The first few Sundays following the feast of Pentecost are set aside for the remembrance of the saints. The first Sunday is “All Saints,” much like the West observes on November 1. The second and third Sundays mark saints of national and other particular interests. In the Orthodox Church in America, we commemorate, All Saints, All Saints of America and All Saints of Russia, and lastly, All Saints of the British Isles and Ireland (noting the large number of American Orthodox who have British or Irish backgrounds). The Scriptures tell us that the saints stand about us as “a great cloud of witnesses,” as though we were living our lives in an arena. They cheer us on and urge us forward, always surrounding us with their prayers.
Life is communion – never a self-contained biology – we exist by virtue of the fact that we are in communion with others. Even in death, our bodies continue in communion with the earth around it and the many life forms that increasingly inhabit our remains. Only in our imaginations do we exist apart from the life of others. Prayer is the most common expression of this communion, particularly with the saints. They pray for us whether we ask them or not, whether we want them to or not. Prayer is the voice of love.
There are saints who are well-known, or at least, identified, in the life of the Church. However, most saints remain unknown to us, regardless of their roles in our lives. It should be remembered that Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared had only 10 righteous men be found. As it was, the prayers of the righteous Abraham were not without effect. His kinsman, Lot, and family were delivered from the destruction of the cities at the hands of angels. It may be that none of us who read this post are among the saints whom I describe. But we can and must join our prayers with theirs (and with the hosts of heaven) as a veil of protection in a world that often seeks its own destruction. May God make us fervent in prayer on behalf of all and for all. I pray this meditation will be useful.
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 my friend’s 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. 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.
That was the most beautiful thing I’ve read in a very long time. Thank you Fr. Stephen.
Yes, thank you, Father! I have recently become very aware of the lack of fervency in my prayers, the weakness of my prayers because I am so weak. I am so thankful for the fervent prayers of the Saints and all silent ones among us!
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers…Lord, Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us!
Thank you, Fr. Stephen! I believe it was through this blog that I first became aware of St. Nikolai and this prayer for enemies. It has been a blessing and I certainly needed to read it today (and every day!). I also like “guardian angels of our social fabric” — such a beautiful picture in my mind. Glory to God for All Things!
Yeah i liked the phrase “silent sentinels” too. You write rli well. I have only just got into reading the saints and there lives. Amazing people.
Like you, Father Stephen, I married an ‘outsider’, moved away and forgot most of my high school friends. At the 50th high school reunion, I became much aware of what ‘good’ people I had been in school with. They contributed immensely to what little I have accomplished in life. This awareness has been humbling: fifty years after the fact, my eyes were opened enough to see how my classmates had blessed me for my lifetime. I am indebted to them with no means to repay.
Surely, this is God’s Providence, which has caused me to wonder about the countless other persons through whom God has moved my thoughts and actions. You are among them as are many who reply to this blog. I am grateful for every one.
Very well put Realist!
As Fr Stephen posted of Nikolai of Zicha–>“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.” This does not come across as someone who is an “anaemic, conflict-avoiding pacifist”. 🙂
Forgive me – but a few observations. I think what you are describing would be a largely moralistic/secular approach to the question of the love of enemies. It’s not a question of like or agreeing, etc., nor is there a question about self-defense. Christ does not teach the duty to defend oneself, nor to choose the lesser of two evils. I agree, that there are times that we do those things, but the canons of the Church offer penance and confession for someone who takes a human life (regardless of circumstances). These things flow deep in the mystery of our souls. As for Dostoevsky’s characters – The Idiot must be read in the context of all his novels – there is a Christian project that runs through them all. Prince Myshkin is not a successful attempt in that project (to portray goodness). It is probably best achieved in the Elder Zossima.
The love of enemies is related to Christ’s self-emptying (and our own). What you describe is perhaps niceness to enemies, but does not seem to require that we follow Christ’s way of self-emptying – which is a commandment within the Scriptures (Phillipians 2:5-11). True love of enemy is frightening to the ego, for it represents the Cross of Christ in our lives. An acceptable Cross would seem to me to be too weak.
Could you tell us about the photo, Fr. Stephen? It looks like Archbishop Dmitri but I assume it isn’t since it says “Greece”. Also, could you tell us how to view or obtain the movie about St. Nikolai?
Does that passion being the first inclination of every father justify such an action on the offender? I think you are looking at the outward situation instead of the heart.
