Category Archives: Learning

A Gathering of Ideas for Preparing for a New School Year

It is nearly the beginning of a new school year for many of our community who live in the northern hemisphere. We have come across some interesting ideas that we thought could be a help to some in our community, and have compiled them to share here. We hope that you will find something useful and helpful to your family.

If your family is among those beginning a new school year, may the Lord bless your transition! May He provide for, guide, and strengthen each child as they learn. May He grant you parents wisdom to know how to support and encourage each child and his/her teacher(s) (even if the teacher is you or your spouse!). May this school year be a year of growth and great learning.

Here are some of the links that we found. Are you able to add any additional ideas? What have you found helpful at the beginning of a school year? Please share it with the community!

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Years ago, we share some ideas of ways to prepare ourselves and our children for the back to school transition. Here is that blog post, in case you missed it and would find some of its ideas/encouragement helpful: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/on-the-transition-back-to-school/

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If you and/or your family would like some inspiration for ways to be better organized at home for the school year, check out the huge variety of ideas found here: https://www.thesimplycraftedlife.com/40-back-to-school-organization-ideas/

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Find free printable checklists and labels for back-to-school organizing here: https://www.classyclutter.net/back-to-school-printables/

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While it’s labeled as an “end of year” activity, this free printable “Who am I?” page would be a fun way to measure your children’s growth over the upcoming school year. Allow them to draw themselves and fill in the blanks at the beginning of the year on one copy, and again on a second copy at the end. Then you can look together at the two copies to see how they’ve changed and grown, and how even their handwriting is different! ://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/End-of-the-Year-Activity-Who-Am-I-281581

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Whether your children are going to school, or you are schooling at home, there are lots of ideas here for crafts, snacks, and lunches that will be useful throughout the school year! http://astorybookday.com/30-ideas-for-back-to-school/

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Homeschooling families will find here a delightful collection of ideas of ways to celebrate the start of a new school year. (We especially liked the school supplies treasure hunt idea!) https://rockyourhomeschool.net/back-to-homeschool-first-day/

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These printables, party ideas, and creative plans will help you celebrate the beginning of a school year with your children! https://aslrochelle.com/rochelle-barlow/120-ideas-for-back-to-homeschool

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Any one of these would be a fun way to spend a last-summer-vacation-day or first-weekend-after-school-starts-day!

http://www.sunshineandspoons.com/2016/11/30-random-acts-of-kindness-to-do-with.html

 

On the Gift of Story

When I was a child, I remember sitting with my family (and any guests we were hosting) around the table after dinner, and listening as the adults told stories and jokes. I have always loved stories, and this daily experience fed my hunger for them. Throughout my growing-up years, I remember begging my parents to tell me tales from their childhood. Sometimes they’d remember one, and tell it to me, and other times they couldn’t think of any story to tell. I remember adamantly thinking to myself that I was going to remember every single thing from my childhood, so that I would always be able to tell my own children stories when they asked for one. In my childhood mind, that was the best gift I could give to my future kids. (Unfortunately, my memory did not serve me as well as I intended, and therefore many times when my own children would ask for stories, I could not call any to mind! Now that my children are grown and no longer begging for stories, often something will jog a childhood memory, and at last I can think of stories to tell!)

It wasn’t until I was teaching first grade in a private Christian school that I began to appreciate the gift (and power!) of story. My favorite class to teach in those years was Bible class. One day, I realized why I loved teaching Bible class so much (besides the obvious fact that it was a lesson from the Scriptures). You see, it was in Bible class that I could teach in a way that engrossed my students: through story. Years later, after we had children of our own and I was no longer teaching in a classroom, our family began sharing other cultures with children and their families through educational gatherings which always included folktales. I am confident that the children (and adults) who attended may not remember any of the facts or activities from those gatherings. But if I were to ask them something about the folktale that we told, even years after the event, a light would go on in their mind, and a smile would cross their lips, as they remembered it. Stories are a gift, because they are memorable, and even children can understand them.

What is it about stories that entices children? And is it just a childhood thing, this longing for stories? I have noticed in my adult life that I am much better able to digest concepts if they are embedded in a story than if I am just presented with the idea. I retain much more from walking through a living history exhibit and speaking with its re-enactors than I do from visiting a glass-encased-artifact museum. As our family journeyed toward Orthodoxy, it was Frederica Mathewes-Green’s story of a year in their mission parish, her book Facing East, which made the Faith real to me, not a straightforward theological discourse. Story speaks to the adult me, just as much as it did to the child. I suspect that I am not alone. Given our whole culture’s renewed interest in storytelling (even businesses are utilizing storytelling for increased success!), it seems that stories are for everyone, not just children.

Perhaps this is why, throughout the history of mankind, storytelling was utilized as a means for communicating culture, history, and morals. That’s a tall order! But it was effective. Unfortunately, in the last centuries, we have begun to step away from the gift of story. As we rely more on technology for learning and less on sitting together around the dinner table (or campfire) and talking to each other, the experienced people in our midst are not as readily able to share their wisdom through their stories. This has reduced the organic transfer of culture, history, and morals. The recent “rebirth” of interest in storytelling in our culture is a step (back) in the right direction. Now it is up to us to move beyond interest in storytelling, and begin to actually practice it.

