Tag Archives: Books

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)

 

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!
***

“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?

Gleanings from a Book: “The Suitcase” by Jane G. Meyer

Orthodox Christian author Jane G. Meyer has written a new picture book called “The Suitcase: a Story about Giving.” The book was illustrated by Chiara Pasqualotto. It is the story of Thomas, a boy who may be autistic but does not let his challenges keep him from being an active participant – even a leader – in entering the Kingdom of God while bringing others with him. Any reader, regardless of age, will be challenged to find ways to make God’s Kingdom happen in the world around them after meeting Thomas through this book.

Here is a brief summary and review of the book:

Thomas is like clockwork. He is so precise with his preferred activities that you can almost predict what he will do each day. So, when he randomly shows up at the family supper table one night with a suitcase, declaring that he intends to leave for the Kingdom of Heaven, it catches everyone’s attention, for this is far from his routine! With his family’s love and support, Thomas shares his plan, showing his family (and the reader) each item that he has packed and explaining why he has packed it. As he does so, Thomas unknowingly reveals how carefully he has been paying attention to teachings about the Faith, and unveils his commitment to following Christ, even though it means stepping away from his beloved routines.

The colorful watercolor illustrations in this picture book are gently realistic. They invite the reader to feel comfortable in Thomas’ home and with his family. There is just enough detail to illustrate the story in an orderly manner, just as Thomas likes his world to be organized. (There is also just enough missing in each illustration to leave room for the reader’s imagination, inciting curiosity.)

“The Suitcase” is full of scriptural references. The reader can’t help but try to make connections: What was Thomas thinking about when he packed this item? Where did he hear about that one? Where can I learn more about it?!? Parents and teachers will find in “The Suitcase” more than just a lovely story. They will find in it an opportunity to delve into the scriptures with their children, to ensure that they know the source of each of the contents in Thomas’ wonderful suitcase.

Readers of all ages will be challenged to think beyond their own routines, consider what they should be “packing” in their own suitcase, and then reach out into the Kingdom of Heaven by finding ways to love and serve all those around them. The resource page at the end offers an excellent place to begin!

“The Suitcase” will be a welcome addition to any Orthodox Christian library, and can easily be incorporated into a Sunday Church School class lesson or even a series of lessons. It could be the starting place for a series of lessons about the Kingdom of God and how we can make it happen right where we are! The book also provides an opportunity for Sunday Church School students to see through the eyes of a person living with autism, so it could be included in a series of lessons about different challenges that people face and how we need to embrace our own challenges while loving others with different challenges as we journey together towards God’s Kingdom.

Note: the author of this review was given a reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. Visit http://www.paracletepress.com/Products/7763/the-suitcase.aspx to order your own copy of the book.

Here are some other ways that you can help your Sunday Church School students to learn through the book “The Suitcase:”

***

Read author Jane G. Meyer’s take on “The Suitcase,” including why she wrote the book, here: http://www.janegmeyer.com/books/the-suitcase/

***

Take time to investigate the scripture passages that are alluded to in “The Suitcase.” You could incorporate them all into the same lesson, or have a series of lessons introduced after reading the book. Scriptural allusions include:

Feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:35)

Clothing the naked (Matthew 25:36)

Giving to those in need (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Being a good servant (Matthew 25:21)

Praying for the world (James 5:16)

Having Faith like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32; 17:20)

Talking less and listening more (James 1:19)

Entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2)

Keeping ourselves pure (James 1:27)

Building things if God tells us to do so (Genesis 6:14-22)

The pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46)

The hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44)

Submitting to others (for example, allowing children to lead us) (Ephesians 5:17-21)

***
Spend some time focusing on the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed in Christ’s parables. Read the parables with your students. Talk about them together. Here are two printable activity pages you could include in your study if your students enjoy such challenges:

Invite your students to seek and find words related to Christ’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in this printable word search: http://www.biblewise.com/kids/fun/hidden-word-kingdom-heaven

They can decipher this related verse, as well: http://www.biblewise.com/kids/fun/break-code-kingdom.php

***

Find ideas of ways to teach younger students about Christ’s parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as craft suggestions, here: http://adventuresinmommydom.org/parables-of-heaven-activities/

***

“[The Suitcase] is the book I wanted…  when we were doing our HUGS-based lessons. The goal was to teach the children Christ’s words, ‘Do it to the least of these my brethren and you do it to Me’ (Matthew 25:40).” Read more of this mother/teacher’s review of “The Suitcase” in her blog post here: http://orthodoxmothersdigest.blogspot.com/2017/03/book-review-suitcase-by-jane-g-meyer.html

