I’m always on the lookout for good family resources to celebrate the church year. So I took the opportunity to review Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger, receiving a copy from Ancient Faith Publishing in exchange for my honest review.
When I expressed interest in the book, I made sure they knew that I’m not Orthodox. But as an Anglican, I welcomed this opportunity to learn more about Great Lent in Orthodoxy. The book consists of daily devotionals that follow and deepen the theme for each Sunday in Great Lent: Forgiveness, Orthodoxy, Prayer, The Cross/Humility, The Ladder of Divine Ascent/Alms-giving, and St. Mary of Egypt. It’s based on the authors’ podcast last year and it’s meant for families with children of all ages to read together.
To any Orthodox families that happen to read this blog, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It’s a resource that strengthens the connection between the home and the church. It will carry you along with the traditions of the church and will enrich your understanding of the Lenten themes of each week. The authors meant the book to be read to families with a wide range of ages. If you only have preschool age children, the chapters would be a bit long, and some of the saints’ stories are slightly nuanced. But generally, the content is both rich and simple. I especially appreciated the discussions of fasting, which linked Adam and Eve’s failure to fast properly with the perfect examples of Christ and his followers, the saints. For example, in the life of Mary of Egypt:
“When she was young, she loved to sin, but in the desert her fasting trampled her sins and grew holiness like a wonderful flower in her heart. Fasting is really how we tend the garden of our hearts, tearing out the spiritual weeds of sin and nurturing the sweetly fragrant flowers of a healthy spiritual life.”
If you are not Orthodox, I think this book can be very helpful in family life as a reference and a potential template, as well as an opportunity to learn more about Orthodoxy. It would be difficult to use it as a family devotional, however, without significant rewording and adjustments (both in terms of logistics — constant rewording of sentences like “at the Liturgy this Sunday we will do this…” and in terms of theological emphasis. For example, in the week of Orthodoxy, it’s not covering the creeds like I anticipated but such concepts as the Iconoclastic controversy).
I love the activity section in the appendix! The craft ideas seem doable and genuinely helpful, rather than just contrived for the sake of something crafty. This section inspired me to start lists of Lenten activity ideas: oiling coloring pages to look like stained glass, creating photo prayer books, modeling clay to emphasize hard and soft hearts, and my favorite, a path to Pascha.
While I am very much Anglican, I admire the communal emphasis of Great Lent. For example, I loved learning about Forgiveness Sunday, in which every church member goes around the congregation asking forgiveness of the other. And, while the Orthodox fast is intimidating, I imagine that since everyone is in it together, it builds community and is not a matter of an individual trying to go “above and beyond.” Obviously, an individualistic focus isn’t part of western Lenten traditions, but services like Forgiveness Sunday and the clear-cut communal fasting expectations make it hard to miss that Great Lent is about spring cleaning the whole church and not just my individual soul.
One quote the authors return to repeatedly is this one from St. John Chrysostom: “Fasting is wonderful because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.” The authors suggest making a piece of art with this quote. I told my friend Michelle Abernathy about that suggestion and she designed this lovely coloring page, free for your use!
In summary, I recommend this book to Orthodox families and would like to find an Anglican devotional similar to it! And if you’re not Orthodox and are looking for a simple way to understand Great Lent, this would be an excellent choice. I am thankful for the opportunity to review this book and learn more about Lent in the Orthodox tradition.
Stay tuned for some more family resources for observing Lent that I’ll post soon.