Stories are a gift, because they are a memorable (and fun!) way for life lessons to be beautifully conveyed. Our Lord Himself offered us this gift when He told stories. Remember all the parables that He shared? Many of them were great stories but they also incited discussion because they housed deeper meaning. Christ modeled for us the use of story for teaching.

We should be taking advantage of this gift! As we do, perhaps the stories that we share will come from our personal experience. As a child, I craved stories from my parents’ growing-up years. But even now, as an adult, I continue to savor the stories that they tell me from years gone by. We should not underestimate the value of personal stories. Retelling our personal history allows our listeners to hear what life was like when we were younger. The stories are engaging because they’re real, they’re about someone the hearer actually knows, and they bring the past to life. They can also teach a lesson, especially if we are humble enough to even tell the stories of our mistakes. As we share our stories, let us be careful not to gloss over those mistakes. Rather, let us allow our listeners to learn from them. God gives us opportunities to suffer and stumble and get back up again, not just for our own salvation, but also for the salvation of those around us who can learn from our choices (and even from our mistakes!).

Another way to share the gift of story is through reading books together. They may be Orthodox books and/or books that directly teach an important concept or lesson. At other times, we may share a story from a book that is not Orthodox, and maybe does not even directly teach a concept or virtue, but it opens up a way to speak together about one. Perhaps the main characters in the story actually make the wrong choice. Rather than throwing out the story altogether because of that wrong choice, we can allow such a story to become a launching point, a way to safely talk together about the Faith and our choices and to learn through the characters’ mistakes. This can save us from having to make the mistake ourselves. (Of course, each family is different, and is thus differently able to process the stories that they hear. Because of this, we adults need to decide which stories are appropriate to share with our listeners. This requires preparation through careful thought and pre-reading before sharing, but in the long run, it is very worthwhile.)

Modern schedules may no longer allow for the daily extended mealtimes that I experienced when I was a child. This makes it more difficult for storytelling to happen naturally. However, this gift is so valuable that it is worth investing the time and energy required to make it happen. Let us find a way to give the gift of story, and value it when we receive it in return!

Note: We are not all professional storytellers. That’s okay. The personal touch, the time that is offered in order to tell a story, and the beloved voice of the teller is what makes each story valuable and approachable to the listeners, whether or not the storyteller is a pro.

 

Here are some ideas and additional information that may be helpful as you begin to share the gift of story:

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Years ago we shared a series of posts about bedtime stories. In case you missed it: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/bedtime-and-other-rituals-reading-books-together-part-1-why-read-at-bedtime/

https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/bedtime-and-other-rituals-reading-books-together-part-2-books-to-read-with-younger-children/

https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/bedtime-and-other-rituals-reading-books-together-part-3-books-to-read-with-older-children/

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We wrote before about the value of sharing stories from the scriptures. If you missed that, check it out here:

https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/10/26/bedtime-and-other-rituals-reading-from-the-scriptures-part-1-introduction-and-a-few-resources/

https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/11/02/bedtime-and-other-rituals-reading-from-the-scriptures-part-2-old-testament-stories/

https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/11/09/bedtime-and-other-rituals-reading-from-the-scriptures-part-3-new-testament-stories/

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Did you see our blog post about telling the stories of the saints? If not, here it is: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/11/23/bedtime-and-other-rituals-sharing-stories-of-the-saints/

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Would you like to read more about the value of telling your children stories from your family’s history and/or your own personal life? Check this out: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/what-kids-learn-from-hearing-family-stories/282075/?utm_source=atlfb

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Most folk tales offer the opportunity for character-building discussions. Check your public library’s 398.2 section of the non-fiction part of the children’s department to find a multitude of such books (but, as always, read the stories yourself before reading them with children, to verify that they will work for what you’re trying to learn together). There are other character-building stories available, as well. For example, these: http://www.momentsaday.com/storybooks-that-build-character-printable-activity-pages/

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Here is a list of picture books that may be helpful to your family, if you are looking for stories that can encourage discussions on character building. (Again, we encourage you to read these books yourself before sharing them with your children, to make sure that they’ll work for your particular situation.) https://thecharactercorner.com/15-books-to-teach-character-to-kids/

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Here are some suggested chapter books that may be helpful to your family, if you are looking for stories that can encourage discussions on character building. (Again, we encourage you to read these books yourself before sharing them with your children, to make sure that they’ll work for your particular situation.)

https://www.notconsumed.com/chapter-books-teach-moral-lessons/

https://thecharactercorner.com/character-building-books/

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If you want to read more about encouraging character-building through stories, you may find these books helpful: https://www.christianbook.com/honey-for-childs-heart-fourth-edition/gladys-hunt/9780310242468/pd/42463?event=ESRCN|M and https://www.christianbook.com/honey-for-a-teenagers-heart/gladys-hunt/9780310242604/pd/42606?event=ESRCN|M

 

 

On Family Fun Ideas for Summer

We in the northern hemisphere are right in the middle of summer. For many of us parents, this means that we have more time and/or a different schedule with our children. There are so many ways to spend that additional time! We have gathered some ideas that can be tucked away if and/or when you would like to offer your children an idea of something to do.

