Silent Sentinels and the Saints Among Us

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Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints., I do not know that his kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

I do not at this early morning hour have the reference for the new movie on St. Nikolai. I will add it to this post later. But for today, give thanks for the largely silent sentinels who live beside us. Thank God that the world has been so provided.

Comments

  1. Matthew says

    I have a story to share about St. Nikolai. I heard it this summer from a visiting priest to our parish who knew both St. Nikolai and St. John (Maximovitch) personally. Sadly I have forgotten his name–I only know that he served at Osceola Mills, PA for awhile.

    He met St. Nikolai when he was 18 and studying at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and he served as a subdeacon under St. John in San Fransisco.

    When St. Nikolai was teaching at South Canaan a friend of this visiting priest was assisting St. Nikolai in his room with some book work. A man knocked on the door, and St. Nikolai asked his assistant to see who it was. The assistant looked through the window and responded that it was a beggar. St. Nikolai looked through the window to see for himself and saw that it was St. John Maximovitch and exclaimed, “You fool! This man is a saint!”

    St. Nikolai opened the door and–recognizing the Holy in St. John–prostrated himself before St. John. St. John–recognizing the Holy in St. Nikolai–responded in kind and prostrated before St. Nikolai. There they were, two saints of North America prostrated on the ground in front of each other.

    It paints a beautiful image, no?

    What clear vision, what pure hearts! Glory to God in all things!

  2. fatherstephen says

    It is also related by the Elder Zacharias of St. John’s Monastery in Essex, that St. Nikolai was acquainted and close to St. Silouan on the holy mountain. On a tape series he relates a conversation between the Elder Sophrony and St. Nikolai about St. Silouan. All of that overwhelms me!

  3. says

    And so I suppose that it is left to the rest of us to work hard to be and do what comes more naturally to the “angels.” Though no doubt they are working hard, too, in the background, or did so at one point until their natures changed as a result of it.

  4. says

    Gina, nothing is left to us. All if given to us by God’s grace. But it is as always for us, to pray, to believe, to repent, to forgive, to be kind, to be generous and it may be quite likely that we are used in ways we may never know. The vast majority of the ones of whom I have spoken are not known by name.

    I’m not certain I understand your second statement if you wanted to clarify it.

  5. says

    I meant that the people who “make it look easy” are probably also exerting effort, it’s just they are more practiced at it, and the habit becomes more ingrained with the practice.

  6. says

    “For the largely silent sentinels.” Father, we commemorated today some helpers of St. Paul. One, St. Cephas, is largely unknown to us, save that he was a Saint. These “little saints” are indeed sentinels. They are always meaningful to me, knowing that I am a “little” person, too. Some of my favorite icons are those of All Saints, in which the picture fades into a sea of millions of faces, most of them unrecognizable. I can only trust that God will let me be one of those unknown faces, if I pray and hold fast. Thanks for another encouraging post.

  7. says

    kevinburt,

    There have been many places in my life that a face became a regular “touchstone” as it were – not a place of conversation but a place of assurance, by their presence and by their prayers. Over the years my children, when young, stood as daily silent sentinels, waiting for me to return and to come home not in despair or defeated, but rejoicing. Their faces became sentinels (rarely silent) that urged me forward as almost no others.

    By the same token, many icons that appear in Churches where I visit, are icons that have become close to my heart. St. Seraphim among the first. I cannot be their equal, but among them I will not fail.

  8. Ole Rocker says

    How proud I am!
    How vain I can be –
    How blind it makes me …
    How I want to see!

    Oh Lord, have mercy!
    Lord have mercy
    Lord, have mercy
    Have mercy on me!

  9. Salvatore Sberna says

    Father bless,
    Your description of the silent sentinels reminds of Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamozov.” His elder sent him to live in the world “as a monk”, teaching others to love life. Although Alyosha’s actions during the novel consist largely of small favors and kindness’ for his family and friends, Dostoevsky sets him up as the hero of the novel and, though I’m not certain, as the model of the type of hero Russia needed at the time.

  10. says

    Salvatore,

    Paul Evdokimov, and some others among the Paris school, wrote about a monasticism in the world. They were probably not far from Dostoevsky’s notion. I am not at all certain that the age of the monastery is past and I welcome their current growth. But I think there is dawning an age of piety within the parish and the world that may have been long a-borning.

    I see plenty of flaws and weaknesses in parish life at present, but I also see other things, far more hopeful, things that have not been seen in a few generations. The 20th century produced more Orthodox martyrs than all other centuries combined. Their prayers now lift the Church. Who can tell what God will do with us. It is a good time for prayer.

  11. TOMISLAV MLINAR says

    I WAS FORTUNATE TO MEET BISHOP NIKOLAI WHEN I WAS AT ST SAVA MONESTARY IN THE MID 1940S. WILL NEVER FORGET HIM, AND I HAVE A STORY ABOUT HIM. GOD BLESS ALL