And find more about the HUGS program (including links to lesson ideas for each age level), which is a natural step to take with your students after reading “The Suitcase” here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/hugs-hands-used-for-gods-service/

***

This TED talk by Roger Antonsen (https://www.ted.com/talks/roger_antonsen_math_is_the_hidden_secret_to_understanding_the_world) explores the relationships in math and science, and what they teach us about perspective. When we shift our perspective, we learn more about the world around us. What we learn from math and science can be applied to our life as we interact with others. Consider this: “When I view the world from your perspective, I have empathy with you. If I really truly understand what the world looks like from your perspective, I am empathetic. That requires imagination and that is how we obtain understanding… Understanding something really deeply has to do with the ability to change your perspective. So my advice to you is, ‘try to change your perspective!’”

The talk could be an excellent way to extend the concept of stepping outside of your comfort zone (as demonstrated by Thomas in “The Suitcase”) in a discussion with teens. (Yes, it is possible to share a picture book with teens! Especially if they have a reason for listening to it!) Consider showing them the TED talk, then inviting them to think of how it relates to “The Suitcase” and share the book with them. THEN launch into a discussion of how the two relate, and how to apply the concept of changing our perspective, empathizing with others, and finding ways to serve them!

 

Gleanings from a Book: “In the Candle’s Glow” by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson

The picture book “In the Candle’s Glow” by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson captured my attention from the moment I saw it. The cover illustration radiates peace as the main character stands prayerfully, gently illumined by a row of candle flames dancing like fireflies as she prays. That juxtaposition of peace and joyful motion made me curious, anticipating what I would read within its pages.

When I slipped the book open, I was not disappointed. It starts with flowers and bees, all blowing and growing in the wind. The life of a candle actually begins in that place: in nature, beauty, wholeness, just as God created the world and meant it to be. Bees partake of that sweet beauty and do their own work of using it to create honey and wax to share with their hive. A pleasant-faced nun sings her way into the book, ready to collect both honey and beeswax, and next thing we know there are slender beeswax candles lying patiently in a church’s narthex awaiting their next job. At last the reader meets the young pray-er from the cover, who dances into the book with much enthusiasm. Once she arrives at the church doors, Felicia stills herself, signs herself with the cross, then prayerfully enters. She notices the color and aroma of the beeswax candles, recalling their history for a moment before selecting one and igniting it, initiating it to its next task: carrying prayers. Felicia quietly prays, and as she does, she sees her prayers hovering, illumined by the candle. She watches as a gentle breeze wafts through the window, carrying the smoke from her candle into the heavens. Her prayers ride along to meet the icon of Christ, which watches over Felicia and reminds her that Christ Himself receives her prayers!

Amandine Wanert’s playful illustrations bring to life the swaying flowers, buzzing bees, singing nun, and dancing Felicia in this story. They also illuminate the gentle glow of candles casting light and hope around the interior of an Orthodox church. Readers will relish the peace that they feel as they read their way from the gleeful buzz of sunny fields to the serenity of prayer in church.

Here are some ideas of ways to study ideas from the book with your Sunday Church School students:

***

Help your Sunday Church School students learn about bees with these interesting hands-on activities: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/explore-world-honeybees/

***

This short video can introduce your students to bees and some of the amazing facts about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta154f5Rp5Y

***

In “In the Candle’s Glow,” Sister Irene treasured the bees’ work and used some of their beeswax to make candles. Bees work together with monks in this American monastery, too, providing the monks with honey and a little income (the monks take the bees to places that need extra bees for pollination at certain times of the year) in exchange for a hive and plenty of flowers from which they can drink. Read more here: http://dowoca.org/news_140326_1.html. After reading, talk with your Sunday Church School students about the idea: how do the bees help the monks? How do the monks help the bees? In what ways are bees and monks the same? How do we benefit from both?