If you already have ideas and plans with your children, that is awesome! You will not need these ideas! If you would like to add to your list of “things we may want to do”, perhaps something here will be of help to you. Check them out as you have time and energy.

Either way, God bless you and your family as you enjoy the summer time together!

 

Here are the ideas that we found. What ideas do you have to share with the community? Please comment with your own fun family activities!

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Before you get bogged down by too many ideas and the feeling that you must have every day scheduled for your children’s summer vacation, treat yourself (and your family, by applying your learnings) to this podcast. You will find that is an hour well invested: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hmhs/summertime_parenting
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The title may make this seem as though it is just for “littles”, but the myriad of kitchen-ingredient doughs could be fun for any aged child! https://team-cartwright.com/taste-safe-sensory-play/

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Here are fun ideas for your own backyard that will challenge your children to play and exercise: https://www.funlovingfamilies.com/diy-backyard-play-areas/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=pinterest&utm_campaign=tailwind_tribes&utm_content=tribes&utm_term=280897172_7438592_258321

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If your children are the crafty sort, you may want to take a look at these beautiful things that they can make with items found in nature: https://www.howweelearn.com/breathtaking-nature-crafts-for-kids/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=pinterest&utm_campaign=tailwind_tribes&utm_content=tribes&utm_term=723694014_29094136_80903

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Here’s a compilation of cool and clever ideas for summer fun! https://kidsactivitiesblog.com/72221/cool-activity-ideas-summer/

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If you have a beach ball or two, you’re all set for these fun games: https://www.birthdaypartyideas4kids.com/beach-ball-games.html

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From games to art, here’s a fabulous, screen-free collection of ideas of things kids can do: https://selfsufficientkids.com/screen-free-kids-activities/

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Here are some gender-specific idea collections. (We recommend that you look through both, though, because children like to try all sorts of activies, and the fun is not gender-specific!) https://www.moritzfinedesigns.com/25-summer-activities-for-boys/ and https://www.moritzfinedesigns.com/25-summer-activities-for-girls/

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Check out these fun science experiments! https://lemonlimeadventures.com/must-try-summer-science-activities-for-kids/

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Turn your backyard into a play space – or a gameboard! Check out these fun ideas: https://www.diyncrafts.com/17772/home/35-ridiculously-fun-diy-backyard-games-borderline-genius

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Giant painted “mural”, anyone? Waffle cone s’mores? Ice cube stacking? Here’s a large collection of  fun summer ideas! https://mothersniche.com/60-days-of-cheap-summer-fun/

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For the artists among us (or those who are willing to inspire their children to explore art) there’s this: https://www.artbarblog.com/58-summer-art-camp-ideas/

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These family fun ideas are all wet: https://whatmomslove.com/kids/best-outdoor-water-activities-to-keep-kids-cool-summer/

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Gleanings from a Book: “Anthony, the Great” by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka

Just because Anthony is only “four fingers old” doesn’t keep him from helping his family members to keep perspective on their challenges. However, being four has trials of its own, and being a four-year-old who is also an Orthodox Christian affords additional unique tests. But Anthony is ready to meet his challenges! He faces them well with the help of his sidekick Mikey (who happens to be a stuffed dinosaur) and of his patron saint, St. Anthony the Great.

In “Anthony, the Great”, Deacon John Sarantakis offers the tale of a young boy struggling to struggle. The book begins with Anthony reminding everyone that whatever they’re going through is not as big as a dinosaur. Readers of all ages can relate to some part of Anthony’s personality: whether to his love for dinosaurs, his desire for adventure, or his determination to be right. They will be challenged by Anthony’s longing to emulate his patron saint; even when everyone – right down to his favorite stuffed toy – does not do things exactly how he wishes they would be done. Throughout his challenges, Anthony faithfully struggles, as did his patron saint. Each time he does so, love and warmth well up in the heart of the person Anthony has blessed by his struggle. By the end of the book, Anthony discovers something BIGGER than a dinosaur, which is really something to realize!

Misha Pjawka’s watercolor, gouache, and pencil on hot pressed paper illustrations interact with the text in a beautiful dance of playfulness and color, charmingly collaborating to enhance the tale. There’s a degree of transparency to the illustrations that effectively communicates the storyline while also speaking to the state of Anthony’s soul: he clearly longs to do what is right. The book offers its readers an unclouded look at his struggle, both through the text and illustrations. (Side note: both young readers and the young at heart will especially enjoy watching Mikey throughout the book, as he wholeheartedly embraces Anthony’s experiences and adds a touch of humor with his take on them.)

The book ends with a brief overview of the life of St. Anthony. It tells some of his story, and includes his icon. There’s just enough of his story there to help the reader appreciate Anthony’s desire to emulate his patron saint, and perhaps to whet their appetite to learn more about this holy saint who is sometimes called the “father of monasticism.”

