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

I. 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