Tuesday, November 19, 2013

To be or not to be

An Orthodox brother wrote in his blog…

One thing becomes glaringly obvious to me when I read the lives of the saints—they are spiritual giants in a land of dwarves. I am continually bowed low when I realize the immensity of the meaning of salvation in Orthodoxy, and the abyss of sin that separates us from such a lofty name of "saint"—their freedom from passionate actions and even desires; their faces radiant with God's glory; their souls filled with every virtue; their bodies so subservient to their spirits that they are capable of feats of physical rigor, sleeplessness, and fasting that would kill most healthy people; their hearts filled with love even for their most vicious enemies; their profound spiritual gifts such as the ability to look into the hearts of men and discern their sins, to foretell future events, to heal the sick and raise the dead by their prayers; the profound theology that pours forth from their lips; and courage beyond courage to face whatever God in His providence has granted for their lives including for very many a most terrible martyrdom consisting of the cruelest bodily tortures and an ignominious death. God often confirms His grace upon the saints to the Church by rendering their relics incorrupt or miracle-working.

‘Spiritual giants in a land of dwarves’ is what first caught my attention—a poetic and picturesque description of the contrast between those who obey Jesus Christ in everything, and those who don't. It also brought to mind a scene from C. S. Lewis' book The Last Battle, in which a bunch of disgruntled and treasonous dwarves keep proclaiming ‘The dwarfs are for the dwarfs!’ Perhaps the author of this piece had neither in mind. I don't know.

The stories of the saints, sometimes, the legends of the saints—who can know if some of them are literally true?—can be an inspiration to those who read them. Myself, I am particularly moved, encouraged and strengthened in my faith when I read the stories of the holy martyrs. My favorite synaxarion of the martyrs are the two books produced by DC Talk, Jesus Freaks, Volume I and Volume II. This is not to dismiss our Orthodox synaxaria, but these DC Talk books include many martyrs that our synaxaria leave out. I also like to read a 19th century edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints, and Foxe's Book of Martyrs (which curiously includes Emperor Constantine), and one or two other non-Orthodox martyrologies. I like the ones best that read like news reporting, and the least those that read like fairy tales.

The praise that the author of the above quoted passage lavishes on the saints is, I am sure, well-deserved. My hesitation to use such language myself comes from a fear of devolving my life in Christ to that of a worshipper, not of God, but of the saints. Who is to say where the line is to be drawn between proskýnisis and latreía, the proper veneration shown to the creature and the divine worship offered to God the Holy Triad alone? We all know intellectually the teaching of the Church on the subject of veneration and worship, but through human weakness, the tendency to hero worship rather than hero emulation, it's easy to let the distinction become blurred in us. Hence, Christianity as ‘spectator sport’ in spite of itself.

The admission that the Church does not adequately recognize the saints is perhaps one of the reasons for the feast of All Saints. Some people continue to insist that even that feast day is only about people whom the Church would've canonised, had it noticed them, but to me, All Saints is the formal recognition of our call to be saints, yes, we ourselves, alive now, ‘the people of God,’ called to be saints. It is also an admission that everyone who receives the call to follow Jesus is ipso facto a saint, as they (and we) are addressed by the holy apostles in their letters. Does this mean that we are wonder-workers, charismatists, myrrh-gushers and the like, alive or dead? I hardly think so, unless we're brave enough to acknowledge that the same grace working in the ‘great saints’ is also alive in us, working just as many miracles when we cooperate with it, whether anyone takes notice of them or not. Who is there living in Christ who is not a wonder-worker? A real Christian seems to be a freak of nature.

Orthodoxy is the Kingdom of the Saints, yes, capital S and all, even applied to us, mere mortals, mere sinners saved by grace—how else should we be saved?—and that is what the Church herself is. Whether or not we read the lives of the saints, the important thing is that we live them. Whether or not we venerate the saints (it is much better if we do, for therein is love), the important thing is that we venerate each other. Maybe if we do these two things, we can begin to resemble those mighty men and women of God whom we extol for their wonderful lives. The question always before us as followers of Jesus Christ is, whether to be or not to be.

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