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Teaching about prayer and St. Gregory Palamas
The second Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to one of the great luminaries and Fathers of the Church: Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. St. Gregory is considered an Ecumenical Teacher of the Church and a great theologian. He was an ardent defender of the Orthodox Faith and thus the second Sunday of Lent is viewed as an extension of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. In St. Gregory Palamas, the Church also celebrates the virtue of prayer, the main characteristic of a true Christian. Indeed, prayer is, and should be, the central key in our life, cultivating and maintaining our personal relationship with God. Therefore, the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas presents an excellent opportunity to teach about prayer. This webpage contains not only material for teaching about the Saint himself, but also for exploring the Orthodox approach to prayer.
At the end of the lesson, the children should be able to:
- Explain that praying is talking to God and that God always hears our prayers and answers them in His own way.
- Explain that, in order for us to connect and listen to God, we must make an effort to be silent and still.
- Demonstrate “silent and still”.
- Name one thing we can pray for.
- Name a prayer rope.
- Point to St. Gregory on the icon and say his name. Explain that he taught us that we should be quiet and still when we pray.
Older children should additionally be able to:
- Say a few basic facts from St. Gregory’s life.
- Name the types of prayer giving an example of each.
- Recite the Jesus prayer.
- Demonstrate how to use a prayer rope.
Teaching this lesson for a number of years, we have collected a variety of activities which we are listing below. They are too many to do in one sitting, so it is best to pick and choose the ones that will work for the children you are ministering to.
St. Gregory Palamas
Using our printable packet above, the children can:
- Explore the life of the Saint filling in a fact sheet.
- Play a board game to explore the Saint’s life, work, and teaching.
- Make a craft based on the Saint’s icon.
For the digital classroom, we have created:
– A review quiz on basic facts from the Saint’s life.
– A digital board game to explore the Saint’s life, work, and teaching that you can use if you come up with your own questions.
We are listing below a couple of hands-on activities that can help younger children grasp the concept of silence in prayer.
Sort the sounds
Small, colorful, opaque containers (plastic Easter eggs are a good option), are mixed together in a larger container. The small containers are filled with different items, such as buttons, jingle bells, pennies, paper clips, beans, rice, cotton balls, play dough, cheerios. The children are offered numbered paper cups, as many as the containers, positioned in numerical order.
The children work independently or in groups. They have to shake each container to determine if it makes a big or a small sound. They have to place the eggs inside the cups in order, from the loudest to the quietest. When they are finished, they are offered a solution key, to check their answers for themselves, and make any necessary corrections.
The activity ends with a reminder that God’s voice is a very small sound, and we need to be very quiet to listen to it. Everybody then demonstrates how we can stay quiet and still. The activity can end with quietly saying a prayer after the children reach the desired state of stillness.
Can you hear God’s whisper?
The teacher instructs the group to make a lot of noise. While this is happening, the teacher says something very softly – but nobody can hear. The teacher then guides the group into becoming completely quiet and still. S/he repeats what was previously said, and now everyone can hear. A discussion follows, concentrating on God’s voice being a very small sound that requires silence in order to be heard. At the end of the activity, a quiet prayer is recited.
Types of prayer
Introducing the topic
From the printable packet, the teacher has printed out the large illustrations of the different kinds of prayer. S/he first presents them to the group, then invites the children to think of examples from their own lives.
- A prayer that says “Thank you” to God.
- A prayer asking God to help someone else.
- A prayer asking God for His blessing or protection.
- A prayer that says “I love you” to God.
- A prayer that says “I’m sorry”.
We have found that an effective way to present this topic is by using a hand puppet. You can either buy a ready-made hand puppet or make your own puppet out of a sock. You don’t need to have a complicated script, just have the puppet say what you would want to say yourself. Having the puppet say wrong or outrageous things that you or the children then get to correct always makes a big impression.
For the digital classroom, we have created a slideshow of the different types of prayer.
The activities below use the prayer type picture cards that can be found in the printable packet.
Prayer bag or box
Print out and cut up a few copies of the prayer picture cards. For sturdiness, use card stock, premium printer paper or laminate the cards. Mix them up in an opaque bag or in a box, then have each child pick a card without looking. The child has to come up with a prayer that matches the picture on the card s/he picked. This activity can also be turned into a take-home challenge. The child gets to keep the card, with the instruction to say this specific prayer during the week and bring the card back next time to earn a small prize.
Each child gets a copy of the prayer cards. S/he writes a prayer on the back of each card, relevant to the picture in the front. Younger children can draw pictures. Holes are punched on one corner of the cards, and the cards are bound together using a loose-leaf binder ring or a piece of ribbon. The children are encouraged to use their prayer booklets at home.
