The Saints of God-the martyrs and ascetics, miracle-workers and apostles truly did accomplish those great feats which we read about in their Lives. If we have underlying doubts regarding the veracity of these accounts, we should acquaint ourselves more thoroughly with the Lives of Saints who lived in times close to our own-Saints like Archbishop John of Shanghai and San Francisco-so that by seeing what is possible in our own times through the power of Christ, we may believe in what occurred through that same power in the remote past. St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, in his Introduction to The New Martyrologion, discusses this in connection with the New Martyrs of the Church: "The antiquity of the period during which the early Saints lived, the long time that has intervened from then to the present, can cause in some, if not unbelief, at least some doubt and hesitation. One may, that is, wonder how humans, who by nature are weak and timid, endured so many and frightful tortures. But these New Martyrs of Christ, having acted boldly on the recent scene of the world, uproot from the hearts of Christians all doubt and hesitation, and implant or renew in them unhesitating faith in the old Martyrs. Just as new food strengthens all those bodies that are weak from starvation, and just as new rain causes trees that are dried from drought to bloom again, so these New Martyrs strengthen and renew the weak, the withered, the old faith of present-day Christians." (Quoted in Constantine Cavarnos, Holiness: Man's Supreme Destiny, p. 23.)
What St. Nicodemus says about the relevance of the New Martyrs to contemporary Orthodox Christians can, of course, be applied to all the other orders of modern Saints: hierarchs, missionaries, monastics, etc.
Even if we do not have doubts concerning the veracity of the Lives of the Saints, we may come up against another stumbling block: discouragement that their feats of asceticism and faith are beyond us. If we ever experience this, we must pray for more humility. As Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonos Petras says, "Reading about the exploits of the Saints discourages only the proud who rely on their own strength. For the humble it is a chance to see their own weaknesses, to weep over their insufficiency and to implore God's help.` (Synaxarion, vol, 1, p. xiii)
St. John Climacus tells us: "The man who despairs of himself when he hears of the supernatural virtues of the Saints is most unreasonable. On the contrary, the Saints teach you supremely one of two things: Either they arouse you to emulation by their holy courage, or they lead you by way of thrice-holy humility to deep self-contempt and the realization of your inherent weakness.'" (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26:126 (translated by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, London, 1959).
As we study the Lives of the Saints, humility must be our safeguard. We need to soberly apply what we read to our own conditions and circumstances, realizing our own infirmity, not thinking too much of ourselves, not dreaming of ascetic feats that truly are beyond us. As Fr. Seraphim Rose used to say, we must take spiritual life step by step, and not expect to make one great leap into sanctity.
At the same time, however, we must not make excuses for ourselves, as if we are somehow separated from the Saints by some eternally unbridgeable gulf. The Saints are our fellow Orthodox Christians. The Saints have lived, and still live, the same life in the Church that we live. They are sinners like we are, but they have borne the fruits of repentance and have been transfigured by Christ. They are more perfect than we are, but we are called to seek their "unfinished perfection" as God gives us strength.
May St. Justin Popovic be a guide to us in understanding the theological significance of the Lives of the Saints, and may St. John Maximovitch be an example to us of how to make use of the Lives of the Saints in our own spiritual lives. The Saints are called stars in the spiritual firmament. May we, by remembering the Saints of God, also begin to shine in that firmament. And by making the Saints our friends and preceptors now, may we have them as our heavenly companions in the never-ending Kingdom of Light. Amen.
Copyright © 2002 by the St. Herman of Alaska
Used with permission.