I can’t help wishing that Anthony were a real boy. I know that I would enjoy hanging out with him and Mikey, and learning how to emulate St. Anthony the Great by interacting with them. Although he is a fictional character, at least I can enter into Anthony’s life for a moment and be challenged by his struggle to struggle, every time I read “Anthony, the Great”.

 

Purchase your own copy of “Anthony, the Great” here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/anthony-the-great/

Here are a few gleanings from the book, as well as some suggestions of ways to engage your family and encourage learning through it:

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“No matter what the day may bring, Papa and Mama often take time to remind Anthony what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.” (p. 10, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)

Each time you read this part of the book, allow this phrase to spark a question in your own mind: How are you doing with this? Are you  regularly reminding your child(ren) what it means to be an Orthodox Christian? Perhaps every morning you pray the prayer that includes this phrase, “Whatsoever tidings I may receive during the day, teach me to accept them calmly, in the firm conviction that all eventualities fulfil Thy holy will…”, but are you teaching your children by example, and showing them how that plays out? Are you doing this especially on the days that things do not go the way that you wish or ”need” them to go? (Find the prayer in its entirety here: http://www.stgeorgeofboston.org/ourfaith/prayers/morningprayer)

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“‘We strive to love God more than anything else,’ says Mama. ‘Sometimes that means not getting or doing what we want. That can be hard. Even so, we struggle to put others before ourselves.’”  (p. 10, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)

Talk together about how hard it is to love God more than anything else. What choices does your family make that demonstrate this great love for God? Is it ever hard, like Mama said? Are you struggling to put others before yourselves? How is that working out? If you find yourself lacking in this area, you may want to read this article for encouragement and practical help: http://www.stgeorgegreenville.org/our-faith/tenpointprogram/putting-others-first

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“His patron saint, St. Anthony the Great, had to struggle. A lot… Anthony quietly prayed that he might be more like this great saint of God.” (p. 13, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)

Do your children know a lot about their patron saint? The more they know about their saint, the better they will be able to emulate them and the more likely they will feel close enough to their patron saint to ask for their prayers. Find ways to help your child(ren) learn even more about their saint. Encourage them to pray that they will become more like their saint. Here is a blog post suggesting ways to teach your children about the saints: http://www.orthodoxmotherhood.com/teaching-your-children-about-the-saints/

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“Papa says temptations are chances to show our love for God.” (p. 16, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)

Multiple times each day, we pray that God will lead us not into temptation, yet we constantly find ourselves being tempted. Anthony’s statement about what his papa says can help us to wrap our minds around why we are tempted. Find some resources that will help you think about temptations (in the context of the Lord’s Prayer) here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/on-the-lords-prayer-and-lead-us-not-into-temptation/

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“…He was struggling to struggle. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, and he wanted to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it! Even so, Anthony, remembering his prayer, decided to act like his saint…” (p. 25, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)

Struggle is an important – and necessary – part of our Orthodox Christian life. Read what the scriptures and the Church fathers have to say about it here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/on-struggle/

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“‘My sweet boy, because you struggled against what you wanted, you helped your family. I’m proud of you. When we do these things, we imitate Christ’s sacrifice and love for us. A love that is bigger and greater than anything else in the world.’” ~ Anthony’s Papa (p. 27, “Anthony, the Great”, by John Sarantakis, Illustrated by Misha Pjawka)

Invite family members to share times when they have seen another family member sacrifice themselves or their desire for someone else. How did it make them feel to see that happen? Can anyone tell about a time that they did not sacrifice themselves or their own desire, but they wish they had? How would the experience have been different, if they had done so? This article will encourage you to continue to love more and more selflessly: http://myocn.net/selfless-nature-love/

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Gleanings from a Book: “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Note: This book sat on my shelf for several weeks, waiting until I had time to read and review it. Despite the delay, it turns out that the timing is perfect. Here we are, right in the midst of the Paschal season, and the book is full of references to the Resurrection of Christ. And it should be so! For how else can we, Christ’s followers, better celebrate His Resurrection than by responding with joy? If we truly know and believe what He has accomplished for us, our “light and momentary troubles” – yes, even the impossible ones we may be facing at this very moment – pale in comparison to His victory. St. John Chrysostom’s homily which we all just heard at Pascha says, “Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!” My brothers and sisters, let us join with the angels!

Phoebe Farag Mikhail’s book “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” is a balm for the disheartened soul. The author has found a way to simultaneously calm, soothe, and reassure the reader while also challenging them to live in an attitude of godly joy. Readers will step away from the book knowing what they need to do, with tools at the ready to assist them as they pursue true joy.

The book begins with an invitation section which answers the question, “What is joy?;” then offers insights into who/what steals joy from our life. The (much larger) second section of the book introduces seven joyful practices. These seven practices which the author offers as means to the pursuit of joy include: praying the hours; visiting the sick; repenting; giving thanks; offering hospitality; praying arrow prayers; and singing praises to God. Each practice is expounded via stories (both from the author’s experience and from others), scriptures, quotes from Church fathers, contemporary writings, scientific findings (as appropriate), and more. The book closes with an appropriate epilogue, casting the joy-filled light of the resurrection on a modern story of martyrdom which to the world seems to be only a tragedy.

