Prayer to the Saints – Part 1: What is a Saint?
PRAYER TO THE SAINTS PART I
What is a Saint?
All Christians are “saints”, or “holy ones” (literal translation), which means “set apart”. All believers are holy ones in the sense of a status which is given to us by virtue of our baptism into Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand we are called to be “sanctified” or “holy-ized” which is a work in progress, or a “state of being” which we strive for by eliminating sin and conforming ourselves to the image of Christ. We are commanded to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (II Cor. 7:1).
So holiness or being a holy one has also a sense of growth and progress. There are many passages that show us that certain people have progressed or exemplified themselves in this to the point that they can say “imitate my life as I have imitated Christ”.
1 Corinthians 11:1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 4:16 Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.
Philippians 3:17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.
Philippians 4:9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Thus a saint is a person whose life is exemplary, that the Church can point to and say: “Imitate that person because they imitated Christ in a way that is worthy of following.” A person is not so much “declared” to be a saint as “recognized” as having been a worthy example to believers who need examples of how to live the Christian life. The Orthodox Church does not have a “legal set of rules” or “qualifications” for sainthood, but through the testimony of those who knew the person and the quality of their life (or death in the case of martyrdom), we come to honor someone as a holy person who is worthy of emulation by members of the Church. Just as non-Christians gain inspiration and encouragement from reading about the lives of “secular heroes”, the Church gains inspiration through the reading of the lives of the saints, both those who are living and striving to the goal of Christ, and those who are departed and have “finished the race and kept the faith to the end.”
DEFINITION OF A SAINT:
In the saint there exists nothing that is trivial, nothing coarse, nothing base, nothing affected (fake), nothing insincere. In him is the culmination of delicacy, sensibility, transparency, purity, reverence, attention before the mystery of his fellow men…comes into actual being, for he brings this forth from his communication with the supreme Person (God). The saint grasps the various conditions of the soul in others and avoids all that would upset them, although he does not avoid helping them overcome their weaknesses. He reads the least articulate needs of others and fulfills it promptly, just as he reads their impurities also, however skillfully hidden and through the delicate power of his own purity, exercising upon them a purifying action. From the saint there continually radiates a spirit of self-giving and of sacrifice for the sake of all, with no concern for himself, a spirit that gives warmth to others and assures them that they are not alone. … And yet there is no on more humble, more simple, no one more less artificial, less theatrical or hypocritical, no one more “natural” in his behavior, accepting all that is truly human and creating an atmosphere that is pure and familiar. The saint has overcome any duality within himself as St. Maximos the Confessor puts it. He has overcome the struggle between soul and body, the divergence between good intentions and deeds that do not correspond to them, between deceptive appearance and hidden thoughts, between what claims to be the case and what is the case. He has become simple, therefore, because he has surrendered himself entirely to God. That is why he can surrender himself entirely in communication with others.
The saint always lends courage; at times, through a humor marked by this same delicacy, he shrinks the delusions created by fears or pride or the passions. He smiles, but does not laugh sarcastically; he is serious but not frightened. He finds value in the most humble persons, considering them to be great mysteries created by God and destined to eternal communion with Him. Through humility the saint makes himself almost unobserved, but he appears when there is need for consolation, for encouragement or help. For him no difficulty is insurmountable, because he believes firmly in the help of God sought through prayer. He is the most human and humble of beings, yet at the same time of an appearance that is unusual and amazing and gives rise in others to the sense of discovering in him, and in themselves too, what is truly human. He is a presence simultaneously most dear, and unintentionally, most impressing, the one who draws the most attention. For you he becomes the most intimate one of all and the most understanding; you never feel more at ease than near him, yet at the same time he forces you into a corner and makes you see your moral inadequacies and failings. He overwhelms you with the simple greatness of his purity and with the warmth of his goodness and makes you ashamed of how far you have fallen away from what is truly human, of how far you have sunk in your impurity, artificiality, superficiality, and duplicity, for these appear in sharp relief in the comparison you make unwillingly between yourself and him. He exercises no worldly power, he gives no harsh commands, but you feel in him an unyielding firmness in his convictions, his life, in the advice he gives, and so his opinion about what you should do, expressed with delicacy or by a discreet look, becomes for you a command and to fulfill that command you find yourself capable of any effort or sacrifice….
Who ever approaches a saint discovers in him the peak of goodness, purity, and spiritual power covered over by the veil of humility. He is the illustration of the greatness and power of kenosis. From the saint there radiates an imperturbable quiet or peace and simultaneously a participation in the pain of others that reaches the point of tears. He is rooted in the loving and suffering stability of God Incarnate and rest in the eternity of the power and goodness of God….
Dimitru Staniloae. The Experience of God, Holy Cross Press, pp. 232-234
Let us all strive to be a saint and live in a way that we can honestly say (with all humility) “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ”!