Category Archives: Lifestyle

Gleanings from a Book: “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be an Orthodox Christian in the plains of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s? “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” offers a glimpse of the life of this immigrant who lived a faithful Orthodox Christian life in the American plains before there were churches available in the region. It follows Fr. Nicola through his immigration, his adjustment to life on the plains, his ordination, his intense years of service as a missionary priest, all the way to his departing from this life. American Orthodox Christians – especially those in the Antiochian Archdiocese – will do well to read this book, to expand their knowledge of the history of Orthodox Christianity in the United States.

Readers who have marveled at the experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books will see some parallels in “Apostle to the Plains.” The Yanneys also lived in a sod house for a period of time while they were homesteading. Although the Ingalls family’s experiences preceded the Yanneys’ by some 20 years, and happened largely in different states, both families suffered illnesses and loss. There were times when each family struggled to attend school or church (because there was none, or it was far away). And despite their hard times, both families endeavored to do what was right and persevered with dogged determination.

A large portion of “Apostle to the Plains” is dedicated to recounting the missionary journeys and busy life of Fr. Nicola’s years as a traveling priest, and at points these chapters feel a bit overwhelming. Even with today’s technology and travel infrastructure, his months of travel and the few weeks at home in between trips would exhaust anyone. But when the reader remembers that his travels happened more than a century ago, with much slower communication and more tedious means of transportation, what he accomplished is truly astounding. Fr. Nicola and his family clearly loved God and took their calling to be a priest (and the priest’s family) very seriously, and they embraced the reality of what that entailed.

Fr. Nicola’s life was far from easy: he left his home in Lebanon at age 19, with his brand-new bride (whom he barely knew) shortly after their wedding and moved to far away Nebraska, where they had to adjust to new language and culture, different weather, and near isolation from family; and where there was no Orthodox Church. The book goes on to share their trials in homesteading, the joys of births and occasional clergy visits, the sorrows of losses and deaths in the family. When Fr. Nicola was ordained to the priesthood, he not only was in charge of the parish in their hometown of Kearney Nebraska, but he was also charged with being the missionary priest who visited Orthodox Christians all over the American plains.

A large section of the book follows Fr. Nicola’s travels. When he traveled, Fr. would hear people’s confessions, commune them, baptize those in need of baptism, marry young couples, and do all the priestly things for the Orthodox Christians who were scattered about the many parts of the plains of the United States. He always tried to be home again with his boys for Christmas and for Pascha (and often for all of Great Lent), but his travels kept him away from them and his home parish for months at a time every year. It was not an easy life for him or for his family, nor did it provide enough financial income.

Fr. Nicola was generous to a fault. Throughout his life, he raised money to share with others back home in Lebanon, and to fund local causes. He and the family generously hosted guests for Sunday luncheons. He traveled extensively, at great cost to himself and his family – and his being away from home made him unable to work and thus make additional income. So he and the family had very little financially. In fact, they had so little that even with re-mortgaging their home multiple times, he was unable to pay $140 in damages from a lawsuit that had been brought against him and his parish! Fr. Nicola gave and gave and gave of both his money and his time, and had very little on earth to show for his generosity.

Readers may be surprised to find that this book offers a glimpse into the life of St. Raphael of Brooklyn as well. The saintly bishop ordained Fr. Nicola, and Fr. Nicola was under his jurisdiction for the rest of Bishop Raphael’s life. Fr. Nicola supported, honored, and admired Bishop Raphael and was justifiably sad when he departed this life. The saint’s passing not only removed him from his position overseeing the Syrian Orthodox churches in America, it also brought great division to those churches. “Apostle to the Plains” explains this division in a way that helps modern American Orthodox Christians to learn more about some of the struggles in the history of our Church.

Fr. Nicola continued to care for his flock right up to the very end of his life. He visited and cared for his Spanish-flu-suffering parishioners in his hometown of Kearney just hours before his collapse and death from that same illness. His sudden passing was a shock to his parishioners, the entire Kearney community, and the Orthodox Christians across the plains whom he had served so diligently.

