Having looked at the importance and meaning of the Lives of the Saints, let us look now at the various ways we can make use of them in our spiritual lives.
First, we look to the Saints as our examples. Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ (I Cor. 11:1), the Saints say to us along with the Holy Apostle Paul. As Christians, we want to grow in the likeness of Christ, to have that likeness shine in us. For this to occur, we need to look often to the Saints to see that shining likeness: we must look to them for real, practical examples of how to live. St. Basil the Great gives this analogy: "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." ("Quoted in Constantine Cavarnos, Holiness: Man's Supreme Destiny (Belmont, Mass.: Institute Cor Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 2001, p. 35.)
Secondly, we must look to the Saints as our heavenly friends, as our brothers and sisters in the Faith, and as our preceptors. We read about them not as people who are dead, but as people who are living. And this is even more immediate than just reading a biography about someone who is still alive. Let's say we are reading the biography of some famous living person. As we read it, we may dream of perhaps one day meeting this person, of perhaps of writing him a letter and having it actually reach him, and even of receiving a reply from him, despite the fact that he is so famous that thousands of people are probably writing to him. Reading the Lives of the Saints offers us much more than this, because the Saints are alive in God, and are not bound by time and space in the same way we are. We can address them in prayer immediately and at any time, even right in the middle of reading their Lives. And they will hear us. Besides our private prayers to them, the Church offers us many other ways of communing with them as our friends and honoring them as our preceptors. We sing their troparia, we venerate their icons, we perform services to them, and with a blessing from our Bishop we can even compose services in their honor.
As we read the Lives of the Saints each day, we will discover little by little those Saints whom our hearts go out to. They will become our close friends, those whom we pray to most of all, those in whom we confide our joys and sorrows. As Archimandrite Aimilianos, the Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mount Athos, writes, "These close friends will be the guides of our choice and a great comfort to us along the strait and narrow way that leads to Christ. We are not alone on the road or in the struggle. We have with us our Mother, the All-Holy Mother of God, our Guardian Angel, the Saint whose name we bear, and those close friends we have chosen out of the Great Multitude of Saints who stand before the Lamb (Rev. 7:9). When we stumble through sin, they will raise us up again; when we are tempted to give up hope, they will remind us that they have suffered for Christ before us, and more than us; and that they are now the possessors of unending joy. So, upon the stony road of the present life, these holy companions will enable us to glimpse the light of the Resurrection. Let us search, then, in the Lives of the Saints, for these close friends, and with all the Saints let us make our way to Christ." (The Synaxarion, vol. 1 (Ormylia: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady, 1998, pp. xiii-xiv)
St. Justin Popovic, as we have said, called the Lives of the Saints "applied dogmatic theology." The Saints are proofs and illustrations of the reality of Christ, of His saving work of redemption. The Saints are transformed human beings, proof positive that people are redeemed, purified, illumined, transformed and recreated by Jesus Christ.
St. Justin also calls the Lives of the Saints "applied ethics." They are embodiments of the life of Divine virtue that is possible only in Jesus Christ. They are embodiments of the life of Grace in the Church, through the Holy Sacraments, through the life-giving Body and Blood of the Lord.
Fr. Seraphim Rose once counseled a budding Orthodox writer to make use of the Lives of the Saints as "applied dogmatic theology" and as "applied ethics." Fr. Seraphim said that, when one is writing on a spiritual subject, one should try not only to discuss it in the abstract, but to give living examples from the Lives of the Saints. Fr. Seraphim wrote to his fellow Orthodox writer: "If I have any suggestion for your future articles, it would simply be to keep in mind the Lives of the Saints. In your article, there is a point that would be more forceful by references to the life of the author of the citations, who is a Saint. You quote St. John of Kronstadt on `love'—but he is not merely a great Orthodox Saint of this century, he is a very incarnation of the love he talks about, and there is scarcely to be found a parallel in the Lives of other Saints to his absolute self-crucifying love and service to others, blessed by God in the manifestation of an abundance of miracles that can only be compared to those of St. Nicholas." (Fr. Alexey Young, Letters from Father Seraphim, Richfield Springs, N. Y., Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, 2001, p. 23.)
Copyright © 2002 by the St. Herman of Alaska
Used with permission.