We are here honored to present a guest essay by fellow orthospherean Mark Citadel.
My knowledge of the lives of Christian saints is sub-encyclopedic to say the least, in part due to a lack of time to really sit down and read. I have, in my time, gained a familiarity with some of the greats; St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, St. Cyril, St. Basil the Great, and one of my personal favorites, St. John of Kronstadt. However this barely even scratches the surface of the rich history extending from the Mediterranean to the frozen north of Europe, and even to the modern United States with great teachers such as the likely soon-to-be-canonized Seraphim Rose.
Saints of course have huge significance in Christian theology and ritual. Nicolas Zernov stated in his study on Orthodox practice that saints were treated “as teachers and friends who pray with them and assist them in their spiritual ascent. Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry was surrounded by disciples who did not prevent others from meeting Him, but on the contrary helped newcomers to find the Master. In the same manner fellowship with the saints facilitates communion with God, for their Christ-like character brings others nearer to the divine source of light and life.”
In writing on the meaning of sainthood, St. Justin said, “What are Christians? Christians are Christ-bearers, and, by virtue of this, they are bearers and possessors of eternal life…. The Saints are the most perfect Christians, for they have been sanctified to the highest degree with the podvigs (a term roughly analogous to the Islamic concept of the greater Jihad) of holy faith in the risen and eternally living Christ, and no death has power over them.” The saints then, through their own actions, are an eternal recurrence of Christ in the cosmic flesh, a shadowy re-appearance of His glory which was once described as stained glass through which light shines. Each re-appearance is unique and each has its own story to tell. St. Mary of Egypt walked over the Jordan and was buried by a lion. St Blane was said to produce fire from his fingertips. And by now everybody knows about St. Nicholas’ days as a heretic-puncher who had his confiscated robes miraculously returned to him. Mystical powers are signs of Christ’s re-appearance, a time in which the barrier between mythic time and historical time (to borrow an Eliadism) is pierced. Most notable of these is incorruptibility, something of a common occurrence in which saints do not decompose as normal people would.
St. Basil the Great said, “Just as painters, in working from models, constantly gaze at their exemplar and thus strive to transfer the expression of the original to their own artistry, so too he who is eager to make himself perfect in all kinds of virtue must gaze upon the lives of the saints as upon statues, so to speak, that move and act, and must make their excellence his own by imitation.” There is often a call for Christians to “imitate” Christ, but such imitation is difficult. Christ’s earthly life is at once increasingly distant in the temporal sense (2017 years and counting), and also was in its content given to a certain purpose that was peculiar to that time period and that setting. Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman’s plea for her daughter to be exorcised with a terse, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” And indeed we see that in his earthly life, Jesus only concerns Himself with the testing of Jews, the challenging of their assumptions, the call for them to understand the error of their ways before it is too late.
Imitating Him in this context can prove too difficult or abstract, and so it makes perfect sense that the glory of God re-appear throughout history after His death and resurrection. This re-appearance uses as its host great figures in history, most of them being of a brahmin priestly type, but many being ‘soldier saints;’ and as Russia’s history of so-called holy fools show, even a shudra can be glorified. A call to be Christ-like, which is in a more perennial sense a call to theosis through disposition, a call to see things as God wishes them to be seen, is translated into terms we can more easily understand by the lives of the saints, because in them we can relate to a more intimate association in history, even while they are certainly no substitute for the living God.
Metahistory, as its name suggests, is the story behind the story. It is not primarily concerned with events as a linear sequence, but with overarching narratives and underlying themes. These are the things which connect us to history in the higher sense. If a nation fights some great war, the glories of which are spoken about for generations thereafter, it is not the war as an isolated event that matters, but how the war fits into the national conception of an identity rooted in the men who formed and sustained it. Saints serve a very important metahistorical purpose, for they are one of Christianity’s most valuable tools for entrenching itself and putting down deep roots into the national mythos. It seems particularly in the contemporary era, the saints have been incredibly undervalued. Many churches have either expunged them altogether, or have downplayed them to their own detriment. I am quite heartened to see that in England today there is a move by some to blow the dust off of the isles’ history in this regard, but I must stress without the lives of the saints, faith withers in the minds of men as its source becomes more intangible.
In a glowing eulogy for St. Bernard, René Guénon speaks of “the great saint who was called the last of the Fathers of the Church, and whom some would regard, not without reason, as the prototype of Galahad, that perfect knight without blemish, the victorious hero of the quest for the Holy Grail,” thus tying Christianity not only to European history, but to European mythos. Further to this point, there has long been controversy surrounding the pagan origins of certain saints, and while this is typically overblown into accusations that pagan gods literally became saints, the fact is that the worship of a pantheon of pagan gods in terms of its underlying substance did transform seamlessly into the veneration of a pantheon of saints, with worship reserved for the one triune God. In no way should a Christian shy away from this or make excuses for it. It is something to be proud of, for sincere local spirituality was developed and tied into a completed and in many ways even more relevant form of worship. Why would one seek to discount this transition in aid of some faux purity?
Saints are conduits, fonts of holy guidance providing spiritual succor in times of doubt and hardship, as well as times of great abundance, which presents its own form of hardship. If Christianity is to have significance in the sense of national rather than just personal destiny, it must touch base with the saints once again. Shortly before his martyrdom, St. Hermogenes Dolganyov wrote of the persecutions under the Soviet Union in an address to his followers, “If the Holy Church is dear to you, if in your hearts the faith in Christ which your parents inspired in you and which was handed down to us by a whole array of Russian saints has not been completely crushed in your hearts, listen to the voice of reason and Christian conscience and understand that the decree on the Church contains within itself a clear sermon of unbelief and a declaration of irresponsible and merciless struggle with the Orthodox Faith and all believers.” The saints here are properly regarded as “handing down” the faith. Without them, we are like relay runners on our mark, waiting for a baton that will never come.