The Saints are Alive

Feast of All Saints Icon

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!

Saint Melangell and the Animals

Abbess Melangell

A young maiden with a hare, an old woman with a lion, a hermit with a bear, a dying woman with dove, what do all these people and animals have in common? They are signpost towards the Kingdom of God – one marked with gentleness and reconciliation. With the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, the reconciliation in and among His Creation has certain signs for us to see as a return to this original relationship. The hallmark of living out the Gospel in the world is the peace a soul reaches with Creation through asceticism and gratitude. The hagiographic theme of saints’ interactions with animals is consistent sign of holiness.

High up in the Berwyn hills of northern Wales, in the late 6th century, a young Irish woman found solitude in prayer with her God. She lived in the wilderness before being discovered in a rather dramatic and fabled way. Melangell, by the tradition, was the daughter of the King of Strathclyde, who had renounced the world and sought to convert the Welsh. Thus she lived for several years in asceticism.

Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog, from what is now Shrewsbury, was a good Christian man, giving alms to the poor in his realm. He took his dogs out hunting one day near Pennant, a remote valley. The dogs startled a hare and went off in pursuit, with the Prince following on horseback. They chased it into a thick bramble, however, the dogs came running back out in fear. The Prince dismounted and went into the hedge to see what had frightened them. There he saw a young woman, standing at prayer, with the hare hiding at the hem of her dress.

Astonished, he asked who she was and where she had come from. Learning of her birth and her mission, at first, he felt compassion for her. Some stories say he proposed marriage first, to which she declined. His second offer, however, was more to her liking. He gave the land surrounding her as dedicated to God so that a church may be built. Other virgins gathered to Melangell to dedicate themselves to prayer and hospitality to the poor. Local traditions say that hares were always found in great number surrounding the settlement and called them ‘Melangell’s lambs’. In perpetuity, after Prince Brychwel’s death, this deed was honored and a church has continuously operated as a shrine to St. Melangell to this day. Her relics and those of the nuns who came to Pennant, were also discovered recently and several miracles are attributed to her.

What might seem like a fairy tale suitable for animation in the life of St. Melangell is really a kind of deep truth being played out in the lives of saints. A wild hare which seeks sanctuary with a human is a sign of that person’s sanctity. Indeed, the very idea of ‘wild’ animals is a byproduct of sin; we broke the relationship of caretaker for all of Creation and put fear between us. This fear is a two-way street, either the animals flee us because we may cause them harm or they could attack or poison us. As St. John Chrysostom writes:

It is clear that man in the beginning had complete authority over the animals…. But that now we are afraid and terrified of beasts and do not have authority over them, this I do not deny…. In the beginning it was not so, but the beasts feared and trembled and submitted to their master. But when through disobedience he lost boldness, then also his authority was diminished. That all animals were subject to man, hear what the Scripture says: He brought the beasts and all irrational creatures to Adam to see what he would call them. (Gn. 2:19) And he, seeing the beasts near him, did not run away, but like another lord he gives names to the slaves which are subject to him, since he gave names to all animals… This is already sufficient as proof that beasts in the beginning were not frightful for man. But there is another proof not less powerful and even clearer. Which? The conversation of the serpent with the woman. If the beasts had been frightful to man, then seeing the serpent the woman would not have stopped, would not have taken his advice, would not have conversed with him with such fearlessness, but immediately on seeing him would have been terrified and run away. But behold, she converses and is not afraid; there was not yet then any fear. (Homilies on Genesis, IX, 4)

Animals, by their type and their actions, are both real actors and symbols within hagiography. What do I mean by ‘real actors’? There were physical creatures who had relationships with saints and were witnessed in behaving in ways not regularly observed for wild animals. St. Zosimas had a lion come help him dig a grave for Mary of Egypt, marking both his sanctity (though he was afraid in the moment) and that of the reposed.  Symbolically, animals can be signs or portents of the spiritual realm. For example, when St. Scholastica died, her brother, St. Benedict, saw a dove ascend from her monastic cell and he knew she had reposed.   In one of the tales surrounding the life of St. Brigid is one where a poor family came to the saint with their cow who had gone dry inexplicably. She touched the cow and it returned to giving milk, ten times the amount before. This illustrates the providence of God to the poor and the compassion of the saint.

How does this healing between humans and Creation occur? Through asceticism and gratitude. Elizabeth Theokritoff notes, in her book, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, “Asceticism provides the link between our relationship to the material world and our spiritual life. It reveals to us that the way we use material things is absolutely crucial to our spiritual progress.” Fasting, giving alms, denying the passions all have the goal of transfiguring our lives into that which reflects brightly reflects Christ to the world. We rightly place ourselves in the order of Creation through gratitude. Theokritoff continues, “At the basis of that attitude is the understanding of the created world as God’s gift. Not a ‘gift’ in the sense that it is handed over to us to do what we like with; rather, in the sense that it is never ours by right. It entails a constant connection with a Giver, a cause of endless gratitude to one who graciously gives us the enjoyment of what is His own.”

The fruit of this ascetic labor is to return to the original authority structure in Paradise, where our Divine image is restored. Though we are still within the fallen world, glimpses of what this was and will be, are truly transformative. As St. Isaac the Syrian remarks, the mechanics of this renewed relationship is the recognition of the divine, “The moment they catch sight of the humble man their ferocity is tamed; they come up and cling to him as to their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and geet. They smell, as coming from that person, the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in paradise. This scent was taken away from us. But Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming.” (Homily 77) As with all relationships, animals also retain a choice as to whether they will engage with us. They may cooperate or choose to cohabit with us or keep to their regular life in the wild. The humble man removes the barriers for this choice.