The author admits that it took her five years to write this book from beginning to end. This was not because she had to search for so long to find all the right quotes or because she only has to write in the few moments left here and there to a wife/mother (who also happens to be a Coptic priest’s wife). Rather, she took five years to write the book because, at one point as she was writing, she found herself not practicing joy. She wanted the book to be genuine, tested, lived, so she set the writing aside and worked on her heart. It is my opinion that it was worth her wait. The text is a smooth blend of stories, practical advice, and wisdom founded on the strong base of Scripture and the wisdom of the Church fathers.

Although the author is a Coptic Orthodox Christian, this book is written in such a way that any reader who wants to live a more joyful Christian life will benefit greatly from having read the book. The references to Christian practices exercised in Ms. Mihail’s Church may differ from some other expressions of Christianity, but the ideas behind them are helpful to any follower of Christ. “Putting Joy into Practice” helps its readers to find practical ways to live out St. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians (and to us): “Rejoice always… for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thess. 5:16, 18)

If you are generally a joyful person, read this book. It will give you reasons to continue choosing joy, as well as  tools to boost your not-so-joyful days. If you are a complainer and grouch, say a prayer and then read this book, but prepare to change your attitude. Ms. Mikhail’s challenge is difficult to dodge, because the scriptures and Church fathers are pretty straightforward. Regardless of the attitude of their heart at the beginning of the book, readers will step away from it with a smile on their face and – better yet – with joy in their heart.

Purchase your own copy of “Putting Joy into Practice” here: https://paracletepress.com/products/putting-joy-into-practice

Find additional writings by author Phoebe Farag Mikhail at her website, http://beingincommunity.com/.

 

Here are a few gleanings from this book:

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“Why is living in joy so hard? What can we do to live in the joy of the Resurrection when there are so many ways our joy can be stolen? As I pondered these questions, they led me on a path of trying to learn why joy is so hard, but more importantly, to learn how to live in joy, how to protect it from the thieves that strive to steal it, and how to share it with others.” (p. 8, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“We might not be happy every day; in fact, we might face suffering every day. But we can have joy every day. Running after joy is akin to holding a cup upside down. Joy is there, waiting to be given, but it doesn’t enter in. Rather than running after joy the way we might seek after pleasures or happy circumstances, we must instead rest and reorient ourselves into a posture of receiving, not running. The practices I share here are meant to help us reorient ourselves, to turn our cup right side up so that joy enters, and we exclaim, in the words of the psalmist, ‘My cup runs over’ (Psalm 23:5).” (pp. 15-16, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Joy thieves can be just like the little animals that steal tomatoes from the garden. On the outside, they can be small, cute, and furry, even comforting, and yet somehow they can still manage to steal our joy. The early church fathers called them ‘the passions.’ In this context, passions are not to be completely confused with our modern use of the word to describe a positive, driven desire to do something good or meaningful. Nor are they to be confused with the ‘passion of Christ,’ which is related to the Latin word for suffering and endurance. Rather, these passions are extreme versions of human behavior that lead to sin.” (p. 22, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Praying the Hours helps us, even in the bustle of our days, to stand in God’s presence and feel this ‘fullness of joy.’ The Hours are not just for ascetics, then, but even for busy, distracted laypeople, an anchor to pull us away from the storms of life into God’s presence and the presence of the entire community of believers. The moment I pick up my prayer book to pray, someone else is praying the same prayer, someone else has prayed another prayer a few moments before me, and others will be praying when I stop. In this way, when I pray the Psalms, I become part of an eternal chorus, even if it seems like I am praying alone. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18:20)” (p. 37, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“The common thread running through these experiences is that visiting the sick is not about finding the right words to say, giving a sermon, or asking intrusive questions. A visit to the sick that brings the joy of the Holy Spirit is a visit that provides giving, listening, and connection. Bring bright flowers, a gift, a meal, or your hands and feet to serve when needed or asked. Bring listening ears and the ability to be silent when necessary. Bring a smile, a song to sing, or a story to tell. Bring a piece of art or craft you have made—-or bring supplies to create something together. Be joy, and expect the experience the joy of visiting Christ himself. Christ certainly needs no sermons from us.” (p. 61, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Repentance makes room for joy within us, room that was previously filled with sin, shame, and fear. When we repent by turning our lives around like the prodigal son and the Samaritan woman, we experience its joy, and it is contagious. The heavens rejoice. The church rejoices. We cannot help sharing that joy with others, so they too might encounter Christ. Putting joy into practice means practicing repentance, even on a daily basis.” (p. 76, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“I am learning… that when I thank God ‘in any condition, in every condition, and in whatever condition,’ I might not be asking God to take me out of a condition of suffering, or even to see a silver lining around that suffering. Rather, I am thanking him in that condition of suffering, and sometimes I might even thank him for that suffering… Thanking God for suffering is… acknowledging that perhaps that suffering can serve a greater purpose.” (p. 85, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Sometimes discovering who needs hospitality is a matter of taking a few moments to sit outside, linger on your front porch, or say hello to the neighbor living on the same floor in your apartment building. We might feel overwhelmed by great needs of the world presented to us on the news, but it is our simple acts of hospitality that will change the world, not our worries.” (p. 122, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“These days, when we find ourselves waiting, we fill the time by looking at our smartphones, checking our social media feeds or our emails, making every moment a constant input of information—often information we cannot control or tasks we cannot take action on while in line or sitting in traffic. This can add to our general sense of stress and lack of control… Using arrow prayers can help us reclaim control of our time and energy. Information overload drains us, but prayer fills us.” (pp. 127-128, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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Need to learn a few “arrow” prayers? Here are some of the arrow prayers found on pp. 136 -137 of “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail. You may wish to print them onto cardstock, cut them apart, and glue to decorative paper or a blank index card (which you can decorate if you’re so inclined). Place these prayers around the house, in your purse or briefcase, even in the car so that you remember to pray.

