Recently, I saw a round of questions in a Facebook group which welcomes inquirers to ask questions about the Orthodox Christian faith. The questions reminded me of ones I asked more than a dozen years ago when I was at that stage of my conversion. They can be summed up like this: “How can you feel comfortable talking to the saints and the Theotokos? The prayers look like ‘worship’. My wife/husband/children are seriously confused or feel like they can’t continue in learning about Orthodoxy over this issue.”
Revisiting these doubts and concerns helped clarify for me why I am writing about the saints. I am not merely writing nice stories with pithy commentary. I want to introduce you to real, living people who want to be a part of your earthly journey. The ultimate goal of learning about the saints is to get to know them, as you would know your family and your colleagues and your teammates.
For those who were not raised in the Church and even those who may not have had strong grounding in the faith, their understandings of the ‘dead’ and the ‘living’ are not the same as the prevailing bifurcated Western mindset. Fr. Stephen Freeman describes this division as a ‘two story universe”. God lives above us, separated from our affairs on earth. When someone dies, and they seemed like a decent human, we think of them as with God, again, separated from our first floor existence. In the reverse, if someone was clearly rubbish at living on earth, they get tossed into the the ‘basement’ of hell. Meanwhile, we carry on in our sphere, with gulfs fixed between the basement and the second story. We might hear a footstep or two from above our heads and proclaim, ‘miracle!’ but that is the most we can hope for. One someone is dead – they are truly gone away. The best we can do is celebrate their lives on the first floor because that was all we were certain of. In the modern parlance, “you are dead to me”, sums up the idea: this person no longer exists in an interactive way in my life.
The Liturgy, the primary mission of the Church, is the uniting of Heaven and Earth for the healing of mankind. We Orthodox Christians live in a one story universe. There is no ‘practice my religion’ time and every other moment where God is forgotten. The Holy Spirit moves and broods and is active everywhere. Those who repose have not merely become worm food and vanish into a great unknown. We do not fairy wish that someday we might see our loved ones again after we die. When say we live in a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11 and 12:1), they continue to see the world because there is no death in Christ. Those the Church recognizes as saints have their holiness rise to the surface of our memories and their continued action within the Church serves as a confirmation.
The honoring of saints and asking their intercessions is also part of the living tradition of the Church. G.K. Chesterton describes tradition as, “…giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Orthodoxy, p. 48) Either the Church is universal through time and space or it is not universal at all. Beyond recounting stories, we continue to experience their aid and presence in our lives. This adds to their “lives” as lived in Christ with us.
What I hope to do through this blog is the write what I consider a ‘speaker’s biography’, which one might encounter before attending a conference. You will know enough to recognize them in public and appreciate what they have to say. Unlike most conferences, however, you then get to share dinner with them, then have unlimited access to talk with them any time afterwards. They become friends, surrogate family members, teachers, counselors, protectors, providers, finders of lost things (and people), and so many other points of relationship.
You are never alone as an Orthodox Christian. Let me repeat that: You are never alone! There is no suffering, no shame, no triumph, no need, no insurmountable task, no sadness, no joy, nothing that has not been shared by a fellow saint in their earthly struggle. Unlike our fellow Christians in the flesh, they have finished the race. They can tell you every pothole, every twist and turn, dark corners where enemies lurk to pull you away from the goal. They can protect you, as a mother protects a toddler from rushing towards danger. Even if you are holed up for years in solitary confinement or hide on a rock in a desert, there you will find a feast prepared for you, with guests innumerable. Come, let us join them!