Category Archives: spirituality

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.

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“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)

 

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“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)

 

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“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)

 

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“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)

 

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“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)

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Icon” by Georgia Briggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘After St. Euphrosynos the Cook?’

‘Yeah. He was my patron saint.’

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

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

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

‘What?’

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

‘Both,’ says Father Innocent.

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

‘Then I must take Euphrosyne.’

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

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

Dr. Snead blinks in confusion.

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

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

***

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

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

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

On Pursuing Virtue: Temperance

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

One way that we can teach our Sunday Church School children about temperance is to help them think about gluttony, the sin that stands opposed to temperance. Some children may be unfamiliar with the term “gluttony.” We can explain it as “making a habit of doing something (ie: eating or drinking) too much. Then, we should trade some stories of gluttony as we’ve experienced it. Most of us have had an experience where we did something in excess and can remember how we felt afterwards. Consider sharing an example from your own life to get the conversation started.

For example, if I were teaching this lesson, I’d begin by placing large bowl of white icing sitting where all of the students in my class could see it. Then I’d tell this story: when I was a child I loved icing. One day in first grade, I was at my friend’s house, playing, while her mother frosted a cake with white icing. We both wanted some, so when she had the cake frosted, she gave us the bowl and beaters, covered in frosting. Mmm! It was delicious and we ate and ate and ate, much more than we should have. Not long afterwards, I began to feel sick in my stomach. Thankfully, that feeling subsided with time, but for years afterwards, even the thought of white icing made me feel nauseous. I can now eat it again, but I know better than to eat a lot of it! Any time that we eat or do too much of something, that is called “excess.” Describe a time when you did something in excess. Maybe you ate so much you felt sick, ran so hard you overexerted yourself, watched tv for so long your brain felt weird, or got so many presents that you didn’t know which one to play with first. (Take time to allow anyone to share who wishes to.) All of those are examples of excess. Too much of anything (except Faith, Hope, and Love) is not good for us or for the people around us.

So, what can we do that IS good for us? We can work on temperance in our life. What is temperance? (Help the students define it; look it up in the dictionary if needed.) Temperance is not overdoing things. Temperance is having self control, knowing when to stop; realizing what amount is enough. St. Basil once said, “Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires.” So, temperance is what controls our body and helps us to do what is right! Because we are Christians, we want to do what is right as we serve God, and temperance can help us to grow closer to God. So, not only is temperance in all things better for us (our body, our soul, and our spirit); it also helps us get closer to God!

Take time for each person who shared a story to share again. This time, have them share one sentence about temperance that, had they followed it, they would not have struggled with excess in that area. For example, “Temperance is licking one beater of white icing and saving the extra in the bowl to share with someone else or to eat later.”After everyone has had a chance to share their sentence, invite students to respond to the prompt “temperance is…” on a piece of paper. They can write a poem, draw a word web, sketch a picture, tell their story with a new ending, etc.

Older children may enjoy breaking into smaller groups and creating little stories or skits of their own to illustrate temperance. They can write or orally tell the stories. Allow enough time for the creation, writing/rehearsal, and performance of each story.

At this point in the lesson, I’d point to the bowl of icing which I had set before the class, and ask, “So back to the icing. Is this icing bad? No! Is eating it bad? No! Is eating all of it by myself bad? Yes, that would be gluttony (and I’d probably get sick again and maybe never want to eat white icing again for decades)! But what if I share it?” and then I’d offer to share a little of it with any student who wants a little of it, either on a cupcake or on a saltine. Unless the class is very large, we would not eat all of it. But that’s okay: we are illustrating temperance, so we will taste the icing, but not eat it in excess. That’s the way temperance works.

Close with prayer, asking God for help with pursuing temperance in all areas of our lives.

Here are some other ideas of ways to help our students learn temperance and its close relative, self-control:

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Although this pdf was not written from an Orthodox perspective and is intended as a take-home letter, it can be a good resource for Sunday Church School teachers desiring to teach their students about temperance. Temperance is defined in an easy-to-understand way, and many practical applications/real-life scenarios are included in the discussion. http://saintjamesacademy.com/images/BlogStuff/03012017/temperance.pdf

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This lesson plan is not written from an Orthodox perspective, but has many good ideas that can be used to help teach children about the self-control aspect of temperance: http://ministry-to-children.com/self-control-lesson-plan/

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“We want their hearts to understand why self control is so important, and I think literature can really aid in this conversation. It is not a lecture from you. It is a story that brings truth to light. As we try and navigate raising our kids in a world that glorifies and abuses freedom and rebellion, we need to teach them what real freedom means. We do have the choice to sin or obey, but we need to teach about the freedom that comes as we submit to God’s ways. He sets his ideals for self-control so as it make our lives better.” Read this (not Orthodox, but quite helpful) blog post about children’s books that can help teach temperance/self control: http://meaningfulmama.com/books-self-control.html

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This lesson is intended for families to use together. While it is not written from an Orthodox perspective, most of it applies to Orthodox Christians and could be used in the Sunday Church School classroom (especially the scenarios and discussions in the lesson pdf) or sent home for use as a resource for families to extend a lesson on temperance/self-control. http://www.kidsofintegrity.com/lessons/self-control

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“The word temperance in the KJV conveys this idea of self-control and more. Unfortunately, it is usually now associated only with abstinence from alcohol or other intoxicants. The Greek word is best translated by the word “mastery” which indicates full control over self and the things which one may desire. There are numerous examples of men exhibiting heroic self-control in the Bible.” The article (non-Orthodox, but very useful in helping teens understand temperance) continues by examining the lives of Joseph, the 3 Hebrew youths, and Christ Himself. Teens would benefit by looking up and discussing all of the scripture passages presented in this article. Find it here: http://www.bibletalk.net/articles/self-control.html

Saints of Recent Decades: St. Porphyrios (Nov. 19/Dec.2)

On February 7, 1906, in a small village called St. John Karystia, on the second largest island of Greece (Evia), a baby boy was born. The boy’s father was a farmer named Leonidas, and his mother’s name was Eleni. This boy, the fourth of five children born to the Bairaktaris family, was named “Evangelos” when he was baptized. The whole family loved God and served Him to the best of their ability. Leonidas was the village cantor, so the family often attended church, and they lived out their faith at home, too.