***

After reading “In the Candle’s Glow,” talk with your students about beeswax. Show them a piece of honeycomb (and let them taste it, if they want to!) and talk about how the wax is made for storing the honey and the baby bees. Then talk about the process of turning honeycomb into beeswax candles. Help them to dip their own tiny beeswax candles, just like Sister Irene did in “In the Candle’s Glow.” To do so, have a small (perhaps a potpourri-simmering-size) pot of melted beeswax already heated when they come into class. Also before class, cover the table and floor with newspaper layers taped together to catch any wax drips and cut one or two 12” lengths of candlewick for each student. Fold each length of candlewick in half over a pencil and tape it in place. When you’re ready to begin the candle making process, show your students how to slowly dip their candlewick in the small pot of wax, then pull it out, allow it to cool for a while, then straighten it with their fingers. Allow each student to dip theirs, cool it a bit, and straighten it, then repeat the process. Depending on the temperature of the room, it will take anywhere from 10 to 15 dips to make a slender taper candle. While you take turns with the dipping process is a good time to talk about how peaceful and meditative this work is. Sometimes monks and nuns make candles like this, praying as they work. Perhaps the class can pray the Jesus Prayer together or sing a favorite troparion as you slowly take turns with the dipping process. Once the candles have reached your preferred width, the students can pull the tape off of their pencil and free their pair(s) of taper candles. Show the students how to cut the wick so that the two candles are separated. (You may also want to trim the bottom of each candle flat with a sharp knife on a thick piece of cardboard “cutting board” so that the students can more easily stand their candles upright in a candle stand or a candle holder.) Talk about how deep the wax needs to be, to make a long candle like the ones we light when we go into church. That would take a lot of melted wax! Talk about how long it takes someone to make the pile of candles waiting at church to be burned. In gratitude for that person’s hard work, encourage your students to consider saying a prayer for the person who made their candle, every time they light a candle at church. Gather your candles together and pray the prayer of blessing of the candles, found near the end of “In the Candle’s Glow.” Then allow the students to take their candles along home to use at their family prayer table, or encourage them to light them at church the next time they attend a service.

16682022_10210696526521083_1762604804850405088_nA heat-free beeswax candle-making option (better for younger students) would be to roll your own beeswax candles. Here’s a tutorial: http://playfullearning.net/2013/03/diy-hand-rolled-beeswax-candles/

***

Why do we light candles when we pray? If you have older students, engage them in that question for a bit, then compare their answers to those of St. Symeon of Thessaloniki and St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, as recorded here (under the same question, near the bottom of the page): http://www.stjohnsmayfield.org/what-is-orthodoxy-2/. Encourage them to talk about the answers of those two saints, comparing them to each other and to their own previous answers. Then, encourage your students and yourself to remember, as the page says, “For all these reasons cited by our Holy Fathers, let us often light our candles and make sure as much as possible that they be pure candles. We should abstain from all corruption and uncleanness, so that all of the above symbolism is made real in our Christian lives.”

***

Allow your students to respond to the book “In the Candle’s Glow” with an art project. On dark paper, have them draw a candle (here’s one way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGOFC6ahnVw) with chalk, oil pastels, gel pens, white or metallic pencils: any medium that shows up nicely on the black paper. Then have your students smudge the candle’s “glow” around its flame. Inside that glow, encourage them to write a prayer; the names of people for whom they want to pray; or a drawing of the people’s faces for whom they are praying.

Through the Eyes of a Young Reader: “Queen Abigail the Wise” by Grace Brooks

You may remember the blog post we published about the recently-published Orthodox children’s book, “Queen Abigail the Wise,” by Grace Brooks. Our blog post was published in May 2015. (If you did not get a chance to read the blog before, find it here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/gleanings-from-a-book-queen-abigail-the-wise-by-grace-brooks/

We are in the new calendar year, which means that Great Lent is not too far off. The entire story of “Queen Abigail the Wise” takes place during Great Lent. We are revisiting the book in this blog post for two reasons. First and foremost refers to my statement in the first blog post about the book, “I must share this book with my 10-year-old goddaughter.” I did exactly that, and gave my then-10-year-old goddaughter Hope her own copy to read. After she read the book, we got together and talked about it. I thought you may be interested to hear Hope’s perspective on the book, not just mine, so here it is! (Mind you, there are spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t say we didn’t warn you about them!)

When Hope and I got together to discuss this book, I came with a series of questions for her. I tried to think of questions that would help “grownups” have a sense of how relative and enjoyable the book is for a young Orthodox Christian. (As you may have read in the prior blog post, the book is geared to children, but I found it to be uplifting even though I am an adult. I thought it was a great book, and I was pretty sure that Hope would like it. The older I get, though, the more I realize that what I think is nice for a person of a certain age may not necessarily sit as well with them as I thought it would. So I wanted to test this in-my-opinion-wonderful book with Hope to get her opinion of it. Here it is.)

