On Virtuous Year-End Awards

For many of us in North America, the school year is coming to an end. The end of school offers the opportunity to note growth and accomplishment in all of us, most notably in the lives of our children. This a good time to review our children’s growth and celebrate with them the positive ways we have seen them change.

Schools often present awards at the end of the year, offering students certificates celebrating perfect attendance, most improved in certain curriculum areas, best at ____, etc. Those achievements are important, and should be noted, especially in a school context. But there are even more important ways for a child to improve than curriculum and attendance. As Orthodox Christian parents, we should be evaluating and celebrating our children’s spiritual growth. The end of a school year is a great time to do so! Let us take a little time to think about each child and note their growth in the virtues, which is one way to measure their growth in The Faith. In what ways have our children become more virtuous?

Not sure where to start? Check out our recent blog posts on the virtues (see https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/on-pursuing-the-virtues-an-introduction/, the beginning of the series), which were focused on our own personal growth in each virtue. Each of these blog posts can offer us helpful information about the virtue on which it focuses, which we can then apply as we think about each child. How have they grown in humility, liberality, chastity, mildness, temperance, happiness, and diligence? Which of these virtues do they best exemplify in their life? In which virtue have they grown the most?

Once we parents have answered some of the above questions together, it would behoove us to find a way to acknowledge our observation of our children’s growth. It could be as simple as setting aside time with each child to privately encourage them and congratulate them on their growth in this area. Or perhaps we could gather as a family for a “virtues awards” ceremony, wherein we note and celebrate each child’s growth in a family context.

If we choose to do an official “ceremony” with our family, we can begin the discussion by showing our child(ren) a picture of them from the beginning of the school year and compare it to how they look now. We can talk a bit about how they’ve grown physically this year. We should mention other things they’ve learned over the course of the year (for example, how to ride a bike or play lacrosse or cook dinner). We should discuss academic growth as well, including the awards they’ve gotten at school. At this point, we can segue into a discussion of the children’s growth in the virtues. We can take time with each virtue as it applies to each child or we can talk about each child in turn and celebrate all the virtues in which we have noted growth for that child. Perhaps we will want to present the children with a tangible award celebrating their growth in the virtues, such as a certificate, a playful token representing the virtue in which they’ve grown, or a donation to a charity of the child’s choice in honor of their spiritual growth. How we choose to acknowledge the growth will vary by family and the parents’ creativity! The important thing is that we are noticing the growth and encouraging our children to continue to grow in virtue!

Annually evaluating our children’s spiritual growth throughout their childhood will help them to understand how important it is to improve in holiness. Perhaps this annual celebration of growth will instil in our children the need to regularly evaluate their own growth, even as they get older. (It could also be that, at some point along the way, our children will begin to offer us, their parents, awards in areas of virtuous growth, as well!) At any rate, celebrating the good things that are happening in the spiritual lives of each family member will have a positive effect on all involved. When others see the good that is happening in us and acknowledge it, it makes us want to press on – and become even more godly!

 

Here are ideas of tangible awards for each of the virtues, in case you want something to give to your children and need ideas. (Of course, you can choose to do just a verbal award, or perhaps you’d rather give a donation to the charity of your child’s choice in lieu of one. You know – and can do – what is best for your family!)

 

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Humility:

This printable certificate: Humility Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a slinky, some silly putty, or a container of slime. All three seek to return to the lowest point, just as we should continually try to be completely humble.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Liberality:

This printable certificate: Liberality Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a pack of stickers or a large container of bubble solution – something that can be freely and easily shared, to continue practicing the virtue of liberality!

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Chastity:

This printable certificate: Chastity Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a playful bar of glycerin soap (perhaps with a toy embedded in it) or a kid-friendly liquid soap pump. Either offers a way to continue to keep (your hands, at least!) pure.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Mildness:

This printable certificate: Mildness Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a stress ball or a liquid motion bubbler. Both are calming and can offer a way to remain mild in the face of an opportunity to be angry or anxious.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Temperance:

This printable certificate: Temperance Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a box of cookies, fruit snacks, or other beloved treats that can offer the child the opportunity to continue to practice temperance.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Happiness: 

This printable certificate: Happiness Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a smiley face pin – actually, anything with a smile emoji on it! Wearing a smile will make others smile as well, and will remind you to continue to choose to be happy.

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Ideas for an award for the virtue of Diligence:

This printable certificate: Diligence Certificate

or

This playful “award”: a hoola hoop, jump rope, or puzzle. Whichever your child would enjoy the most, while working at it and being reminded to keep trying and not to quit!