Evangelos went to school in his village, but the teacher was sick a lot and the students didn’t learn very much. So, after only two years of school, he left and worked instead on the farm. He loved to take care of the animals on the farm. During this time, his father taught him many things about the Orthodox Faith, including the Paraklesis service to the Mother of God. Evangelos was a very serious boy who worked hard at all that he did. One of the things he worked hard at was reading the story of St. John the Hut-dweller. It was hard for Evangelos to read because he only had two years of school, but he loved the saint and kept reading until he had read the whole story. When he finished, he knew that he wanted to love God like that, too, so he wanted to imitate St. John’s life.

Evangelos looked much older than he really was. When he was only 8 years old, he started shaving. That was the year that he got his first job away from home. He worked in a coal mine to make more money for his family. Later he got a job in a grocery store. Throughout the years that he worked to make money for his family, Evangelos remembered St. John the Hut-Dweller and wanted to go live on Mt. Athos just like St. John. Finally, when he was a very young teen, Evangelos was able to go to Mt. Athos. On the ferry boat between Thessaloniki and Mt. Athos, Evangelos met Fr. Panteleimon, who immediately began to look after Evangelos, helped him settle in on the Mountain, and eventually became his spiritual father.

Evangelos did not stop being serious or working hard when he finally made it to the Holy Mountain. In fact, he worked even harder! Sometimes he wished that his elders would ask him to do more. He began to work on his asceticism. He walked around barefoot (the Mountain is covered in rocks and sometimes in snow!), and didn’t sleep much (but when he did, he slept on the floor with the window open and only used one blanket), and he did many prostrations. His daytime work varied from cutting down big trees to carving wood to preparing the ground around his hut for a garden. While he worked, Evangelos prayed and repeated the services/hymns/Gospel to himself until he had them in his heart. He no longer had bad thoughts because he was always focusing his mind on the things of God. Probably the most special thing about this time in Evangelos’ life is that he chose to love his elder, and submit to and obey him because of that love. The way that he humbled himself in submission to his elder made this part of his life so special. During this time, he was tonsured a monk and named Nikitas.

Nikitas’ great love for his elder, for the Church, and for God opened the door for him to experience God’s blessings in new ways. Here is how it began: one morning Nikitas went early to the main church. The door was still locked. An 90-year-old monk (also a saint) named Dimas came to the church. He looked to make sure no one was there to watch, missing Nikitas’ presence, and began to make full prostrations and praying in front of the church doors. The grace of God poured out of Dimas and touched Nikitas in such a special way that even after liturgy, after receiving Holy Communion, he was still basking in it. When he returned to his hut, he stopped, raised his hands, and shouted, “Glory to You, O God! Glory to You, O God! Glory to you, O God!”

That touch of God’s grace in Nikitas’ life changed him. God began to give him special abilities that he did not have before. The first thing that happened was that Nikitas could see his elders, who had traveled far away, coming back while they were still far away. No one else could see them, but he could. His sense of sight was very good. His other senses became very strong, too. Nikitas’ hearing was so good that he could recognize different animal voices and could understand what they were saying. His sense of smell was so strong that he could recognize different smells that were far away. He could see anything from the deep part of the earth to faraway space. He could see past time, as well, seeing things that happened hundreds of years before. He could communicate with rocks and learn about the ascetics who had visited them before, as they worked on their asceticism. He could heal people just by looking at them or touching them. Nikitas used these gifts only to bless and help others, not himself. He didn’t even ask for God to heal his own sicknesses! All of these special gifts were from God and Nikitas was quick to say that it was God’s grace that made them happen: not anything that he had done!

Monk Nikitas kept on working on his asceticism. He wanted to live out in the hut, but his body was so worn down from his hard work that he was sick. His elders sent him back to live in a monastery until he was well again. Then he went back to his hut. Again he got sick. His elders had to send him back to a monastery. This time, they sent him to the Monastery Lefkon of St. Charalambos. He lived as ascetically as his health would allow in that monastery. Monk Nikitas was 19 years old when he moved to that monastery.

When he was only 21, Archbishop Porphyrios III noticed God’s hand on Monk Nikitas’ life. He ordained the monk to the diaconate, and the next day, to the priesthood. He gave him the name Porphyrios.

One of Fr. Porphyrios’ jobs was to hear confessions. He learned from St. Basil that he needed to handle each confession individually and not be upset if they take a long time. Fr. Porphyrios would spend hours every day, sometimes without a break, hearing people’s confessions. The special gifts he had from God helped him to better help the people who came to him for confession.

When the monastery became a convent, Fr. Porphyrios was reassigned. He was sent instead to a church in the village of Tsakayi. Not long after, he was sent on, to the chapel of St. Gerasimos in Athens, at the Athens Polyclinic. World War II had begun, and Fr. Porphyrios wanted to be near the people that he loved who were suffering, so he asked for this work. He worked at the Polyclinic for 30 years, then (because he loved his spiritual children) he stayed on as a volunteer for three more years. All of those years, he received very little money for that work. So he had to work another job as well, to pay the bills. To help pay the bills, Fr. Porphyrios worked on organizing a poultry farm and then a weaving shop. In later years, he rented the monastery of St. Nicholas in Kallisia and worked the land, planted trees, and built an irrigation system. He worked and worked, and did not let himself rest. When he finished his 35th year as a priest, he left the Polyclinic (but kept visiting after that, as mentioned before, because of all the spiritual children that he had there, whom he loved). Finally, in 1973, he left the Polyclinic and went to live at the monastery of St. Nicholas, where he continued to receive guests, hear their confessions, and pray for them.

