The Saints, a Pattern of Christian Virtue – Peter Farrington
“One of the chiefest excellencies, according to the divine word, is love of our neighbour, which the saints, who have fallen asleep before us, must necessarily be supposed to have much more exceedingly towards those who are yet engaged in the strife of this life, than those who are yet beset with human infirmity.”
Origen, de Oratione
It may have seemed obvious to Origen that the saints were an integral part of the living Church, and that the teaching of the Church about them was an important part of the Gospel message. Yet converts to Orthodoxy in Britain may well find this particular area of doctrine and practice one of the hardest to come to terms with. Those outside of Orthodoxy may be concerned that the veneration of the saints, and our invocation of their prayers, will lead us away from a reliance on Christ alone. Orthodoxy is a reasonable faith, therefore we should be able to explain what we believe and why. Our veneration of the saints, and their intercession for us, are among the strongest testimonies we have to the transforming power of the Resurrection. They are by God’s grace what we may hope to become, and they aid us day by day in our efforts towards holiness. But if we do not take time to understand this for ourselves then we will not be able to explain it to others, and many misunderstandings will be allowed to persist.
British culture today tends to have little time for heroes. The media builds people up only to pull them to pieces. We like to remind ourselves that everybody has weaknesses. Having turned away from Orthodoxy our national culture expects the worst of everyone. Holiness and true Christian devotion are ridiculed or questioned. Even Christians tend to believe that sinfulness is the unhappy lot of all men, and that only death will free them from overwhelming passions and corruption. Though there have been movements in British Christianity which emphasised holiness they tended to focus either on a set of external rules and regulations, or on a once and for all experience that would solve all problems. In reality neither prove adequate to the task of transforming sinful man into the image and likeness of God.
Orthodoxy teaches that holiness is both possible, and is indeed imperative for all who would call themselves christian. But Orthodoxy does not merely make demands, it makes available a treasure store of experience. The saints are first of all examples for us of holy and transformed christian lives. The facts of their lives are proof for us that we too may become holy. The teaching of the Orthodox Church is not mere theory, it has been tried and tested.
There are those who dismiss the saints as being ordinary people, with the same faults and weaknesses as everyone else. But they do not understand that a Church which cannot point out those who have overcome sin is unworthy of the name of Christ. If the resurrection life has not touched some lives over 2000 years, if the Spirit of God has not transformed the earthly into the heavenly in some people, then we might reasonably doubt that it will in our own. Perhaps the west has become too concerned with the things of this world. We no longer believe that what we cannot see and hear is ‘real’. The saints are indeed human, but through their co-operation with God they have been transformed. They are more than us, but their example inspires us with the hope that even in our own lives we may gain the mastery over sin.
The saints are a pattern of all christian virtue. They teach us holiness, faithfulness, patience, gentleness, love of our neighbour and true devotion to God. They are the acceptable sacrifice with which God is well pleased. The saints and martyrs of these British Isles are our own glory. ‘Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ let us learn of them and from them. There are so many saints, testimony to the power of God. In this short space only three can be mentioned. They each reveal a different aspect of the grace of God transforming the lives of men.
Saint Oswald is an example of Godliness in the midst of great worldy responsibility.
“Oswald was famous for almsgiving. One Easter day as he sat at dinner with bishop Aidan and a silver dish of choicest food had been set before him, a servant suddenly told him that a crowd of poor people were in the street asking for alms. Immediately he ordered the meat set before him to be given to them, and the dish to be broken up and divided among them.” (1)
If this was only an isolated instance of generosity then Oswald would not have been remembered as a saint. Rather this was a characteristic action making manifest his christian faith. If we wished to truly venerate St Oswald should we not emulate his life and his almsgiving. Surrounded as we are by increasing numbers of homeless and destitute how would St Oswald have acted. It is no error if we practice the faith of those we claim to honour.
We could remember St Augustine of Canterbury and his colleagues who were faithful to the mission entrusted to them even though full of fear. Having progressed a short way on the road,
” … they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce and pagan nation, of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course.. In reply, the Pope wrote them a letter of encouragement, urging them to proceed on their mission to preach God’s word, and to trust themselves to his aid.” (2)
We venerate Augustine because he overcame his fears and was faithful. If he had followed his instincts and turned back then our own national history might have been very different. Our own faithfulness to Orthodoxy means more than offering lip service to Orthodox teaching about the saints. It means following their example, facing up to the obligations of our Faith. The easiest course may not be the Christian course.