 

On Living Icons

The Orthodox Christian Faith is enriched by icons. We surrounded ourselves with these prayerfully-written images of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints. Our churches are full of icons, as are our homes. This is as it should be. In our modern self-focused culture, we need visual reminders of God’s work in and through the saints! These reminders in the form of icons challenge us to be strong and live a life accordingly faithful.

There are other icons that enrich our Faith as well. God has surrounded us with His hand-written images of Christ in the form of every person around us. Our churches are full of them, as are our homes. But He has not limited His handwritten icons to the Church. They are all around us. If you are like me, occasionally you may need a reminder that everyone – EVERYONE – is an icon of Christ, written by God Himself, in His image. May this short post remind us of that truth. So, that sweet lady at Church? Yes, she is an icon of Christ. The person who just cut me off when driving? An icon. The persistent child interrupting my phone conversation? An icon. That person who I struggle to love? An icon. The famous person everyone gossips about? An icon. Those people who live far away and very differently from me? They, too, are an icon. My spouse? Also an icon, written in the image of (and by the Hand of) God.


Whether or not we recognize His artistry, God has written (and is writing) each and every person. Therefore, we must remember that He is at work in and through them, then respond with the love and respect that we offer any other icon reflecting His image. When we choose to see His work in each person, we will be challenged by them to be strong and live our Christian life faithfully!  

We must be careful to note that this recognition of God’s work in writing the living icons around us must not be limited to noting it in other people. In truth, we ourselves are living icons, and should also be enriching the Church and our world. In order to be the most reflective image of Him that we can be, we need to cooperate with Him as he works in and through us. As we do so, He will strengthen us and give us what we need to live the faithful Christian life befitting an icon.

May God help us all to live and love His image in every person!

 

Here are some resources that can help us to be more aware of the icons of Christ around us; and challenge ourselves to be the best icons of Christ that we can:

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“We get the chance to venerate these living, breathing icons every day—in our homes, at work or school, as well as at church. We just have to get in the habit of seeing them. If we were to treat the living icons around us the way we treat the painted icons in our churches, what would that look like?” ~ from Donna Farley’s article, “Seeing Icons and Being Icons,” http://myocn.net/seeing-icons-icons/

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“How we treat others is how we treat the Lord. Every person is a living icon, and how we treat them reveals the true nature of our relationship with Jesus Christ.” ~ from Fr. Philip LeMaster’s homily “How We Treat the Living Icons of Christ.” Read the entire homily here: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/easternchristianinsights/2016/03/05/780/

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“Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. And this is what we must learn to do with regard to each person as an individual, but also – and this is not always as easy – with regard to groups of people, whether it be a parish or a denomination, or a nation. We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty of this group of people. Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there. Listen to other people, and whenever you discern something which sounds true, which is a revelation of harmony and beauty, emphasize it and help it to flower. Strengthen it and encourage it to live.” – Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

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“Just as people who have no faith are yet drawn to the beauty of icons, so we must remember that unbelievers will be drawn to the beauty of our spiritual lives, should we embark on this process of restoring the image and likeness of God in each of us. Spiritual beauty is manifested in the virtues brought forth through us by the Holy Spirit. A peaceful heart and mind firmly established upon total Faith in God, is magnificent and glorious to behold. Through our spiritual path, we fulfill our iconic calling, manifesting the beauty of God in our persons. By bringing God’s beauty and light into the world, we offer hope to a world filled with ugliness and darkness.” ~ Read more of Bishop JOSEPH’s address “On the Holy Icons” here: http://www.antiochian.org/holy-icons

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Need an overhaul on your perspective of yourself (and others), the icon(s) of Christ? Here’s a 7 minute sermon from Fr. Ted Paraskevopoulos that will do just that: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/isermon/orthodox_anthropology

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What does it mean for a father to be the living icon of Christ? Read one dad’s take on the concept in this blog post: http://illumination-learning.com/main/2017/03/23/dad-a-living-icon-of-christ/

 

On Miracles That God Performs Through Icons

Icons are windows to heaven. We have them in our churches, we have them in our homes, and perhaps in our car/locker/workspace/elsewhere as well. They are in these places as visual reminders of Truth. Icons remind us of the power of God at work, either through the written images of Christ Himself or of those gone before us who have followed Him completely and became saints. They help us to better understand the scriptures and to better connect with the person/people written on them. Icons draw us to God by virtue of their beauty, the stories of faithfulness they represent, the Scriptures they unveil. It is a miracle that something so simple as a prayerfully-written icon can do so much to help us on our journey toward Him.