By this time, Fr. Porphyrios had many physical struggles. He had kidney trouble, and had worked his body so hard that he needed an operation. He asked that they wait to do the operation because it was Holy Week and he wanted to celebrate the services. They did, but he ended up in a coma and doctors thought he would die. He also had a fractured leg and a hernia which both gave him trouble. And then on August 29, 1978, he had a heart attack and had to stay in the hospital for 20 days. Later he had an operation on his left eye. Sadly, the doctor made a mistake and Fr. Porphyrios completely lost his vision in that eye. (That doctor also gave him a shot that Elder Porphyrios’ body couldn’t handle, and it caused a stomach hemorrhage that he struggled with for the rest of his life, leaving him unable to eat regular food!) All of this made him very weak and tired. But God kept him alive!

But Elder Porphyrios loved God and His people. He kept receiving the people who come to him for advice and help. Although he had to reduce the number of hours that he could help people, he could still pray for them with love! And he did.

Elder Porphyrios had wanted for a long time to build a convent for some of his spiritual daughters. He got the blessing of the church and looked long and hard for a place to build it. Finally he found some land and the “Holy Convent of the Transfiguration of the Savior” was started. His great love for people made him want to guide them in the joy of being transfigured (changed) to be like Christ. That’s how the name came to be.

He moved onto the property in 1980, and construction (which he supervised closely) began. Elder Porphyrios and his friends had been saving up for this monastery for a long time. Because of that, they had the money to build on the property. His prayers supported the work, and the building went smoothly, by the grace of God.

But in his heart, Elder Porphyrios really wanted to go back to Mt. Athos. In 1984 he was given the hut on the Mountain where he had lived when he first took his monastic vows. He sent disciples to live there over the years, but he wanted to go himself, to die in the place where he took his vows 60 years earlier.

Finally, in 1991, on the night before the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Elder Porphyrios left for his hut on Mt. Athos. On his way, he had visited Athens to give his confession and receive absolution. When he arrived on Mt. Athos, Elder Porphyrios settled into his hut and waited to depart this life.

He asked that a deep grave be dug for him. Then he told someone what to write, and wrote a letter for his spiritual children. In the letter he gave some advice and asked them to forgive him for the things that he did wrong in his life. He was ready to depart this life, but his spiritual children kept contacting him for advice and help. Two times he had to go back to the Convent in Athens. He didn’t want to, but his spiritual children needed him, so he went. He always left only a few days after arriving at the Convent, so that he could get back to Mt. Athos as quickly as possible.

God was merciful and allowed Elder Porphyrios to be on the Mountain when he departed this life. The evening that he passed away, he went to confession and then spent some time praying. His disciples read some Psalms and prayed the Jesus Prayer to help him finish his prayer rule one last time. He continued to whisper prayers, until finally he said only one word, “Come!” and departed this life. It was 4:31 am, Dec. 2, 1991.

The fathers at the monastery kept vigil all day and night, and buried him at dawn on Dec. 3. They had not announced his passing to the rest of the world, just as Elder Paisios instructed. After he was buried, everyone else found out that he had departed this life.

Elder Porphyrios continues his work of love for others and prays for all of us. He has appeared to those who needed his help, and prayed successfully for God to heal many people. Because of his life and these after-departing-this-life miracles, the elder was elevated to sainthood on Nov. 27, 2013.

 

Through the prayers of St. Porphyrios, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Sources:

http://www.abbamoses.com/porphyriosbio.html

http://www.orthodoxphotos.com/Orthodox_Elders/Greek/Fr._Porphyrios/

http://pemptousia.com/2014/01/saint-porphyrios-of-kafsokalyvia-part-i/

Here are additional helpful links and ideas that can help you teach your Sunday Church School students about St. Porphyrios:

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Share this little book about St. Porphyrios’ life with your Sunday Church School students: http://orthodoxchildrensbooks.com/…/58…/flypage-ask.tpl.html

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To learn more about St. Porphyrios, listen to this recorded telling of his life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrjzhH1pHjU
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You and your students can hear the voice of St. Porphyrios, as he speaks about Christ and our life in Christ in this (subtitled with English) video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhkoQ2T0azA

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Talk with your young Sunday Church School students about saints. What makes some people special so that we call them saints? How do we become holy? Share with them the story of one of the Saints: the life of St. Porphyrios. As you tell his story, be sure to point out how often his life exemplified love. Talk together about love and how/why it is so important. Then share this quote of St. Porphyrios’ with your students: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_porphyrios_you_dont_become_holy.pdf. Discuss the meaning of the quote together, and tie together your previous discussion about sainthood/holiness and love. Give each student a copy of the quote and allow them to decorate it in a way that will remind them to love, and thereby become holy.

