On St. Nicholas Day

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When my children were younger, this time of year was filled with dread of the inevitable question from well-meaning adults everywhere: “What do you want Santa to bring you?”.  A pretty universal holiday question, but a bit of a stumbling block for my kids.  Santa never brought them anything.  They didn’t believe in Santa.

Is Santa banned from my house?  Not at all.  We can (usually) name the reindeer, we appreciate a jolly man in a red suit, and we proudly display our so-hideous-it’s-glorious dancing Santa figure who shakes his hips to the tune of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”.  We have Santa in our house.  I just never taught my children that Santa Claus is a real person.  Just like I didn’t teach them that Elmo or Mickey Mouse are real.  Santa’s a real story.  He’s just not real.

Children don’t inherently believe in Santa.  They’re taught to believe, just like they’re taught the names of colors, how to cross the street, and how to share with their friends.  Children are born with instincts, not knowledge.  Parenting is adding that knowledge.  It’s years of the little daily monotonies and the giant life-changing crossroads.  It’s the useful little thing I teach them about how to play a new game as a child.  It’s the essential lesson I teach them about how to function as an adult.  Living is about daily adding to our experiences as a human being.  Even the painful things add something to how we understand the world around us.  The millions of tiny, raw and real moments together add up to a life.  There really is no taking away.  There’s only adding.  So, we didn’t take Santa away from our children, we just never added him into their lives.   

What we did add was the lives of the Saints, including the real person named St. Nicholas.  Saints’ lives are incredible stories.  The “so good they can’t be made up” kind of amazing stories.  Saints are real people with real experiences, successes, and failures.  The more we meet them through their biographies, the services written for them, and most importantly, through asking for their prayers, they cease being a story and become a living person.  We realize they are friends and family unlike any we have in this world.  They only want good for us, and their singular motive is love.  They have allowed God to work through them unhindered, and they are still very much alive in Christ and waiting to have a relationship with us.

Sure, I introduce all kinds of fictional stories to my children.  I’m a homeschooler.  It’s literally my job to read fiction to my children!  I read them nursery rhymes, and picture books, and novels.  I encourage them to play and imagine and dream.  I leave room in their schedules for unstructured imagination.  All of these things are good, but there is something even better.  I also read to them the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints.  I encourage them to have conversations with the Saints and get to know them personally.  I leave room in their schedules for God to step in and work in the lives of my children more than I could ever imagine.

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The Saints add so much value to our lives.  We share joy and sorrow together.  We worship God together.  We live in Christ together.  The impact they can have on our spiritual and physical life is so massive, addition no longer covers it.  Because that’s how love is.  It isn’t added.  It’s multiplied.

When I truly look at the depth of love that knowing a Saint like St. Nicholas adds to my children’s lives, my only response can be to do everything I can to clear their path to knowing him.  The holiday season starts as a blank slate.  We choose what we want to add to it.  Even when we think we don’t have a choice, we do.  If we don’t step up and control our lives, the world will do it for us, and the result is never pretty.  We decide what and who we invite into our celebration.

At Christmas time in my family, we hear stories about Santa Claus, but we meet a person named St. Nicholas.  If I taught my kids that Santa was real, I would someday have to take that belief away from them.  I would rather spend those few, precious years of childhood teaching them about the things they can believe for the rest of their lives and beyond.  Instead of creating an illusion of a false person, I would rather add the truth of relationships with real human beings to their lives, who they can meet and know and love forever.

So, on December 6th, we join with so many around the world and remember the great man of God named St. Nicholas.  We put coins in the shoes of the young ones to remember St. Nicholas’s love and compassion for everyone in need around him.  We take our kids to church and ask for St. Nicholas’s prayers, not his presents.  We teach our children to believe in a man worth believing in.

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Holy Father Nicholas, pray for my family today and always.  Do not give us presents of earthly things that will fade away.  Give us rather the gift of a heart that is open to seeing and receiving Christ.  In the manger, on the Cross, and in the Eucharist.  Today, on Nativity, and for eternity.  Help us to make the most of the remaining days of this Fast.  To prepare for the gift of the light in the darkness, so our joyful hearts may be ready to proclaim in one voice with you and all the Saints: Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

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Full of Grace

Today is the Feast of Annunciation.  I always try to do some type of flower related craft with Hilary on this day.  Who doesn’t enjoy giving flowers to their mother?  It just always seems like the perfect way to show love to the Mother of God on her Feast Day.

