Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Southern Piety and the Saints

One thing Southerners have always valued is reverence for the past: piety towards the forefathers of one’s own blood and other heroes of the fatherland, towards other righteous men and women of past cultures, for inherited traditions, and so on.  Memory is still a brooding presence amongst us.

How much more, then, ought veneration for the saints of the Church have a place in Southern life!  For if we are quick to honor those whose lives displayed only pagan virtues (like the ancient Greek and Roman statesmen, philosophers, and warriors), it is all the more fitting to honor the saints who have purified themselves completely of sin in this life, living perfectly the commandments the Lord gave us in the Holy Gospels, and who now dwell in the undimmed, unhidden Light of the Most Holy Trinity.

But what is meant by a ‘saint’?  Let us try to clarify a little.

Father Ambrose Young in a sermon for All Saints Sunday says,

 . . .

In Protestantism, generally, it is believed that anyone who has accepted Christ as Lord and Savior is already saved and is a saint, because the early Christians were always referred to in the Book of Acts and the Epistles as saints. This, however, betrays a lack of knowledge of the first Christians and their times. Those initial believers gave themselves over so completely and fully to Christ that their lives were absolutely, magnificently, and completely changed. They were “living saints”—something very different from people that came later or who call themselves Christians today, yet continue to life in a sinful lifestyle, with bad habits, negative outlooks, and vices, no matter how small. Those early Christian were indeed saints. They turned completely away from themselves and turned in the direction of Christ God exclusively. Christians today are not in the same category at all.

And then there is the Roman Catholic understanding of sainthood, which has generally evolved and changed over the centuries, reflecting different streams of thought in Western culture and civilization as society has developed or gone downhill. At the present time and for about a generation, most of the men and women in Catholicism who are beatified or canonized by the Pope—for example Mother Teresa of Calcutta—were elevated to the honors of their Church because of their fine social work and outreach. Of course there’s nothing at all wrong with social work and outreach, if one has been called to do that. Also, many Catholic saints are the founders of religious orders for men and women—in other words, very talented organizers and leaders–, and this is also a good thing. But all of this differs from the standards the Holy Fathers of Orthodoxy—both ancient and today—who have always upheld for sainthood in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Of course in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy a saint is primarily someone who is now in heaven. But it is the qualifications for sainthood in each Church that differs in some ways. Basically, for us Orthodox, sainthood means that an individual attained a very high level of holiness in this lifetime, and holiness, in this context, means sharing in the very holiness of the Lord God Almighty Himself. Also, holiness is a special gift or, to use the correct Greek term, “charisma”, which God Himself gives to a man or a woman who has prepared and opened his soul, his mind, and his heart unconditionally and fully to God.

Of course all of us are called by God to be saints—that is, to be holy, sanctified. This is, in fact, the purpose, and the main purpose of our life here on earth. You see, our main purpose is not to be good businessmen—though there’s nothing wrong with that—or good teachers, or good priests, or good writers, or good anything else. Our primary destiny is to live with God in most intimate union, forever, and ever, and ever, beginning in this life.

The Holy Trinity gives all of us, each and every one, exactly the amount of grace that we need to become saints even while we live here on earth. He does not give saints like St. Nektarios or St. John of San Francisco a different grace or more grace than He gives us. It’s the same for all. The difference is how we make use of that grace, whether or not we make use of it to come to holiness in our lives, or whether we waste it.

 . . .

Each and every one among all these saints has his or her own calling and characteristics: they all fought the “good fight for the faith” (1 Tim. 6: 12 and 2 Tim. 4: 7). All of them applied in their lives the scriptural virtues of “justice, piety, fidelity, love, fortitude, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6: 11).

Furthermore, we Orthodox believe that “the ultimate goal of the saint is to imitate God and live the life of deification (theosis)…turning and looking always towards God, thus achieving total unity with Him through the Holy Spirit.

These, then, are the specific things we remember and think upon on this, the Sunday of All Saints, thanking God for this great “cloud of witnesses” that has been, are, and will be brought forth by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which began on Pentecost. Let us not have it rest there.

We should also, today, be thinking that we, too, are called to complete union with Christ God and perfection or deification in the Holy Trinity. Let that be our prayer, our hope, and our sworn goal on this Sunday.

 . . .

Source:, posted 19 June 2011, accessed 18 June 2014

Prof Alexey Osipov takes us deeper into the differences of how the various churches approach the saints.

 . . .

But there is a different way, which shows apparently, what Catholicism is and where it leads one to. This is also a method of comparative investigation, but investigation of the spiritual sphere of life, demonstrated in the life of saints. Here the whole deception (as it is called in the ascetic language) of the Catholic spirituality gets revealed, the deception fraught with very grave consequences for an ascetic who chose this way. You know, sometimes I give public lectures, attended by different people. Frequently they ask me the question: "What is the difference of Catholicism from Orthodoxy? What is its fault? Is it not just a different way to Christ?" Many times I saw it is enough to give a few examples from the life of catholic mystics for the inquirers to say: "Thank you, now it is clear. It's enough."