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Continue to encourage your Sunday Church School students to work towards being a saint. “Be the Bee” episode #11 uses the life of St. Porphyrios to encourage its viewers to work on sainthood from an early age. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgocWG9AG7s

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Mending a coat with newspaper? Flying cars? Speaking to people of other languages without an interpreter? A miraculous intervention in spacetime? Share these miracles of St. Porphyrios (that sound like they could be movie clips!) with your Sunday Church School class: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2015/10/saint-porphyrios-and-flying-car.html; http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2015/12/saint-porphyrios-and-gift-of.html; and http://www.bio-orthodoxy.com/2015/04/saint-porphyrios-of-kavsokalyva-patron.html (by the way, today it would take about 50 minutes to travel from Migara to Milesi, but the nuns made the trip in a taxi slowed by traffic in only 15 minutes, with St. Porphyrios’ blessing.)
And then there was this time when St. Porphyrios appeared to high school students and healed one of the students’ mother through his prayers: (told from the father/husband’s perspective) http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-wondrous-appearing-and-healing-of-st.html
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Before class with your middle-years Sunday Church School students, gather some items to have in the room when they arrive to pique their interest in the life of St. Porphyrios. Perhaps a pair of binoculars to represent his incredible long-distance vision, a wood carving to represent the carvings he made, a rock to represent the rocks he could communicate with about the ascetics who had visited them before, etc. Keep these items visible in the room and share the life of St. Porphyrios. Challenge your students to identify each item and how it relates to St. Porphyrios’ life. Then talk about some of the special gifts that God gave to him so that he could use the gifts to help others get closer to God. Make a list on the board of the different kinds of gifts he had. Share this video that demonstrates one of them (knowing what happened in someone’s life so that they are encouraged to make things right with God): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2Tie7qFdBs. After watching this together, discuss it. What happened in this story? How did St. Porphyrios know about the taxi driver’s sin? WHY did he know about it? Who else knew what had happened? Talk together about how God knows EVERYTHING that happens, and encourage your students to live accordingly (and to go to confession if they need forgiveness!).

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Talk about what you and your Sunday Church School students (middle grades or higher) think is the most important thing to you. If you knew that you would soon depart this life, what would you write down to leave with your loved ones? God told St. Porphyrios when he was getting ready to depart this life. Because of this, St. Porphyrios wrote a letter to his spiritual children before he died, so that he could say final words to them. Read the translation of the letter here: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/88352.htm. Read the letter to your students and talk about what St. Porphyrios had to say in the letter. What was most important to him when he knew that he would soon depart this life? How does that compare to what you talked about as important words you would leave for your loved ones?

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Print or copy these quotes from St. Porphyrios onto notecards. Put the notecards in a basket and allow older Sunday Church School students to select one, read it, and share it with the class. Discuss each quote – how does it apply to our life? http://www.orthodoxchurchquotes.com/category/sayings-from-saints-elders-and-fathers/st-porphyrios/

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With older children, watch this video of 12 sayings of St. Porphyrios. Pause after each and talk about what it says and what it means. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycxr6D74q-Y Before class, copy each of the sayings onto its own piece of paper, large enough that the whole class can see it. As the saying appears in the video and you discuss it, put the paper containing it out on the table or up on the wall for your students to see. By the end of the video, you will have 12 sayings displayed. Encourage each student to select their favorite, then take time to have each student share their favorite quote and why they like it so much. (If there’s not time, just have each student share with someone near them.)

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Teens or adults will benefit from a book study on this book full of the wisdom of St. Porphyrios: https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Love-Wisdom-Saint-Porphyrios/dp/9607120191/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

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Saints of Recent Decades: St. Nikolai Velimirovich (March 5/18)

On December 23, 1880, Dragomir and Katarina Velirnirovich gave birth to their first child, a son. He was born in the town of Lelich, among the Povlen Mountains of western Serbia. When he was born, he was so weak that they had him baptized soon after birth. He was named Nikola, after the family’s patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra. As Nikola grew up, he grew stronger. (Dragomir and Katarina had 8 other children after Nikola, but unfortunately all of them passed away during WWII.)

Nikola’s parents were hardworking farmers who loved God and His Church so much that they always stopped their work when it was time for prayers. They kept the fasts and lived their life by the liturgical cycle of the Church. Katarina was a very holy mother, and she taught her children about God, the saints, and the holy days of the Church year. She also would take Nikola to the Chelije Monastery for Communion, even though it was a three miles walk to get there. When he got older, Nikola remembered his mother’s commitment to taking him to church, and he was grateful.

It was in that same monastery where Nikola first started school. His spiritual father, Father Andrew, taught Nikola to read, to write, to do math, and he also taught him about his culture. Father Andrew also taught Nikola the Scriptures and the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nikola loved to learn. Even during summer vacation, Nikola would sneak away to the monastery church’s bell tower and hide there all day so that he could read and pray!

After Nikola had finished 6th grade, he wanted to enter the Military Academy. He was not accepted to the school, though, because he was too small to do everything that military cadets needed to do. Since he could not go to military school, Nikola applied to the Seminary of St. Sava in Belgrade. He was accepted to the school, and he began the life of a seminarian. He did not just study the normal things seminarians study, though: he also read the important writings of famous writers in Europe (like Shakespeare, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Marx to name a few). He especially liked Peter Njegosh’s writing, and gave a speech about him for his final big project when he was finishing at the seminary in 1902. Everyone who heard this speech was amazed: they could tell that Nikolai was very, very smart.

Unfortunately, during his years at seminary, Nikola got sick. He was not eating well, and the housing at the seminary was not good, so he was sick when he graduated. Nikola’s doctor told him to spend time on the sea coast. So after graduation, Nikola taught in a few villages during the school year, but spent his summer break on the seashore. As he rested at the shore, Nikola wrote. He wrote the life of Bokel the Montenegrin and Dalmatin; and he started a Christian newspaper that contained some of his first published writings.

In 1905, Nikola was chosen to study abroad. He went to Switzerland, Germany, England, and Russia during this time of his life, and he studied very hard. In 1908, he received his Doctorate in Theology. The very next year, 1909, Nikola worked for (and got) his Doctorate in Philosophy, this time in Oxford, England. He was so smart and could learn quickly: not many people have two doctorate degrees at age 28!

