There is a scene in The Brothers Karamazov, the novel by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, featuring a long thoughtful speech by the elderly monk Zossima, who is nearing the end of his life. Fr. Zossima tells those under his care that they will come to a point in their spiritual lives when they will not think it strange to ask forgiveness from the birds. “That sounds senseless,” Fr. Zossima says, “but it is right.” Then the good monk offers this: “Everything is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.”
This sense of the interconnectedness of all things, that there exists a fundamental unity to all life, that all humanity is like a finely woven fabric wherein all threads are in some kind of relationship with one another—this may be the primary reason why the saints of God are so critical for our time and so necessary for all times. When the holiness of God—in the form of a saint—enters through the surface of our world, the ripples go forth and somehow raise all that exists toward the Kingdom of Heaven.
Creation and Holiness
One approach, then, to understanding the role of the saints is first to consider the Christian doctrine of creation. We believe in “one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” who created the world out of nothing—creation ex nihilo. Before creation, God alone existed. His is a perfect, complete, independent, uncreated state of being. There was no “raw material” for creation that existed outside of God; creation emerged from God Himself, as an expression of His energies. St. Maximus the Confessor writes:
All immortal things and immortality itself, all living things and life itself, all holy things and holiness itself, all good things and goodness itself, all blessings and blessedness itself, all beings and being itself, are manifestly works of God. Some began to be in time, for they have not always existed. Others did not begin to be in time, for goodness, blessedness, holiness, and immortality have always existed.
Goodness, blessedness, holiness, and immortality are among the uncreated energies of God, and from those energies God fashioned good and blessed and holy and immortal and created things. St. Paul writes to the Colossians that it was precisely “by [the Word of God] all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16, 17).
In Christian thought, while there is Christ before and without creation, there is no creation before or without Christ. And when a human being becomes “christified,” or Christlike, because he is created and therefore shares commonality with other created things he, in a sense, draws down the holiness of Christ—not just into his own self, but into all creation. “A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind,” wrote Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov in his wonderful book on St. Silouan. “By the mere fact of their existence—unknown, maybe, to the world, but known to God—the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction of God.”
From the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:20, 21) to the handkerchiefs of St. Paul (Acts 19:12), authentic holiness will spill over whatever “walking chalice” is carrying it to touch the lives of others. This calls to mind the famous observation of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
From Emulation to Veneration
What exactly do we do with the saints? Are they men and women we merely admire, appreciate, emulate? Or, as some Christian confessions would ask, can we or should we develop a relationship with the saints?
Perhaps our first task is to distinguish between emulation and veneration. Emulation is the activity of choice of those confessions that admire the pious men and women of past centuries, but that also conclude them to be dead and gone and inaccessible. Such Christians will emulate, say, Martin Luther or Oswald Chambers or Susanna Wesley or Dorothy Day, because those men and women possessed some virtue worthy of admiration. The same Christian, however, would consider prayerful intercessions to those figures, or any historic figures of great faith, as flirting with idolatry. As one Christian radio talk show host explained, “We don’t pray to dead people; we only pray to a live Jesus.”
The Orthodox Christian, however, has a different understanding of what happens to the virtuous soul after death, and what relationship the departed have with the living. That is to say, the Orthodox Christian has a different understanding of what, exactly, is the Church. Because the Church is the Body of an always-alive, always-present Christ, her members enjoy a communion with each other that is stronger than space and time and the categories of life and death to which this fallen world is limited.
The Church professes that after death, the soul—whether shining with virtue or stained with vice—experiences continual awareness. It’s an abundantly scriptural idea, seen in many places. For example, we see it in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, in heaven and in Hades respectively, who both engaged Abraham in dialogue after their deaths (Luke 16:19–31). We see it in our Lord’s promise to St. Dysmas, known popularly as the Thief on the Cross, that “today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We see it in the words of St. Paul, who wrote that “to be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). And we see it in that “great cloud of witnesses” with which we are surrounded, as the Book of Hebrews proclaims, inviting us to “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem . . . to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven . . . to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 12:22–24).