Indeed, any Local Orthodox Church or non-Orthodox church can be judged by her saints. Tell me who your saints are and I will tell what your church is. Any church calls as saints only those who realized in their life the Christian ideal, as this Church understands it. That is why canonization of a certain saint is not only testimony of the Church about this Christian, who according to her judgment is worthy of the glory and suggested by her as an example to follow. It is at the same time a testimony of the Church about herself. By the saints we can best of all judge about the true or imaginary sanctity of the Church.

I am going to give you a few examples to illustrate the idea of sanctity in the Catholic church.

One of the great Catholic saints is Francis of Assisi (13th century). . . .

The goal of life set by Francis is also very indicative: "I laboured and want to labour further…, for it brings honour" (St. Francis of Assisi. - M., Izd.Frantsiskantsev, 1995. - P.145). Francis wishes to suffer for the others and atone their sins (P.20). And at the end of his life he frankly said: "I do not know any transgression of mine that I have not atoned by confession and repentance" (M.V.Lodyzhensky. - p.129). All this testifies for his not seeing his sins, i.e. his total spiritual blindness.

For comparison I'll describe to you a moment from life of St. Sisoi the Great (5th century). "Just before his death, surrounded by the brethren, when Sisoi looked like talking with invisible ones, to the question "Father, tell us, whom are you talking with?" he said: "The angels have come to take me, but I pray to them that they let me stay here for a short time for repentance". Knowing that Sisoi was perfect in virtues the brethren objected to him: "Father, you have no need in repentance", and Sisoi answered like this: "Verily, I do not know, if I have at least started the cause of my repentance" (Lodyzhensky. - p.133). This deep understanding, sight of one's imperfection is the main distinctive trait of all true saints.

 . . .

Mystical experience of one of the pillars of the Catholic mystics, founder of the Jesuits Order Ignatius Loyola (16th century) was also based on the methodical development of imagination.

His book "Spiritual exercise", which has enormous authority with the Catholics, calls a Christian to imagining and contemplating the Holy Trinity, Christ, Mother of God, angels, etc. All this fundamentally contradicts the foundations of the spiritual feats of the saints of the Ecumenical Church, for it leads the faithful to the total spiritual and mental disorder.

An authoritative collection of ascetic writings of the ancient Church "The Dobrotolubie" ("The Philokalia") strictly forbids this kind of "spiritual exercise". Here are a few quotations from it.

Saint Nilus of Sinai (5th century) warns: "Do not desire to see sensually Angels or Virtues, or Christ, otherwise you'll go mad taking a wolf for the shepherd and bowing to demon-enemies" (St.Nilus of Sinai. 153 Chapters on Prayer. Ch.115 // The Dobrotolubie: In 5 volumes. V.2. 2nd edition. - M., 1884. - p. 237).

St. Simeon the New Theologian (11th century) reasoning about those who "imagine heavenly blessings, angel hosts and abodes of saints" in prayer definitely says "this is a sign of prelest" (spiritual deceit). "Going this way even those who see light with their bodily eyes, smell fragrance with their nose, hear voices with their ears and the like get seduced (St. Simeon the New Theologian. On three forms of prayer // The Dobrotolubie. V.5. M., 1990. p.463-464).

St. Gregory the Sinaite (14th century) reminds: "Never accept things when you see something sensual or spiritual, inside or outside, even if it has an image of Christ or an angel or a certain saint… The one who accepts it easily gets seduced… God does not resent one being attentive to himself, if one fearing to get seduced does not accept what He gives,… but rather praises him as a wise one" (St. Gregory the Sinaite. Hesyhast instruction // same. - p.224).

So the landowner, whom St. Ignatius Brianchaninov described in his work, was quite right, when he seeing a catholic book "On the Imitation of Christ" by Thomas a Kempis (15th century) snatched it out of her hands and said: "Stop playing a romance with God". The above examples do not leave any doubts in the truth of these words. Unfortunately, the Catholic church has lost the art to distinguish the spiritual from the sensual, and sanctity from reveries, and thus also Christianity from paganism.

That's what I wanted to say about Catholicism.

To make it clear with Protestantism it is enough to have a look at its dogmatics. To see its essence I'll limit myself to the main doctrine of Protestantism: "Man gets saved only by faith and not by deeds, that is why sin is not counted to the believer for sin". Here is the main question where the Protestants got confused. They start to build the house of salvation from the 10th floor having forgotten (if they remembered it at all) the teaching of the ancient Church what kind of faith saves man. Not the faith that 2000 years ago Christ came and did everything for us?!