That fall, Nikola became very sick. He was in the hospital for more than two months. While he was there, Nikola prayed and told God that if He saved him from this illness he would serve God and His Church. God healed him, and brilliant Dr. Nikola laid his possibilities for greatness aside and became a simple monk. Monk Nikolai was tonsured and ordained to the priesthood on the same day, Dec. 20, 1909. The Hieromonk Nikolai served God with all of his heart and mind, and was soon elevated to Archimandrite.

Archimandrite Nikolai was sent to Belgrade to teach at the seminary there. However, before he could teach, he needed to take a test (because the people at the seminary discovered that he had never taken 7th and 8th grades). The test was an oral test: he had to stand before the examiners and answer questions that they asked him. Everyone who heard him speak at that test could not believe how well he spoke. No one could even ask him a question about his answers. So, of course he passed the test! But before he was allowed to teach, the people at the seminary thought it would be good for him to spend some time in Russia. So he went to Russia for a year. While he was there, Archimandrite Nikolai wrote “The Religion of Njegosh,” his first great work.

Back in Belgrade, he went on to write many others, including a collection of homilies that he called “Sermons at the Foot of the Mount” (he said he called it this because “Christ spoke on the Mount, but I dare to speak only at the foot of the Mount.”) He also wrote “Beyond Sin and Death,” which was a very deep book written in a way that ordinary people could understand. Besides his writing, he taught at the seminary, and many of his students went on to become monks, theologians, and clergy because they had been so inspired by Archimandrite Nikolai. He taught philosophy, logic, history, and foreign languages; and his writing made him well known on around the world.

And then World War 1 began. In the summer of 1914, Archimandrite Nikolai was asked to go to England to find help for his Serbian people. Because he had a doctorate degree from Oxford, he was welcomed by the British, who not only agreed to support the Serbian people, but also awarded him a Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge University while he was there!

In the summer of 1915, Archimandrite Nikolai was sent out again. This time, he was sent to New York City to gather help from the (now American) emigrants. 20,000 volunteers came back with him to help protect their homeland from the Austrians; and many sent money to help their suffering brothers and sisters back home. During this trip to America, Nikolai had a dream in which an Angel of the Lord told him that he would come back to America to begin the American Serbian Diocese. (That dream later came true.)

At the beginning of 1916, Archimandrite Nikolai went back to England, where he wrote more books and articles. He stayed in England until the end of the war. Again, the British liked his work, and he was given another Honorary Doctorate of Divinity. This one was in 1919, from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Nikolai was chosen to be the new Bishop of Zhicha. On March 12, 1919, when he was only 38, Nikolai was installed as the bishop. He cried happy tears during the consecration service: he had spent years trying to get help for the Serbian people whom he loved so much, and now he would actually be able to help them himself, as their bishop! He spent two years helping the Serbs in Zhicha as well as throughout Yugoslavia. Like Christ, he healed the sick, set spiritual captives free, and preached. In 1921 he was transferred to the Diocese of Ochrid and Bitola. Everywhere he went, Bishop Nikolai worked to help people be united peacefully. And all the while he worked, he wrote more books. One of those books, Prayers By the Lake, is full of prayers that are useful to Orthodox Christians today.

In 1924, Bishop Nikolai was sent to the United States, arriving in New York City again. This time he went around speaking about the situation in Europe, thanking the American Serbs for their help, and beginning to gather the Serbian parishes in America into an Archdiocese.

Six months later, he went back to Belgrade to report on the church in America. He was nominated to become the Bishop of the American Serbs, but not everyone in his homeland was ready to give him up. This made it hard for the Bishop, so he went on a pilgrimage retreat in 1922 to the Holy Land and then to Mt. Athos. He needed this time away to be refreshed and to receive counsel from God. When he returned, Bishop Nikolai nominated another bishop to be the first bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America. The synod agreed with that nominee, who then went to America. This meant that Bishop Nikolai could stay and continue writing. He wrote many books that helped people become closer to God and the Faith. He also encouraged people to pray, which they did, and it started a new dedication to prayer that helped to strengthen the Serbian Orthodox Church. In the next few years, he paid another visit to the United States (in 1927) stopping in London on his way back home to Serbia. During this trip, he challenged people to repent, warning that something terrible would soon happen in Europe. Back in Ochrid, he wrote several more books, including The Prologue of Ochrid, which has become a spiritual classic.

Early in 1930, the bishop went to Vatopedi Monastery, on Mt. Athos. A Pan-Orthodox conference was taking place, and while he was there, he was able to lead the Orthodox faithful of different nationalities in a way that helped them show that the Orthodox Church is united as the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” After that conference, Bishop Nikolai returned home and continued writing until war began in 1941.

When the Germans occupied Yugoslavia that same year, Bishop Nikolai was arrested. He was sentenced to prison in Dachau, the famous prison camp in Germany. Bishop Nikolai spent two years imprisoned in Dachau. While he was there, he saw (and suffered) some of the most terrible tortures against humans that the world has ever known. Even in prison, he wrote. He wrote a prayer to the Theotokos (he said later that her protection is the reason he survived Dachau) and a sort of diary about his time in the prison camp. An American division of the Allied Forces got Bishop Nikolai his freedom on May 8, 1945, and, after a brief stop in London, he moved back to the USA.

He took a little time to recover (his back and leg were giving him trouble after his imprisonment) and then began to lecture again. Just a little over a year after his release from Dachau, Bishop Nikolai was given another Doctorate: this one, a Doctorate of Sacred Theology, was from Columbia University.

For the next few years, Bishop Nikolai taught at St. Sava Seminary in Libertyville, Illinois, and wrote books, some of them in English! In 1951,the bishop moved to St. Tikhons Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, to serve as a professor (then dean, and even rector) of the seminary there. During his years at St. Tikhons, Bishop Nikolai wrote books and articles in a variety of languages (he could read, write, and speak seven languages fluently) so that Orthodox people of various backgrounds could read things in their own language. He also lectured in different seminaries and monasteries on the east coast of the United States. He often lectured and gave his homilies in English so that more Americans could understand what he was saying.