Volumes could be written about the saints of these islands, but one more will suffice to show that a true veneration lies in following their example not merely knowing it. St Columba is very like the Desert Fathers. His kindness and gentleness are rightly famous. It is recalled how he was even kind to thieves.
“One day he bade two monks cross over to the Isle of Mull, and look for Erc Mac Druid among the dunes; ‘for last night’ said he, ‘he came stealthily alone from Colonsay, and hiding his boat under the hay he is skulking about among the sand-hills, so that he can cross by night to the islet where our seals breed, and kill them and carry them off to his home.’ They found the robber and brought him to the saint, who mildly reproved him for his frequent thieving, and told him to come and ask when he was in want. With this he bade his brethren kill a sheep and give it to the poor thief that he might not go away empty.” (3)
Truly this saint put into practice the precepts of the Gospel. It would be wise for us not only to enjoy reading about Columba and all the other saints and martyrs of the British Isles but to live like them. How would holy Oswald, Augustine and Columba criticise those who took their names in baptism, dedicated churches to them, and then failed to learn from them. Our fellow British Christians will only understand our veneration of the saints if they see us emulating in our own lives their heroism and self-denying effort. The saints are an example to us, but one that we must follow.
Orthodoxy provides us with more than holy examples to follow. It teaches us that the saints are witnesses of our endeavours and intercessors on our behalf. This is no novel teaching, it is rooted in the Resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen and promises life to those who bear his name, then we should expect him to honour his promise. Why should it seem so suprising that those who have given their lives completely to Christ while here on earth are now with him in his glory. The saints are enjoying the reward of their labours. Many Christians outside of Orthodoxy would agree with all of this. But they hesitate at the intercession of those holy ones. There is no reason why they should. As Origen wrote,
“One of the chiefest excellencies, according to the divine word, is love of our neighbour, which the saints, who have fallen asleep before us, must necessarily be supposed to have much more exceedingly towards those who are yet engaged in the strife of this life, than those who are yet beset with human infirmity.” (4)
If a Christian was full of love and kindness here, if he interceded before God for his brethren, it is surely inconceivable that he should forget those whom he had cared for as soon as he died. In fact the testimony of the Church is that the Communion of the saints is not interrupted by death. When Cyprian of Carthage was preparing for his imminent martyrdom he wrote to one of his fellow bishops,
“Whichsoever of us shall by the speediness of the Divine vouchsafement go hence the first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord, cease not our prayers for our brethren and sisters in presence of the mercy of the Father.” (5)
His thoughts were with his brethren, and he believed that they would still be after his martyrdom. Those whom he loved would not cease to be the object of his concern when he stood before the God whom both he and his brethren worshipped. The saints are our intercessors because they are our brethren, they are not separated from us by some unbridgable chasm. The love they show us is the love we should show one another. The Glastonbury Confession states that,
“As we, who are upon this earth, stand in need of each other’s prayers, so also do we need the prayers of the faithful departed, since they continue to be active members of the one Body. ‘God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.’ (Matt 22:40).” (6)
The belief that the saints intercede on our behalf is not some addition to the faith. The fact that the teaching about the saints is not explicit in the Scriptures does not mean that it is not implicit in all that is written there. ‘God is not the God of the dead’ and all those who have fallen asleep in the faith are still ‘of the living’. The Apostle John writes,
“I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (7)
The Orthodox Study Bible explains that this verse refers to the heavenly life of those who have died in Christ before His Second Coming. This is in accord with other Orthodox commentaries on the Apocalypse such as that of Archbishop Averky, which is based on the 5th century commentary of St Andrew of Caesarea. He writes,
” … it speaks here only concerning their souls which are not yet united with their bodies. From these words it is evident that the saints take part in the governing of the Church of Christ on earth, and therefore it is natural and proper to appeal to them with prayers, asking their intercession before Christ with Whom they reign.” (8)
The Bible says ‘The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much’ (James 5:16). If this is so for those of us still on earth, how much more is it true of those who have put aside human infirmity and now stand in the presence of God. We may not be able to explain how the saints are aware of our needs, but as Origen has written,
“..in this life knowledge is manifested to those accounted worthy, ‘through a glass darkly,’ but then it is revealed ‘face to face’.” (9)
Should we wonder that those who are closest to Christ are most able to share his loving concern for all those that bear His name. To those ‘in Christ’ are revealed the cares of the world. Since we have received the command, ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ’, we ought not to doubt that those who have done with sin should most perfectly fulfill the requirements of faith. Those who reign with Christ while we battle here on earth are not idle. The teaching that they sleep and are unconscious until the Last Judgement is a heresy that conveniently sidesteps the role of the faithful departed in the life of the Church. It is not part of Orthodox doctrine.