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“The joy of the Lord’s presence starts in the fiery furnace, not outside it… We begin the hymn [of the three saintly youths in the fiery furnace] with an exhortation to the youth in the fire to sing to the Son of God who is there with them in their suffering—and therefore also in their joy. This exhortation applies to us as well. We don’t wait to praise God until after we are saved from the furnace, when our prayers are answered the way we hope they will be. We praise him even in our troubles, acknowledging and confessing that he is there with us in those troubles. When we can wipe away from our eyes the smoke of our problems and praise him, we see him in his glory there—and this is powerful. This is joy.” (p. 146, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“My hope is that, by drawing from examples of how my church helps us live in the joy of the Resurrection, this book might open your eyes to the ways your tradition helps you practice joy. Once you begin to see it, whether you are in a happy situation or in great pain, it is all joy.” (p. 163, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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

This is the seventh in a series of posts that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share a little about that week’s focus, including related quotes from Church fathers and/or scriptures that can be helpful to our spiritual growth. We will share each blog early, to give you time to read it before that particular Sunday arrives. It is our hope that, by taking a few minutes to study these Sundays before the day arrives, we will be better prepared to partake in all that the Church has to offer us through this beautiful season of the year.

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

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

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

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

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

For taking up your cross, you did follow Christ,

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

but to attend to the soul since it is immortal.

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

 

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

Here are a few quotes from and about St. Mary of Egypt, as well as a handful of ideas of ways to help you and your family learn from her life:

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“Let us say something about the thorns. Blessed Mary of Egypt was twelve years old when she fell into the hands of the devil. She lived in sin day and night. But the merciful God enlightened her and she abandoned the world and went into the desert. There she led a hermit’s life for forty years. She was cleansed and became like an angel. God wished to give her rest, so He sent the holy ascetic Zosimas to hear her confession and to give her holy communion. Then He received her holy soul into paradise, where she rejoices with the angels. If there is anyone here like Blessed Mary, let him immediately weep and repent, now that he has time, and let him be assured that he will be saved as was Blessed Mary.” ~ St. Kosmos Aitolos

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“Believe me, Abba Zosimas, I spent seventeen years in this wilderness, fighting wild beasts: mad desires and passions. When I began to eat bread, I thought of the meat and fish which I had in abundance in Egypt. I also missed the wine that I loved so much when I was in the world, while here I did not even have water. I suffered from thirst and hunger… Weeping and striking myself on the breast, I remembered the vow I had made. At last I beheld a radiant Light shining on me from everywhere. After a violent tempest, a lasting calm ensued.” ~ St. Mary of Egypt

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“…A fire seemed to burn within me, awakening in me the desire for embraces. Then I would throw myself to the ground and water it with my tears. I seemed to see the Most Holy Virgin before me, and She seemed to threaten me for not keeping my vow. I lay face downward day and night upon the ground, and would not get up until that blessed Light encircled me, dispelling the evil thoughts that troubled me. Thus I lived in this wilderness for the first seventeen years. Darkness after darkness, misery after misery stood about me, a sinner. But from that time until now the Mother of God helps me in everything.” ~ St. Mary of Egypt

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“For the Lord’s sake, pray for me and remember my wretchedness.” ~ St. Mary of Egypt, to Elder Zosimas

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To St. Mary of Egypt: “With all eagerness and love thou didst run to Christ, abandoning thy former way of sin. And being nourished in the untrodden wilderness, thou didst chastely fulfill His divine commandments.” ~ The Great Canon of St. Andrew

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“On this day we know that the worst, the lowliest, the filthiest, the most addicted, the most impassioned, the most possessed, by faith and grace through that same Christ, by the intercessions of His mother and all the saints, can enter into that same glory. And Mary of Egypt tells us that. She shows us that. And then she begins herself to intercede for us poor sinners.” ~ Fr. Thomas Hopko, in his meditation that offers the opportunity to consider two Marys, the Theotokos and St. Mary of Egypt.  https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/st_mary_of_egypt

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Find a simple meditation about the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, as well as discussion and activity suggestions for a family learning time here: https://www.goarch.org/documents/32058/2618758/familygospellesson_maryofegypt.pdf/e09632ba-fda2-46ed-a631-f3e030c16f98