In Conference 6 of John Cassian’s “The Conferences” Abba Theodore reminds us:
“For Job’s patience earned no reward for the devil, who made him more illustrious by his trials, but for him who bore them courageously. Nor will Judas be compensated with immunity from everlasting punishment because his betrayal profited the salvation of the human race. It is not the result of the deed that must be considered but rather the disposition of the doer.”
If I kill a man who raped my daughter, would the world sympathize with me? Of course, but God looks at the heart. I would still answer to Him for such a sin.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich is simply obeying Christ’s commandment to love his enemies, even if it does not agree with the judgement of worldly wisdom. Keep in mind that being rational in this philosophical way would lead us to reject Christ’s cross, His Incarnation, His Resurrection, etc.
I hope that I am not misunderstanding your point. Love in Christ.
Realist, Jesus’ action in the Temple is not an example to be used to justify human violence. As to your example – you offer an extreme – an extreme in which my action or reaction is not the proof of a cases but my confession. I would certainly act to defend my daughter. I am a small man, I doubt I could rip the head off a chicken. But I would certainly intervene. If the intervention saved my daughter I would be deeply grateful, also deeply sad because of our human condition, and if my intervention killed the man, I would be deeply remorseful. I do not want to kill anyone, nor do I want to want to kill anyone. My killing of such a man would result in (at the least) my suspension from the priesthood for a period of time. In some circumstances it could result in being deposed. The taking of a human life is a very serious sin. I admit I would do so to protect my family – though – to the truly holy – there are likely to be means of defense of I which I nothing. It’s not the “choice of a lesser evil” – it’s the choice of evil because my own darkened heart is unable to see or do anything else. I would suggest that you not take violence too lightly nor seek to justify it too easily with extreme cases. We are not Jesuits. We should seek the inner man of the heart and its purification. Otherwise we discuss things like two blind men arguing about what they cannot see.
Amen Fr Stephen,
I come from a zealous theonomic/reconstructionist background and I understand completely what a-Realist is trying to communicate, and it is refreshing to hear how you put that mind set into an Orthodox perspective. Only the Orthodox could sway me from trying to justify violence, no matter how ‘noble’ or ‘loving’ the cause. The Orthodox perspective on these things is impossible to accept by simply analyzing the human condition with moral justice.
When I was deployed in Iraq, I found this prayer by St Nikolai of Zicha. It gave me a lot of peace, especially during the scary times for me and for those in my unit. And it also gave me a lot of peace when pondering the craziness, mayhem, etc., that happens during war. It caused me to think of the stark contrast of Christianity vs. Islam — would a prayer like this ever exist in Islam? Hardly. It drove the point home to me even further that Christ is truly the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As you say on your blog Fr. Stephen, Glory to God for All Things!
Realist, please forgive my misunderstanding. I probably should have read it more carefully.
You asked, “What I’m asking is what would you do if it would happen right before your eyes?”
I would defend my daughter. If needed, I would sin to defend her. Is violence the only option in this “what if”? I don’t know.
A good friend directed me to this post, so, both you and he are a blessing.
1 Sam. 25; Abigail tells David that he fights for the Lord, not for himself and David praises God for sending Abigail to remind him of this tenet before he went too far, by shedding blood needlessly.
David was restrained from his rage and vengeance, by a holy principle, it is the same principle that led Jesus to a cross and it is the same principle that restrained the Holy Father from pouring my wrath back on me, when my sins drove nails through His Son.
The issue of someone hurting my kids has been difficult for me. There was a time before I married that I didn’t want to have a family, because of this fear.
Job 3:25-26 “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”
I know that the adversary is aware that this is my weakness, so, I pray for strength to overcome. Yet, I also know that to overcome the temptation will involve facing my fear, in the flesh…, one way or another. It’s such a paradox that I even struggle to mention it in my silent prayers.
It feels as if, by even acknowledging to God, that this fear exists, I am opening a “Pandora’s box” upon my children.
Nevertheless, God the Father is a far better dad than I could ever hope to be, so, I will pray, trust, and hope.
If I’m waiting on everyone else to enter the Kingdom before I begin to live in it, then no one will ever live in it. God is kind to the unthankful and the evil (Luke 6). Read the whole Scripture before quoting advice from some of it. Where do you get the idea of one person being “more worthy of our attention?” This is man’s philosophy and not the teaching of Christ.