The Church teaches us to venerate the saints and ask for their intercession while we are gathered together at the Liturgy. The Glastonbury Confession says,
“We confess that the whole Church, both living and departed assembled together, principally at the Eucharistic Sacrifice, wherein we enjoy communion with each other, offers worship, fellowship and prayer in mutual support and care of one another.” (10)
Our veneration of the saints cannot be separated from the life of the Church. It is in communion with the Body here on earth that we rightly honour those who are in communion with us in heaven. If we lack discipline, if we are irregular participants in the sacred mysteries, if we do not honour and obey those set over us whom we can see and hear and touch, then our veneration will be hypocrisy. An active membership of the Church preserves us from error. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom teaches us,
“Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious lady, Mary, ever-Virgin and Mother of God, with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life unto Christ, our God.” (11)
Rooted in expressions such as these, our veneration will not exceed its due bounds, neither will our worship of Christ be diminished. After naming many Saints, the Liturgy of St James says,
“Remember all these Orthodox, Lord, the God of the spirits and of all flesh, whom we have remembered and whom we have not remembered; give them rest yourself there, in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (12)
Outside of the Liturgy we should follow these injunctions and remember the Saints. We should make use of the Books of Saints lives that have been published. Some of the best were published in the last century by Anglo-Catholics. Using material such as this we should become aware of their examples and make them a part of our own lives.
The Church has produced a treasure of hymns and prayers addressed to various saints. Most of this relates to the saints of the great Orthodox nations, we should use this material in our own devotions. In the Lenten Triodion the celebration of St Gregory Palamas uses the following verse.
“Thrice-blessed saint, most holy father, good shepherd and disciple of Christ the Chief Shepherd, thou hast laid down thy life for thy sheep. And now in thine intercessions, O God-bearing Gregory our father, pray that great mercy may be granted to our souls.” (13)
Sentiments such as these teach us how to rightly ask for the intercessions of the saints. But in time the Orthodox of these British Isles should complete the praises of our own saints. Those with ability should compose hymns and prayers for the feasts of Oswald, Augustine and Columba, and all the others with them. This task has already begun, but we must each play our part, even if our veneration is the simple but personal request for help at the beginning of each day.
Our Church teaches us that the veneration of the saints and their intercession for us are part of the Tradition we have received. Let us put this teaching into practice. Let us follow the examples of this ‘great cloud of witnesses’, making every effort to learn the details of their lives. Let us ask for their intercessions in the gathering of the whole Church at the Liturgy, and at our personal devotions. Let us be transformed by their examples and by their intercessions, that the world may know,
“Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (14)
Owen, Robert DD The Book of Saints (1880) p. 3362
Bede,Venerable A History of the English Church (1979) pp. 66-673
Owen, op. cit., p. 2794
Cyprian, The Epistles of St Cyprian (1844) p. 2595
ibid. p. 1756 Glastonbury Confession (1983) p. 177
Revelation XX : 48 Averky, Archbishop Apocalypse (1985) p. 1989
Cyprian The Epistles of St Cyprian (1880), p. 25910
Glastonbury Confession (1983), p. 1711
Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1986,Stylite) p. 3312
Jasper,R.C and Cuming,G.J Prayers of the Eucharist (1975) p. 6113
Mary, Mother and Ware, Kallistos The Lenten Triodion (1977) p. 315