O light of Orthodoxy, pillar and teacher of the Church,
ideal of monastics and invincible champion theologian,
O wonder-working Gregory, boast of Thessalonica and herald of grace,
Forever pray to the Lord that our souls be saved.
Today is, of course, the second Sunday of Lent and the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas. It is wonderful to celebrate this pillar of our faith as we enter more deeply into lent and the challenges of keeping the fast. As troparia.com summarizes:
Saint Gregory is known as one of the great defenders of Orthodoxy and is most well known for his defense against the heresies of Barlaam. Gregory was asked to defend the Monastic ways of the Holy Mountain from the charges of Barlaam of Calabria, who, influenced by the Latin Church, believed that philosophy and human thought were the way to know God. Orthodoxy has always known, through the wisdom of the Holy Fathers, that prayer and fasting were the key to knowing God. Barlaam believed that the monks of Mount Athos were wasting their time in their prayers and fasting when they should be studying the great philosophers of mankind…(St. Gregory) taught the Orthodox knowledge that it remains impossible to know God in His essence or person. However, with sufficient prayer and fasting, and turning oneself over to God, through purification of one’s soul, anyone could come to know Him in His energies and being. (troparia.com)
Among the many gifts and insight St. Gregory has given us, his defense of the importance of fasting and prayer in coming to know God is a message as relevant today against modern thought as it was seven hundred years ago. And I think it is also probably one of the more accessible aspects of St. Gregory’s teachings for children, since we should probably save teaching about the “essence” and “energies” of God for older children. An interesting tidbit we can share with kids is that St. Gregory was a great student in school, one of the best. But he realized that even though school can be important, loving God, and learning about Him through praying and fasting, is the most important thing we can do.
Last year during Lent we made pretzels to begin our discussion of fasting, and I think it would be a great-tie in to learning about St. Gregory as well, as it combines learning about monks and monasteries with both fasting and prayer*. (If you are not familiar with the legend of the pretzel you can read more here. The pretzel is a most appropriate food symbol for Lent, as it shows the form of arms crossed in prayer, reminding us that Lent is a time of prayer, and consists only of water and flour, reminding us to fast). It was neat to see how making the pretzels got the children thinking about how all the yummy foods they enjoy often contain eggs, butter, etc, and how fasting entails abstaining from these favorite foods. (Pretzels can also be a tangible example and counterpoint to the rich breads we enjoy in celebration on Pascha.) For our lesson I used this little booklet (not the lesson on the web page, click on the pretzel for the pdf) as a group introduction first and it worked very well, as it is written in simple language but still imparts a lot of great information. I can’t find the recipe we tried, but this one could be used, as the butter can be omitted. I hope you enjoy!
*don’t worry, i realize the bit of irony that pretzels (most likely) originated in a western monastery, and I am using them to teach about our Eastern Orthodox saint’s contribution defeating a heresy from a western perspective regarding the way of the Eastern monastics! Interesting enough, though, I just read another bit of info about pretzels on wikipedia: “The looped pretzel may also be related to a Greek ring bread, derived from communion bread used in monasteries a thousand years ago.“-wikipedia. There is some more food for thought!