If I may,
Mankind’s true life (“fullness” as it is understood in Orthodoxy) is participatory (God’s presence has pervaded everthing and everything therfefore has something to say about itself). We are sons and daughters. Jesus speaks of even the stones crying out. This is the kingdom.
The problem is that man has completely forgotten what God looks like and therefore retains only vestigial ideas of what true life (“the kingdom”) is.
I hve deleted a number of comments that seem to me to take the conversation in an unhelpful direction. The conversation in the comments is always moderated to some extent to hold to a topic.
Wow. I am faced with a situation where I must forgive someone who is doing things that we are cautioned against, and that go against the commandments and the Bible. Forgiving, loving, and praying for that person and his family I can do. Allowing them back into my life in an active role I simply cannot. Is that not truly forgiving?
They have no plan to cease the behaviors, and are not Christian.
They practice witchcraft (Wicca) proudly; commit adultery as recreation with other couples; lie; steal; do drugs; and advocate openly homosexual practices for their 16 yr old son. The man was my stepson and I raised him for 26 yrs. He is 40 now.
How do I apply what you are saying we need to do in this situation?
I am not a Saint, but I genuinely want to do what Jesus asks of me.
You are under no obligation to invite them into your home. We have an obligation to love and not hate. Pray for them and do not consider yourself to be in any way superior. But you may protect your home from the demons he brings.
Fr. Stephen + Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless
In this fallen world when people make the decision to do violence (no matter the reason) the Church in Her wisdom offers confession, penance and reconciliation. God is merciful.
It is no different than any other consequence for one’s actions when we sin we have to be reconciled in order to heal. If you kill someone in defense of another or in self-defense you have still caused harm.
If I harm another person I am still responsible for the harm that I do before God just as they are responsible for the harm that they are inflicting.
Justification for violence is just another way of seeking approval for missing the mark.
Please do not misunderstand. What I am speaking to is our personal responsibility before God.
There are situations that we can be placed in that are obviously “damned if you do & damned if you don’t” dilemmas. Thing of it is, we can only do our best at the time with what we know to be right, pray to God to have mercy and confess our transgressions.
Lord Jesus Christ Son on God have mercy on me a sinner
Thank you Fr. Stephen! I appreciate the answer. I have not discussed it with my parish priest yet, and I am sure the answer would be much the same. It is such a difficult situation. We broke off any relationship over a year and a half ago – over lies and thefts. Now he is back and wants to be in our lives again and I don’t want that. Thank you for helping me see the way I should deal with this. You are, as ever, a blessing – to all of us.
Don’t tie yourself up in trying to figure things out. Just do the best, in communion with God, with things as they present themselves to you. We do not need to figure out the world – just live in it. But finally, violence only gains a short term reward. But to serve God grants as an eternal reward. Don’t worry about the circumstances that seem to push these into contradiction. Do your best to follow God, and go to confession and communion regularly. We don’t have to figure out all of life.
Thank you from my husband Michael too – for reminding us that the behaviors are truly demonic influence. I will love the person and pray for them – while seeing the demons for what they are and ask Jesus to free them. Blessings to you too father.
A very helpful post, indeed.
I have seen “churchless Christianity.” In my experience it does not work for a large number of reasons. The Church is not man-made nor a legal institution – but those within it can certainly be corrupt or misguided, etc. But it is Christ we encounter in the mysteries of the Church. And it is humanity (my other self) that I meet within its walls (and outside as well). It’s like marriage. You can do most of the marriage stuff outside of marriage, but there will be no union – no mutual surrender. It is far less likely to work for your salvation.
Your struggles, frustrations, worries, etc..can be viewed as your Cross. Take it up and pursue Victory. I would even go so far as to encourage you to thank God for providing you with this opportunity, though I know it hardly seems as such.
I, too often feel old and tired from dealing with the daily challenges of our earthly life. I’m 43, married, with 3 children. I sometimes encounter situations where I want to appear to my family as a strong leader, yet remain peaceful and forgiving. I’m also in a positon of authority at work. Its very difficult.
Don’t overlook your struggle and these questions that you can’t help but ask. That in itself is significant and in contemporary times for someone of your age, quite rare.
Pray, read the Gospels, and pray some more. Who knows where it will lead you?
I think we overlook the role of the civil magistrate here. The magistrate, and only the magistrate, wields the sword to punish and restrain the evil-doer. In our parish, we pray daily at the altar for righteous government and the strengthening of the arms of those who need to heed duty’s call.
Anarchy is worse than tyranny.