Both the prayer type picture cards and their descriptions are printed from the printable packet and cut out. For sturdiness, use card stock, premium printer paper or laminate the cards. Printing on the white (back) side of scrapbooking paper will produce cards with a pretty design on the back. Lay the cards face down. Each child gets to pick up two cards, with the aim to pair a picture with its description. If the child doesn’t find a pair, the cards are flipped over and the next child takes a turn. If the child does find a pair, and in order to keep it, s/he has to come up with a specific prayer that matches the type of prayer in the pair. When all the cards are collected, winner is the child with the largest number of cards.
For the digital classroom, we have created a digital version of the memory game. To play, the teacher shares his/her screen and asks the children to direct him/her in flipping over the digital cards. If the cards are not positioned well on your screen, you can change their position by modifying the size of the browser window.
Jesus prayer and the prayer rope
Introducing the topic
Show a real prayer rope and demonstrate the Jesus prayer. The puppet can, again, be useful here. The children then get to try holding the prayer rope and saying the prayer (longer or shorter version, depending on their age).
Prayer rope craft
- A printout of the relevant page from the printable packet.
- Black and/or colored paper streamers
The child cuts small pieces out of the streamer and crumples them up into tiny balls. S/he then gets to glue the balls on the prayer rope that is pictured on the printout.
Jesus Prayer scramble
The Jesus Prayer cards from the printable packet are printed and cut out, one pack of cards for each child. The child has to put the cards in the correct order to complete the Jesus prayer. This can be turned into a mini race with small groups competing against each other to see who can finish first.
For the digital classroom, we have created two versions of a digital word scramble:
– Version 1 (can be used to teach the prayer in parts)
– Version 2 (please note that in the phrase “me, a sinner” the words “me” and “a” are together in the same line).
We have come across a very useful non-Orthodox, Christian ministry blog called Flame: Creative Children’s Ministry, that contains numerous creative ideas for exploring prayer with children, and we definitely recommend checking it out. We especially liked the following:
SAINT GREGORY PALAMAS
St. Gregory Palamas was born in Constantinople in 1296, in a pious and wealthy family. He was very intelligent and highly educated; however, he quickly turned away from the rich and illustrious life of an imperial counselor that his family’s connections could offer him, choosing instead to dedicate himself to the monastic life at Mount Athos in Greece. He stayed there for a number of years, being guided by important Elders such as St. Nicodemus of Vatopedi and Elder Nicephoros the Hesychast. As a monk, he made rapid spiritual progress, for he very zealously put into practice the fundamental virtues of obedience, humility, meekness, fasting, and vigil. He also learned and practiced the unceasing prayer of the hesychasts.
Because of the threat of Turkish invasions, some years later St. Gregory moved to Thessaloniki, where he was ordained a priest, thereafter combining his priestly duties with the monastic life. Later on, he became Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He wrote extensively defending the Faith against heresies, and he is also known for delivering beautiful and moving sermons. St. Gregory’s time was a turbulent one in Church history, and thus he endured persecutions, imprisonment, and even torture. Towards the end of his life, he was granted the gift of wonderworking. He reposed on November 14, 1358, and was canonized nine years later. Together with St. Demetrios the Myrrh-Gusher, he is considered patron Saint of Thessaloniki.
St. Gregory Palamas’ significance for the Church
St. Gregory Palamas is numbered among the great theologians and has been named an Ecumenical Teacher of the Church. He successfully opposed the main representatives of the heresies of Pantheism and Agnosticism – Varlaam of Calabria and Akindynos of Bulgaria. He also documented details of the Theotokos’ life that were not recorded in the Gospels. His works were upheld in a series of Synods, and were integrated in the teachings of the Church.
It is worth exalting the contribution of St. Gregory Palamas in the theology of the Church concerning:
- The distinction between the essence and the energies of God; his work proved that divine Grace is not created, rather it is the uncreated energies of God which are poured forth throughout creation. Therefore, even though man cannot participate in the essence of God, he can come in genuine communion with God by participating in His uncreated energies.
- The tradition of hesychasm, the state of acquiring an inner stillness of the heart combined with ceaseless prayer; his teaching helped establish hesychastic prayer as the main path to the achievement of union with God.
Apolytikion of St. Gregory Palamas – Plagal of the Fourth Tone
You are a guide of Orthodoxy, a teacher of piety and modesty, a luminary of the world, the God inspired pride of monastics. O wise Gregory, you have enlightened everyone by your teachings. You are the harp of the Spirit. Intercede to Christ our God for the salvation of our souls.