Occasionally, God chooses to move beyond that sense of “being drawn,” and to work other miracles through them. The purpose of this blog post is to help each of us to learn about some of the icons He is using in this way (or has recently used in this way), and to read the stories of miracles wrought through them. It is our hope that this post will be encouraging and help each of us to be aware of how God is at work through icons. (These stories will also encourage our children when we share the stories with them. Children are naturally full of wonder, and will benefit from knowing these amazing ways in which God is at work through holy icons. So, please share the stories that your children will benefit from hearing so they can be encouraged, as well!)

Here are a few examples of miracle-working icons and their stories, as well as information related to miracle-working icons:

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What would you do if some of the icons in your prayer corner miraculously began streaming myrrh? Read this account by Subdeacon Nectarios himself, of what happened in his home. In the account, you’ll read about two streaming icons (each with different-smelling myrrh), a cat, a “doubting Thomas” who ends up with a mouthful of “proof,” and a few of the miracles that the miraculous myrrh have wrought. Glory to God! http://www.orthodoxhawaii.org/icons.html

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The Kardiotissa Icon of the Mother of God, at St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, Pennsylvania, has been exuding myrrh ever since it was anointed with the myrrh of the Hawaiian Iveron icon in October of 2011. Many, many lives have been changed as a result. Read some of the miracles that have happened, as accounted in this homily: http://www.schwebster.org/sermons/2014-sermons/the-miracles-and-wonders-of-god-the-crying-icon-of-taylor-pa

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“Over the past ten years there have been many miracles; some I’ve heard about and some I haven’t. There have been many physical healings, external, and there have also been many spiritual, inner healings. Through this Icon many of the faithful have experienced radical transformations in their lives. It’s as if people become liberated from the ‘old man’ and ardently strive towards God.  When the Icon is present in various churches, monasteries and homes, one senses a renewal of love for the Mother of God; almost immediately many people approach for confession, spiritually reborn through a feeling of repentance.  I’d like to say that the Mother of God helps our believers sense their sinfulness before Her Son, Jesus Christ.”

Read this and more of the story and miracles of the copy of the Iveron icon of the Mother of God (the same one whose copy was sent to Hawaii and began myrrh streaming there, and when that one in turn visited the Kardiotissa icon in Pennsylvania it began exuding myrrh as well), which was brought to Canada from Mt. Athos by a Chilean convert to Orthodoxy here:  http://www.roca.org/OA/120/120k.htm

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“One can go on for a very long time listing the different holy Icons of the Ever-Virgin Mary and Theotokos and all the wonderful countless miracles of our Panagia. It is, however, important for all Orthodox Christian believers to always seek the holy intercessions of the Mother of God and to turn to Her for aid, healing, comfort and salvation.” Read some of the miracles in this article: http://saintandrewgoc.org/home/2014/8/25/the-miraculous-icon-of-panagia-portraitissa-the-keeper-of-th.html. Then, spend some time praying and asking the Theotokos to pray for you and your loved ones – and the whole world!

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Watch this 8-minute video that shows miracle after miracle, mostly related to icons, which God has granted through His Holy Orthodox Church. Set to parts of the Vespers service chanted by Eikona, this video could be a wonder-filled way to end a day! (We recommend that you watch it before showing it to your children, so you know what they will see and can be prepared to answer related questions.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-AOO903CZA

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Throughout history, icons of the Mother of God have worked miracles. This article shares the commemoration days of many icons of the Theotokos, along with some of the stories of miracles attributed to those icons, set throughout history. These stories are not as recent as some of the above, but they are still miracles and well worth learning about! To read about an icon of the Theotokos and/or a miracle attributed to the icon, click on the month, then which of the days of that month you’d like to read about: https://oca.org/saints/icons-mother-of-god

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“Venerating a miracle is also a way of acknowledging the importance of its context. A weeping icon is amazing, but it’s obviously not meant to distract attention away from the liturgical, sacramental, and doctrinal life of the Church. If anything, a miracle should amplify the importance of Church practices and teaching, for the God who causes the miracle is also the God who established these as markers of his ‘new and everlasting covenant’ with mankind.” Read more about responding to miracles wrought through icons in this article:  http://myocn.net/miracle-greece-weeping-icon-mean/

Gleanings from a Book: “Icon” by Georgia Briggs

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.