I decided that this year we would decorate the paper copies of the Kursk-Root Icon that we received when we visited it a few weeks ago.  The icon is not a standard size, so I didn’t have a frame that I could use as is.  I wanted to use what I already had, so I chose a wooden frame I love.  I didn’t want to do anything permanent, so I lightly tacked the icon onto the frame with hot glue, covering the hole.  Since it’s wood, the glue will just pop right off when I want to do something different with the icon.  I glued ribbon around the edges of the icon, creating the illusion that it was sitting in the frame.  Then, I added some silk and paper flowers, as well as some beads to finish it off.

 

 

 

 

 

For Hilary’s project, I attached the icon to the center of a piece of thick craft foam in the same temporary way that I did mine.  Then, I turned her loose with flowers and beads.

 

On this day, we remember a girl named Mary, who when faced with the unbelievable news that she would have a son, set a pure example for us of what it means to follow Christ.  It’s not about understanding what God asks us to do.  It’s not about agreeing with it, wanting to do it, or even seeing how we’re physically capable of accomplishing it.  It’s just listening to God.  Listening and doing what He asks.  God asks us things every day.  Sometimes they’re big and dramatic.  Sometimes they’re small and seemingly menial.  But they’re all there for a reason, if we’ll see it.  Each day and each time that we say “yes” to God, we see Him just a little more clearly.

As the snow softly falls on this Feast Day, I pray that the Mother of God, full of grace, will continue to show me how to listen and how to say “yes”.  Every day.  Every moment.

Lenten Spring

It’s the beginning of spring this week.  Or is it summer…I’m not sure.  Record breaking highs continue to throw my internal clock off.  I seem to still be waiting for the winter that never came.

Lent is positively rocketing by this year.  So much chaos in our life.  How much I welcome this week!  We are midway through the Fast now, and the Church, in her wisdom, takes this week to refocus us and prepare us anew for the remainder of the journey ahead.

The third Sunday of Lent is the Veneration of the Cross.  Just when the newness of the Lenten labors has officially worn off, we fall to our knees as the Cross is carried from the altar to the center of the church.  Prostrate, we sing: “Before Your Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Your Holy Resurrection, we glorify.”  Where is this Lenten journey going again?  Oh yes, this is a journey to the Cross.  One whose destination is not a tomb.

The Cross at church is always decorated with flowers.  Another bright pop of spring in the middle of what is usually still a dreary, and often snow covered, world outside.  We prostrate before our own Cross at home each night this week during evening prayers, so Hilary made a fitting place to honor the Cross we venerate.

The base of this craft is a paper plate turned upside down.  Not the thin plates, but the thicker ones that are almost like cardboard.  I conveniently had blue plates.  I cut out rectangles of tissue paper measuring approximately 1 1/2″ x 2 1/2″, rounding the ends.  Hilary layered four of the sheets, criss-crossing them.  Then, we picked up the sheets in the center of the bundle and “smooshed” them together from the bottom, letting the tops fall open as petals.  For the middle, Little Miss Pattern Girl chose to meticulously make a beaded series of concentric circles.  I happened to have this lovely cross from Russia that is the exact right size for the plate.

How fitting it is this year for the week of the Veneration of the Cross to fall at the same time as the first day of spring.  The arrival of the cross bolsters us spiritually, and the arrival of the new season elevates us physically and emotionally.  Life and newness are everywhere.

Per our tradition, we celebrated the first day of spring with an egg hunt and other festivities.  Spring coloring pages.  Asparagus for dinner.  A walk outside.  This is the day when we get the bunny-and-chick-laden Easter decoration frenzy out of our systems.  Spring is spring.  Pascha is Pascha.  Nothing wrong with cute bunnies, but they are not the meaning of the Feast of Feasts, so we choose to separate the two events.

When Hilary got home from ballet, she discovered that the backyard was filled with eggs.  (Mental note: do not instruct teenagers to hide eggs when you’re not around.  One will have an exceptionally bad attitude and “hide” her half out in the open, not even leaving the deck, and the other one will get so into it, we can’t find them all…except for the ones he mysteriously placed in mud puddles.)  We usually have another egg hunt on Pascha with candy-filled eggs, but since gorging on candy is not the best Lenten activity, I fill the eggs this time with pennies.  I don’t bother to count to make sure it’s the right amount, but the point is that at the end of the hunt, Hilary can trade in her pennies for more manageable money to take to the gas station down the street and buy a frozen drink, which is the prize above all prizes to her.

