Session 1: The Living Icon: The Sanctity of Human Life

“Then   God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . .”

Aim:   This session introduces the foundations of Orthodox anthropology in an   accessible manner to teens. Almost any discussion about life and death choices   in today’s society depends on a person’s concept of the human being and the   human relationship to God. While the dehumanization of people as a result of a   materialist mind-set has led to an immense spiritual toll today, the solutions   presented by other confessions have failed. This is often due to a lack of   Orthodox “humanism” which affirms the sanctity of human life and our   special place in God’s creation. In this unit we reaffirm the basic lessons of   the Church, that God loves us and that we are not to take human life   carelessly. It is also important that participants, who may often be   surrounded by false notions of God and His love for us, find out what the   Church really teaches about life and death.

Objectives:   By the end of this session, students should be able

1.   To articulate the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and its   biblical foundations;

2.   To identify when they themselves are not living up to the image of God within   themselves by acting and thinking in a way that is adverse to God’s plan for   us.

3.   To begin the sharing of experiences and communicate with openness in small   groups.

4.   To prepare a family tree for use in later sessions and personal prayer life.

Useful   texts: Genesis 1:26-31

Ps   139:13-16

Jer..   1:4-8

John   10:1

Liturgy   books.

Philokalia,   Vol. IV, pg. 205 (Nikephoros the Hesychast)



Balloons   — at least one per person

Example   of a family tree


I.        Opening Prayer

II.         Check-In

III.       Activity   #1: The Church on Human Life

IV:      Activity #2: Balloon People

V.      Activity #3: Prayer of the Heart

VI.      Activity #4: Family Tree

VII.      Session Conclusion

VIII.    Closing Prayer

  Opening Prayer

  II. Check-In:
Always begin a session with a check-in. Have everyone state   their name and briefly how they are doing or feeling. Introduce yourself as   leader and briefly explain the focus of this study unit. If this is a group   of strangers, such as on a retreat or at a camp, you may wish to have each   of them describe their background and what brought them to the session. Sharing   these experiences can help all participants gain a better understanding of   their own experiences.

One   very good warm-up for a group  is   a name game. Form a circle. Each person thinks of one thing that they like   that begins with the same letter as their first name/nickname. Going around   in the circle, each person says their name and the thing they like and must   repeat the same for whoever went ahead of them. Play continues until everyone   has had a turn to name everyone else and the thing they like — one full circle’s   worth.

As   this is the first session of the study unit, the students should be directed   towards establishing a group rapport through warm-up exercises such as check-in.   Since we are discussing the sanctity of life, it is good    affirm the value of each participant and make them feel like part of   the group. This session can also reinforce the lessons on self and relationships   featured in “What’s Love got to do with it?”

  III. Activity #1: What the Church teaches about Human Life

Time:   15-20 minutes

This   activity is a directed discussion intended to introduce the basic ideas of the   unit. The key idea is that life is a mystery and a gift from God. When we talk   about life, we should do so reverently and thankfully. While we cannot easily   express the meaning of life, we can approach it through paradox.

What   do you think of when you hear the word, “life?” (What are some terms we might    associate with ‘life’?) [Responses might include biological functions,   growth, awareness.]Write ‘LIFE’ on the board and draw a wide circle around   it. Put answers in the circle. If someone says “God,” ask the whole group   where on the board would you put God and move on to the next question.

What   is one thing that you can remember having heard in Church or seen in the Bible   that talks about life? [Possible responses include Christ is the life,   the bread of life, the giver of life, God created life in Genesis.]

Where   would we put God in the ‘Circle of Life’? If He is the Source and the Giver,   everywhere present, how could we show that on our diagram? [One way would   to put a “G” on the left hand of the circle and a “D” on the right, thus turning   the circle into an “O” and creating a symbol of God’s transcendence and immanence.   There is no perfect way. God transcends all of our conceptions. Allow them   to debate how and where they would modify the circle. Try to guide them towards   seeing that God is intimately associated with our lives.]

The   Church teaches us that there is a very special relationship between life,   humanity, and God. God gave us life in creation. God gave us life ever-lasting   through the Resurrection. (Read John 10:10). All life is a gift, all   life has sanctity. We say in O Heavenly King, that God is the ‘Giver of   Life who art present everywhere and fulfilling all things.’ Without the Holy   Spirit, which is everywhere within us and around us, we could not even live   for one moment.

Erase   the writing in the circle and the word “LIFE”. Inside the circle, draw the   outline of a human figure or a human face.

What   makes human beings different from the rest of living creation? [Thinking,   technology, language] Write answers inside the human figure.

Do   you think human beings are good by nature? Why or why not? [No: because   of sin, the fall, human pride; Yes: Created in God’s image, etc.] Write answers   on the sides of the figure, using the left side for NO and the right side   for YES.

