At St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church, is the Western Rite parish where I’m the Christian Ed director, I led a mini series on St. Brigid as part of a developing curriculum on Western Orthodox Saints. Though the song listed here is still in-progress (with future verses planned to reference the lives of the three other saints in the first verse), I include it here in honor of St. Brigid. I’m also working on additional acts for the little play-in-mini-skits that I have included below. The teaching includes the four main elements of accessibility: Sensory-Friendly Space, Sensory Anchor Props, Singing & Making a Joyful Noise, and Acting out the Story. This lesson built over two weeks, and we’ll circle around with a third lesson this coming week in Sunday school. As is my custom, I build out lessons over a few weeks, deepening and expanding them through the sensory anchors that center the discussion.
Start by putting together a calming area. Because I wasn’t certain of the group size and wanted to keep my classroom available as an away space due to the time of day (evening, when children might have a harder time self-regulating), I set up a makeshift tent in the hallway by pinning up some curtain panels and an old sheet. Why make a tent? 1.) Because flourescent lights are a sensory nightmare! The tent blocked the offensive flickers from the lights and dampened the sound somewhat, while allowing in plenty of light to see. 2.) Because it adds a sense of coziness and fun. 3.) More importantly, it connects our memories to the pan-historical Christian sense of being pilgrims on a journey with no lasting city here. The tent itself is a sensory anchor to Bible and saint stories as well as the ongoing story of holiness.
SENSORY ANCHOR PROPS
Since I wrote a little play with a mini-skit format, I built a small cabinet from a recycled shipping box, tape, and paint to go with it and serve as Brigid’s father’s storeroom. I filled the shelves with a few items from home to represent what would have been luxurious then: honeycomb, oranges, spices in little teabag twists, beeswax candles, a woolen scarf, a child’s kilt, a couple of velvet cloaks, a soft baby blanket, a little jar of lotion that I relabeled Healing Balm, a fancy fish pie, a faux fur wrap, a bag of fake gemstones, and a foam sword. On top of the cabinet, I placed the bodhran (Celtic hand drum) and scripts and songs. We also brought out some of the saint dressup clothes from my classroom for the King to wear.
Before we started the actual play, I told the children about how Brigid was not rich, living with her mother who was a milkmaid, but she was also the daughter of the local chieftain who was like a king in her area. Because of this, she had access to rich dairy products like butter from her mother as well as to the king’s storehouses as one of his children and servants. We passed around the rich spices for everyone to smell, and the children got to hold the jewels, too. Once we had looked at or touched and/or smelled everything in the storehouse, we started the play.
For the second week, the lesson was still under the tent, still included the song, but the goal shifted a little. I wanted to teach the children about the Benedictive (and Western Rite) value of STABILITY in Brigid’s life. We did this through gathering firewood. My assistants and I spread a small stack of firewood around the Narthex and hallway around the tent. At the beginning of the lesson, I had the children collect the firewood. We stacked it in the middle of our circle. Then I showed them modern firestarting implements (candle lighter, plasma lighter, firestarting waxed rope, matches, a candle [you can add flint and steel if you have it handy]). Then I tucked the basket of firestarters out of reach behind me, since they were not really options back in Brigid’s day. How could we get the fire started?! What if the wood was wet? We discussed how many parts of life depended on fire: cooking food, making medicines, fresh water, heat, light, clean clothes. We NEEDED fire. How would we get it? It turns out that borrowing fire from a neighbor was the best option. When Brigid’s monastery kept an eternal flame for a thousand years in honor of the Light of Christ, they were not only helping people understand a scripture in church. (Western Rite Orthodox read the first part of John’s Gospel every week at the conclusion of Mass, so the children will have heard about the light that shines in the darkness many times.) They lent stability to the hearths in the whole region of Kildare, whose flames could be lit by the monastery fire in a time of need. We took a reverent little field trip next, quietly going up to the steps leading to the Altar. We knelt on the floor near the steps outside the Altar and peeked in. There was a Vigil lamp! We talked about how the priest keeps the light lit in honor of Christ’s presence and to remind us that His light never goes out. The children asked very practical questions about how the light was transfered from one candle to another to keep the flame going. We went back to our area, and I demonstrated the idea of a long wick for lighting candles using Wiki sticks (waxed string toys) that I had on hand. Then I brought out a big loaf of gluten-free sourdough bread (to accommodate the group’s food allergies). We talked again about how the stable fire would lead to food, and everyone was offered the chance to break off chunks of the bread to eat. This was an intentional anchor to link in the children’s memories the Vigil candle and the Holy Bread and Stability and the eternal flame and Brigid’s almsgiving and feeding of the poor.