I would encourage families of middle-grade-years or older children to get their hands on this book as soon as you can. Parents should read it first (it won’t take you too long: as I mentioned before, it is hard to put down!), in order to have a grasp on what is coming, and to best know which of your children would benefit most from reading it next. Or, if you can, after reading it yourself, read the book aloud together as a family (if everyone in your family could handle it – but only you will know that). Regardless of how you read this book, be sure to talk together about it after you read. This book can help to strengthen your family’s Faith when you read and discuss it!
Chances are, when you finish this read, you will hope along with me that author Georgia Briggs will write again, and soon!

Purchase your own copy 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 what your family could discuss at that part of the book. (With apologies for spoilers, which are difficult to avoid with this book!) We hope that these selections can help to give you an idea of the types of discussions that your family can have while reading this book:
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“My hands shake as I reach to pick the icon [of St. Nicholas] up. It’s small and light in my hands. I turn it sideways. It’s only about a quarter of an inch thick, but the bullet hasn’t gone all the way through… I was holding it in front of me when he fired the gun… It must’ve stopped the bullet, and the force blew it through my hands and knocked me over… I sit back down on the ground and gaze at the icon. St. Nicholas looks so calm. The bullet in his chest bothers me. I start to pick at it with my fingernails, trying to pry it loose… It’s wedged in tightly, but after a few minutes I manage to work it out. A thin trickle of blood runs from the hole in the saint’s chest.” ~ “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 30-31

This experience of Euphrosyne’s offers your family the opportunity to discuss miracles wrought by icons. What miracles do you know of? Take time to research and learn about more. God is at work through His saints, and sometimes even through their icons!
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“All this is so fake, I think, looking around at the plastic plants and uncomfortable chairs. Everything about this world is fake and watered down—the holidays, the people, the ‘just accept everybody’ thing that Dr. Snead keeps telling me. How do they all live in this place and not go crazy? My grandparents, Miss Linda, the other kids in school. Do they really believe this is all there is?

Maybe I know better because of what I’ve been through. Or maybe I’m just crazy and trying to make it all mean something.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 74

Take some time to discuss Euphrosyne’s thoughts on her world. What do you think of what she thinks? Have you ever thought something similar about your own world? How does the world – even as it is right now – compare to the Heavenly Kingdom, God’s kingdom?

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“No one’s watching me.

I dance around a little, twirling and leaping, the ice squeaking under my feet. Soon my socks are wet and I’m breathing hard, but I don’t care. I twirl again and slip and fall. I lie back and make a snow angel…

…I look up at the dark sky without meaning to, like I’m going to see God up there or something.

No God in sight, but a few stars blink back at me.

For some reason it’s easier to believe in God when you’re standing alone in the snow on a cold morning and looking at the stars.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 77

Ask your family why they think the author put a snow scene into this story (which is set in Alabama). What could it symbolize? How does the snow purify or refresh Euphrosyne? What do you think of the last statement? Have you ever had a similar experience? When?
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“When I notice the other priest in the altar, I can’t remember whether he’s been there all along and I just wasn’t paying attention. He’s helping Father Innocent like a deacon or one of the altar boys, but he’s about a foot taller than Father Innocent and he seems… different. Brighter, or more colorful or something. I wish I could get a glimpse of his face. He’s robed in red, not gold like the others, and he has a white stole with blue crosses draped around his neck and over one shoulder.

…Now that I look around, though, there are strange people in the congregation too. More people than were here when liturgy started. …Am I going crazy? Does nobody else see this?

…Everything around me is getting greyer and greyer. Everything except the icons and the strangers. I can see them better now. They seem to fill every corner of the room. They’re all different ages, some young, some old, their faces shining. Some wear crowns, many hold crosses in their hands. Some are dressed in rags, but they’re so beautiful that the rags seem beautiful too.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, pp. 154-155

After reading this passage, talk together about who you think Euphrosyne is seeing in this part of the story. Discuss the reality of the saints’ and angels’ presence in the Divine Liturgy every time we celebrate it together. How does it make you feel? Does it make you want to change anything about the way in which you attend the Divine Liturgy? If so, what?

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“‘I’m Shamar,’ he says, ‘I’m your guardian angel.’

Right away I remember the icon that used to hang between my bed and Kat’s, of the curly-haired angel in blue robes and a red cloak, the one carrying a sword.

‘So you’ve been here all along?’ I ask.

Shamar nods. ‘Ever since you were baptized.’

‘You were old enough to be a guardian angel then?’ He can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen years old.

‘I’m a lot older than I look,’ he says with a smile.