The Afterword of the book, titled “The Legacy of Father Nicola” is a powerful ending, as it helps the reader to ponder how well the servant of God Nicola Yanney ran his race. It encourages the reader to look beyond Fr. Nicola (and the entire Yanney family)’s struggles, to see the victories, and especially to note his faithfulness. Reading this after having read the book’s account of his life, the reader cannot help but be encouraged in their own life to “know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings… [that they] may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (from Phil. 3:10-11)

May Fr. Nicola Yanney’s memory be eternal!

You can purchase “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” as a paperback or an ebook here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/apostle-to-the-plains-the-life-of-father-nicola-yanney/

Find additional information about Fr. Nicola Yanney, including interviews, videos, and slide shows related to his life and his gifts to the Antiochian Orthodox Church in America; a map of the states that he served; and more at St. George Orthodox Christian Church (the parish that he helped to found in Kearney, Nebraska)’s website: https://www.saintgeorgekearney.com/reverend_nicola_yanney

Here are some gleanings from the book:

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“He would soon be married, and he wanted Martha and their children to live in safety and peace… In America, he could make a new home not only for himself and Martha but also for his brothers. If they all worked together, Nicola could send enough money to make sure that their father would live the rest of his days in comfort, cared for by loved ones who would remain in their village. To do this, however, Nicola himself would have to leave home.” (p. 23,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“While Martha continued to refurbish the [sod] house, Nicola turned his attention to the rest of the homestead. He only had a few months to prepare. Both he and Martha had experienced light snowfalls in the foothills of Koura, but nothing had prepared them for winter on the open plains… In the worst weather, the family would be beyond the reach of help for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Stables and pens had to be built for their animals and more supplies had to be brought from town and stored for the winter in case the roads became impassable.” (p. 51,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“Even without a church of their own, the Syrians celebrated Saint Simeon’s feast day together as they had back in Fi’eh, as well as Christmas, Pascha, and other holy days. Nicola especially desired to help the newcomers, knowing how difficult it was to keep his Orthodox faith in the foreign land, especially without a church or a priest. Though their gatherings were filled with folk songs, dancing, and food, Nicola always remembered to offer prayers and lead his friends in singing hymns, knowing that it was their faith that bound the small community together more than anything else.” (pp. 58-59,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“The kindly priest was… interested to hear of Nicola’s education at the monastery school. One of the reasons for his cross-country tour was to find pious men who might be ordained to serve the scattered Orthodox Syrians. Hearing this, the Syrians suggested that Father Raphael meet the Yanneys… At nine o’clock in the evening, fifteen of the Yanneys’ friends piled into four wagons to accompany Father Raphael on the eighteen-mile trip to the homestead… As they drew near the farm, their singing and shouting grew louder. Several of the men drew out their pistols and fired shots into the air to wake their unsuspecting friends. The Yanneys came running out of their small home, astonished by what was happening, and fell at Father Raphael’s feet. The priest greeted them warmly.” (pp. 72-73,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“With no other Syrian Orthodox priest living within a thousand miles of Kearney, Father Nicola had to serve his daughter’s funeral… At the conclusion of the funeral, Father Nicola placed his priestly stole on Anna’s head and said the prayer of absolution. He had arrived too late to hear her confession or to give her Holy communion.” (p. 146,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“‘My dear Elias, may you be pleasing to God. Be the best version of yourself. Avoid crude and offensive talk. Do not joke coarsely or easily give your heart to others. Be conscientious of your health before anything else… I ask God’s special blessings on you, that you take care of your brothers and your fellow countrymen. Make me proud. Keep me posted about yourself and write me often so that I always know you are fine. I kiss your cheeks thousands and millions of times…’” ~ from a letter Fr. Nicola wrote to his son Elias (pp. 183,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“Though he had been tending to his parishioners only hours earlier, Father Nicola was confined to bed—unable to rise, his strength gone. By late that night, he knew that he was dying and had little time left. Motioning weakly, he beckoned his sons to his side. He had left them on their own so many times, and now he was leaving them once more. Calling Elias, John, and Moses close, Father Nicola said goodbye as he struggled for breath. As they leaned over their father, he gave them a final word by which he himself had tried to live, whispering, ‘Keep your hands and your heart clean.’”(p. 247,  “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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“The legacy of Father Nicola Yanney continues to this day… In him we see a worthy model of the Christian life—one who was faithful in adversity, steadfast in suffering, zealous in evangelism, and selfless in serving others. Through the daily sacrifice of his priesthood, Father Nicola laid down his life for his friends in imitation of his Master.” (pp. 266-267, “Apostle to the Plains: The Life of Father Nicola Yanney” by The Saint Raphael Clergy Brotherhood)