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Find some activities you can do with your children to help them learn about St. Mary of Egypt, here: http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/church-history/3-5-years-old/mary-egypt

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Don’t miss this wonderful article that applies the life of St. Mary of Egypt with 5 important “takeaways” for modern life: http://www.pravmir.com/5-things-still-learn-st-mary-egypt/

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Lenten Sundays Series: The Sunday of the Last Judgement/Meatfare

This is the first in a series that focuses on the Sundays of Great Lent (and Holy Week and Pascha). Each week we will share a little about that week’s focus, including related quotes from Church fathers and/or scriptures that can be helpful to our spiritual growth. We will share each blog early, to give you time to read it before that particular Sunday arrives. It is our hope that, by taking a few minutes to study these Sundays before the day arrives, we will be better prepared to partake in all that the Church has to offer us through this beautiful season of the year. Although the Sunday of the Last Judgement is before Great Lent, it is significant because it helps us prepare ourselves for Great Lent. For this reason, we are including it in the series.

It is not yet Great Lent, but very soon it will be! We have already started the Tridodion. The Triodion is the service book with the special texts for the services for the part of the Church year that begins in the pre-Lenten period and goes all the way through Holy Week. The canons for Matins during all of these weeks have three odes: hence the name Tri-odion.

We have been mentally preparing for Great Lent with the Sunday of the Prodigal Son and the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. Now here we are, one week from Great Lent, and the Triodion directs us to read from the Gospel of St. Matthew. In Matthew 25:31-46, we read (New King James Version):

31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did itto one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’

44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

This Gospel reading is about the Last Judgement and what will happen then. But if we look at it closely, it gives us a good idea of what SHOULD be happening in our lives now so that we know that we have done our best, and we are ready when the Final Judgement day is here.

The passage talks about Jesus dividing the sheep from the goats. If you’re not familiar with the ways of these animals, here’s the general idea of how they function: sheep are more likely to do what they’re told and, together, they follow the shepherd. Goats are much more independent: they’d rather eat whatever they want and go wherever they want, on their own, without paying attention to the person in charge of their care. One glimpse at the sheep and goats in this way leads us to thinking “well, that’s easily taken care of! I want to be a sheep, so I’ll just follow God and do what I’m supposed to do. Simple!”

But is it really simple? The rest of the passage goes on to describe what each group did during their lifetime. They didn’t just show up at the Judgement and arbitrarily get assigned as a sheep or goat. Their entire lifetime of choices judges them, showing whether or not they were following Christ. At the judgement, no excuses in the world were able to change their designation. But at every moment of their life, they had the chance to do so.

So what choices did the “sheep” make that caused them to be judged as “sheep”? What did they do to show that they are followers? St. Matthew records our Lord saying that these people were the ones who gave food and drink to Christ. They took Him in. They clothed Him. They visited Him when He was sick and in prison.

And when the “sheep” are surprised (they don’t remember doing these things to Christ), He reminds them that whatever they did to the least of these, they’ve done to Him. Anytime they have reached out to someone who needed help, they reached out to Christ. Any good gifts they have given, they’ve given to Him.

The “goats” on the other hand, have done none of this. When they are surprised at their judgement, Christ reminds them of the opportunities they’ve had and what they chose. He reminds them that each person they’ve met is His icon, made in His image, and they’ve chosen to turn away or ignore Him by ignoring and not helping them.

So, how are we measuring up with this? If today ends up actually being the Judgement Day, what will our life’s choices show about how we care – or don’t care – for Christ? As we approach Judgement Sunday, let’s each take some time to evaluate how we’re doing. Who has God placed in our life who needs help? How are we doing with helping them? Are we seeing Christ in them, or do we see them as a nuisance? If we truly love Christ, we will also love those around us, and we will treat them as the icon of Christ that they are.

Oh Lord, have mercy on us, and show us how to better love others. Not so that we receive earthly rewards or “check it off of our list” or even so we are counted as one of your sheep: but rather so that these precious ones which you have placed in our life receive the love, care, and support that You deserve.

 

Here are a few quotes for our continued meditation on Judgement Sunday:

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“In any case, it is a clear teaching of the Holy Scripture that the only way we can prove our love for God is by loving the person next to us, our neighbor. Of course, Jesus teaches that our neighbor is the worst enemy we can think of. In fact, if we wanted to evaluate how we’re doing as a human being, as a Christian, we would just ask ourselves, “How would I treat the person that I hate the most and that hates me the most? How do I treat the one that for me is the most ugly enemy I can think of?” When we see how we do it, then we’ll see if we love God or not, because it’s exactly that person that we have to love.”
Learn more about the Sunday of the Last Judgement in Fr. Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory)’s podcast about it: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/the_sunday_of_the_last_judgment
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“In the future Judgment, the condition of each person will be revealed in an instant, and each person on his own will proceed to where he belongs. Each person will recognize, as if on a television screen, his own wretchedness, as well as the spiritual condition of others. He will reflect himself upon the other, and he will bow his head, and proceed to the place where he belongs. For example, a daughter-in-law who sat comfortably with her legs crossed in front of her mother-in-law, who with a broken leg took care of the grandchild, will not be able to say, ‘My Christ, why are you putting my mother-in-law into Paradise without including me?’ because that scene will come before her to condemn her. She will remember her mother-in-law who stood with her broken leg in order to take care of her grandchild and she will be too ashamed to go into Paradise — but there will be not place for her there, anyway.