The first question I asked Hope was whether or not she liked “Queen Abigail the Wise.” I was rewarded with the anticipated resounding “Yes!” and a huge smile on her face. Curious, I asked why, and she said, “I liked how [Abigail] had to do something to get something.” and “I like that she figured out that the young priest was the the iconographer by the end of the story.” (Remember, I already warned you that there are spoilers!)

I went on to ask Hope if there were parts of the book that she could relate to, and she said “Yes…” So I asked her which parts of the story she could relate to. She said, “Well, sometimes I get bored in church, too…” and went on to explain that she can understand how that felt to Abigail. She also said that she could relate to Abigail’s feelings at Pascha, when Abigail felt hot and cramped. Hope said that, like Abigail, she’s also not a crowd person and also, she is not hungry when she’s tired — just like Abigail.

Hope named Abigail as her favorite character in the book when asked, because, “I liked how she didn’t want to give up; and she felt bummed about missing church. I do that too sometimes. I also liked how she was willing to work hard and help others because she wanted the icon so badly.”

I couldn’t just ask about a favorite character, so I wondered aloud if Hope had a least favorite character? She said, “Well, at the beginning probably Vanessa because she seems snobby but I changed my opinion at the end. I could also say baby Jacob but he did play an important role.” (Again, spoilers! Well, almost…)

Although “Queen Abigail the Wise” is a chapter book, it contain a few illustrations. I am a visual person and love pictures, so I was delighted with the sketches: I found them charming. But, as mentioned above, I wondered if my personal theory fit with the actual practice and thus, how the illustrations would sit with a young lady of her age. So, I asked Hope if the illustrations added to the story. She said, “Yes, I like to have visuals!” (Like godmother, like goddaughter, I suppose!) But she mentioned that she wished for color, not just blackline illustrations. (I suggested that since the book is her very own, she could go through and color any illustrations that she wanted to, if she wished. A few weeks later, she came to church with her book and showed me that she had colored part of it with colored pencils! It was beautiful.)

I then asked an all-encompassing question about the theme of the book. I wondered what Hope thinks that the author, Grace Brooks, was trying to say with this story. What does Hope think is the book’s message? She give me two excellent answers: “If you set your mind to something and if you work hard you can achieve it… And no matter how much you dislike something or someone, in the end you may find that you actually love them.” Both answers were insightful. Sage words, coming from a 10-year-old.

I asked Hope if she had a favorite part of “Queen Abigail the Wise.” She answered, “The end, when Abigail gets her icon… And the way she describes the icon was pretty, too.”  I asked her if she would recommend this story to others, and she answered,”Yes!” She went on to say, “I would recommend it especially to those new to the Orthodox faith.”

Hope could not think of any part of the story that she did not like. Rather, she liked the book so much that sometimes she stayed up reading it past her bedtime! She was reading it in summer, so she could lie in bed reading until it got too dark outside to read by the snatches of light shining through her window. She got in trouble for doing so (oops!), but she really liked the book, and that’s what she does when she likes a book. (Again, like godmother, like goddaughter!)

So, as I had expected, Hope liked the book. She could relate to the characters and enjoyed learning along with them. Her experience with the story was similar to mine, and I am glad. But you’ll recall that I mentioned two reasons for this blog post, and you may be wondering about the second.

Well, the second reason I am posting about this book right now is all about timing. In a matter of weeks we will be in Great Lent again! You may want to get this book to share with an Orthodox youngster of your own, so that he/she can read it during Great Lent this year! Or perhaps you personally want to follow the related blog posts as the weeks go by: they are very challenging and encouraging for Orthodox Christians of any age! Or maybe you just want to read the book yourself, for your own growth. We’re sharing this blog post now because both Hope and I want to give you plenty of time so that you can do any (or all!) of the above!

Taking one final glimpse at my interview with Hope, my final question for her was whether or not she would be willing to read a sequel when it comes out? She answered with a resounding, “YES!.” So now there are TWO of us eagerly anticipating the second book in the “Every Tuesday Girls Club!” Our guess is that if you and/or your young Orthodox friends get a chance to read “Queen Abigail the Wise,” you will feel the same way. We certainly hope so!

Here are some important links related to the book:

***

Purchase “Queen Abigail the Wise” by Grace Brooks, either for yourself or for young friends, here: https://www.amazon.com/Queen-Abigail-Wise-Grace-Brooks/dp/1518600115/  
There is also an ebook available. (But you can’t color in the illustrations of an ebook with colored pencil!)

***

Meet all the girls in the “Every Tuesday Girls Club” at the Queen Abigail website: http://queenabigail.com/

***

According to this blog post by “Queen Abigail the Wise” author Grace Brooks, http://queenabigail.com/2016/11/27/december-news-with-queen-abigail/, the second book in the series will be available soon! This one is called “Vanessa the Wonderworker!”

