The major assignment I gave my middle school girls in Church School was writing a report on their patron saint, which they presented in class and before the parish at the end of the year. Like a proper teacher, I made a report form with a series of questions that would guide my students towards including the most important information about their saint. My librarian instincts for categorization ran into a few difficulties right away. One girl has St. Michael the Archangel as her patron. She couldn’t answer when he was born or where he was buried! This made me reflect on the ideas surrounding patronage and relationships with saints. Let’s get down to the basics.
A patron saint is an intercessor in heaven for a nation, region or church, a profession, an activity, families, and for each Orthodox Christian. Patron saints of places have some sort of connection with it, either they lived or died there, preached the Gospel, performed a miracle, or had their relics interred in a church. A personal patron saint is the one for whom we are named at baptism (or chrismation) and are known in the Church when we take communion. For those of us from the Western churches, the patronage distinctions are more holistic than explicit categorizations. You could have four dozen saints just for a simple lifestyle! In my observation, most Orthodox Christians have 3-4 saints who are a central focus of their lives: personal, church, sometimes a family saint (Slava), and a regional/national identification.
There is an interesting contrast for those who were born into the Orthodox faith and for those of us who entered the Church as adults as it pertains to our patron saints. I have heard ‘cradles’ express disconnect with their patrons – as though not having a choice in the matter means they are automatically distant from this saint. “I would have picked this one! They are so much more interesting!” Or, sadly, they are ignorant of their patron beyond just a name they say when receiving communion.
On the flip side, many converts must choose a patron because their birth name is not of Christian origin. How can we make such a major life decision – an alignment with the kingdom of God for the rest of our earthly lives! Do we just go by the day we were born, our nationality, our interests or suffering in life, or that form of holiness to which we aspire? I was providentially given three saints names at birth, though my family was not Orthodox. God knew I needed all the help I could get! Yet, when I became a catechumen, I still wrestled with accepting that St. Anna was indeed my patroness. What of others with whom I shared more life experiences?
What might give peace these situations is understanding that patronage means an abiding, unfailing love and care within Christ’s Church. Godparents might fail you at some point in time (I pray that never happens) – but not your patron saint. They will ever intercede for you, provide assistance, and guide you towards wise choices. Like any relationship, however, when you have a need, you should just ask those who love you! If you feel no connection with your saint, perhaps starting with the basics like learning their life story, how they have acted within the life of the Church since their repose, and acquiring an icon of them for your prayer corner are good actions. Beyond that, reading the akathist for your saint is both instructive and builds trust with them.
Life is about entering a story already in progress. We accept the treasury of good gifts the Holy Spirit has given us! For cradles, you were given the gifts of a heritage in the faith through your patron saint, and through your parents and godparents. For those of us who made a conscious shift to become Orthodox, we honor the myriad of ways God has directed us here. I accept the wisdom of choices made before I was born. When choosing a patron saint, there really isn’t a ‘wrong’ way to go. As you grow in the faith, you may feel closer to another saint or a series of saints, just as you make friends with other Orthodox or others help you on an emergency basis. Your home base, however, is with your patron.