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More On House Blessings

Several years ago we wrote about house blessings. If you missed that post, check it out here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/time-for-house-blessings/. The post encourages us to prepare our hearts and our home for our house blessing. Included are links to articles explaining the importance of having our home blessed, the actual house blessing service, the troparion (so we can practice singing it as a family before our house blessing), and a printable page that can help our family to prepare for our house blessing.

After checking out that piece and all that it has to offer, take a look at what we are sharing here. We have done a little more research, and have found several additional resources. We think that you may find them helpful, so we are sharing them here as an “extension” of sorts to our original post.

May the Lord bless us all and our families, as we prepare our hearts and our home for our house blessing!

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“Since our homes cannot be brought to the Church, the Church – through the priest and cantor – go to the homes. There, the service of blessing, which began in the church, is finished with the sprinkling of water in the home… By sanctifying our living quarters, our private place, we extend the grace of God to our individual dwellings.” Read more about house blessings in this article: https://blog.obitel-minsk.com/2017/06/why-do-orthodox-christians-have-their.html

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Families with young children may find this information and lesson about Holy Theophany (which talks a bit about house blessings) helpful to use to teach the children about this wonderful event. https://orthodoxpebbles.com/new-testament/holy-theophany/

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Draw Near Designs offered a simple guide to prepare for your house blessing, complete with a “map” of where on your prayer table to place each item needed for the blessing. They have also included ways to incorporate children in the preparation for the blessing, for example: “Have your kids pretend to be the priest and walk around the house blessing or censing it. Have them remove any toys that are in their way and in turn would be in the priest’s way as he walks though the house.” Check out their post here: https://www.drawneardesigns.com/blog/2019/1/23/house-blessings?

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Author Jane G. Meyer wrote a beautiful, child-centered piece about house blessings, and shared it on the Orthodox Christian Network. “There may be a few rituals in the Orthodox Church that we struggle to explain to a young child, but the house blessing is not one of them. Many of the elements that accompany this tradition are appealing to a little one. Here are a few things we’ve discovered over the years that make this tradition especially meaningful…” You can read the ways that she incorporates children into the house blessing in her article, found here: http://myocn.net/for-the-child-the-house-blessing/

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Fr. Hector Firoglanis of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, PA, writes about holy water and how having our house blessed with it is important, in this article: http://www.annunciationorthodox.org/publications/annunciator/18-news/spiritual-messages/173-how-holy-water-helps-us. Among other things, he writes, “Holy Water (as is the case with all the sacraments of the Church) is not magic. It is a visible means (in this case, water) through which God transmits to us His invisible Grace. God does not enter our lives in order to make our lives easier; rather, He makes Himself available to give us the strength and Grace to overcome the hardships and challenges of life. There is nothing more important than to teach a young person that God is with us no matter what — during the good times and the bad, during the victories and the losses, in life and in death.” Having our house blessed with Holy Water is one way to help teach our children that God is with us no matter what.

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You may wish to print this prayer from the early church, and allow your child(ren) to decorate it as you talk about your upcoming house blessing. Talk together about all of the things we are asking God to do when we pray this prayer and when we have our house blessed. Perhaps your family will find it helpful to incorporate this prayer for the blessing of your house into your prayers more regularly than once a year!