What   do you think the Church say about human nature? [They may have no idea.   Write their answers in the YES and NO areas as appropriate. Check or mark   answers that they think the Church agrees with.]

The   Bible says, ‘We are made in the image and likeness of God.’ What do you think   that means? [Write “GOD?” in the center of the human figure. Write down   possible answers with question marks after them outside the human figure.]    

In   our Church, we are often taught that life is a mystery. How would you say   being alive is a mystery? [Emphasize the question marks. Some things are   beyond our ability to know. Life was created to be eternal. Who can say what   eternity is like?]

Split   into three groups and look at Genesis 1:26-31; Ps 139:13-16; Jer.    1:4-8 in groups and discuss. Have one person from each group present   the group’s passage with a brief summary of their discussion of what they   think it says to us about human life.

When   we discuss questions of life and death in the Orthodox church we must always   keep in mind the fact that our life is a gift from God and that we were made   in God’s Image. When we choose, we either live up to that image or we lose   God’s likeness and move away from Life itself. Our Christian life is about   becoming more fully the image and likeness of God. It is a never ending   process of growth and personal development the saints call “theosis”—  becoming God. We are living icons of God, who are called to become by   adoption the children of God.

To   grow in God and realize that potential we have in ourselves as icons of the   Life-Giver, we must learn about ourselves. St. Basil says that knowing oneself   is the greatest and most difficult of sciences.

  IV. Activity #2:  Balloon   People: Inflated Self/ Deflated Self:

Time: 15 minutes  

This exercise is   intended to get participants thinking about their inner lives and the impact   they have on their outer selves. One of the crucial teachings of the Church   is that the center of our lives, whether we know it or not, is Jesus Christ.   The connection to Christ that we have determines how well “centered”   we are in life. Before we learn to focus on the center of our being, Jesus   Christ, we must see where in our lives we are off-center, out of balance,   or living for sin instead of God. This can be used in conjunction with a preparation   for confession. You may or may not ask participants to close their eyes to   focus their imagination and attention. Give them time after each question   to consider and find an answer for themselves. You may want them to write   them down or draw their answers, if appropriate.

Pass   out to every person at least one balloon and ask them to inflate it as far   as they can without bursting it.

Imagine   for a second that your self is like a balloon. If you get too pumped   up, you may float away and get your head stuck in the clouds, or you might   burst. In small groups, come up with a list of characteristics of someone   who is over-inflated. Here are some leader questions you may want to use   to spark responses: 

Based   on your own experiences, what kind of person do you become when you are over-inflated?   [Arrogant, angry, conceited, bored, etc.] 

What   kind of things do you say and think when you are inflated? [I’m better,   smarter, stronger, more pious, etc. than others] 

What   kind of things do you do when you are inflated?    [Boast, bully, show off] 

How   do you relate to others when you become overly-inflated? [Not well, look   down on them, act mean, don’t care about others, etc.] 

When   and where do you tend to get inflated? [With friends, parents, in times   of fear or insecurity, when trying to impress someone, etc..   

Now   let your balloons deflate almost to empty. Imagine that you have become deflated   as well. What are the characteristics of a person who has become deflated?   In your groups, come up with a list of things to describe a deflated person.   Again, here are some helpful questions:

Based   on your own experience, what kind of person do you become when you are deflated?   Depressed, weak, hate self, etc.]  

What   do you sound like? [whiny, quiet, grouchy]  

What   do you say? think? do? [I’m no good, no one loves me, I’m ugly, stupid,   a loser, etc.]     

When   and where do you fall into this state of deflation? [Insecurity, fear   of being alone, rejected, etc.]  

Let   yourself and your balloons inflate enough to stand up again straight! Take   a breath and inflate your lungs until they are filled comfortably. Often when   we are deflated our bodies show it and we forget to breathe fully. Pause    

What   did you find in comparing the inflated self to the deflated self? [Alike,   unlike, opposites, mirror each other, share some qualities, etc.]    

How   were your lists similar? How were they    different? [Can the same things be found on both lists? Do inflated   people try to over-compensate for feeling deflated?] 

When   and where in your life do you find yourself    becoming ‘balloon’  people?   Why? [In peer pressure situations, in times of stress, at school, at home,   on dates, etc.]

What   do you think would be the characteristics of a healthy balloon person — one   who is inflated to just the right amount? [Secure, confident, happy, calm,   peaceful, etc.]    

God   does not want us to be proud and float away from Him. Nor does He want us   to shrivel up in despair and be unable to rise to His call. So, we must find   the right state of mind—the proper state of inflation—indeed, we should   not be filled with ‘hot air’—the illusions of self-grandeur—but with the   Holy Spirit. This is  accomplished most directly through prayer, when we humble ourselves   before God and lift up praise to Him for His gifts.    

