Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sainthood in the Orthodox Church

Sainthood in the Orthodox Church

By Dimitris Salapatas

(This article was published in the Orthodox Herald, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, January – February – March 2014, Issue 304-306, pp. 25-27.




The word "Saint" literally means "Holy One". We acknowledge the holiness of those who have struggled to live holy lives, above and beyond the average Christian, by calling them "Saints".
Orthodox faithful who attend Church during Matins (the service normally celebrated before the Divine Liturgy) hear the Synaxari, the commemoration of the Saints. Every day we celebrate a number of Saints or even events, for example from Jesus’ life. This Synaxari is taken from the Church’s canon; hence we use the term canonization when referring to the recognition of a certain person to Sainthood. However, it should be stated here that the true Saint (Hagios) is only God. In the Old Testament we read: “For I am the Lord your God; you shall name yourselves holy and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy…” (Leviticus 11:44; 19, 2; 20: 7).Therefore, man only becomes holy, saintly, through participation and communion with God.
In the Orthodox Church we give a great importance and honour to the Saints, due to the fact that they reached theosis, i.e. became small Gods, in communion with God – they inevitably reached the ultimate objective that we all have, salvation. By salvation we mean that “the Church entrusts to everyone the enormous honour to be responsible for the salvation of the whole world, of this world whose flesh is our flesh and whose life is our life. And salvation for the Church is the liberation of life from corruption and death, the transformation of survival into existential fullness, the sharing of the created in the mode of life of the uncreated”[1]. “Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release, of certain natural energies implied in man’s own creaturely being, but by the “energies” of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man and admits him into communion with Himself”[2].
Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, one of the most prominent Orthodox theologians in the West claims, in his book The Orthodox Church, that:
“The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god. ‘In My kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods’[3]. Such according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, ‘deification’ or ‘divinization’. For Orthodoxy our salvation and redemption mean our deification”[4]
Therefore, we identify through the above that through deification we reach the deeper meaning of what a human person is, i.e. according to the image and likeness of God, of the Holy Trinity. It is significant to emphasise the fact that “the saints of the Church, as a rule, do not even suspect their sanctity. It is the others who recognise the reflection of God in them, and perhaps, they too, in their sanctity, are able to discern the image of God in every human being”[5].
From the 2nd century AD the title ‘Saint’ was given to a number of exceptional people of the Church. First we have the Holy Apostles, then the Martyrs and then the Confessors. This happened spontaneously, from the whole body of the Church. The confession of their belief in Jesus Christ and their martyrdom was sufficient for the Church to give them the honorary title. The common conscience of the Church, the faithful - who are the body of the Church – recognised these people as Saints, without any other recognition needed by the Ancient Church. The mere inscription of their names in the diptych was enough for the proclamation of the certain person to Sainthood. The recording of the Saint in the local festive calendar was undertaken by the laity, of course with the permission of the local bishop, with the vote of the people prevailing over that of the bishop. It is interesting to point out that there have been cases where the proclamation of a Saint without the ecclesiastical conscience of the faithful remained null and void; however, the same has occurred where the Hierarchy of the Church has not ratified a certain person to Sainthood, identifying that there was no reason for their proclamation. Nevertheless, with time the prerequisites in regards to the recognition of a Saint within the Orthodox Church were established.
In order to become a Saint one has to be a member of the Orthodox Church, living an orthodox, exemplary and virtuous life; confessing the faith, suffering persecution for Jesus Christ and finally martyrdom. However, we can identify other requirements for the title of Saint, such as the performance of miracles before and after their death, the beautiful smell radiated by the holy relics of the Saint and the intactness of the holy relics. Nevertheless, we do have many examples of Saints who reached this position in an ‘unorthodox’ and ‘unconventional’ manner. The Sainthood of the faithful is a relative status; they were not perfect and sinless – only God is sinless and Holy, Saintly in nature-; they were flawed with numerous shortcomings. However, they excelled in the struggle for the faith to Jesus Christ and lived a life in Christ.
Christ claims to be the Way. Therefore, if we are permitted to use a metaphorical image, we could claim that the road to Sainthood (and to Salvation, theosis) is like a road. There are a number of routes, lanes and speeds one can take in order to finally reach his destination (theosis). Our lives can also be seen as an ocean, whereby the Saints are islands, scattered here and there, showing us the way and giving us an opportunity to rest. It is interesting how today we have ceased to consider the Saints as our role models; on the contrary, we all prefer to have footballers, models, actors as role models. However, our objective in life, theosis and salvation, can only be reached if we follow the example given to us by the Saints. They are the role models we all need to have if we wish to reach the Kingdom of God.  Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that ‘a man who won’t die for something is not fit to live’. Well, these saintly figures died for what they believed, professed their faith in Christ and eventually died for God. They are saints because of their union with God. How many of us today would do this? They are, inevitably, the greatest inspiration for all Christians, who wish to reach their final goal, which for a Christian is the Kingdom of God.
St Symeon the New Theologian, another prominent Church Father[6] describes the saints as establishing and materialising a golden chain:
“The Holy Trinity, pervading everyone from first to last, from head to foot, binds them all together… The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before, and filled like them with light, become golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith, works and love. So in the One God they form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken”[7].
These are the examples we should all have if we wish to reach our ultimate objective in life, salvation. That is why Jesus became man; that is why he was crucified and finally rose from the dead.
The Orthodox Church classifies the Saints into different categories, depending on their capacity and quality. The categories are as follow:
1.      The Theotokos, the Mother of God. In Greek She is known as Panagia, i.e. All Holy, All Saintly. During the Divine Liturgy we sing the hymn “It is truly right to call you blessed, who gave birth to God, ever-blessed and most pure, and Mother of God. Greater in honour than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word; truly the Mother of God, we magnify you”.
