1. The Significance of the Lives of the Saints
In order to begin to understand the importance of the Lives of the Saints for our spiritual lives, I believe we can turn to no better or more thorough source than St. Justin Popovich's Introduction to his own compilation of the Lives of the Saints. A theologian, St. Justin saw no dichotomy between the Lives of the Saints and the theological writings of the Church. For him, as for the Church, theology and the Lives of the Saints form one whole. He called the Lives of the Saints "experiential theology" or "applied dogmatic theology," and he viewed them and wrote about them in a theological manner. Likewise, he viewed theological writings as an expression of the experience of the life of Grace in the Church, and not just an intellectual, abstract or polemical exercise.
How does St. Justin view the Lives of the Saints theologically? At the center of all of St. Justin's thought is the Theanthropic vision: the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ, uniting human nature with Divine Nature. The fact of the God-man, the Theanthropos, is the axis of the universe: it is the reality according to which everything else must be viewed, whether it be the nature of the Church or the problems and issues of everyday life.
Thus, when St. Justin looks at the Lives of the Saints, he does so in the light of the God-man. Real and true life—eternal life in God—became possible only with the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of the Saviour, and this life is the Life of the Saints. St. Justin saw the Lives of the Saints as bearing witness to one life: the Life in Christ.
St. Justin wrote: "What are Christians? Christians are Christ-bearers, and, by virtue of this, they are bearers and possessors of eternal life.... The Saints are the most perfect Christians, for they have been sanctified to the highest degree with the podvigs of holy faith in the risen and eternally living Christ, and no death has power over them. Their life is entirely Christ's life; and their thought is entirely Christ's thought; and their perception is Christ's perception. All that they have is first Christ's and then theirs.... In them is nothing of themselves but rather wholly and in everything the Lord Christ."
The Saints live in Christ, but Christ also lives in them through His Divine Energies, His Grace. And where Christ is, there is the Father and the Holy Spirit also. Christ says, Abide in Me, and I in you; and elsewhere He says, If a man love Me, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him (John 15:4; 14:23).
Thus, St. Justin makes bold to say that the Lives of the Saints not only bear witness to the Life in Christ: they may even be said to be the continuation of the Life of Christ on earth. "The Lives of the Saints," says St. Justin, "are nothing else but the life of the Lord Christ, repeated in every Saint to a greater or lesser degree in this or that form. More precisely, it is the life of the Lord Christ continued through the Saints, the life of the incarnate God the Logos, the God-man Jesus Christ Who became man." This is an amazing thing that St. Justin is saying: when we read the Lives of the Saints, we are reading the Life of our Lord Jesus Christ. This in itself should be enough to convince us of the importance of filling our souls with the Lives of the Saints.
St. Justin also says that the Lives of the Saints are a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles. "What are the 'Acts of the Apostles'?" he asks. "They are the acts of Christ, which the Holy Apostles do by the power of Christ, or better still: they do them by Christ Who is in them and acts through them. "And what are the 'Lives of the Saints'? They are nothing else but a certain kind of continuation of the 'Acts of the Apostles.' In them is found the same Gospel, the same life, the same truth, the same righteousness, the same love, the same faith, the same eternity, the same 'power from on high,' the same God and Lord. For the Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever (Heb. 13:8): the same for all peoples of all times, distributing the same gifts and the same Divine Energies to all who believe in Him."
With these words of St. Justin before us, we might well ask ourselves if Orthodox spiritual life is even possible without the testimony of the Lives of the Saints. The answer to this, I believe, must be "no." True spiritual life begins when we live in Christ and Christ lives in us, right here on this earth. And the Lives of the Saints bear witness to us that the Life of Christ on earth did not end with His Ascension into Heaven, nor with the martyrdom of His Apostles. His Life continues to this day in His Church, and is seen most brilliantly in His Saints. And we, too, in our own spiritual lives, are to enter into that continuing, never-ending Life. I spoke recently to an Orthodox priest who had converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism. He told me that, when he was received into the Church, the officiating priest told him: "You will never be truly Orthodox without reading the Lives of the Saints." Later, when he himself became a priest, he found that the most pious people in the churches are those who read the Lives of the Saints, and that those who make the most progress in the spiritual life are those who read the Saints' Lives.
The Orthodox Faith is not, first of all, of the head. First of all, it is of the heart: it is felt and believed by the heart. Through the Lives of the Saints, we develop an Orthodox heart. Our monastery's co-founder, Fr. Seraphim Rose, emphasized constantly this "Orthodoxy of the heart," especially in his writings and talks at the end of his life; and he frequently referred to Lives of the Saints as a means of developing this.
A talk delivered at the Annual Assembly of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, February 16/March 1, 2002.