***

Follow along on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/QueenAbigailtheWise/ for a variety of interesting posts including fresh creations by “Queen Abigail the Wise” author Grace Brooks, new blog posts that she writes, and other interesting things that she finds online and shares which are enjoyable to children and adults alike!

***

Consider reading your way through “Queen Abigail the Wise” bit by bit, meditating on these wonderful blog posts by author Grace Brooks. http://queenabigail.com/2016/07/20/reading-through-queen-abigail-with-me/ Perhaps you can do this with a young friend, or even an entire Sunday Church School Class, throughout the course of Great Lent. Consider using these “Abigail” notebooks to document your learning along the way: http://www.cafepress.com/+queen_abigail_the_wise_journal,1908228623!

A Few Christmas Books to Share With Children

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

When you meet with your Sunday Church School students again, (for some of you, anyway) Christmas Day will be passed. But Christmas will not nearly be over: there are 12 days for us to celebrate this feast! Consider continuing your celebration of the Nativity of Christ by sharing books with your Sunday Church School students! Here are a few to consider (in no particular order):

“God Gave Us Christmas” by Lisa Tawn Bergren follows a little polar bear who asks Mama Polar Bear a myriad of questions about Christmas and where it came from. http://lisatawnbergren.com/books/god-gave-us-christmas/

“Little Star” by Anthony DeStefano is the charming tale of a tiny star who gave of himself to light the stable when Christ was born… and is now remembered by some when they place a star atop their Christmas tree. http://anthonydestefano.com/landing/blogs/LittleStar_01.htm

“The Christmas Baby” by Marion Dane Bauer is the story of the birth of the very special baby, Christ, and all who celebrated His nativity. http://www.mariondanebauer.com/bkpages/bk_christmasbaby.html

“Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect” by Richard Schneider is a heartwarming parable about a little evergreen tree whose self-sacrifice mars its perfection; but also makes it most beautiful in the eyes of the Queen, who takes it home as her royal Christmas tree. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42288.Why_Christmas_Trees_Aren_t_Perfect

“Angels and Other Strangers” by Katherine Paterson is a collection of nine delightful Christmas stories by the Newbery-award winning author.

http://katherinepaterson.com/books/angels-and-other-strangers/

“The Pine Tree Parable” by Liz Curtis Higgs is the simple story of a farmer’s wife who raises the perfect Christmas tree on their tree farm, and eagerly anticipates enjoying its beauty in her home for Christmas. When the time comes to cut the tree, she selflessly gives it to a penniless family instead, and receives the blessing of great joy.

http://www.lizcurtishiggs.com/childrens-books-by-liz/

 

A Few Christmas Books to Share With Children

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Do you want to continue your celebration of the Nativity of Christ by sharing books with your Sunday Church School Students? Here are a few to consider (in no particular order):

“God Gave Us Christmas” by Lisa Tawn Bergren follows a little polar bear who asks Mama Polar Bear a myriad of questions about Christmas and where it came from. http://lisatawnbergren.com/books/god-gave-us-christmas/

 

“Little Star” by Anthony DeStefano is the charming tale of a tiny star who gave of himself to light the stable when Christ was born… and is now remembered by some when they place a star atop their Christmas tree. http://anthonydestefano.com/landing/blogs/LittleStar_01.htm

 

“The Christmas Baby” by Marion Dane Bauer is the story of the birth of the very special baby, Christ, and all who celebrated His nativity. http://www.mariondanebauer.com/bkpages/bk_christmasbaby.html

 

“Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect” by Richard Schneider is a heartwarming parable about a little evergreen tree whose self-sacrifice mars its perfection; but also makes it most beautiful in the eyes of the Queen, who takes it home as her royal Christmas tree. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42288.Why_Christmas_Trees_Aren_t_Perfect

 

“Angels and Other Strangers” by Katherine Paterson is a collection of nine delightful Christmas stories by the Newbery-award winning author.

http://katherinepaterson.com/books/angels-and-other-strangers/

 

“The Pine Tree Parable” by Liz Curtis Higgs is the simple story of a farmer’s wife who raises the perfect Christmas tree on their tree farm, and eagerly anticipates enjoying its beauty in her home for Christmas. When the time comes to cut the tree, she selflessly gives it to a penniless family instead, and receives the blessing of great joy.

http://www.lizcurtishiggs.com/childrens-books-by-liz/