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Zaccheus welcomed Christ into his home with generosity. “Do they (your children) see you welcoming Christ into your home by giving what you can to those who need it?… Is it clear to everyone who lives there and visits there that your house is a house of prayer?” Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick challenges his listeners to welcome Christ as Zaccheus did, not just for the house blessing, but all year around. https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/emmaus/are_we_ready_for_jesus_to_visit_sermon_jan._22_2017

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A Closer Look at “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home”- Appendix 1

 

Note: This is the final blog post in a series which offers ideas of how to build up the little church in your home, based on the book “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker. Each week we have focused on one portion of the book and shared the wisdom and ideas offered there. Find an overview of the entire book here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/gleanings-from-a-book-blueprints-for-the-little-church-creating-an-orthodox-home-by-elissa-bjeletich-and-caleb-shoemaker/

We thank Elissa Bjeletich, Caleb Shoemaker, and Ancient Faith Publishing for granting us permission to share the book with you in this way. Purchase your own copy here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/blueprints

 

Appendix 1: Making Your Way Through the Liturgical Year

“Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” concludes with a few appendices. The first one is extensive (48 pages), and is the only one we will be featuring. This appendix is an extremely helpful addition to the book. It goes through the Church year and offers suggestions of ways that families can bring the life of the Church into their little church throughout the year.

The appendix offers fun activity ideas ranging from suggested songs to recipes to related science experiments. It also offers suggestions and directions for simple crafts that families can create to enhance their celebrations of feasts or deepen the meaning of the season. The suggestions are as varied as the expected readership, and most of the activities/crafts can be adjusted to be done with children of a variety of ages.

In our opinion, this section of the book is the most likely for readers to revisit in the years that they have children living at home, because of its helpful suggestions for the feasts and fasts of the Church year.

If you wish to interact with the authors of “Blueprints For the Little Church”, you can connect with Elissa here: https://elissabjeletich.com/contact/ and email Caleb at caleb.shoemaker@gmail.com. You may wish to also check out their Pinterest boards at  https://www.pinterest.com/orthoblueprints/boards/.

Here are a few gleanings from Appendix 1:

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(on Prayerfulness as one of the highlights of the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God) “Here at the beginning of the liturgical year is a good day to spruce up the family prayer corner with the children. You might clean out the shelves, allowing children to dust and polish (and discuss) the various items you keep there. In addition, we might allow the children to create little prayer books, either copying down or printing up the prayers of your family prayer rule and binding them into little books…” (p. 176, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

***

(prior to the Nativity Fast) “Younger children can visualize the preparation of a soft place for Jesus by creating a little manger out of a box and then slowly filling it with cotton balls every day, as they mark a good deed one for each day of the fast.” (p. 181, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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(at Theophany) “On Theophany, priests all over the world perform the Blessing of the Waters, blessing vessels of water such as rivers, lakes, and oceans. Jesus’ sanctification of the waters is repeated every year. Imagine how many times a single drop of water may have been blessed in the last two thousand years!
…Try this visual demonstration of God’s grace flowing through water: Fill a clear glass container with clean water. Add food coloring… and watch the colored liquid slowly mix into the waters—just as Christ’s holiness has sanctified all the waters of the Earth.” (p. 188, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

***

(on Great and Holy Friday) “As the hymn conjures the image of the Theotokos at the foot of the Cross, the idea of presenting ourselves—of laying our sins and our troubles—at the foot of the Cross is powerful… Invite children to write their worries, prayers, or sins on slips of paper and prayerfully set them at the foot of the Cross today. Talk with them about how we bring our broken and contrite hearts as an offering to our Lord, trusting that He will heal us and bring us to abundant life.” (p. 206, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

***

(for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos) “One day, as she [the Theotokos] prayed on the Mount of Olives, an angel told her that in three days she would join our Lord in Paradise, and he gave her a palm branch from Paradise. She returned home to prepare herself… then lay down on her bed and fell asleep in the Lord. There was a beautiful funeral procession: first, St. John the Beloved carried the branch from Paradise, and then St. Peter carried the censer… [as they] brought her to her tomb at Gethsemane.