‘Oh.’ It’s weird to think he’s been watching me my whole life. I think of all the stupid things I’ve done, all the times I was mean to Kat or whined to Mom and Dad. It’s kind of embarrassing.” ~ from “Icon” by Georgia Briggs, p. 189

Talk together as a family about guardian angels. How long has each member of your family’s guardian angel been guarding him/her? Encourage each other to think about the fact that your angel is with you always and sees what you do, while also protecting you. Take a moment to pray the prayer to your guardian angel, thanking them for their protection and love. Find the prayer here: http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/OtherPrayers.html

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“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 family’s library. It offers a sweet story as well as many opportunities to learn from the scriptures. Thomas’ preferences of routine and order can give families the opportunity to discuss autism and the challenges that people with autism face (especially if the family does not have a family member or friend living with autism). The story also gives its readers a chance to learn from Thomas’ determination to step outside of his comfort zone, and makes each reader think about how to do likewise in order to attain (and extend) the Kingdom of God in his/her own life!

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 ideas of ways to learn together as a family after reading this wonderful book:
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Read author Jane G. Meyer’s take on “The Suitcase,” including why she wrote the book, here: http://www.janegmeyer.com/books/the-suitcase/

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Take time to investigate the scripture passages that are alluded to in “The Suitcase.” You could look them up and read them all at once, or read and study them one at a time with your family after reading the book together. 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)

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Talk together as a family about Thomas. In what ways is he just like other kids? In what ways is he maybe a little different? What can we learn from him? Then think about each member of your family and talk about each person. In what ways is each family member like others their own age? In what ways are they different? What do you learn from that family member that makes you a better person? Encourage each other to remember to love and learn from everyone else, especially those who are different from ourselves. God has given them to us for that very reason!

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This (non-Orthodox, but encouraging) blog post shares the story of a mom who learned something from her child just as Thomas’ family learns from him in “The Suitcase.” http://www.thebettermom.com/the-better-mom/2011/12/15/lessons-we-learn-from-children-and-a-little-child-shall-lead-them

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Find opportunities to serve your own community, just as Thomas’ family did. Need ideas? Check the back of the book! Author Jane G. Meyer has listed a whole page of ways you can serve your community! Your priest will also have some ideas, as might the principal at your local school, or the volunteer coordinator of your local homeless shelter/soup kitchen. Contact them if you find that you need more ideas!

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“Working together on outreach projects as a family not only allows us to follow Christ’s teachings, but it strengthens family togetherness, helps children learn, and empowers them to understand that they can help others. Serving others benefits a child’s psychological, social and intellectual
development. It increases self-esteem, responsibility and helps children develop new social skills. The time that you spend together as a family helping others will be rewarding and more memorable than almost any other family activity this year.” ~ “Building a Strong Family by Serving Others” by Nicholas Chakos, “The Orthodox Observer,” Feb/March 2015.
If your family is looking for an opportunity to serve an Orthodox outreach beyond your parish/neighborhood, check out the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS). FOCUS North America operates a variety of ministries in more than 20 cities in the United States. FOCUS’ director wrote the above-quoted article, citing how serving through FOCUS changed his own family for the better. We highly encourage you to take a moment and read the rest of his article, which is found here:
http://focusnorthamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Orthodox-Observer-Family-Ministry-Article-Feb-2015_printed-copy.docx.pdf

On Pursuing Virtue: Diligence

This is part of a series of articles on pursuing virtue. There are many virtues that Orthodox Christians should be working to attain. We will be focusing 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 grow in theosis, we must not only resist and repent from the sins in our life, but we must also desire and labor to attain the virtues. Our goal is for each of these articles to be a beginning, a place to help us start learning more about each virtue as we pursue it. May the Lord have mercy on us and grant us grace as we pursue these virtues!

The final virtue listed in “The Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians” is diligence. Let’s take a moment to think about this virtue. Merriam-Webster defines diligence as “steady, earnest, and energetic effort; a persevering application.” This perseverance is essential all that we do! And we are not just to be diligent for the sake of completing our work: we are also called to be diligent as we work to fight laziness in our life. Author and podcaster Annalisa Boyd offers a more Orthodox definition of diligence. She says, “We use diligence to fight against sloth or laziness. Diligence is doing any task (work/chore/job/responsibility) until it is completed to the very best of our ability.” (1)

