carrying her dying son through the city, begging for help so that he would not die. St. Nina took the boy, laid him down on her leaf bed, and prayed for him. As she prayed, she touched him with her grapevine cross, and he was healed!

Nina preached even to the Jewish people of Iberia. Interestingly enough, it was through the Iberian Jewish High Priest (who converted to Christianity as well through the teaching of Nina) that she learned about the one thing that she had come to Iberia to find in the first place: the robe of Christ! He told her the story of his great-grandfather Elioz, who had gone to Jerusalem to witness Christ’s death (His death was considered by the Jewish people to be a victory for their nation, so invitations were sent out prior to its happening). Elioz’s mother had warned him not to ally himself with those who killed Christ, because she knew that He was the fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies! Elioz went to Jerusalem and was present at the crucifixion, and managed to get Christ’s robe from the soldier who had won it. He brought it back to Mtskheta, where he found out that his mother had died around the time that Christ did (after feeling in her heart the pounding of the nails as they were pounded into Our Lord and proclaiming that she sensed that He had been killed). Elioz’s sister Sidonia took the robe of Christ when she saw it in his hands, and began to venerate it with kisses. She hugged it to herself and immediately died! Elioz tried to pull the robe from her grasp but was completely unable to do so. He felt afraid about what could happen to the robe at that point, so he secretly buried her, still clinging to the robe, in an undisclosed location. Some say it was in the middle of the palace garden in Mtskheta, where a cedar tree suddenly grew, but no one knows for sure.

When Nina learned this, she was still uncertain of the actual location of the robe of Christ, but began to pray at that cedar tree in the middle of the royal garden in case the robe was truly under there. One night after her prayers, Nina saw many black birds perch in the cedar’s branches. They flew from there to the river, bathed, and came back as white as snow! The now-white birds sat in the cedars branches and sang beautifully. God revealed to Nina that this was to help her to realize that the people of Iberia would come to know Him, be baptized, and continue their lives cleansed of sins. It encouraged her to keep telling all the people around her about Christ, and to pray for them and for their salvation.

The queen of Iberia, Queen Nana, who did not like Christians and worshiped false gods like the Roman goddess Venus, became sick around this time. She went to doctors, but just got worse and worse. It looked like she would die. Although she did not like Christians, Queen Nana had heard that Nina could heal people through her prayers. She commanded that Nina be brought to her. Nina replied that if she wanted to be healed, the Queen would need to come to her humble dwelling instead. The queen was desperate and so she humbled herself and they carried her to Nina’s little living space, where her servants laid the queen on Nina’s bed of leaves. Nina prayed for her, and touched her head, feet, and shoulders with the grapevine cross. As soon as Nina finished making the sign of the cross over Queen Nana in this way, the queen was completely well. She was so grateful to be healed that she stopped worshipping idols and became a Christian instead. Queen Nana and Nina became close friends.

The king of Iberia, King Mirian, was not happy that his queen converted to Christianity. He was ready to have all of the Christians in Iberia killed, even though that meant that his own wife would die. While he was thinking of this plan, he went out hunting on a beautiful day. As he hunted, suddenly a dark cloud came up where he was. It was so dark that the king could not see! Winds began to blow, lightning was all around, and it was all very similar to the frightening storm that hit back when Nina first came to Iberia and the idols had been destroyed. All of the king’s hunting companions left him because they were afraid. Alone, King Mirian cried out to his gods to save him. The storm got worse, and of course the gods did nothing. Finally, King Mirian cried out to the God of Nina, asking Him to save him from this storm and promising to follow God if He did. At that moment, the storm stopped, and the sun shone! King Mirian returned to the city, found Nina and told her of his experience and his promise, which he kept. And that is how the  Light of Christ entered into King Mirian’s life and the lives of his people as well. His joy at his conversion led the king to build many churches to help his people to be better Christians.

After the king’s conversion, Nina continued to preach and teach about Christ to the Iberian people. Her hard work, and the cooperation of the people around her, established Christianity firmly in that part of the world. (Even today, 82 % of the people of the nation of Georgia are practicing Orthodox Christians!)

Nina reposed in the Lord in the early 4th century, in the village of Bodbe, in what is now eastern Georgia. King Mirian had a church built at the site of her repose. Her body is buried there.

O handmaid of the Word of God,

Who in preaching hast equaled the first-called Apostle Andrew,
And hast emulated the other Apostles;
O enlightener of Iberia and reed-pipe of the Holy Spirit,
Holy Nino, equal to the Apostles:
Pray to Christ God to save our souls!
(troparion to St. Nina, in tone 4)

Sources:

http://www.antiochian.org/node/17330

https://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/14/100191-st-nino-nina-equal-of-the-apostles-and-enlightener-of-georgia

http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/67914.htm

http://www.stnina.org/st-nina/life-st-nina-karen-rae-keck

 

Here are additional sources that can help us learn more so that we can teach our Sunday Church School students about St. Nina:

***

This picture book is a great way to help younger students learn about the life of St. Nina: http://www.stnectariospress.com/the-life-of-saint-nina-equal-to-the-apostles/

***

Share this 8-minute video about the life of St. Nina with middle-years students: http://trisagionfilms.com/project/life-st-nina-enlightener-georgia/

***

Older students will benefit from reading the life of St. Nina and studying and/or praying the supplication to her that is found in this book: http://www.holytrinitypublications.com/en/Book/8/313/The_Life_of_St_Nina_Equal-to-the-Apostles_and_Enlightener_of_Georgia.html