2.      The Holy Angels. During the Divine Liturgy we chant the Cherubic Hymn, one of the longest hymns during the Liturgy. This hymn highlights how we, the faithful, pass into the world of the angels: “We who are mystical images of the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, let us now leave aside every earthly care, for we are about to receive the King of all, escorted by the angelic hosts”. 
3.      St. John the Baptist. He is the figure who brings together Old and New Testament, being the last prophet, who saw the Messiah; his significance was also pointed out by Jesus, who claimed, “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist”(Matthew 11.11)
4.      The Holy Apostles, who spread the Gospel to the world.
5.      The Apostolic Fathers. These were the Fathers who constituted the period after the Holy Apostles, the Ecclesiastical Hierarchs, who were the students of Christ’s Apostles, or people who saw them and listened to their homilies.
6.      The Isapostoloi. The title means ‘Equal to the Apostles’; it was given to Saints who dedicated their lives to the spreading of Christianity, such as St. Constantine and St Helen, who found Christ’s Cross.
7.      The Hierarchs – The Bishops and Fathers of the Church.
8.      The Holy Martyrs. (Prosomion of All Saints Sunday:  “The Martyrs made the earth heaven by the radiance of their virtues, they imitated the death of Christ, they trod the way which brings immortality, they purified the passions of mortals by the surgery of grace, they competed nobly with their whole soul in all the world: let them be praised”[8]).
9.      The Great Martyrs.
10.  The Confessors (omologites). These are the faithful who professed their belief in Christ, but who were not martyred, either because their persecutors did not torture them to the point of death, or due to the fact that they stopped the persecutions, allowing them to die with natural causes.
11.  The Apologists. During the first centuries after the foundation of Christianity the pagan world persecuted the new religion in many ways. One was the academic, theoretical one. Therefore, whoever defended Christianity on an academic level, in front of the persecutors were given this title.
12.  Hosios, Blessed. In ancient Greek the epithet ‘hosios’ means the one who is dedicated to God. It was stated that after the end of the persecutions, a virtuous life in Christ is equal with martyrdom. These are the ones who left their secular life and became monks, ascetics and hermits.
13.  The Just. Those who lived before Christ, according to His divine Law, with the hope of the coming of the Messiah, such as the Forefathers, the Patriarchs, Kings etc.
14.  The Prophets. These people lived in the Old Testament epoch, the last one being St. John the Baptist; they preached to the Jewish people the word of God and prophesised the coming of the Messiah.
15.  The fools for Christ. This last group of saints is definitely the weirdest one. The fools are people acting crazily, being extreme in the way they practice their faith and the way with which they speak to others. However, despite being rare, they give a different understanding of who can be a saintly figure within Christianity.
Who has access to the Holy Spirit? Is tradition static? Many today are amazed that we have new saints proclaimed even during our epoch; however; St. Symeon the New Theologian[9], one of the most important Fathers of the Orthodox Church, described how “it would be considered heresy and a subversion of Scripture to claim that later generations do not have access to the Holy Spirit or cannot acquire the same vision of God as given to the early Apostles, Fathers, and saints”[10].
            Therefore, we understand that Saints exist even today; they are among us. This is a belief verified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in Constantinople, whereby in November 27th 2013 the Holy and Sacred Synod entered in the Synaxarion of Saints of the Orthodox Church hieromonk Porphyrios Kafsokalyvitis (1906-1991), who will be celebrated on the 2nd December, and hieromonk Meletios of Ypseni, in Rhodes, (18th-19th century), who will be remembered on the 12th February.
            Should we venerate the Saints? This is a question posed by many who are outside of the Orthodox tradition. Protestants do not understand the ‘obsession’ the Orthodox have with the Saints. However, this is part of the Tradition of the Church since its early centuries. The Orthodox faithful honour these people who have achieved theosis, showing us the way, encouraging us to follow in their footsteps. Even in Scripture we find instances where Saints are honoured. In Acts 28:10 we read “They honoured us in many ways”. Therefore we see that the Church truly believes that the Saints reflect the glory of Our Lord, that is why we read in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that “…we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”. However, it is significant to identify that God promotes the idea of sainthood to his people, when he states: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19, 2). The Saints also radiate the uncreated light of God (Matthew 5:14, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:8, Colossians 1:12, Apocalypse 22:5). This honouring, however, is not independent from the glory, honour and love we give to Jesus Christ, since they and we are members of His Body, i.e. the Church. They are God’s beloved, God’s friends, and Christ’s brothers. The remembrance of the Saints is eternal (Hebrews 11:4-38). The faithful, therefore, praise with sacred songs towards the Saints, who are heirs of the Kingdom of God and inhabitants of Paradise.
            The significance of the Saints within the Orthodox Tradition is also evident through the celebration of the Name Day. It is difficult for the non-Orthodox to comprehend the importance of the Name Day; nevertheless, it is a clear indication of our faith in the Church. The first name given to a child is always a Christian name. It is the Saint of this name who is the patron of the child. Sometimes the child is named after a saint for whom the family has special devotion, or merely the family follows the tradition of giving the grandparent’s name. It is to our patron Saint that we should pray to and have special devotion for, so that we may receive an abundance of God's blessings. Not only should we hold our patron saint in special reverence, but the Orthodox faithful normally have an icon of the saint in their room and in the icon corner. His or her life should be read and studied, so that we may learn how our lives should be directed. On the feast day of the saint, we celebrate our name day and the saint's day. This day is considered as our birthday into the Church and on this day we celebrate this important event. The Name Day is an opportunity for the Christian to place the Saint at the centre of attention, pointing out the ties between the individual and the entire Church—both the living and those fallen asleep, since it is on this day that the Church is commemorating the saint.
            In conclusion, the honouring of the Saints is not an indication of idolatry, as was considered during the iconoclastic period in Byzantium (8th-9th centuries AD). They should be seen as the greatest role models and examples which we all should have. They are a clear indication of God’s constant love towards his creation.