The living Christian’s relationship with the saints may be described as veneration—not worship, which is too exalted and is reserved for God alone; and not mere emulation, which is too shallow and can be practiced with regard to anyone with any quality we might happen to want. Instead, veneration: we venerate the saint as we might venerate the icon—experientially, prayerfully, aware that there is so much more going on than what meets the eye.
Holiness That Keeps the World Going
The saints are signs that Christianity works. Every saint is a walking homily, revealing what can happen when a person orients his whole being around Christ—lives are changed, miracles happen, evil is defeated, righteousness prevails. At an even deeper level, though, the saints are so critical for our time and so necessary for all times because, as Fr. Zossima told his young disciples, “Everything is like an ocean; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.”
Notice the implication? Because of what Archimandrite Sophrony in St. Silouan the Athonite calls “the ontological unity of humanity,” each person who does a righteous deed, no matter how minor, sends ripples of redemption through the world. Each person who overcomes evil, no matter how minor, inflicts a huge defeat on cosmic evil. Remember our earlier observation by Fr. Sophrony: “A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence—unknown, maybe, to the world, but known to God—the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction of God.”
The saints are great examples, yes, and may we grow ever more aware of their lives in order to appropriate their qualities as our own. But their greatness is found especially in that benediction of God that they call down upon the world. In a very real way, we are alive at this hour because of the piety and prayers of men and women unknown to us, unknown to the world. These are, as St. James writes, the righteous ones whose “effective, fervent prayer” matters much (James 5:16).
So, in ways both seen and hidden, known and unknown, appreciated and ignored, the holiness of the saints, without exaggeration, keeps the world going. And here is a sobering thought, provided by St. Silouan, who is very much a modern saint (he died in 1938): “Prayer keeps the world alive, and when prayer fails, the world will perish. . . . I tell you that when there are no more men [or women] of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall . . . when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards the earth from catastrophe will fail.” Because of “the ontological unity of humanity,” because of Fr. Zossima’s “ocean” of everything, both the vice of sinners and the virtue of saints send ripples through all that exists. Do you get the sense that each of us, simply by virtue of being alive, possesses the potential for greater influence than we can possibly imagine?
The Road of Prayer
The road from mere emulation to the veneration of saints is the road of prayer—specifically, prayer to the saints. It is here we encounter a few rousing objections from other Christian traditions. First, a story, then a few reflections.
I wrote in Touching Heaven about how I acquired my patron saint (or, perhaps, how my patron saint acquired me). After an exhilarating exchange with a fellow pilgrim in the forest near Russia’s Valaam Monastery in the summer of 1993, the role of my principal intercessor fell to St. John, the Forerunner and Baptizer of our Lord. Several days later, I was riding in a boat with then Deacon James (now Hieromonk Jonah) Paffhausen, currently the abbot of the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco in California. I mentioned this episode to him, then asked him how best to cultivate a relationship with one’s patron saint.
Here is what I was expecting in reply: First, collect all the literature you can find about the historical figure—his writings, if any, his context, his sociological significance, his worldview; get a sense of his upbringing, his education. Also, harvest lots of details about his culture. Then, notice how the saint is referred to liturgically—his hymns and any significant details about his icon. Finally, peruse the available literature of how he is perceived by others, and trace how the figure is interpreted down through the ages.
That’s what I was expecting, but this is what I got: “Pray to him.” Pray to him. Prayer, in this sense, is fellowship, and fellowship forms relationships. Again: Prayer is fellowship, and fellowship forms relationships.
The Bible strictly forbids any attempt to summon the spirits of the dead or to try to engage them in conversation (Lev. 19:31; 20:6; 1 Sam. 28). It is not the act of prayer that is forbidden, but the act of sorcery or séance. Sorcery is self-indulgence, designed to satisfy some curiosity or fascination with the afterlife. Christian fellowship, however, rooted in the Christ who conquered death, always has Christ as its focus—His will, His glory, His agenda.