Halfway to Pascha.  Time to tighten up any observance that has grown slack.  Time to take a deep breath and ride on the push of a second wind.  Time to kneel down in body and fall down in repentance of heart.  Welcome, welcome Lenten spring!

A Child’s Lesson on St. Gregory Palamas

Praying in a dark church is about the only time I believe that lack of electricity can be a good thing.  As I stood in the chapel of the monastery on Saturday night, a chapel with no electric lights, the word “vigil” moved from being just the name of a service to the desire of my soul.  A few candles flickered, the icons were just shapes and shadows, and the monotone of the monks’ chanting spread a warmth that started in my chest and flowed out to the tingling of my fingertips.  In the darkness, it was easy to let the tears flow, those tears that are a gift.  The tears that come when prayer stops being a rote exercise and begins at the beginning; at the Light that never knows darkness.

Our family had planned to make this pilgrimage together, but it was not to be.  So, I made the trip alone.  Alone with my thoughts in the car…what a rarity!  Alone in the church with no eyes in the back of my head making sure my children are as they should be…what a change of focus!  Alone in the darkness, even though I wasn’t alone.  Open and vulnerable before God, yet at the same time supported by the prayers of the pilgrims and monks around me.  This is what prayer looks like.  This is what prayer feels like.  Not my head, but my heart.

I made this pilgrimage to remember the man for whom this monastery is dedicated.  On the second Sunday of Lent, we remember St. Gregory Palamas.  St. Gregory Palamas was a monk and bishop in the 14th century.  He never went looking for attention, but attention found him when he used his insight and eloquence to defend prayer.  The true prayer of the heart.  The first Sunday of Lent is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, because it remembers the restoration of icons to the churches and the confirmation of the truth of Orthodox belief.  St. Gregory established a triumph of his own, denouncing the claim that God cannot be met through contemplative prayer.  Reaffirming that the still, small voice of God is heard when we make our minds get out of our own way and let our hearts pray like they are already burning to do.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, yes, I want You as Lord and Master of my life, Son of God, the true Son of the Father, the one who became man, so that we may become God, have mercy on me, come save me Lord, quickly, quickly for I perish, a sinner, the chief of sinners…the very first.

As I drove home in the darkness (note to self: perhaps going to vigil at a monastery a fair distance from home on the night the time changes and we lose an hour is probably not the best idea…even though it was totally worth it),  I thought about what I could do with Hilary to explain the remembrance of this Sunday.  How to explain the deepest depths to a child, when I have yet to begin to even fathom them?  But maybe it’s not that hard.  If there are any people who understand simplicity of heart, it’s children.  They don’t have the baggage and the walls and the collective junk that adults pile up around their hearts.  At times, we go out of our way to sever the connection between mind and heart.  That pesky heart.  Too raw, too vulnerable.  Must shove it deep, deep down and rely on rationality.  The mind, it’s so much safer, because it thrives in an illusion that we are in control.

Kids lay it all out there with their hearts.  Heart and mind…one big joyful jumble.  So, I taught Hilary about the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas with this illustration.  First, I summarized St. Gregory’s life.  Then, we talked about the story of Elijah and the still, small voice.  And what does it mean to hear God in the stillness?  The lesson went a little something like this:

O.K.  We know we hear God in the stillness.  Are we usually still and quiet?  No.  Life is loud.  People talking.  Places to go, go, go.  Fruit Ninja on the Kindle.  Yet another episode of Wild Kratts on t.v.  Noisy, noisy.  Now, your brother is going to say a number.  Follow me and do what I do.  Tell me when you hear the number.  (We marched around the room clapping and talking and singing loudly, “La, la, la, la.  Noise.  Noise.  Noise.)  So, what was the number bubby said?  What, you didn’t hear it?  Yeah, it’s hard to hear God when we’re so busy and filling our heads with words and pictures and sounds.  Let’s try again.  Let’s act like we’re in church.  We stand very still in church, right?  We should be able to hear God then.  (We stood still, but I again sang loudly, “La, la, la, la.  Noise.  Noise.  Noise.)  What, we still didn’t hear the number?  But we were still, so what went wrong?  Just standing still or standing in church doesn’t mean we’re really listening to God and being still in our hearts.  We can have our heads full of thoughts about where we’re going after the service, what’s good to eat at coffee hour, and all kinds of other noise.  Let’s try one more time.  Let’s sit down and not move any part of our body.  Take a couple breaths in and out.  Now, let’s not talk.  This time, let’s say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  (Say the Jesus Prayer out loud a couple times, and then stop, directing the child to keep saying the prayer silently).