[1] Yannaras, Christos, Elements of Faith, (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1991), p.48
[2] Florovksy, George, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, (Belmont, Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), p. 117,118
[3] Canon for Matins of Holy Thursday, Ode 4, Troparion 3. 
[4] Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church, (London, Penguin Books, 1997), p. 231
[5] Andreopoulos, Andreas, Gazing on God, (Cambridge, James Clarke & Co, 2013), p. 22
[6] Another Church Father, St. Clement of Rome, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, in Chapter XVII explains how the saints are an example of humility for all of us:
“Let us be imitators also of those who in goat-skins and sheep-skins went about proclaiming the coming of Christ; I mean Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel among the prophets, with those others to whom a like testimony is borne [in Scripture]. Abraham was specially honoured, and was called the friend of God; yet he, earnestly regarding the glory of God, humbly declared, "I am but dust and ashes." Moreover, it is thus written of Job, "Job was a righteous man, and blameless, truthful, God-fearing, and one that kept himself from all evil." But bringing an accusation against himself, he said, "No man is free from defilement, even if his life be but of one day." Moses was called faithful in all God's house; and through his instrumentality, God punished Egypt with plagues and tortures. Yet he, though thus greatly honoured, did not adopt lofty language, but said, when the divine oracle came to him out of the bush, "Who am I, that Thou sendest me? I am a man of a feeble voice and a slow tongue."And again he said, "I am but as the smoke of a pot”
Staniforth, Maxwell and Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings, (London, Penguin Books, 1987), p. 30

[7] Centuries, III, 2-4
[8] Sunday of All Saints, http://anastasis.org.uk/allsaints.htm, accessed 04/02/2014, 16.31
[9] “Those of whom I speak and whom I call heretics are those who say that there is no one in our times and in our midst who is able to keep the Gospel commandments and become like the holy Fathers…Now those who say that this is impossible have not fallen into one particular heresy, but rather into all of them, if I may say so, since this one surpasses and covers them all in impiety and abundance of blasphemy. One who makes this claim subverts all the divine Scriptures. I think (that by making this claim) such a person states that the Holy Gospel is now recited in vain, that the writings of Basil the Great and of our other priests and holy Fathers are irrelevant or have even been frivolously written. If, then, it is impossible for us to carry out in action and observe without fail all the things that God says, and all that the saints, after first practising them have left in writing for our instruction, why did they at that time trouble to write them down and why do we read them in Church? Those who make these claims shut up the heaven that Christ opened for us, and cut off the way to it that he inaugurated for us. God who is above all, stands, as it were, at the gate of heaven and peers out of it so that the faithful see him, and through  his Holy Gospel cries out and says, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’ (Mt. 11:28). But these opponents of God or, rather, antichrists say, ‘It is impossible, impossible’” Symeon the New Theologian, “Catechetical Oration”, 39, 3-5, in the Classics of Western Spirituality series (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), p.311-313
[10] Bartholomew, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch, “Encountering the Mystery – Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today”, (New York, Doubleday, 2008), p.41

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