I promised a while back I would share what is happening within our church Sunday School program. It is a long story, one which is just in the opening chapter of being written, but I will try to share what I can. A few years ago a friend asked me if I knew anything about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I did not, but promptly began to search the internet. Sadly, information seemed sparse. I could not get a handle on what it was. I also only saw it within the context of the Catholic and Episcopalian faiths. I was not aware of the existence of an Orthodox church using the program. I did however like the use of objects and figures to aid in sharing the faith. That, along with my love for Waldorf methods, led me to purchase a few items to use with my children, and also inspired the creation of my Holy Week Boxes.
All of this was simmering in my mind, as well as numerous conversations with our church school director over her frustrations with the current Sunday School curriculum. We both were blessed to travel to Pennsylvania last March for the St. Emmelia Conference (planning to be there again this year, hope to see some of you there!). It was there that we attended a presentation and workshop on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd within the Orthodox church. We were blown away. I admit, I had my reservations at first. As a classical method homeschooler, I was not a fan of Montessori education, and CGS is based on Montessori methods. But our director was sold. Her enthusiasm was contagious and by the time we got home, we were conspiring on how in the world we could manage to get trained and implement this program. It was a daunting task. Training for Level 1 (children ages 3-6) involved roughly 3 weeks of intensive coursework, not to mention the long term commitment from our parish for the implementation of this program and the talents of many parishioners to create the necessary materials. We were greatly blessed that our priest, after hearing an explanation of the program, was as excited as we were. We all saw this as an opportunity to truly raise a group of children in our church in an Orthodox way; using all of the senses, apealling to the heart of each child, presenting opportunity after opportunity for each child to fall in love with Christ, perhaps taking a journey with these children that would lead both us and them to true heart prayer with God.
"Catechesis", also from the Greek, means "oral instruction, to teach by word of mouth". That defines the Orthodox faith in so many ways. That is one of the ways we are so different from the Protestant church. We uphold Scripture as Holy, infallible, the Word of God. We also have preserved and passed down the oral tradition of Christ and the disciples for millenia. After all, it wasn't until the third century that the New Testament came to exist in its recognized format. What did those amazing Christians of the first few centuries rely upon? These are the men and women under Nero, Decius, Diocletian, the faithful who were torn to pieces by animals, burned alive, beheaded for their undying love for Christ. They did it all without a Bible. How did they learn the faith? Oral tradition. The handing down of precious words, the passing on of Holy Truths. The instilling of a burning love for Christ and a desire to give all for Him.
So, how do we carry on that oral tradition? And how do we reach the hearts of our children? How do we teach them more than knowledge? As a parent and teacher, I can make my children learn their multiplication tables. I can stand over them and require they read a book. I can make them learn a scientific formula. I can even teach them the "rules" and the "catechism" of the faith. I will never be able to make them love God. I can only pass along the faith, and pray that it reaches their heart. Catechesis is a method of presenting love for God that seeks to reach that heart. It zeros in on the things that appeal to the heart and senses of a child. It teaches them of the deep love Christ has for them as their Good Shepherd, one who cares for them, loves them always, knows them by name, and will leave all others to go find them when they are lost.
And it cannot be passed on through two-color printed pamphlets, or memory work, or the parroting back of answers for a teacher. It must be passed on in an intimate manner, soul to soul, and it affects the teller as much as the listener. Each time I prepare to enter the room, to hand down another tiny and amazing piece of our faith, I am humbled. I do not carry the faith these little ones have. I do not have the same wonder about the creation they still possess. I must work to remember to give thanks for the things that delight a child. And as I watch a 4 year old hold a tiny mustard seed in her hand, and ask me over and over again to read from scripture the parable of the mustard seed, and I watch as she stares at that seed, contemplates it, composes songs about its journey from tiny seed buried deep in the earth to great branches spreading forth for the birds, I deeply feel the words of Matthew 18:3:
"Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
This catechesis is as much for me as it is for them.