So, essentially, diligence is persisting with a task until it is completed, and persisting with persistence, all the while contradicting the grievous sin of sloth/laziness in our life. In a physical context such as a workplace or home, it is easy to understand how valuable diligence is instead of sloth, because diligence gets work done that must be done! But why is diligence a virtue, and not just a good work ethic? How does a virtuous mindset relate to our spiritual lives? St. Theophan the Recluse had this to say about diligence (although he doesn’t actually use the word itself): “Our entire lives, in all their parts and details, must be devoted to God. The general rule is that everything you do should be done according to the Divine will and for the sake of pleasing God, in praise of His Most Holy Name. Thus, we should examine each act which occurs to see if it is in compliance with the Divine will and then perform it with the conviction that is totally in compliance with it and is pleasing to God. A person who always asks with such discretion and in the clear consciousness of pleasing God with his actions cannot fail at the same time to acknowledge that his life is proceeding truthfully. Although his acts are not brilliant or perfect, he permits nothing consciously in them that would offend God or would not be pleasing to Him. This consciousness fills his heart with peaceful quiet from the tranquility of the conscience, and with that spiritual joy which is born of the feeling that he is not alien to God. For although he is not great, or distinguished, or famous, he is still His servant who tries in every way possible to please Him, directs all his efforts towards this, and believes that God himself sees him as such.” (2) So it seems that diligence is not just a physical choice about “getting work done” but is a spiritual mindset; a consciousness that chooses to pursue Godliness in all that we do, while we do it! By its very nature, diligence pushes us to persist in our quest to attain all of the virtues and quell all of the grievous sins that keep us separated from God.

Since diligence is important on so many levels, how can we attain it? First of all, we need to decide to choose diligence: “To live diligently we must consciously choose such a life. Saint Theophan calls this a ‘God-pleasing life’ as compared to a ‘Man-pleasing life.’ This is the nature of the Orthodox way of life.” (2) We can look to the scriptures (the earthly life of our Lord Himself is the model of diligence for any human being; St. Joseph’s life was full of diligence; the Theotokos and the woman described in Proverbs 31 offer other examples) to see how true diligence looks. The scriptures also contain many verses encouraging us to be diligent. We can read the lives of the saints to see how they applied this virtue to their life. We will need to continually pray and ask God, the saints, and our guardian angel for help as we pursue this virtue. And then, we must do it: choose diligence, and persistently live a diligent life.

Diligence may be the last virtue on the list in “The Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians,” but it is an important one! Acquiring this virtue will better enable us to better pursue (and thus acquire) all of the others. When we fight against the grievous sins that entrap us and fill our lives instead with the virtues, we will find ourselves growing closer to being who God created us to be. So, let us diligently pursue all of the virtues in order to better honor and glorify Him.


“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for
Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”
(The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian)
Footnotes:

  1. “The Ascetic Lives of Mothers,” article by Annalisa Boyd,  http://www.pravmir.com/ascetic-lives-mothers/
  2. Australian Orthodox “Mode of Life” blog post on St. Theophan the Recluse’s teachings on diligence: http://modeoflife.org/saint-theophan-the-recluse-what-it-means-to-be-diligent/

 

Additional resources on diligence for us to consider:

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Check out these Bible verses about diligence: https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Diligence

Or these https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=diligence&qs_version=NKJV

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“… if you have diligence and zeal, you will be given greater grace from God. But he who has neither diligence nor zeal, by his negligence will extinguish and lose even that grace which he seems to have from God.” ~ Blessed Theophylact

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“Never by our sole diligence or zeal nor by our most tireless efforts can we reach perfection. Human zeal is not enough to win the sublime rewards of blessedness. The Lord must be there to help and to guide our hearts toward what is good. Every moment we must join in the prayer of David: ‘Direct my footsteps along Your paths so that my feet do not move astray’ (Ps. 16:5) and ‘He has settled my feet on a rock and guided my footsteps’ (Ps. 39:3) – all this so that the invisible guide of the human spirit may direct back toward love of virtue our free will, which in its ignorance of the good and its obsession with passion is carried headlong into sin.”~ St. John Cassian

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“Watch yourself with all diligence, lest the enemy steal near and rob you, depriving you of this great treasure, which is inner peace and stillness of soul. The enemy strives to destroy the peace of the soul, because he knows that when the soul is in turmoil it is more easily led to evil. But you must guard your peace. ” ~ St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

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“A healthy and growing spiritual life requires commitment and diligence. Diligence in the disciplines of prayer and Scripture reading/study. Diligence in rooting out the weeds of sin in our lives. Diligence in encouraging others, in working together, and showing the love and compassion of Christ in our lives… How diligent are you in your spiritual disciplines?” ~ from an excellent (although not Orthodox) meditation on diligence, found here: http://www.biblical-illuminations.com/2006_Oct/diligence.asp

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“The degree of negligence or diligence with which a man tries to attain to Christ’s stature reveals what stage he has reached — whether he is in his spiritual infancy or has achieved maturity.” ~ St. Gregory of Sinai
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“Diligence is the backbone of success.” Read the stories of four diligent workers from history, here: http://www.livingapex.com/examples-of-diligence-and-success/. Then apply their stories to your spiritual life. What can you take away from this (secular) piece that can help you apply diligence to your life and become a spiritual success?

