The Church without Saints isn’t the Church – 225 October 2015
I would like to express my warmest thanks to Archimandrite Ieronymos Nikolopoulos, Chief Secretary to the Holy Synod and Parish Priest of this church, for his kind invitation to address you during Vespers on this most important day for the Orthodox Church, which is also of great significance for this parish, since it honors the memory of one of its former priests, Saint Nikolaos Planas.
If the aim of our Creator Himself had not been immortality for His creation – and not merely immortality but glorification, that is sanctification- what would have been the point of His incarnation? The whole of the theology of Christian truth is summed up in the single phrase: ‘incarnation of God and deification of human beings’. In other words, God became human so that we could become gods. A saint is God by Grace. As we read in the Lives of the Saints, there are many paths towards sanctification, because there are a great many factors involved. But within the wide variety of personal struggles, we can discern some fundamental features which characterize a saintly life, and a brief mention will be made of these. In any case, many of us have seen and felt them in the lives of our contemporary holy Elders.
The first characteristic is the conscientious observance of God’s commandments. This observance is free, unforced and joyful, because it is not performed out of fear of Hell, nor is it self-serving, for the acquisition of good things in the future, but simply out of love for Christ. Since this is what He says and wants. And when I say conscientious observance, I mean observance of the smallest detail, because this is what the delicate conscience of the saints requires. This is a conscience so delicate, so sensitive that it would not tolerate even the slightest bad thought. This attitude to life was abundant proof of their unswerving love for Christ, since He said: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ and ‘those who keep my commandments are those who love me’. The sensitivity of the saints on this matter was so great that they suffered and were pained when they saw how those around them scorned the Lord’s commandments, though they gave boundless care and affection, as well as genuine assistance to those who repented and wished to be guided in Christ. Naturally, it would be redundant to deal at any length with the problems the saints had in their immediate and wider environment, because this constancy in obedience to the Lord’s commandments bothered and castigated those who had ‘seared consciences’. And, unfortunately, this can be seen at its worst in the realm of the Church, which not infrequently proved to be demonically harsh, such as in the egregious instance of the treatment of Saint Nektarios.
A second feature is disengagement from the outside world, not in terms of place, but morality. Saint John the Evangelist says: ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ and ‘Do not love the world or the things of the world. If people love the world, the love of the Father is not in them’. He means the prevailing, multifarious sin of the world and our attachment to matter. Even though saints such as the holy priests Nikolaos Planas and Porfyrios lived in the world, or, indeed others who had contact with a lot of people, they’d disassociated themselves from the worldly outlook, with all that implies, because they were linked spiritually to Christ, Who filled them so full that they often forgot even to feel tiredness, hunger or thirst. They’d achieved that which we hear in the 3rd Salutations: ‘Having witnessed a strange birth, let us become strangers to the world, elevating our mind to the heavens’. And since, even while they still lived on earth, they were essentially citizens of heaven, they were able, even when they were silent, to speak charismatically to people’s souls.
The third feature was their true faith: their adherence, in total obedience, to the dogmas of the Church and to its Orthodox Patristic tradition. They denounced heresy and attacked it with their teaching and prayer, though they never hated a heretic as a person. They had the illumined grace of being able to discern an attack from the right, which is one that comes from pseudo-piety, when there is latent egotism which the devil exploits to bring on false visions. In all eras there have been ‘the deceivers and the deceived’, but the saints have always repulsed deceptions through their spiritual gifts and have striven for the salvation of the victims. And they had this attitude because they weren’t spiteful. This is also why they never joined the ranks of the zealots, nor did they behave disrespectfully towards Church leaders, even if they didn’t always agree with some of their actions.
The fourth characteristic was their fortitude in enduring the martyrdom of blood or sorrows, whether these arose from the devil, as direct attacks from him, or from other people, or from lengthy, excruciating sickness.
[to be continued]
* Talk given in the church of Saint John the Baptist (Kinigos) in Vouliagmeni Street, Athens, on 1/3/2015 at Vespers on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the eve of the Feast of Saint Nikolaos Planas.