Or, to cite another example, monastics will see the difficulties, the tribulations of the people in the world and how they faced them; and if they have not lived appropriately as monastics, they will lower their heads and proceed on their own to the place where they belong. There, nuns who did not please God will see heroic mothers who neither took vows nor had the blessings and opportunities that they, the nuns, had. They will see how those mothers struggled, as well as the spiritual heights they attained, while they, the nuns, who with petty things preoccupied and tormented themselves, will be ashamed! These are my thoughts about the manner of the Final Judgement. In other words, Christ will not say, ‘You come here; what did you do?’ Nor will He say, ‘You go to Hell; you go to Paradise.’ Rather, each person will compare himself with the others and proceed to his appropriate place.” ~ St. Paisios of Mt. Athos

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“Be merciful unto me, O Master, and let not my soul see the dark forms of the evil demons, but may Thy bright and shining Angels receive it. Give glory to Thy holy name, and by Thy might lead me unto Thy divine judgment seat. When I am being judged, may the hand of the prince of this world not seize me and snatch me, a sinner, into the depths of hades; but do Thou stand by me, and be unto me a Savior and Helper, for these present bodily torments are a joy to Thy servants.” ~ Prayer of St. Eustratius

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“After the end of the General Judgment, the Righteous Judge (God) will declare the decision both to the righteous and to the sinners. To the righteous He will say: ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;’ while to the sinners He will say: ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.’ And these will go away to eternal hades, while the righteous will go to eternal life. This retribution after the General Judgment will be complete, final, and definitive. It will complete, because it is not the soul alone, as the Partial Judgment of man after death, but the soul together with the body, that will receive what is deserved. It will be final, because it will be enduring and not temporary like that at Partial Judgment. And it will be definitive, because both for the righteous and for the sinners it will be unalterable and eternal.” ~ St. Nektarios

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“Speak well of those who speak evil of you. Pay good for evil. Pray for those who cause you various offenses, wrongs, temptations, persecutions. Whatever you do, on no account condemn anyone; do not even try to judge whether a person is good or bad, but keep your eyes on that one evil person for whom you must give an account before God–yourself.” ~ St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)

***

“The end is drawing near, my soul, is drawing near! But you neither care nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is near at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain? Come to your senses, my soul! Consider the deeds you have done, and bring them before your eyes, and pour out the drops of your tears. Boldly tell your thoughts and deeds to Christ, and be acquitted.” ~ from The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

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For a daily study based on the Sundays of the Triodion period, check out Y2AM’s “Live the Word Bible Study Guide.” This free guide offers 100+ pages of explanations, quotes from the Fathers, and study questions to help you learn from the readings for the next 10 Sundays. Y2AM created this resource to help you to make the most of Great Lent. Find more information (and the link to download your free copy) here: https://blogs.goarch.org/blog/-/blogs/free-live-the-word-bible-study-guide-for-the-triodion

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Great Lent would be a great time for your family to test run a Saints Box subscription.  Saints Box’s mission is to help Orthodox Christian families connect Church and home. They do it by sending subscribed kids tools to prepare for the Divine Liturgy each week: readings, games, activities, and more! They have two different weekly mailbox programs, one for children ages 4-8 and another for those aged 8-12, and each is available as a hard copy (mailed to the child!) or download (mailed to your inbox): https://www.saintsbox.com/

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Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families is a new book published by Ancient Faith Publishing, written by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger. Each day’s meditation can help your family’s spiritual growth through stories, questions, and discussion. You can purchase a hard copy here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/tending-the-garden-of-our-hearts-daily-lenten-meditations-for-families/ and the audiobook (if you prefer to listen to the daily meditations) here: https://www.audible.com/pd/Tending-the-Garden-of-Our-Hearts-Daily-Lenten-Meditations-for-Families-Audiobook/B07NJ8TMMF

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Pascha Passports take their readers on the journey to Pascha, with descriptions of the “destinations” along the way. At each “destination” (Lenten services, confession, the Jesus Prayer, Lenten retreat, and other important parts of the Lenten journey), travelers are given a stamp (beautiful icon sticker) to place in their passport with the destination information. What a beautiful, pocket-sized way for children to mark the passage of the Lenten season, and embrace the journey! Find the passports, stamps, and other materials here: https://lenten-embassy.myshopify.com/collections/lenten-journey-for-the-family

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Here is a helpful weekly chart for families to use during Great Lent.

 

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Here’s a daily activity for Lent and Holy Week, themed by week: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/a-calendar-for-great-lent/

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Families with very young children will find these brand new resources helpful additions to family discussions on Lent and Holy Week.
“Color Your Way Into Pascha” offers pages for little ones to color, from the Triumph of Orthodoxy through Pentecost. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1796731684
“Color Your Way Through Holy Week” offers coloring pages for each day of Holy Week. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1796742805/