…We might head outside and gather some branches or sticks and then decorate them like the branch from Paradise that the angel brought to the Theotokos… Children can… use whatever supplies you have on hand to decorate their branch: they might paint it and cover it with glitter or plastic gemstones; they might draw and cut out leaves or fruits and glue them on.” (p. 219, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

***

 

A Closer Look at “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home”- Chapter 1

Note: This series of blog posts will offer ideas of how to build up the little church in your home. The series will take a closer look at “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker. Each week we will take a look at one portion of the book and focus on the wisdom and ideas offered there. Find an overview of the entire book here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/gleanings-from-a-book-blueprints-for-the-little-church-creating-an-orthodox-home-by-elissa-bjeletich-and-caleb-shoemaker/

We thank Elissa Bjeletich, Caleb Shoemaker, and Ancient Faith Publishing for granting us permission to share the book with you in this way. Purchase your own copy here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/blueprints

 

Chapter 1: Why the Little Church?

In chapter 1 of “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home”, authors Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker help their readers better understand the concept of the “little Church”. The chapter begins by reminding each reader that “The Church” is not a building or place: rather, it is the Body of Christ, including all of His people throughout time. The smallest unit of the Church is the family unit, or the “little Church”.

The chapter goes on to suggest that family life is a type of asceticism. Just as monks are interrupted from their daily tasks for prayer, so family members are interrupted from their daily tasks by each other. But rather than distracting us from it, family life can actually bring each member of a family deeper into the spiritual life, when it is properly approached. The authors encourage their readers to look for ways to make their own home a “natural monastery”, where the family works together and grows spiritually at the same time.

The chapter continues with a closer look at marriage and baptism: two foundational events in the construction of the little Church. The authors offer their readers the opportunity to revisit many prayers from each of those events, to see how, even from marriage and from baptism, the Church of their home is being established among its members. The authors encourage parents to remember that it is their job to raise saints, and that, as they work toward that end, the family can practice asceticism together. The chapter closes with several “holy habits” that families can develop to work toward this end.

Do you have a parenting question for the “Blueprints For the Little Church” authors? Connect with Elissa here: https://elissabjeletich.com/contact/ and email Caleb at caleb.shoemaker@gmail.com.

 

Here are a few gleanings from chapter 1:

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“The little church has its own hierarchy and its lay versions of the sacraments—we break bread together, we bless one another, anoint one another, pray for one another, and love one another in this little community, striving together to grow ever closer to Christ.” (p. 22, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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“Family life, however, can also lead one to deep spirituality. A family can be immersed in prayer, both at table and after, and their hospitality and generosity will speak of an earnest application of Christ’s exhortation to love their neighbor as themselves.” (p. 23, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

***

“God sends everything to us for our salvation, and we can receive it that way, accepting each of our daily tasks and experiences as a call to prayer. When confronted with mountains of laundry, we can thank God for clothing us as He clothes the lilies of the field; when approaching a sink full of dirty dishes, we can thank Him for providing food and ask that He nourish our souls as well. Every mundane task that makes family life so busy can be received as a call to prayer.” (p. 25, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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“The truth is that your home is a school, a hospital, and a church. Your children will learn their spirituality from you, and it is a sacred calling for parents to shepherd—literally, to pastor—their children in the ways of righteousness.” (p. 27, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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“It is in these moments—these holy spaces—that man and woman are no longer individuals but are bound to one another, and a new one icon is created. It is in this holy event that a young child is crucified with Christ, resurrected with Him in glory, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and tonsured—set apart—for the work of the priesthood in which all believers participate.” (pp. 29-30, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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“…Our little churches should be communities always centered on Christ, where love and forgiveness reign, where we pray together ad struggle toward salvation together. This includes directing our children in loving submission and repentance to their Heavenly Father, who has promised to complete a good work in them. It is not about manners—it’s about holiness. It’s not about “good behavior” — it’s about a life given completely to God in loving humility and peace.” (p. 32, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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“Sunday school, religious schools, and summer camps are not enough; they may enrich what you are doing in the home, but they cannot replace it. We cannot outsource the raising of saints.” (p. 34, “Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home” by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016)

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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 Creating (and Using) a “Godfulness Jar”

Mindfulness is a buzzword in current culture. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for mindfulness is this: “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Many mindfulness practices encourage focusing your mind on positive thoughts. Unfortunately, the thoughts being promoted are not necessarily compatible with our Orthodox Christian faith.