And then, one night (between the 17th and 18th of March, 1956), Bishop Nikolai fell asleep in the Lord. He was 76 years old, and praying in his cell at St. Tikhons when he fell asleep. There were many services held for him, beginning at St. Tikhon’s, then in New York City and finally in Libertyville, IL, where he was buried on March 27, 1956. Twenty-five years later, his body was returned to Serbia and laid to rest behind the church of the Chelije Monastery, right in his hometown of Lelich, where he used to hide during summer vacations to read and pray.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich, please pray for us and for our salvation!

Loving thy homeland thou didst sojourn as a patriot to secure aid for God’s suffering children,
And as a new Chrysostom thou didst preach to those in darkness
The rediscovery of the Foundational Rock, Christ the Lord,
In the Eternal Homeland of God’s Kingdom.
Thy pastoral love for all, O Confessor Nikolai, was purified in captivity by the godless,
Demonstrating thy commitment to the truth and thy people;
Therefore, O  venerable Bishop, thou hast attained the crown of eternal life.

Here are additional resources and ideas to help you prepare to share the life of St. Nikolai Velimirovich with your Sunday Church School students:

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Find more information about St. Nicholai Velimirovich’s life, including a few pictures and his icon here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/stnikolai.aspx

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Read some of St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s letters to dignitaries, fellow clergy, and others here: http://www.babamim.com/st_bishop_nikolai__his_letters (Don’t worry, the letters in other languages have been translated to English!)

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Consider praying some of the prayers that St. Nikolai Velimirovich wrote in “Prayers By the Lake.” You can find the prayers here: http://www.sv-luka.org/praylake/

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Pray this prayer for your Sunday Church School students. The prayer is for children, and was written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich: http://www.saintgregoryoutreach.org/2014/06/a-prayer-for-children-by-saint-nikolai.html

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St. Nicholai Velimirovich once said that similar things happen when we receive Holy Communion and when we give to those in need. In both cases, we receive Christ. Ask your Sunday Church School students what they think about that. What could he mean? Then share this story that he told: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/st-nikolai-reflection-on-giving-alms-to-the-poor/ After you share the story, talk together about how you can live in a way that reflects this. Consider ideas of things you could do together as a class and/or as a parish to better receive Christ when He appears as the poor in your community and around the world. Plan a hands-on project that you can work on together, and then prepare and do it! Give each student a copy of this part of the quote: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_nicholai_velimirovich_in_holy_communion.pdf Have them decorate it in a way that reminds them of your plan, so that they can bring/do whatever it is that you decide to do as a group to help.

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Talk with your middle-to-older students about suffering. Did St. Nicholai Velimirovich suffer? Who do you know that is suffering? Do your students ever suffer? What do they think about suffering? Do they like it?
Read this quote from St. Nicholai to your students: “Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.” (The oldest students will want to ponder the entire quote, found here: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/st-nikolai-velimirovich-only-the-foolish-think-that-suffering-is-evil/.) Talk together about how this perspective can (and should!) change our opinion of suffering.

With older students, you may want to follow up with a discussion of this related quote: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/st-nikolai-velimirovich-blessed-is-the-man-who-uses-his-sufferings-knowing-that-all-suffering-in-this-brief-life-is-loosed-on-men-by-god-in-his-love/

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Print these quotes from St. Nikolai Velimirovich. Cut them into individual quotes and place them all in a basket. Invite older students to pull them one at a time from the basket and discuss them: https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/category/sayings-from-saints-elders-and-fathers/st-nikolai-velimirovich/page/5/

 

Saints of Recent Decades: St. Maria of Paris (July 20 or August 2)

In 1891, in Riga, Latvia, a baby girl named Elizabeta (“Liza,” to her family) was born to the Pilenko family. The Pilenkos were Orthodox Christians, and raised Liza in the faith. When she was 14, Liza’s father died, and Liza was so upset that she gave up her Faith. When the family moved to St. Petersburg, instead of going to church, Liza began to hang out with radical people who, like her, liked to read and wanted to make the world better. They would spend hours talking about revolution and about theology, but (in Liza’s words) they “seemed to do nothing but talk.” She wanted to actually DO something to make a change. Years passed, and Liza slowly came back to her faith.

When she was only 18, Liza got married. Three years later, she left her husband and moved back to the house where she grew up. While she was there, she gave birth to her daughter Gaiana. Three years after Gaiana’s birth, Liza was accepted as a student at the Theological Academy of The Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. She was the very first woman to study there! For a while in 1918, Liza was the mayor of her town. This was during the time that the Bolsheviks were taking over Russia, and she was accused of being part of their Red Army. She was arrested and taken to trial. Her judge, Daniel Skobstova, said she was innocent, and he had her released instead of executed. After she was free, she went to find him to thank him. They quickly became friends and were married only a few days later!

Right after the wedding, as the Bolsheviks got stronger in Russia, Liza and her whole family left the country. They didn’t want to be part of all the horrible things that happen during a revolution. They traveled through Tblisi and other parts of the country of Georgia; through Istanbul, Turkey; and through parts of Yugoslavia. They ended up in Paris, France, where they settled down to live. In the time that they moved around, Liza gave birth to two other children: her son Yura and her daughter Anastasia. Once the family settled in Paris, Liza made dolls and painted silk scarves to help provide for all of them. She also began to work with the Christian Student Movement to help other Russian refugees who lived there. Many of them had a much harder life than she did. But her bad things still happened to her family: unfortunately, in the winter of 1926, Liza’s whole family got the flu. Little Anastasia died from it. But this time, a death in her family did not drive Liza away from the Faith: instead, it made her faith stronger! She began to work even harder to help the refugees. She wanted to live a more real, more pure Christian life than ever. Sadly, all of this work was hard on her marriage to Daniel, and she left him, moved into her mother’s house, and continued her work.