Seasonal troparion – Plagal of the Fourth tone
O luminary of Orthodoxy, support and teacher of the Church, / ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians, / O wonderworker Gregory, boast of Thessalonika and herald of grace, / always intercede for all of us that our souls may be saved.
Listen to this troparion chanted by Fr. Apostolos Hill.
Kontakion of St. Gregory Palamas – Plagal of the Fourth Tone
With one accord, we praise thee as the sacred and divine / vessel of wisdom and clear trumpet of theology, / O our righteous Father Gregory of divine speech. / As a mind that standeth now before the Primal Mind, / do thou ever guide aright and lead our mind to Him, / that we may cry: / Rejoice, O herald of grace divine!
The Orthodox view on prayer
Even though the Orthodox tradition of hesychastic prayer has its roots in the Old Testament, it is mainly in the New Testament where it is presented as the most suitable way to experience God. Saint John the Forerunner, living secluded in the desert of the river Jordan in extreme ascesis, was granted the information that the Savior was coming (John 1:32-34). The Theotokos, living in the Temple of Solomon, and working in silence, ascesis and prayer, became the perfect vessel for the Incarnation of the Savior (Luke 1:26-38). Our Lord Jesus Christ lived in silence for thirty years, and when His mission began, He frequently withdrew to the desert to pray (Matthew 14:23; Matthew 19:13; Matthew 26:36; Matthew 26:39; Mark 1:35; Mark 6:46; Luke 3:21; Luke 5:33; Luke 6:12; Luke 9:18; Luke 9:28; John 17:1; John 17:6; John 17:20).
Our Lord not only advised us that we need to pray, but also instructed us on the proper way to pray (Matthew 6:5-9). The Epistles of the Apostles reiterate His commandments and strongly encourage a prayerful life (Romans 8:26, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Corinthians 13:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, James 5:13-16, 1 Peter 3:12, 1 John 5:14, Jude 1:19-21). The great fathers and ascetics of the Church have been experiencing this teaching in practice ever since the time of the Apostles. Concentrating on mental prayer with a contrite heart, and maintaining a strict ascetic life, they have been granted the unfathomable experience of seeing the Divine Light.
Saint Gregory Palamas taught that praying, and especially praying in the hesychastic manner, is the main duty not only for priests and monastics but also for faithful lay people. According to his own words, “when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, we can always pray mentally, as this is pleasing to God.” The Jesus Prayer has been passed down by the Church as the most important way to accomplish this desired state of unceasing prayer.
Types of prayer
There are as many types of prayer as there are situations in life. There are prayers of doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession.
Our prayer primarily addresses our Trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, in many situations we find ourselves praying to the Theotokos and the Saints. This prayer is different from the one addressing the Holy Trinity. It is an intercessory prayer, with which we are asking the Saints, as being closer to God than us, to intercede to Him on our behalf so that our prayer may be heard quicker. It is similar to asking our friends in real life to “put in a good word” for us to a person of high rank.
Besides praying for ourselves, we can also pray for someone else; this is considered a true act of love, a kind of almsgiving. We can pray for people we know or we don’t know, for the sick and for the reposed, for those who love us and especially for those who don’t. Even though it is tough, we can pray for those whom we don’t like ourselves. We can pray for anything and anyone in need – and everyone is in need of prayers!
Prayer is a divine gift, and indeed a gift that returns to us the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). As St. Gregory the Theologian says, prayer is for the soul what breathing is for life. St. Meletius the Confessor affirms, “Prayer needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.”
The Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer is a short phrase that is repeated for a number of times. The prayer rope (komboskini in Greek) is often used to help count the iterations. It can be prayed at any time or place and during any work. The full version is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and the shorter version: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
In the Gospels we find this phrase at least three times, when people in need cried out to Christ:
- The blind man at the side of the road in Jericho: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38)
- The ten lepers: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13)
- The Publican’s prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
According to Orthodox teaching, when recited continuously and with concentration, the Jesus Prayer gradually becomes integrated in the person’s heart, uniting him/her with God. One cannot progress in the Jesus Prayer individually; instead, it is important to seek the guidance of an experienced and discerning spiritual father.
- Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, Orthodox Church in America
- A Prayer Primer, + Fr. Thomas Hopko, Orthodox Church in America
- On Prayer, Saint Elder Paisios the Hagiorite
- How should I pray?, St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Greenville SC
- The Jesus Prayer, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- Why prayer matters, Be the Bee video series by the Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (Y2AM), Episode #95
- The key to prayer, Be the Bee video series by the Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (Y2AM), Episode #96
- Personal and devotional prayers, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
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