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“When we see work as drudgery and demeaning, something not worthy of our time, we will fail our Lord and miss out on many opportunities. There is no work too small, as our Lord worked as a tradesman, a carpenter. [St.] Paul made tents, [St.] Luke was a doctor, [St.] Philemon was a slave owner who saw diligence to free a slave. They, and all, did it with supreme excellence.” Read more of this (not Orthodox, but thought provoking) meditation on diligence here: http://www.discipleshiptools.org/apps/articles/?articleid=37145&columnid=4166

On Pursuing Virtue: Happiness

This is part of a series of articles on pursuing virtue. There are many virtues that Orthodox Christians should be working to attain. We will be focusing 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 grow in theosis, we must not only resist and repent from the sins in our life, but we must also desire and labor to attain the virtues. Our goal is for each of these articles to be a beginning, a place to help us start learning more about each virtue as we pursue it. May the Lord have mercy on us and grant us grace as we pursue these virtues!

The next virtue listed in the “Pocket Prayer Book” is happiness. There are so many ideas of what constitutes happiness, and our society tries hard to convince us that things will make us happy, that we should feel happy all the time, and that we should be able to get happy quickly. But is that societal definition true happiness? Sometimes we say, “I feel so happy!” or “I am not happy right now,” as though happiness is simply a feeling. Is true happiness just a feeling that fluctuates as our emotions do? No, it is not. The virtue of happiness is much deeper than that. The virtue of “…happiness is rooted in contentment and being joyful.” (1)

St. Nectarius of Aegina said that happiness is what God wants for us – and not just fleeting earthly happiness, but eternal happiness! God has given us the Church to help us experience this virtue. “Brothers and Sisters! The all-merciful God desires happiness for us both in this life and in the life to come. To this end He established His Holy Church, so that she might cleanse us from sin, sanctify us, reconcile us with Him and give us a heavenly blessing. The embrace of the Church is always open to us. Let us all hasten there more quickly, we whose consciences are burdened. Let us hasten, and the Church will lift the weight of our burdens, give us boldness before God, and fill our hearts with happiness and blessedness.” So the Church helps us reach happiness. But we can’t just sit and wait for this virtue to be given to us: we must pursue it! Where and how should we begin that pursuit?

St. Silouan the Athonite tells us to begin with love: “There is no greater happiness than to love God with all the mind and heart, and our neighbor as ourself. And when this love is in the soul, then all things bring joy to the soul.” So, loving God is one way to pursue the virtue of happiness.

But there are many more ways to pursue happiness, and all of them grow out of that first way, out of loving God! We found Fr. Dn. Charles Joiner’s article, “17 Points to Create True Happiness With Your Work and Life,” (see link below) to be both instructive and practical, and we highly encourage you to read it. The article offers practical things that we can do to grow in our love for God as we actively pursue the virtue of happiness. “With a solid faith and proper way of life it is possible to find joy in everything you do or are faced with. The …seventeen points will bring God into your life each hour of your day allowing you will become more effective and true to your deepest values.  Implement them and you will find they also will lead to a life based on joy.” (2)

Pursuing true happiness, the kind that is rooted in contentment and being joyful, will help us to triumph over the vice of envy (which the “Pocket Prayer Book” defines as “jealousy of another person’s happiness”). Dear brothers and sisters, let us leave behind that unhealthy comparison and the discontent it offers. Instead, let us strive with all of our hearts to live in the ways that the Church teaches: filling our lives with love for God and others; praying; helping; sharing; repenting; forgiving; with our whole selves, pursuing true happiness. For only then will we be truly happy (in every sense of the word)!