In 1932, Metropolitan Evlogy tonsured her a nun and encouraged her to develop a new kind of monasticism: the life of a nun living in the city and serving the needy people there instead of living out alone in the countryside. So Liza, now “Mother Maria,” began her work of sharing her life with the poor and homeless.
She started with a small empty house, sleeping her first night on the floor under the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Others came to join her as she served the Russian refugees, and soon her room in the house was needed for others, so instead, she slept in the basement by the boiler. An upstairs room became the chapel, and Mother Maria wrote the icons on the icon screen. Before too long, she was able to set up a home at 77 Rue de Lourmel (77 Lourmel Street) in Paris that was larger and had much more space. In this new space, she and the others serving with her began to prepare dinner for those who needed food. They served up to 120 every night! Sometimes they would turn the dining room into a hall where Orthodox leaders would come to teach about the Faith. At this house, the stables out back became a chapel, and again Mother Maria contributed many of the icons, some of them were icons that she embroidered. Mother Maria rented other buildings around Paris that she then shared with the poor so that needy families would have a place to live. She started a hospital for people sick with tuberculosis. She began schools for children. She visited mental hospitals just so she could look for Russian refugees. Because these people were so poor and didn’t speak French well, they had been labeled as mentally ill and put in mental hospitals – even if they were in their right minds! Mother Maria would rescue them from the mental hospital and help them.

She also helped to start an organization called “Orthodox Action,” which provided safe places for travelers or for the elderly to stay. The people in the Orthodox Action group also helped people who did not have a job, worked in hospitals, aided elderly people, and published books and pamphlets. Mother Maria was living up to her youthful dream of DOING something for change, not just talking about it!

When the Holocaust began and edged closer to Paris, of course Mother Maria did all that she could to help save the Jewish people who reached out for help. Her priest, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, would make baptismal certificates for any Jewish person who asked for one. (Any Jew that had a certificate saying they had converted to Christianity and were no longer Jewish was in less danger.) Mother Maria, her son Yura, and Fr. Dimitri would then plan escape routes for the Jewish people who asked them for help. In 1942, Mother Maria somehow got into the Velodrome d’Hiver. This winter stadium was where many of the Jews in Paris were being kept before they were taken to Nazi death camps. While Mother Maria was in the Velodrome, she did whatever she could to help the Jewish people that she met in there. One way that she helped was by sneaking Jewish children out of the Velodrome to safety! She made arrangements with some of Paris’ trash haulers, who helped her take the children out of the Velodrome inside trash cans, and then drove them in trash trucks to Mother Maria’s house, where she would help to arrange for their escape from Paris.

Mother Maria was finally caught by the Nazis in 1943. They arrested her for helping the Jewish people and took her to Ravensbruck, one of the concentration camps. Even while she was a prisoner in that Nazi camp, Mother Maria was helping people. One survivor talked about her later and said she was adored by everyone, but especially the young prisoners. They had been separated from their families, but Mother Maria became their family and cared for them. She was known to give her “meal” (piece of bread) to anyone that she thought needed it more than she did. She lived this way until she died. On April 30, 1945, Mother Maria was killed in a gas chamber. We are not sure if she was selected to die that day or if she volunteered to take the place of someone else who was. Either way, she died because of the way she lived her faith.

Mother Maria once said, “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.” And she lived exactly that way. But she went beyond just feeding, clothing, visiting, and helping the others in her care: she actually saw everyone she met as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world,” and she treated them as such. She may even have died in the place of one of those “icons of God,” walking out the Faith to the very last moment of her earthly life.

You became a bride of Christ, O venerable Mother,

And offered your body and soul to Him as a living sacrifice.

You exposed the evil side of humanity’s ways

By allowing the light of the Resurrection to shine forth from you.

We celebrate your memory in love.

O Martyr and Confessor Maria

Pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.

St. Maria of Paris, intercede for our salvation!

Sources:

http://myocn.net/st-maria-of-paris/

http://www.pravmir.com/the-challenge-of-a-20th-century-saint-maria-skobtsova/

http://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

http://incommunion.org/st-maria-skobtsova-resources/

Here are a few ideas of ways to help your students learn more about St. Maria of Paris:

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Find a few pictures of St. Maria of Paris in this article about her life:

http://www.pravmir.com/the-challenge-of-a-20th-century-saint-maria-skobtsova/

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Find several icons of St. Maria of Paris here: https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/icons/

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Younger children will enjoy learning about St. Maria of Paris through the picture book, “Silent As a Stone,” by Jim Forest. It tells the story of when she snuck Jewish kids out of captivity in trash cans. Find it here: http://www.svspress.com/silent-as-a-stone/  Before Sunday Church School begins, roll a big (clean, wheeled) outdoor trash can into the middle of your classroom and have it sitting there at the beginning of class. The students will be curious about it, and you can tell them it makes you think of faith and how to live as a true Christian. Entertain their ideas and suggestions of why that is. Then, share the book about St. Maria with them, and then talk together again about the trash can. Can they now tell you why a trash can reminds you of faith and how to live as a true follower of Christ? Give each of student a turn to “be” one of the children being saved from the velodrome while you act the part of St. Maria or one of the Parisian trash workers. Help them into the trash can, close the lid, and push it around a little, then help them out. After whoever wants one has a turn, talk about how it must have felt for the Jewish children in Paris to be in the trash. Their people were being treated as (less than) trash, but St. Maria knew that because they are people made in the image of God, they are not trash but treasures, and she therefore rescued as many as she was able before being caught. Talk together as a class: how can WE see the people around US as treasures, not trash, and rescue them when they need help? Invite the students to draw, tell, or write a plan of how they can do that. Encourage them to look out for those around them who may feel like trash, and be ready to help however they can. (In future weeks, remember to offer the opportunity for students to share any times that they were able by God’s grace to help someone who needed it.)

st-maria-hauls-treasure

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Because St. Maria loved to read and write, we have many of her quotes. Discuss this one with your Sunday Church School students: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” If that is true, how should we treat each person? Describe different types of people to your students (some wonderful, some terrible) and invite them to tell how they should treat each person described as an icon of Christ. Give each student their own copy of the quote: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_maria_of_paris_each_person.pdf and invite them to draw or write their responses to the quote around the edge of the quote itself.