***

Teens will enjoy reading this Iberian Jewish account of Christ, as it was told to St. Nina, and what happened with His robe:

“Conversing frequently with this Abiathar [the Iberian Jewish high priest], St. Nina heard from him the following tale about the Lord’s Robe:
‘I heard from my parents, and they heard from their fathers and grandfathers, that when Herod ruled in Jerusalem, the Jews living in Mtskheta and all Kartli received the news that Persian kings had come to Jerusalem seeking a newly-born male child of the lineage of David, born of a mother, but having no father, and they called him the King of the Jews. They found Him in the city of David called Bethlehem in a humble cave and brought Him gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Having worshipped Him, they returned to their own country.
‘Thirty years passed, and then my great-grandfather Elioz received from the high priest in Jerusalem, Annas, a letter which read as follows: “He Whom the Persian kings came to worship and offer their gifts, has reached a mature age and has begun to preach that He the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Come to Jerusalem see His death, to which He will be delivered according to the law Moses.”
‘When Elioz, along with many others, was about to set out for Jerusalem, his mother, a pious old woman of the lineage of the high priest Elias, said to him: “Answer the king’s call, my son, but I beg you, do not ally yourself with the impious against Him, Who they intend to kill; He is the One foretold by the prophets, a Riddle for the wise, s Secret hidden from the beginning of the ages, a Light for the nations and Eternal Life.”
‘Elioz, together with the Karenian Longinus, arrived in Jerusalem and was present at Christ’s Crucifixion. His mother remained in Mtskheta. On the eve of Passover she suddenly felt in her heart something like the strokes of a hammer driving in nails, and she cried out: “Today the kingdom of Israel has perished, because it has condemned to death its Savior and Redeemer; from now on this people will be guilty of the blood of its Creator and Lord. It is my misfortune that I have not died before now, for then I would not have heard these terrifying blows! No more will I see on the earth the glory of Israel!”
‘And uttering these words, she died. Elioz, who was present at Christ’s Crucifixion, obtained the Robe from the Roman soldier to whose lot it had fallen, and brought it to Mtskheta. Elioz’s sister Sidonia, on greeting her brother with his safe return, told him of the wondrous and sudden death of their mother and of the words she had uttered just before she died. Then when Elioz, in confirmation of their mother’s foreboding regarding the crucifying of Christ, showed his sister the Lord’s Robe, Sidonia took it and began to weep and kiss it; then she pressed it to her breast and instantly fell down dead. And no human strength was able to wrest this holy garment from the arms of the dead girl. Elioz committed his sister’s body to the earth and buried her with Christ’s Robe, and he did this in secret so that even to this day no one knows Sidonia’s burial place. Some surmise that it is located in the center of the royal garden, where from that time there grew up of its own accord and still stands a shady cedar. Believers flock to it from all directions, considering it to possess great power; and there beneath the cedar’s roots, according to tradition, is Sidonia’s grave.’
“Having heard about this tradition, St. Nina began to go at night to pray beneath the cedar tree…” ~ from http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/67914.htm

After reading this passage together, discuss it. Possible questions could include: How is this passage the same as what we Christians have heard about this part of Our Lord’s life? Does the Jewish perspective offer us any insights we may not have had before this? How does hearing a Jewish person’s belief about Christ impact our own?

***

Talk with your Sunday Church School students about St. Nina’s cross. How did she get the cross in the first place? How did God use it to bless others? Show them a picture of St. Nina’s cross, which is still reverenced by the Georgian people to this day. (You can find photos of it online, or show your students the video footage of the cross being reverently carried into a service at around :24 in this Georgian news story:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3LVGZ8aO0g.) After the discussion, help your students to each create a grapevine cross to remind them of the one that St. Nina had. Before class, you will need to procure some grapevine (from your own plants, or a friend’s plants, or from a craft store or nursery) and some embroidery floss. When it is time to make the crosses, cut sticks of two different lengths for each cross and use strands of embroidery floss “hair” to tie them into a cross. Their cross can be small, made of just two grapevine twigs, or large, crafted from multiple strands of each size: it is up to you! Send the crosses home with your students so that they can put theirs in a place where it will remind them to be faithful to God and to trust Him as St. Nina did. (Here’s a blog post that can give you an idea of how to tie the cross together. The cross in the blog is made with twigs from a tree, but the method would apply to grapevine as well: http://www.gratefulprayerthankfulheart.com/2012/04/little-wooden-cross-from-sticks.html)

***

With older students, study the Gospel verses that were written on the scroll miraculously given to St. Nina in her dream when she was feeling most discouraged about her journey. Here they are:

“Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. (Matt.26:13).
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal.3:28).
“Then said Jesus unto them (the women), Be not afraid: go tell my brethren… (Matt.28:10).
He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me (Matt.10:40).
“For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist (Luke 21:15).
“And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take no thought how or what thing you shall answer, or what you shall say: for the Holy Spirit shall teach you in the same hour what you ought to say (Luke 12:11-12).
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul… (Matt.10:28).
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt.28:19-20).”

After reading the scriptures together, talk about how these words must have encouraged Nina. Then ask your students: do any of these verses stand out to encourage you? Have each student select one of these verses to copy onto a piece of magnetic sheet (magnetic business cards like these would work well: http://www.staples.com/Avery-reg-Inkjet-Magnetic-Business-Cards/product_461559). Send the magnetic verses with your students so that they can put the verse in their locker at school or on their fridge at home to continually encourage them as they did St. Nina!