The difference between the silence and the noise of the previous two times was profound.  It was quieter than quiet.  It was still.  “Thirty-four”, my son’s voice seemed to boom, even though he was just speaking in the normal voice he had used the other two times.  We heard him!  Hilary’s face broke into a beaming smile.  Mind and heart.  Loud and still.  On her level, it made sense.  God, help her not to lose the sound of the stillness, and help me to find it again.

To finish up our lesson, we made a giant version of a prayer rope.  I cut circles out of black paper and had Hilary write the words of the Jesus Prayer on contrasting blue rectangles, one word for each bead.  Thus, the giant size.  I knew that there was only so small that my six year old could write, so I sized the craft accordingly.  This is a 12″ x 12″ piece of paper with 1 1/2″ diameter circles.  I used my paper cutting machine, but that’s not necessary.  Child-cut circles and cross would be lovely.  Excessive use of rhinestones and glue is also not necessary or even recommended.  That’s just Hilary.  I think she’s biologically incapable of leaving anything unadorned.

The Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas is a day to remember what we often forget.  The stillness.  The heart.  It’s all there.  It’s just up to us to remember where we left it, buried it, and forgot it.

Pray for me, Father Gregory.  Teach me to pray in the stillness of my heart.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there even is any stillness to find.  Pray for me as I pray.  In the quiet, in the dark, in the smallest of voices, I cry out to God, and He hears me.  He hears my prayer.

 

Free Prayer of St. Ephraim Unit Study

Update: This item is currently not available. 

During Lent, the bulk of Hilary’s homeschool curriculum will be a unit study I’m developing on the Prayer of St. Ephraim.  I want to share what we’re doing as a free resource with anyone else who might find it useful.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to post it in parts as we live it and I develop it.  Stick with me!  🙂

Could I ask a favor?  Please share this with anyone you think might be interested.  Help me get the word out through social media and good old fashioned word of mouth.  This will be a truly rough version, but if there’s an interest, I’m all for developing written resources as an expansion of Orthodox Christian Craft Supply.  Let me know what you’d like to see!

Thanks!
 

 

 

For My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

Today is the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, also known as the Presentation of Christ, in the Temple.  On this day, forty days after His birth, Christ was brought to the Temple by His parents, fulfilling the Law for all firstborn males.

Yesterday, we spent much time preparing for the Feast.  And in our preparations, I could only smile at the mixed up medley of smoothness and chaos.

Hilary and I began the day by driving to a little artisan bakery to pick out just the right five loaves for the Litya at Vespers.  Then, we bought a vibrant bouquet of tulips to set before the icon of the Theotokos.  We traveled to multiple stores to buy supplies to make candles to be blessed on the Feast.  We labored to make those candles.  We went to church and prayed at Vespers.  We immersed ourselves in the Feast for virtually the entire day.  Then, as we prepared our candles to bring to Liturgy in the morning, we talked about the names of the Great Feasts.  Hilary struggled to place the significance of each one, so I helped her remember and categorize them.  When we got to the Meeting of the Lord, I said:

“This one is easy, right?  This one we know a lot about.  What happened on this Feast?”

“Uh…uh…well, somebody met the Lord, and then…uh…uh…somedbody ascended???

I had to laugh.  All that preparation, and Hilary seemingly still had no clue what we were doing.  But you know, I don’t really think that’s true.  Teaching our kids about the Faith is all about layers.  It doesn’t happen in one day or one year.  It’s a lifetime of layer upon layer of grace.  What we’re laying now as a family is the foundation.  Every prayer, every feast, every merciful moment will build on that foundation.  It doesn’t have to be perfect right now.  This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

On the Meeting of the Lord, candles are traditionally blessed.  In the prayers at the blessing, we are reminded that it is Christ who enlightens our darkness.  The burning fire of His glory consumes us with His pure brightness.  Like candles, we glow and flicker for the love of God.

This year, we made some homemade candles to have blessed.  I wanted them to be simple and of Hilary’s design.  We decided to make twelve small candles, one for each of the Great Feasts.