What is the difference in understanding the faith in the Orthodoxy and the Protestantism? The Orthodoxy says that man is saved by faith, but sin is counted to the believer for sin. What sort of faith is it? - Not a mental one, but the state acquired trough correct Christian life, thanks to which one gets assured that only Christ can save him from bondage and poignant passions. How can one achieve this faith-state? Through compulsion to observe the Gospel commandments and sincere repentance. St. Simeon the New Theologian says: "Through strict observance of Christ's commandments man learns his infirmity", that is one discovers his inability to extirpate passions without God's help. For man alone it is impossible, but together with God everything is possible. Correct Christian life reveals to man, first, his passions-illnesses, second, that God is near each of us, and finally, that at any instance He is ready to come to the rescue and save us from sin. But He saves us not without us, not without our efforts and struggle. Act of faith is necessary to make us able to accept Christ, for they show us that we cannot heal ourselves without God. Only when I am drowning I realize I need a Saviour, when there is nobody on the bank, and only when I feel I am drowning in the poignant passions, I turn to Christ. And He comes and helps. This is where the living saving faith starts. The Orthodoxy's teaching is about freedom and worthiness of man as a God's co-worker in his salvation, and not as a "salt pillar" according to Luther that cannot do anything. This makes clear the meaning of all Gospel commandments, leading a Christian to salvation, not faith alone, and makes obvious the truth of the Orthodoxy.

 . . .

Source:, lecture given 13 Sept. 2000, posted 18 March 2004, accessed 26 May 2014

So there are some of the differences to ponder. 

Finally, Gabe Martini helps us see what benefits come from seeking help from the saints:

The Orthodox Church has a long tradition of honoring the Saints.

While all of God’s people, sanctified or “set apart” from the world, can be properly termed saints (e.g. Acts 9:13,32,41; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; etc.), there are some who are already glorified in Christ, resting in the uncreated light of God’s eternal kingdom.

These are luminaries of the Church, shining forth among the darkness of our world, even during this temporary sojourn. They fought the good fight; they finished the race; they kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). Even in their repose, they are more alive in Christ than we. And it is to these known (and unknown) Saints that we look for not only inspiration and encouragement, but also for intercession; as enduring examples of how to speak, live, and die like Christ.

Some Christians object to the idea of honoring Saints—whether that be venerating their relics and images, or asking them for their prayers—because they feel it is to ignore the living already with us in the Church here on earth. They will suggest that a danger lies in only “speaking with the dead,” as the dead either cannot or will not talk back to us, redirecting us when straying from the straight-and-narrow.

But is this really the case? Is the danger real, or is it a misguided fiction? On the contrary, I think the danger is far greater without the Saints.

Growing up Southern Baptist, I spent a lot of time in our parish youth group. Practically every Baptist church in the Bible Belt has one, and they are where teens and young adults not only socialize but also learn more about their faith. The youth group leader, often a 20-something recent graduate of seminary, was more than just a leader to these teenagers; he was a role model, a mentor, a confidant, and a friend. Many students placed much of their identity in this person, not to mention their identity or hope as a Christian.

And in this veneration of a still-living person comes a great danger: What happens when he fails? When a scandal erupts? When there’s conflict, or a messy “falling out” between he and a particular congregation?

This happened more often than I care to recall . . . .

This sort of tragedy and loss of trust can occur in a number of situations, of course, and is not limited to just one type of faith or organization. But the point remains that trusting in those who are living is not always a “safe bet.” In fact, the safest “bet” of all is looking to those who, as St. Paul writes, have fought the good fight and finished the race—a race that is set before each one of us as Christians.

And in both Christ and his holy Saints, we have such examples; we have such sureties of faith, role models who will never fail us or let us down. People who can help us every step of the way in our mortal race towards Paradise.

 . . .

With Saint Sophia, and the horrors she endured for the sake of not only her own salvation, but that of her triumphant, martyr daughters, what situation in our lives is beyond her intercessions? What difficult circumstances will we face that she couldn’t herself understand, or with which she couldn’t empathize?

This is why we honor Saints like Sophia; this is why we ask for her holy prayers, and the prayers of her three righteous daughters—daughters who perished so young, but are yet victorious over death itself in the risen Jesus Christ. We have assurance that the prayers of the righteous are powerfully effective (James 5:16), and there are none more righteous than the Saints.

Again, we honor the Saints because they have endured to the end. As those who have finished the race, they wisely pray that our every step might be guided to the finish. Because they have finished the race set before them, they are now resting in the glory of Christ in heaven—in the very presence of the all-holy and blessed Trinity. A place where there is no sickness or suffering, no sorrow or sadness, no death or disease.

Source:, posted 13 June 2014, accessed 18 June 2014

The South has done well to honor those who lived virtuous lives in the past, but now let us as a people bring to perfection this good desire by learning about the lives of the Orthodox saints, venerating them as good soldiers of Christ, and asking for their prayers as we seek to attain what they already have attained: complete freedom from sins and passions in this life, and rest in the All-Holy Trinity in the next. 

May we in true Southern fashion join together in singing to the saints, ‘Eternal be thy memory!’ (from the Orthodox Church’s Memorial Service,

(Icon from the same page as Fr Ambrose's sermon)

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