On Sunday, we wound up with only 20 minutes for Sunday school, so I had to prioritize our lesson. We acted out the story of St. Martin, whose feast day is this week, about the time that St. Martin was a mounted soldier who rode past a beggar calling out to him because of the cold. St. Martin got down from his horse, tore his military cloak in half, and gave half to the beggar, who later revealed himself in a dream to be Christ. Then we spent a few minutes losing and finding the sheep. As the kids were digging in the sand to find the tiniest lost sheep, I told them that God never stops looking for us. Then we thought about some of the ways that sheep get lost. We wound up wondering what a sheep would do if a dragon came after them. It turns out, we have a lot of dragon repellents in our faith. I pretended to be the dragon and told the kids to make their cross. They did, and it froze me in my tracks. Then I asked who had taken Communion. They raised their hands, and when I looked at them, I couldn’t see them. Lightning shot out from their faces, blinding me. The children decided to take advantage of my (the dragons) incapicity to pelt me (it) with the stuffed sheep, making their crosses and showing me their faces when I turned towards them.
This might seem like a silly game, but what I was teaching the children was straight out of patristic texts about spiritual warfare and the life of faith. Our baptisms make our faces unbearably bright to wicked things, and Holy Communion causes grace to shoot out from our mouths like lightning. Making the sign of the Cross runs off all sorts of evil.
When we got home from an after-church hike yesterday evening, I started thinking about the handful of texts that frame my approach to teaching children about the faith. They’re not equally simple to access, but they all play a strong role in my thinking and guide me in helping children connect to the faith, even on the fly, even when we’re pressed for time or need to battle dragons. Here they are, with Amazon affiliate links, in case you would like to pick up some of these foundational books for winter reading. I highly recommend that you buy them in these modern translations, but there are free antiquated versions available online if you search.
St. Athanasius ON THE INCARNATION OF THE WORD
This book is one of the most accessible explanations of the ancient and Orthodox view of salvation. It has concrete metaphors to describe God’s mercy, which is fitting for a book whose premise is that God meets us where we can find Him. It even answers sticky questions if you endure to the later chapters, such as why Christ died a violent death instead of via old age. (It was in order to end the cycle of violence by conquering death by death.) *If you only buy or read one book from this list, read this one.*
St. Athanasius THE LIFE OF ST. ANTHONY THE GREAT
Even if the idea of desert asceticism sounds distant and frightening to you, you as a Christian in the modern, magical thinking world ought to read this book. It contains stories of spiritual hope, examples of spiritual warfare, and it totally overthrows the “name it and claim it” nonsense that convinces so many that they don’t have faith, encouraging us instead to imitate Christ. It’s our virtues that we work out with Christ’s help, and working wonders is Christ’s alone. I love this book because I have gone through some scary times, and it’s a Good Wins book. There are also lovely one-liners, such as St. Anthony’s closing advice that “Christ be as the air you breathe.”
St. Augustine of Hippo THE CITY OF GOD
This book is huge, but here’s why I love it. It shows us how to read history looking for Christ. It shows us how all the ills of this world are mended in Christ. It shows us how to not fall into the trap of thinking we are to choose from one propaganda or another as guides to the Christian life. Rather, our citizenship is in heaven, and Christ is the touchstone for testing the worth of everything we encounter in this life. It’s also one of St. Augustine’s most pastoral works outside his sermons.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem CATECHETICAL LECTURES AND MYSTOGOGICAL LECTURES
These catechetical lectures are sheer joy to me. I have read them aloud several times over the years. Besides restoring joy and hope, these talks given to catechumens in Jerusalem on location at holy sites also teach typological reading of scripture, the way of discerning Christ in the whole Bible for our salvation that makes mercy so available to us in all of scripture. One of my favorite passages is on the Cross, where St. Cyril tells us that Christ was pierced in the side to heal the sins of Eve, who was taken from the first Adam’s side. If you thought that was beautiful, wait until you read about the sacraments in the Mystogogical Lectures! There you will find such poetic beauty in the healing of the world that you will carry hope with you unshakably.
St. Gregory of Nyssa ASCETICAL WORKS
Okay, this is a collection rather than one work. But repeated throughout is the deeply emotionally intelligent path to participation in God with our desires, our bodies, our intellect, our affections and tameable passionate faculties of the soul, all with a sure hope that God is with us and will continue to draw us nearer eternally as we seek Him. It’s hard to pick one passage to highlight, but I will point out something very needful: St. Gregory shows us how to direct grief, regret, and past dissolution back towards the wholeness that we were made for that can only come about or find its fulfillment in communion with God in Christ. (This volume includes the treatises On Virginity, On What it Means to Call Oneself a Christian, On Perfection, On the Christian Mode of Life, The Life of St. Macrina, and On the Soul and Resurrection.)
St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) FIVE THEOLOGICAL ORATIONS
Not only will you read the humbling description of what is required for attempting theology, but there are such high views of the union of God and humans here that, like lembas bread, a small morsel will fill your stomach for days. I come back to these exalted beauties whenever I want to know something too big for me to understand but that grows my love and hope and faith and joy just by my trying. Imagine: the fullness of the Godhead in the human heart. Wow.
St. John Chrysostom BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS
St. John Chrysostom will show you practical virtue like no one else. If you have a struggle with vanity, swearing, spectacles, even boredom, you’ll find direct medicine in the advice in the catechetical lectures. Where St. Cyril focuses on connecting the dots with Christ’s life and the Creeds and the whole of salvation history, St. John Chrysostom shows you how to live in a manner that suits the love and power of God in Christ. He doesn’t pull his punches, y’all. But his are wounds that heal. When it comes to the Mystogogical instructions, which are explanations of the sacraments to the newly baptized, St. John C greets the people with such tenderness and love that you will pine for the days when Christians welcomed each other like newborn babies, with sweetened milk and softest pillows.
Those seven will do for now. We have other books we read in our family, of course, and I love lots of other patristic texts. But for teaching faith to children, I find that I go back to these seven over and over again. Which old books (besides the Bible) are foundational for you when you teach?
Don’t forget to check out my book, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability to learn a lot more about best practices to include all learners.