Recently, I received a review copy of Nikola and the Monk by Dessi Jackson in the mail. I read it later that night, after everyone else was in bed, when I had the first opportunity to devote my entire attention to it. With each page I turned and each new sentence I read, my mind was filling with discussions and activities I could do with my kids as an extension of the story. I enjoyed the way the author weaved the importance of completing our simple, daily tasks with how we “work out our salvation”, which is something I think many of us forget are, in fact, connected. I think too often we associate progress with the ability to complete something grand and impressive when in reality the biggest and most impressive progress is made in the seemingly small things we do and the virtues that are acquired through this process.
This story is about an elderly monk who joyfully greets his day with praise and prayer as he begins his daily tasks. He is approached throughout his work by the animals living all around him and they do not show any fear towards him, only friendship. Later in the day, a boy (Nikola) from the nearby village arrives with some bread for the monk and tells him that he wants to “work out his salvation”, side by side with the monk, in prayer. The monk lovingly talks with the boy and surprises Nikola during their conversation. He asks Nikola if he had done his chores that morning as his mother and father had asked him to do so. Nikola responds to the monk that he doesn’t want to have to do those unimportant tasks – he only wants to be like the monk. This wise man explains to the boy that it is through our daily chores and tasks that we work on our salvation. In the story, sometimes the Bogorodica (Serbian, Bulgarian, and Russian for Theotokos) will come to help the monk with the laundry. He explains to the boy that nothing we do is unimportant and everything we do, can be turned into prayer. The boy returns home to find that the Bogorodica has helped him with his chores while he was gone talking to the monk. The boy closes his day in prayer by his family’s side just as the monk also says his nightly prayers up on the mountain.
1. Read the Story Aloud
This story is probably optimal for upper elementary aged children, although my three year-old intently listened to the story as did my eleven, thirteen, and fourteen year-olds. For younger children, they will enjoy listening to the story and looking at the illustrations. For older children, it offers nice illustrations for the visual learner and provides a catalyst for more in-depth discussions.
2. Discussion: Our Relationship with Animals
We see in the story that there are many animals that are unafraid of the monk. Do we normally see birds, bears, and foxes come casually up to people as if they were their friend? No. So why do these animals come to the monk?
Read about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – Genesis 3:1-13
In Living in God’s Creation by Elizabeth Theokritoff, she explains:
So it was when Adam disobeyed the King above: the whole creation rose up against him, “no longer wishing to be obedient to the transgressor.” The wild beasts turned hostile, the earth was unwilling to feed him and the sky was barely persuaded not to fall and crush him. At God’s command, a degree of order is soon restored, sufficient for humans to survive. But the new order makes life sufficiently difficult that humans notice what they have lost. This image makes it very clear that non-human creation has never deviated from serving God…”
Through this explanation, we can better understand why it is that some saints have wild animals such as bears, lions, and birds come near them wishing them no harm. These animals can sense the unity of the saint with God and their relationship is restored to what it once was in the Garden of Eden.
3. Discussion: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”
In the story, the monk is joyful about his garden. He shows an appreciation for the food that is growing.
Who is the source of all life? Why should we be thankful for the food we eat?
In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), we ask God to, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book Our Father, he explains that in the first part of the prayer: we are glorifying God, that his kingdom will come, and that we will do the will of God and not our own. As we recite, “Give us this day our daily bread”, we switch over to petitions for our own needs. We are asking God to please grant us enough food to survive today. (This is not about seeking to receive all of our favorite foods or an endless supply of food – but rather, enough to get us by today.)
God is the source of all life. He provides all of the food that sustains us. This is why the monk is so joyful at the sight of the fruits and vegetables growing in his garden – he knows they were provided by God and he is extremely thankful to have them.
There is also a second meaning to this petition – “Give us this day our daily bread.” It also means that we are asking God to grant us that which we will need to get through this day both physically and spiritually. We are asking God to grant us the strength and patience to get through today’s struggles.
For an extension of this discussion, type out the Lord’s Prayer (double or triple spaced) in Word and then print it out. Go through it with your kids line by line and discuss the meaning of the prayer in more depth. Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book Our Father is a short but illuminating explanation of the prayer.
4. Discussion: “How shall we work on our salvation today?”
The monk talks about working towards salvation several times within the story. How do we explain this to our children? Why is this important?
“How shall we work out our salvation today?” Salvation is a goal for all of us to work towards. It encompasses so many aspects of our daily life because we can never compartmentalize our religious life from our daily life. For Orthodox Christians, another term that could be used for salvation is theosis. An explanation for a child may be – Theosis is a goal for each of us. We all strive to be loving and patient with everyone around us. We strive to correct ourselves when we mess up and always seek God in everything that we do. Our goal is to always grow closer to God each new day where we long to be in conversation with him through prayer, uniting ourselves to him.
This story, Nikola and the Monk, provides an opportunity to discuss an important topic such as salvation. The author does it in such a gentle and loving way. She points out that it’s not necessary to be a monk in order to work towards a closer relationship with God. The monastic life is a greatly respected and revered life dedicated to God but we also shouldn’t downplay our opportunities within our own daily family life to work on growing closer to God. Both are important. Our daily life within our families are blessed as well.
For indeed a house is a little Church. Thus it is possible for us by becoming goodhusbands and wives to surpass all others. – Saint John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life
5. Unceasing Prayer
Justin, age 6 singing, “Lord have mercy”: We had just finished reading a story about Saint Euphrosynos. When we read about the lives of saints in our home, we always discuss how we can use their life as an example for our own life today. My boys had decided that they would help me wash dishes and pray while doing so.
Throughout the story, the monk is praying. At the end of the story, the monk is saying his evening prayers up on the mountain while Nikola prays at home with his parents. It is so important for us to teach our children to pray at a young age but also that it can be done anytime and anywhere. We are called to pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
How can we provide a home of prayer? Our children need to hear prayers being said from infancy. Let them here the prayers during church services, hold them while you’re saying your family evening prayers, and say a prayer over them when they are sick or inconsolable from teething or illness. As they get older, let them be involved with your family prayers as they are capable. It is a gradual process that will progress as they age, as long as it is part of your family life.
We had gone out for pizza but were waiting for a table to be available for our family. Symeon (who was a little over a year old here) was making the sign of the cross, as best as he could, to tell us he wanted to say prayers and eat!