We pray to saints not so that we might gain information or some advantage in this life, but so that their Christ might increasingly become our Christ. “Help me,” we say to the saint, “pray for me, so that I might acquire what you already have—salvation.” As mentioned earlier, if these are among the “righteous ones” whose “effective, fervent prayer” matters much, then requesting their intercessory prayer on our behalf is a great help in time of need.
Idolatry and Unbelief
The objection against prayer to the saints typically includes the accusation of idolatry. Prayer to anyone or anything other than God would, it is charged, rouse His jealousy. But the Orthodox Christian might respond with the imagery of Holy Scripture: the righteous ones do not obscure, butmagnify God, the way that—though it’s an impersonal analogy—a magnifying glass enlarges into greater detail whatever is being viewed through it.
Precisely, God magnifies those who magnify Him. God was “magnified” through Joshua when the prophet obeyed God by placing twelve stones in the Jordan River under the ark of the covenant (Joshua 4:8–14); God was “magnified” through Solomon, who had “a perfect heart to keep [His] commandments” and therefore would sit on the throne of his father David (1 Chronicles 29:18–25); God is “magnified” by all those who rejoice and who love His salvation (Psalm 70:4); God was “magnified” in the Jews and Greeks of Ephesus who believed in Him after the name of Jesus was discovered to cast out demons (Acts 19:13–20); and in Philippians 1, St. Paul’s prayer was that God be “magnified” in his body, whether he lived or died.
Obedience, perfection, joy, belief, martyrdom—the more these and other holy qualities are manifested, the more the God of holiness is magnified. As the psalmist says simply, “God is wonderful in His saints” (Psalm 68:35).
So, properly speaking, we ask the men and women of holiness to pray that God would be magnified in our lives just as He has been magnified in theirs. The Christian understands that it is God alone who saves. By “intercessory prayer to the saints,” therefore, we mean asking the saints to pray to God on our behalf. And, because of their perfection, saints can never grant anything or answer any prayer that is in any way contrary to the will of God. Because the “christification” of the saint has been established, what the saint desires for us will always be in complete conformity with what Christ desires for us.
For the Orthodox Christian, if there is any reluctance to pray to the saints, it usually does not come from a fear of idolatry, but from simple, yet sad, unbelief. To those who say, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” those who wait for rational proof before they exercise spiritual faith, the benefits of the saints may be, at best, general and largely unnoticed. Too often we want to see the net before we leap.
But to those who say, “I’ll see it when I believe it,” those who live what they believe, the benefits of the saints will be personal, experiential, direct, and a great help along the road of salvation. Notice how often our Lord affirmed the faith of those who asked for His help before His help was given—“Go, your faith has made you well”; “Go your way; as you have believed, so let it be done for you”; “Be of good cheer, daughter, your faith has made you well”; “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Everything Is Like an Ocean
Our task may be as simple as Fr. Jonah’s advice on that boat leaving Valaam: Pray to the saints, ask for their prayers, ask for their help, and absolutely without fail give thanks to God for whatever comes. In this moment—as I write and as you read—we celebrate Christ, and we do so by celebrating those lives that have become Christlike.
A final positive word: Because everything is like an ocean, be greatly encouraged that your righteous act—however small it may appear to you, however hidden or unnoticed—is used by God in extraordinary ways. Your kind word, especially when none is spoken to you; your thoughtful gesture, especially when none is offered to you; your silent prayer, especially when you don’t feel like praying; your act of charity when no one is looking—each of these is another string in the great cord of holiness that suspends the world and keeps it from falling into desolation.
“Everything is like an ocean; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.” There is no such thing as a private act or private thought, for good or for evil, because we are connected in mysterious but real ways.
Beloved in Christ, if you ever despair, wondering if what you do for God matters, remember: each single act of holiness is like a stone thrown into an ocean—the ripples go forth, and we do not know whom they touch or where they end.