If you are interested in more information about catechesis in the Orthodox church, you can go here. Under the direction of her priest and with the blessing of Bishop JOSEPH, Seraphima Butler has been a pioneer, working for nearly 10 years to become trained in these methods while adapting them to the Orthodox faith. I also hope to continue to share a few more bits and pieces of my experience soon. You might also want to sign up for the online Orthodox conference hosted by Illumination Learning, where Seraphima will be speaking about CGS in the Orthodox church.
Last week was full of emotion. I already shared part of the story. There is a piece I left out. Through the sadness and joy of last week, I also read One Thousand Gifts, a heartfelt and emotional journey of one woman discovering joy in giving thanks for ordinary, everyday life. As I cried over intimate descriptions of mothers losing children, cradling death in their arms, I could not help but think of those I know who have lost children, close friends, my sister. My mind drifted to my Uncle, who held my aunt as she lost their unborn baby, and he nearly lost her in the process. Next morning, I drove down icy roads, the cold air making me gasp as I got out of the car. Walking across the parking lot, I could see my breath, heavy in the air, lingering about my face. I stood in a dark, cold church with my children while we read the words of the Gospel, standing vigil over one who no longer inhaled the life of this world. I came home to a blinking light on the answering machine. A message from my mom, I could hear the fear in her voice. I called back, knowing in my gut something was wrong. My cousin, oldest son of that same Uncle, was in the ICU. He couldn't breathe. My mind flashed to Ann's post about her niece, tiny newborn, struggling to breathe. My cousin is far from the frail and delicate girl swaddled in pink. He is a full grown man of 20, tall, handsome, dark hair and eyes, hands full of strength, body full of life. Then suddenly, he is as weak and frail as that tiny infant, he too is unable to inhale and exhale on his own, requires a machine to force oxygen in and out of his lungs, someone else must breathe for him. Unaware, unseeing, and everyone around him searching for answers.
I have been their once myself, in a strange hotel room, in a far away city, holding a toddler as she struggled for breath. My husband stood outside on a little fenced ledge from our second story window, not intended to be a balcony, and let the icy cold air help to calm her gasping, as she tried to get enough oxygen. I cradled her lethargic body in my arms while he searched an unfamiliar town at 2 in the morning for a drug store still open, to get the prescription needed to restore breath to her. Thankfully that was no more than an hour of watching our little one struggle, it was a small taste of the fear, nothing compared to this. It has been nearly a week now since he collapsed, and the infection coursing through his body is discovered, as doctors try to bring life and breath back to his body.
Family takes turns, watching over him, praying for him, waiting for answers. Several times a day my little girls come to me, asking for a candle to be lit, asking to say a prayer for this young man. And I am reminded of how fragile life is. We are all sick, filled inside with a dark ugly infection, and we never know what moment will be our collapse. That breath of life, first breathed into Adam at the beginning of time by the I AM, each of us holds in us. I pray that the one true Physician give me the gift of learning to breathe, and ask all of you to please pray that He will return the gift of breath to my loved one.
Friday evening I watched while nearly a dozen clergymen gathered to lay a brother to rest. A simple birch box, far more beautiful than any shining metal casket could be, contained flowing folds of green vestment. His hand gently cradled the blessing cross, with a gospel book at his side and face draped in honor and respect.
When cloth was removed, tears and kisses were gently laid on the cheek and forehead, a face which radiated peace, a face that shone with the light of God. The deep, somber and echoing notes of the Trisagion Hymn rang through the church as a thousand around him were being saved.
Saturday, I joined friends in celebrating their marriage, glowing bride, all in white, the color of Pascha. Over the past week my hands have slowly formed and molded the delicate sugar flowers to adorn their wedding cake, my mind filled with the mixture of bright sadness of preparing for a funeral and a wedding within hours of each other. It calls to mind another week of bright sadness, Paschal joy mixed with the death of my grandmother. This week, each evening is spent preparing, heart and soul pondering life's end, hands preparing for new life in marriage. One man receives a crown of glory in heaven, while another man and woman accept crowns of martyrdom to each other.