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With older Sunday Church School students, listen to this podcast about St. Maria: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/socialjustice/mother_maria_skobtsova Talk together about the saint’s life and the challenge that the podcaster, Mariam Youssef, extends to the listeners as a result of St. Maria’s life.

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With teens, discuss this section of Bev Cooke’s article about St. Maria of Paris (found here: http://myocn.net/st-maria-of-paris/) “It wasn’t enough to just feed the hungry. ‘I should say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us,’ she wrote. And she meant it. Late at night, she would travel to the Parisian market, Les Halles, to a restaurant that stayed open all night. For the price of a single glass of wine, anyone could sit (and sleep) there. It wasn’t unusual for St. Maria to bring several people home from the place, or to tell them, while collecting the food that the merchants in the market donated to her, to come to her house for dinner that night. She would often skip liturgy, or leave it early in order to begin preparing a meal for up to 120 guests. 

“Her legacy to us is clear: we need to help each other, and look upon everyone – every single human being with whom we interact, whether our family, our friends, or a stranger on the street – not only as a brother or a sister in Christ, but as the very icon of God in the world. For, as she pointed out, ‘About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person, the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . It fills me with awe.’ ”

How did St. Maria live that demonstrated that? How can WE live like that? What can we do as a parish, a Sunday Church School class, as individuals to show that we know that Christ is every hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned person?

On Choosing Stillness

Remember our blog post on “Resting in God” from earlier this summer? Well, consider this post a little checkup. So, how is it going for you?

If you are like me, you probably still have a little work to do (maybe “work” isn’t the right word to use here?) in order to improve this area of your Christian life. There is, however, a simple “prescription” that can help us in this area! This “prescription, our healing solution, can be summed up in these two little words: Be still.


Ah, that sounds easy! We simply need to choose to silence our environment and still ourselves in order to better honor the King of All as He reigns in our lives. But oh, how hard these two words are to carry out! Noise, music, t.v., family members, neighbors, work, the internet: all vie for our attention. And once we successfully silence these, we are left with thoughts, ideas, worries, stresses, lists, and all of our own internal dialogue that must also be stilled so that we can focus. It is not easy, this “be still” business. It is not easy at all.

But it is worth the effort. And it is attainable. For example, Our Lord spoke to the prophet Elijah in the still, small sound of a gentle breeze. (see 3 Kingdoms 19:11-13) If Elijah had been paying attention to all that was going on around him he would have missed this interaction with God. Goodness knows he had plenty to distract him from stillness! After all, he was on the run to save his life from the threats of the evil Queen Jezebel; he had been miraculously fed by angels twice; then he fasted for 40 days and nights while traveling all the way to Mt. Horeb; and then a mighty wind-then earthquake-then fire passed right by him before that still sound came his way. So there was plenty of noise around him that he needed to quiet and there were also plenty of distractions within that he needed to still. If Elijah had been anything like me, he probably would have missed Him. But he chose to be still, and he heard the voice of God Himself.

What are we missing by failing to be still?

Read more about being still:

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Read about the difference between silence and stillness; and find an admonition to pursue both, here: https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/on-silence-and-stillness

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“A common theme in the teaching of the church fathers is stillness. This is not a call to idleness but to a task that is very difficult: to quiet our minds.” So begins this helpful article: http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2012/07/be-still-and-know-that-i-am-god.html

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“Stillness, the Orthodox theologian Fr John Breck writes, is important for a number reasons. We need stillness if we are ‘to attain spiritual knowledge.’ It also is essential as we ‘engage in spiritual warfare against the passions and against demonic powers.’ Finally, in stillness we are able to hear ‘the voice of God.’” Read more on why we should cultivate stillness in our lives, here: http://palamas.info/why-cultivate-inner-stillness/

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Help your busy mind to be still with these five practical ways to approach your prayertime: http://www.karenehman.com/2014/02/5-ways-to-sit-at-his-feet/

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“Fr. Thomas Keating in his book on meditation refers to this continuous motion of thoughts running around in our mind as ‘the monkey mind.’ Picture a cage with monkeys jumping around and screeching. They rush at you, then away from you and then at you again, always chattering and making a ruckus. That is often the state of our mind, an endless commotion. Our minds have almost unlimited creativity and freedom. But if we do not harness the great power of our mind it can cause a mess.”

“…Each time we stop our mind from offending, Christ is victorious in us. We saturate our thinking with Jesus. The more active our relationship is with Jesus Christ, the less our struggle is with futile thinking.” Read more here:

http://www.pravmir.com/how-do-i-sit-quietly-before-god/?utm_content=bufferdc4dd&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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Read this article to find a hands-on approach to being still. Let us together neither resent nor react, but rather, let us keep inner stillness as suggested here: http://silouanthompson.net/2011/10/do-not-resent-do-not-react-keep-inner-stillness/

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Find one mom’s lesson about stillness, focusing on St. Gregory of Palamas, here: https://craftycontemplative.com/2012/03/13/a-childs-lesson-on-st-gregory-palamas/