  V. Activity #3: On the Watchfulness and Guarding of the Heart by Nikephoros   the Hesychast

  Time: 5 minutes

This   activity can be done following the original text or in your own words, or in a   mixture of both.

You   know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, it is for the heart’s   sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart   draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging   some of  its heat when the air   is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature. The cause of this process   or, rather, its agent, are the lungs. the Creator has made these capable of   expanding and contracting like bellows, so that they can easily draw in and   expel their contents. Thus, ... the heart performs unobstructed the function   for which it was created, that of maintaining life. Medically this is not   exactly accurate but spiritually you can see the point.

Seat   yourself then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory   passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Pause   and let them get used to feeling their breath.    

Put   pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath   into your heart. Use your imagination to follow the breath into the chest   and into the heart. Of course, the air does hat is, not go into the heart   directly, but the lungs transfer oxygen to the blood which is pumped through   the heart. Use as much detail as you want in guiding the intellect, without   losing sight of the spiritual purpose. 

Once   it has entered there, what follows will neither be dismal nor glum. Just as   a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at being   with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with   the soul, is filled with indescribable delight. This is what we should   be able to find when we enter our heart. Very often, our hearts are hardened   and clouded over with the pains and fears of growing up in a less than perfect   world. The goal of this exercise is to find that peaceful center, not to engage   in spiritual warfare. Participants should be directed towards opening their   hearts to God and to themselves. 

Therefore,   train your intellect not to leave your heart quickly, for at first it is   strongly disinclined to remain constrained and circumscribed in this way. But   once it becomes accustomed to remaining there, it can no longer bear to be   outside the heart. For the kingdom of heaven is within us (Luke 17:21). (Philokalia   vol. IV pg 205) It is important to validate the possibility of difficulty some   may find in imagining their heart. By letting them know that the difficulty is   natural and part of the process, those who are stuck will feel less stress   over it and often get past whatever is blocking their progress. Give them   enough time to quietly breathe and focus their attention on the heart.

You   may also suggest that while centering their attention in their heart, that   they should pray ”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,”   which is the traditional prayer of the hesychast. Otherwise, you might suggest   similar prayers that the Church uses. We often tell people the importance   of praying from the heart, and this exercise is can show what that really   means. Primarily, this exercise is meant to be a brief introduction to the   spirit of prayer in the context of our being in the image and likeness   of God.

Have   them record the experience of entering the heart in their journals and discuss   in groups.

What   did you notice when focusing on your breathing and your heart?   

What   did you feel when trying to bring your mind into your heart? 

St.   Nikephoros describes the  joy   one can feel when opening their heart as coming home after a long journey.   How would describe the experience of entering your heart? 

Was   there anything difficult about this exercise, and if so, what?

This   exercise was written down over 600 years ago, and is based on practices that   were that old even then. Orthodox monks and nuns have always taught us to   approach God and our prayer from our hearts. However, we are told that it   does not come easily. We should not be discouraged if it becomes difficult.   To keep in touch with our heart requires time, patience, and practice in the   spiritual life, something which the monks and nuns to whom St. Nikephoros   was writing to had. If you like this type of prayer, you will need to follow   the guidance of an experienced spiritual father and develop at your ow rate.

There   are some things which this prayer can teach us even now, in our limited experience.    

What   do you think that Orthodox spirituality says about human life by focusing   on the unity of the mind and the heart? [You need both, the full human   person is involved in prayer, there is not meant to be a split between mind   and heart, etc.] 

What   conclusions can we draw about who we are from this prayer? [We are very   special— the kingdom of heaven is within us! We should seek God through contemplation   and through our inner universe, not in externals.] 

In   this unit, we will be looking at choices that people make that involve matters   of life and death. As Orthodox Christians, we must approach these issues with   our hearts, seeking God and His healing power. We should become used to guarding   our minds and our hearts, seeking the kingdom of heaven within ourselves and   each other.

VI.   Activity #4: Family Assignment

  Time: 1 hr. at home
  or 20 minutes in class. 

St.   Basil says, ‘to know ourselves is the greatest of sciences.’ So far, we have   looked at who we are in the present, in our hearts and in our imaginations.   But knowing yourself also means knowing where you come from. For the next   session prepare a family tree going as far back as possible. Ask your family   members to help you fill in the details. To be a human being means to be a   member of a family. The family is the way in which God has given us our physical   life, and can be a path for us to find a spiritual life as well.

VII. Session Conclusion




      ·                    What is the source of life?

      ·                    What is the relationship between human life and God?

To   be an Orthodox Christian means to proclaim that God has a very special love   for us. Our life was given to us a very a sacred gift so that we may grow   to fulfill our destiny as His children, to fulfill His plan that He has had   for us since before we were even born. We are called to be “living icons,”   temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of the Kingdom of Heaven. We must   come to value life for the precious gift from God that it is, and make our   choices on that basis.


  VIII. Closing Prayer