The bride carried calla lilies. I love creating calla lilies, as art imitates life, creation imitates creator, and I work sugar dough across the palm of my hand, gently but firmly stroking it until paper thin. Simple ingredients, eggs and sugar, mixed and kneaded. No cutter or mold to form this flower, simply the pressure of thumb into palm as the lily takes on its shape. Organic, elegant, each one is unique. As I watch them take shape, slowly furling the thin dough from flat into deep, intriguing spirals, I consider the calla lily. Modern, sophisticated some would say; gracing the cover of many a home design magazine. Elegant.Beautiful.Ironic, really. Our world and the way it assigns value to a thing. Why is a calla lily given such honor; because it is exotic? Expensive? Who decided the calla lily was more exalted than the countless ruffled petals of the common carnation?
I think back to college, semester after semester of Hispanic language, literature, and history courses. I remember the painters with whom I became intimately familiar; Diego Rivera and his frequent depiction of the calla. I vaguely recall a paragraph from some long forgotten piece of literature, telling of a young man in Mexico, head down, ashamed as he rode the bus. He was on his way to a funeral. He hugged an armful of calla lilies, the poor man's flower; embarrassed to carry a load of flowers many a bride clamors for here. Why? Because to him it is an ordinary flower. Ordinary. Everyday. Abundant, therefore of little value. How different his perspective is. What we see as beautiful, he sees as a sign of his poverty. What we exalt for its simple elegance, he sees as ugly, worthy of shame. Would we love the calla lily as much if it grew by the side of the road, if it was as inexpensive as the carnation? Familiarity breeds contempt. How easily we come to dislike the common, the everyday, the daily things of life. Rivera's paintings made use of calla lilies not for the beauty he saw in them as a flower, but for what they represented to him within his culture. They represent the "indigeno", the poorest of his society, the common, everyday man, and there he found beauty.
"It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation." Kathleen Norris
I think back to that priest, lying in his plain wooden box. His hands that now hold that cross were once accustomed to molding, creating from clay and pigment. He took ordinary things - clay, eggs, wood - and made them extraordinary. His years as an ordained priest were few. Never the opportunity for his own parish. In the last year too weak to serve the Eucharist, yet always he served. He served by reminding young moms what a blessing their children are. He served by offering a smile to everyone. He served by letting people know they mattered. He served by letting them know they had value. He served daily, in ordinary ways. I doubt there is anyone in our parish who was not at one time or another given a few simple words expressing his gratefulness for them. And the couple, newly married, must also now serve. They serve each other. They die to self everyday, by doing the everyday for each other. I am reminded of how often I fail to feel grateful for the daily: the piles of laundry, the ringing voices of my children, the husband who comes home late. How often I forget about the crown placed upon my head 16 years ago, how often I refuse to wear that crown. May God remind me to embrace the everyday rather than look for a way to avoid it. May we embrace the calla lily for its beauty, and the carnation as well.
"[it is a] kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the .. household, to the daily, we can rise above them." Kathleen Norris
22. kissing the face of one of God's saints
23. celebrating the marriage of my littlest ones' godfather to a beautiful woman
24. strong healthy lungs shouting "Mom"
25. a husband who comes home every night
26. unprompted "I love you" from a toddler
27. calla lilies and carnations
28. 8 hours of sleep
29. swollen burnt orange moon, glowing through a dark, misty night
30. spontaneous prayers from little ones
31. the deep somber voices of chanters who give of their time and talents to bless my worship
32. six giggly little girls dressed to match each other on a Sunday morning
Our community has lost a dedicated priest and someone who was such an enthusiastic encouragement to me in pursuing iconography. I am ever grateful for his role in arranging for the blessed visit of the Kursk Root Icon just one year ago. I will miss his gentle voice and his kind words of encouragement regarding my children. He certainly emulated his patron saint in striving for inner peace.
"Behold, the Lord will pass by, and before the Lord, a great and powerful wind will be rending the mountains and shattering the rocks; but the Lord will not be in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord will not be in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there will be a fire, but the Lord will not be in the fire. After the fire, there will be a sound of a gentle breeze, and the Lord will be there."
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she may help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. Luke 10:40-42