St. Nektary of Optina said, “St. Gerasimus was a great saint and he cared for a lion. We are little so we have cats.” We all have little ways to pursue gentleness with God’s creation. How have you seen wild animals react to patient love and humility? How can we better cultivate relationships with the small living creatures and the great?


Read more about St. Melangell in this excellent article from Road to Emmaus.

More quotes from the Church Fathers regarding our relationship with Creation.

Saint Sophia of Thrace and What to Do Next

St. Sophia of Thrace

What do you do when your plans go to ruin through unexpected ways? The lives of many saints show us the choices they made when confronted with the unthinkable: deaths of loved ones, natural disaster, persecution, abandonment, disease or infirmity, financial calamity, wars, famine, and so on. For the holy women we remember who faced such disaster, what they chose to do next is the illustration of their character and their faithfulness to God.

A recurring theme in good hagiography is one of holy eucatastrophe. This term, coined by J.R.R. Tolkein, is commonly defined as the happy resolution, an impossible problem which is solved by the end of a story. Why do I predicate eucatastrophe with the word holy? In the lives of saints, the plot twist in their lives is not usually rectified to the same status they were before. They may not have another child or remarry or regain wealth or live in peaceful times, all tropes we like to read or see in fairy tales. The resolution, the good to come from disaster, is a transformation of this person’s life path for their salvation, the choice to do good.

St. Sophia is known to us as ‘The Mother of Orphans’. In the first half of her life, however, she was a mother and wife, a devoted Christian woman, living in Thrace, most likely before 700 AD. She had borne 6 children and in the midst of a busy family, did not neglect prayer or Church attendance. A plague swept through her town, carrying off her husband and each of her children in quick succession. Sophia was now a childless widow.

There is a quote from Dorothy Day which I keep written at the beginning of my journals, where she offered advice to a young man who needed discernment about his life’s path.

“Pray this prayer, ‘Lord, what would you have me to do?’ The answer to this prayer is finding yourself doing more than you ever thought possible.”

In my experience, the work God has for us, especially when we are faced with monumental changes, is so much more than we can dream. I underestimate myself constantly and hide in fear of failure or of conflict. The parable of hiding talents is my constant reminder to use what little I have been given. I feel special kinship with these types of saints because they allowed the Holy Spirit to work humility in their lives, while at the same time, doing great works of faith.

Sophia, whether she consciously prayed this prayer or not, went about doing much more than she had expected in the second half of life. For the next twenty years, she took in 100 orphans and raised them as Christians. She sold property to care for fellow widows. She preferred to do without the necessities of life herself rather than allow any poor person to leave her home empty-handed. She continued to be a mother, seeing the fruit of her love grow in a multitude of ways beyond her first loss.

God blessed her humility and generosity through a unique miracle. She had a jug of wine that she used to serve poor guests. The jug never emptied and was replenished every day. This continued until Sophia told another person of the miracle and the wine dried up. She was immediately sorrowful about her indiscretion. Sophia took the monastic tonsure before her repose at age 53. Her icon often depicts her holding the wine jug as a sign of God’s provision. Her feast day is June 4th.

More about St. Sophia:

Venerable Sophia of Ainos

St. Sophia of Thrace

What is Hagiography?

St. Luke the Evangelist

What makes a good story? Is it a compelling plot? Or do you need an emotional tie to a main character? Are you disappointed with unexpected endings? Are you a fact-checker with sci-fi or historical novels and give up if the author gets the details wrong? We all approach stories with assumptions about what makes them good or dissatisfying. Hagiography, or the recording of the lives of Orthodox saints, has these unspoken assumptions, or in modern terminology, ‘tropes’ for a specific goal. Over the course of several posts, I will explore what hagiography teaches us and the fruits we can gather from the lives of every kind of saint.

I am a trained archivist; my work was to take a jumble of papers from a person or event and impart physical order so as to make a coherent system for finding information. When working with personal papers, there were several ways to go about this, but the overarching picture was to keep in mind the whole of this person’s life trajectory. As I began creating lessons centered around the lives of women saints, I delved into dozens, if not hundreds of stories, sorting out representatives to help my students understand a particular theme. I naturally picked up on patterns in the language used to describe our Orthodox saints.

Were these patterns made by unspoken little ‘t’ tradition or were there rules? Like within the tradition of iconography, are there understood symbols and depictions transmuted in language? I quickly learned there has been no academic or lengthy analysis on what hagiography is or rubrics delineating how we remember the saints. This is surprising considering how much of our liturgical life is guided through well-honed patterns.

To start with a basic definition, hagiography is writing about holiness. The goal of writing about a saint is to record what is profitable from their life story for our salvation -or- how their lives are joined with God in the world. This act of recording takes a great deal of wisdom and is much more complex than a social historian like myself would encounter when writing a biographical essay in my discipline. My emerging thesis is that hagiography is mythos meets ethos using logos or a recurrent structured story that builds towards a defining shared character for a group of people which shows the Divine life in the world.

In the next post of this series, I will explain what hagiography is not (if in doubt, go apophatic) and what are the hallmarks of good hagiography. This will be a fun rabbit trail, I promise!