First, we melted paraffin and filled miniature terracotta pots with the wax.

Hilary wrote the names of the Feasts on strips of paper, and we glued them to the tops of the pots.  She chose red beads to glue to the pots for the Feasts of Christ, and blue beads for the Feasts of the Theotokos.  We painted a wooden tray to hold the candles and finish off the project.

The second project started off as a hit, because we bought little cartons of chocolate milk to use as molds.  This time, we added a crayon to the wax as it melted for color.  As we filled up the carton mold, we alternated layers of wax with layers of crushed ice.  When it cooled, it was supposed to look like this.  Yeah, that didn’t work out so well.

The idea is to end up with a candle peppered with textured holes and interesting crevices.  Our candles had about three holes apiece, so it basically just looked like we either dropped the candle or just don’t know how to pour.

But that is what Feast Day crafts are all about.  I love doing crafts with my children.  I enjoy researching and imagining and buying supplies to create lovely, functional, classy pieces of art.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging kids to strive for beauty.  Sometimes, the beauty comes not from the success, but rather the failure, the attempt, or the totally unexpected randomness of working with children.  So, one of our projects was a flop.  So, my daughter chose grey as the oh-so-fetching color for the flowers on the candle tray.  So, she whined that she was bored and wanted to quit and then got flaming mad that I finished one of the things without her.  So, she can’t, at age six, spout out the names and origins of every feast and every saint in the Church calendar.  So what?

Celebrating feasts is not always smooth.  It doesn’t always go as planned.  But embracing the mishaps and turning them over to God as part of the celebration is one of the greatest blessings of all.

Today, we sang of the elder Simeon, who was overcome by the emotion of holding the burning coal of God’s fire in his arms.  Who lived and waited and watched for the Savior, and in that moment, found Him.  Who embraced who?  Who met who that day?  A babe forty days old on his Mother’s side and eternal on His Father’s side, was presented to the world for us and our salvation.  Truly, truly Lord, you have brought us from darkness to Light.

What a lovely celebration we had today.  A special Feast.  We shared the experience of creating something to be blessed.  Throughout the year, we’ll return to these candles as we burn one on each of the twelve Great Feasts.  We’ll remember the day and the laughs and the love that filled our hearts as we celebrated.  We’ll give glory to God for meeting us in these moments, and we’ll present ourselves to Him as offerings.  Though we may be lopsided or off-color or mismatched, we offer it all to God.

Praying with and for my family.  Lighting a candle in the darkness.  Embracing the gift of love.  A joyous, joyous Feast.

Happy New Year!

Today is the Church New Year.  As fall approaches and the calendar year begins to wind down, it’s an interesting counterpoint to have a beginning.  We had a lovely service at church today and spent time contemplating the old and the new.

The Church New Year is a time to reflect.  Since last September 1st, have I drawn closer to God?  Have I taken full advantage of the cycle of fasts and feasts?  Have I let them change me?  It isn’t about empty resolutions to lose weight or change habits.  It’s about relationship.  Lord have mercy on me for not loving You fully this year.  Give me the strength to do so this year!

To help Hilary understand the feast, we talked about how every day is a chance to seek God.  To not pull away.  New Year’s Eve is a big event in our house.  I don’t know what it is, but the kids just love staying up late and welcoming the new year.  To bring back that fond memory, we had a party for a new year of a different kind.

I got the idea for a New Year’s banner from this site.  Hilary loved methodically gluing sequins to felt.  Her enthusiasm lasted till about letter “P”!  We worked together, though, and came up with one seriously cute decoration.

Whenever I craft with kids, I’m reminded that it’s not about perfection.  This sign is really, really, really not perfect.  But it’s a Hilary original (with some help from me), and that’s just the way it should be.  I had plans to make a party hat and noisemaker in matching shiny, sequin-covered cuteness.  Hilary didn’t want that, though.  She wanted to do the crown her way, and she didn’t want to decorate the noisemaker at all.  That’s what makes crafting with kids fun.  It might never end up looking exactly like your idea or the picture, but if you let your kids lead, it will end up looking just like them.  That’s much better anyway!

Holy Tradition tells us that on this day, Christ entered the Temple and read the words of Isaiah 61, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because of which He anointed Me.  He sent Me to proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to declare the acceptable year of the Lord, the day of recompense, and to comfort all who mourn.”

He is the One Who makes all things new.  What a happy, happy new year!