The practice of focusing our minds should not be a foreign concept to us as Orthodox Christians. We hear often in the Divine Liturgy a reminder to focus: “Let us attend!” It depends upon what we focus that causes that focus to be for our growth or our downfall. If we are focusing our mind on God and on words that point our mind to Him, that focus is helpful – even essential – to our spiritual growth. But focusing on ourselves and/or what we can do cuts us off from growing closer to God. So, instead of the self-focused affirmations encouraged by many mindfulness practices, we need to choose to fill our minds with Godly thoughts including those found in the scriptures, in prayers, and words spoken by the Church fathers.

If you (or anyone in your family) struggles to focus on God or to keep your mind on Him in the face of discouraging or distracting thoughts, you need to find a way out of that downward spiral! Here is an idea of one easy-to-make tool which may be helpful to that end. Create a “Godfulness” jar. “What in the world is that?” you may ask? Well, it’s a jar that contains arrow prayers, scriptures, and quotes from Church fathers all aimed at calming and soothing your thoughts by pointing them to God.

Godfulness Jar Illustration

To make your own “Godfulness” jar, fill a clean, empty jar with quotes that can be drawn out and pondered, whenever one’s mind needs to be calmed, soothed, focused, or quieted. However, instead of loading the jar with slips of paper containing personal affirmations (as is encouraged in some mindfulness circles), include arrow prayers, verses, and quotes from saints. Label the jar “Our Godfulness Jar”, since each item inside points its reader’s mind to focus on God.

Godfulness Jar pictoral version

Families with young children may wish to create a slightly different “Godfulness Jar”. Instead of slips of paper with a quote, prayer, or verse to be read, collect small icon cards, photos of peaceful places you have visited together, and pictures from church – such as the candle table, smoke rising from the censor, photos of parts of the iconostasis, etc. These cards and pictures can be pulled out of the jar and “read” as needed by a young person needing to adjust their focus. Place these “pre-reading” items in a plastic “Godfulness Jar”.

After you create a “Godfulness Jar”, store it where everyone in your family can reach it. Encourage your family members to pull out one slip (or picture) whenever they feel that they’re anxious, afraid, overloaded, angry, etc. They can read and re-read it until their mind is focused on God instead of the disturbing thought(s). After they’ve read and focused on the quote, they can keep it with them as a reminder, or return it to the jar to be used again by someone else. (Remember to visit the jar yourself, when you need it!)

Keep your “Godfulness Jar” in mind as you pray, read scriptures, and read the Church Fathers. As time passes, you will collect more and more quotes to add to it, to replace any that have gone missing. With use, your jar will help to fill your mind with thoughts of God and with His peace.

Find a “starter set” of quotes that you can cut apart to put in your jar here.

Here are a few samples of the “Godfulness Jar” quotes in the starter set:

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Gleanings from a Book: “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich

Do you find yourself ready for a retreat because summer – or life in general – is getting to you? Does life feel stormy, or are there clouds threatening the horizon of your heart? If so, a little spa time is just what you need! We often think of pampering our bodies when we are weary and heavy laden. Sometimes physical rest and relaxation is in order, and it truly helps us. But often afterwards, we get back home and into life again, and we find ourselves right back in a stormy, weary place, wishing we could return to the spa…

What would happen if we would choose to spend our “spa” time and energy on preparing to soothe our soul through prayer? We could then set up an all-encompassing prayer space that ministers to our body as well as our soul. We could also make a plan to restructure our life to include spending time in that space each day, praying.