For a Sunday School follow up, we also pulled out our kinetic sand bin and arranged our wooden houses into the traditional Celtic double monastery (with a separate women’s and men’s monastery nearby one another, but both overseen by the abbess). This encouraged further conversation, as one of the students wanted to turn the infirmary into a jail for theives. I pointed out that it would be incredibly hard to steal anything from Brigid, since she would simply give away anything someone asked for. He was astonished at this idea. He came up with the example of a crown. Would Brigid give away a crown, even though it was worth so much money and also represented power? We acted it out. Brigid didn’t hesitate to hand over the crown. He couldn’t wrap his head around her generosity, so I encouraged him to ponder in the week until our next lesson what could have made Brigid happy with giving away earthly goods.
SINGING (or Making a Joyful Noise!)
Start each return to this lesson (and the ones for the other saints in the first verse, once I get them written!) with song and drum. One of the hallmarks of ancient Western Orthodox Christianity was the way it spread: primarily through songs and poetry and saints’ lives told as epic tales from village to village. By writing songs about the saints and singing them with the lessons, I am working to recover that vital part of WR tradition.
If you have a small hand drum or bodhran, have the children play with it. Settle into a steady beat (3/4 time, with a big downbeat on 1: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three). Then you can start singing. Print out the words for students to follow along. Repeat the first verse as the refrain.
Four Saintly Friends Song (to the tune of the Skye Boat Song) by Summer Kinard
ACTING OUT THE STORY
Since only half the children were readers on our first time through the skits, I paused and coached the little ones on their parts, which they repeated. Ideally these lessons would be taught so that tweens and teens could help perform the skits, too, with the help of the younger children. Older groups can use the skits as a springboard for more in depth conversations. For instance, as I mentioned above, one of the older students in the second group I taught this to wondered why Brigid would give away such expensive items. That’s a great question. Let your students explore it.
We haven’t done our final lesson on Brigid, which will be this week in Sunday school, but we are going to work on illuminating manscripts in our classroom scriptorium, revisit the almsgiving skits briefly with the added idea that God’s storehouses are always open to us, and talk about Brigid’s wonderworking so as to show the children about synergy with the Holy Spirit. To show them that faith is a way of not only trusting God but also cooperating with God, we are going to act out trying to do something impossible with and without help. I’m going to play some of this by ear, depending on the students who show up. We have a heavy crash pad in the classroom that can be a prop to show how the children can move it much farther with help, for instance. I will also bring a stencil to help them make a difficult pattern in Scriptorium time, to show how being guided helps us to do much more than we could alone. I don’t want the children to think of Brigid as magic, that is, as someone who can just make things happen on her own, but I also don’t want them to think of her as a channel/someone through Whom God acts on His own. Both of those are errors. God works with us and wants us to cooperate with Him, to combine our love, our will, our strength, our hearts, and our minds with His. Every part of the life of faith with God is a both/and of God and humans, from His covenant love for us (and ours for Him and other people) to our prayers and even faith itself. This reality reflects the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ, whose human and divine wills cooperated wholly in perfect love. That’s our goal in the Christian life, not self-obliteration or attempting to channel God, and not making idols of the power God works through us. God’s storehouses don’t open on a formula; they’re more than is possible through not only the Divine will but also through the love of God in the Church, the extra muchness that comes from working together with God. I’ll update this post once we have played out the lesson.
WHOLE LIFE TIE-IN
My family loves to take walks in the forest at our local state park. When we went on Saturday, I took everyone to a quiet part of the forest that I call The Cathedral of the Forest. It’s a part of the path surrounded by very old oak trees for about 100 meters. There’s a bee tree somewhere nearby, and the air is sweet with beeswax. I walked the children there and asked them to be quiet for a moment to feel the change in the air under the canopy of the old trees. As we walked slowly through the Cathedral of the Forest, I reminded them of St. Brigid’s monastery, Kildare, which means church of the oaks. We were in our forest, and she was in hers, but for a few minutes we could feel the kinship of being under trees that gave sacred shelter. “Don’t forget, children. The roots of the Cross of Christ feed the roots of the trees of all the forests.” Sensory Anchor teaching works everywhere because it’s how God Incarnate, the God who made the world, wants to teach us!
Further Reading: Three of today’s saints (Perpetua, Felicity, and Brigid) are featured in the board book God’s Saintly Friends by Kathryn Reetzke, Art by Abigail Holt. Check it out! (Notice: I am the owner of Park End Books, which published this book.)