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for
Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”
(The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian)

Footnotes:

  1. “The Pursuit of Happiness,” by Archpriest Thaddaeus Hardenbrook, http://www.pravmir.com/pursuit-happiness/
  2. “17 Points to Create True Happiness With Your Work and Life,” by Fr. Dn. Charles Joiner, http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2015/05/17-points-to-create-true-happiness-with.html

 

Here are additional resources that you may find helpful as you pursue the virtue of happiness:

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“[One] secret to life lies in the truth that all the things we are trying to avoid (difficulty, discomfort, hardship, conflict, self-sacrifice, enduring, hunger, weariness, loss, etc.) are actually the very opportunities allowed by God in order for us to grow.” Read more in this excellent article on pursuing true happiness: http://www.pravmir.com/pursuit-happiness/

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“There is no more expedient path to joy than sustained repentance. …Charmolypi is the character of the Christian. This word is found in the work of St. John of Sinai, the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and was probably coined by him. It means ‘joyful sorrow’ or ‘bitter joy,’ and it is the normative spirit of the Christian. Young children model this charmolypi when, in the midst of a crying spasm, with tears running down their faces, they catch a glimpse of their mother staring lovingly at them, and then they break into laughter. Tears, laughter, tears, and laughter are meshed together, and soon all comes to calm. So it is with the repenting Christian, who perceives the gaze of His loving heavenly Father. Our tears become infused with joy.
…The joy of the Resurrection follows the agony of the Crucifixion. The joy of the Christian life is the fruit of repentance. Repentance removes our isolation. Practice regular confession and your life will change for the better. For the next year read a prayer of repentance for your sins every evening before retiring. Then do a thorough examination of your conscience once a month and make confession. In so doing you can expect to be divinely stabbed with the joy inexpressible.” ~ from “Cultivating Inexpressible Joy,” by V. Rev. Josiah Trenham, Ph.D., http://www.antiochian.org/node/25366

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“Rejoicing is a power we seldom use anymore; we are hardly even familiar with it. When we are distracted by longings for what we don’t have, joy escapes us… Desire for what we don’t have creates spiritual depression (despondency). Gratitude for what we do have creates contentment and joy. Let us practice this! Turn off the commercial-driven TV, close the advertisement-filled magazines, smart phones, and romantic novels. Contentment awaits you in the prayerful thanksgiving for what you actually have. In the context of your actual life there await you peace, satisfaction, salvation, and even perfection.” ~ http://www.pravmir.com/pursuit-happiness/

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“Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward and learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude.” ~St. John Chrysostom

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“How mistaken are those people who seek happiness outside of themselves, in foreign lands and journeys, in riches and glory, in great possessions and pleasures, in diversions and vain things, which have a bitter end! It is the same thing to construct the tower of happiness outside of ourselves as it is to build a house in a place that is consistently shaken by earthquakes. Happiness is found within ourselves, and blessed is the man who has understood this. Happiness is a pure heart, for such a heart becomes the throne of God. Thus says Christ of those who have pure hearts: ‘I will visit them, and will walk in them, and I will be a God to them, and they will be my people.’ (II Cor. 6:16) What can be lacking to them? Nothing, nothing at all! For they have the greatest good in their hearts: God Himself!” ~ St. Nektarios of Aegino

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“…think about the nature of the Orthodox Way of Life and how it truly brings one happiness.  Not in the sense of everything being good in life, for after all, life eventually ends with death no matter what we do to avoid it. But in the sense that it brings us to a relationship with God with the knowledge that there is eternal life where the cares of this world no longer exist.  The hope of this truth is true happiness.” Read Fr. Dn. Charles Joiner’s Orthodox response to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s article “How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness,” and learn how our relationship with God and our prayers bring us true happiness. http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2011/09/tricking-our-brain-for-happiness.html 

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“When the Spirit of God descends on a man, and envelops him in the fullness of his presence, the soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Holy Spirit fills everything he touches with joy…. This is that joy of which the Lord speaks in His Gospel: ‘A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. In the world you will be sorrowful; but when I see you again, your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you’ (Jn. 16:21-22). If the first-fruits of future joy have already filled your soul with such sweetness, with such happiness, what shall we say of the joy in the Kingdom of Heaven, which awaits all those who weep here on earth?… Then this transitory and partial joy which we now feel will be revealed in all its fullness, overwhelming our being with ineffable delights which no one will be able to take from us.” ~St. Seraphim of Sarov

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“God is joy, and to draw near to God is to draw near to joy. “Thou shalt show me the path of life; In Thy presence is the fullness of joy; At Thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11)…the primary cause of depression is being far from God. It is the absence of God that elicits within us the greatest grief. Joy is not the absence of sorrows; joy is the presence of God in all these things.” ~ from “Cultivating Inexpressible Joy,” by V. Rev. Josiah Trenham, Ph.D. Read more here: http://www.antiochian.org/node/25366

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“…salvation is the most authentic, fulfilling, and abiding form of human happiness.” ~ “Salvation and the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’,” by Paul L. Gavrilyuk, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2017/03/20/salvation-pursuit-of-happiness/

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This short meditation by Abbot Tryphon challenges its listeners to choose happiness: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/morningoffering/choosing_happiness