But how would we go about creating such a space and implementing such a change? “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” offers solutions to this question. The book is full of reasons for us to bathe our souls in peaceful prayer. And it doesn’t simply scold us with reasons to straighten out our prayer life: it gently takes us by the hand, introducing us to practical means to do so.

This book is, in itself, a retreat. Each entry is simultaneously soothing and thought provoking. It is written thoughtfully, and every page is poetry which engages the mind while challenging the reader’s thoughts. Themed chapters help the reader think from a distinctly Orthodox Christian perspective about topics related to prayer. They are as follows: Mind…Body…Soul; The Five Senses; Your Prayer Plan; Inner Stillness; An Offering; The Hours; Tools for Therapy. (Readers will likely find the “Tools for Therapy” chapter to become the most visited chapter. It includes a few ideas for ways to invite your body to join in prayer, as well as pages and pages of prayers, ranging from Psalms for each of the Hours to morning and evening prayers.) The author’s near-exclusive use of lower case is intentional; whispering her ideas and findings instead of shouting them, enhancing their soft allure. The final pages of the book are supplements that include a reproducible prayer card for your daily prayer plan, pages of scripture verses to memorize and pray, and recommended books (featuring an important quote from each) for further growth.

In Orthodoxy, we often invite the world to “come and see” what The Faith is all about. The same applies to this book. Attempting to describe it is one thing: but experiencing it is something else completely. The author’s intent with the book is “to bring the hidden wisdom of early christian luminaries to those in the twenty-first century who may not yet have come to experience this tangible way to love your God, your neighbor, and yourself within the fabric of daily life.” (p. 108) She has succeeded. “Prayer Spa” is at once a tall drink of cool water on a hot day and a sturdy lighthouse in a stormy sea. You may wish to “come and see” for yourself.

Whether or not we adopt all of the ideas in “Prayer Spa,” let us embrace its challenge to be intentional in our prayers. Let us indeed commune with God daily, with our whole self, through prayer, thus nourishing our soul. This is the kind of “spa time” that we truly need. Anchoring our life in prayer brings calm and peace to our souls, even in the storms of life.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for sharing a copy with the AODCE so that we could read it and write this review.

Purchase your own copy here: https://paracletepress.com/products/prayer-spa
Here are a few gleanings from the book:

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“you are a gifted creature

created in the image of God

given the gifts of mind…body…soul.

dip your toe into living water and drench your soul in prayer.

how can I begin?

you ask.

begin with intention.

begin with practice.

begin with love.” (p. 12, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“the spa has offered therapeutic baths

for healing and purification

from ancient greece to modern times.

 

prayer is a preparation of your interior well

to receive God’s gift of grace, and to offer living water

from an abundant source to those around you.” (p. 18, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

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“determine to commit yourself to prayer every day.

enfold your life into the life of Christ

for the temporal and eternal benefits.” (p. 33, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

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“the beloved Jesus Prayer, in its radical simplicity

sums up the whole gospel.

the incarnation, the sovereignty of Christ, and our very salvation are all there.” (p. 44, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“remember you are a human being, not a human doing

—a child of God.” (p. 49, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

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“an oasis in time can materialize

by insisting on an annual personal prayer retreat.

 

discover a monastery, guest house, or quiet room

within your range—any secluded space will suffice—

and treat yourself to 24-48 hours of cloistered retreat

 

this is a solitary ritual for you and God alone

a time to pray, to journal, to rest

to read spiritual books, to quiet your mind to consider the year behind you and the year ahead.” (p. 58, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

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“on this swiftly tilting planet

where humans have fallen down before their Creator

century after century, in awe…

at times this “enlightened” society seems to have forgotten God.

 

praying the hours is an antidote to this forgetful world.” (p. 66, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“if you have children, let them catch you praying.

share these short remembrances of God with them.

let them discover your own yearning for prayer

as a treat you quietly prioritize each day.

remember, you too are a child of God, beloved.” (p. 69, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

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