There are many stories of saints in the Orthodox world, including contemporary ones. Their biographies are sometimes remarkable, sometimes not. Their stories are occasionally marked by miracles, but not always. I cannot think of a single characteristic that makes them like one another apart from their sanctity. And that quality does not make them so much like one another as so completely and truly themselves.
I have had occasion to be with a saint on at least three occasions. Mind you, this is my opinion since none of the three are canonized. Two of them are still living. The third has just been revealed to be incorrupt four-and-a-half years after burial. And in this last instance, the saint would not necessarily have been recognized as such by most people who knew him. But there is an experience of the three that I find strikingly similar. It has to do with the experience of presence.
CS Lewis in his novel, That Hideous Strength, describes the experience of being in the presence of the Eldila, angelic beings who govern various planets. When in the room with them, space seems to tilt, they themselves are the moment and measure of balance and things become relative to their presence. That is perhaps an odd image to draw on to speak about the saints, but it’s pretty much the closest thing I can think of.
I do not mean to describe an experience that makes you dizzy (although I did almost fall down once while leading an Akathist to the Sitka Icon of the Mother of God). Rather something about their presence changes the balance of everything around them. I should add that this same experience brought with it a great sense of well-being.
I do not believe such things to be objective, but neither do I think they are purely subjective, i.e., merely in the mind. Instead, I would describe these experiences as personal. And I must be clear, I mean personal, though not private. I am saying that it involves something that in theology is described as the person. The Elder Sophrony makes very clear in his writings, that although we are created as personal beings, our personhood is something that is becoming. We are moving towards the fullness of our person. The fullness of who we are is something hidden, something that shall be revealed.
What I believe I have experienced, in at least three people of my acquaintance, is just such personhood in its greater form. I find it interesting that a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer refers to life in the age to come as “the larger life.” I have always thought this to be a very apt description, though I do not know its origin. But it accurately suggests something that I believe I have seen.
I will not speak of two of the persons who fit this description. They are both quite alive and well and it would be inappropriate. However, the person of my late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas), is another matter. I knew him as kind and generous. I also knew him well enough to be aware of his limitations. But when you were with him, there was simply a wholeness about things. And that wholeness made the limitations seem unimportant (as indeed they were).
What I knew in him was the fullness of a bishop. In our diocese we describe him as the “Apostle to the South,” and I think it is a title that will eventually be his canonically. Things happen around saints. God “causelessly causes,” and we cannot ever quite put our finger on the “how” of it. The same was true in our diocese. Founded in 1978 with a tiny handful of parishes, Vladyka simply being the living force around which parishes “happened.” I once heard it said (in a derogatory manner) that Bishop Dmitri would “start a Church anywhere he could find two old ladies and a cat under a tree.” When I was received in 1998, that was a pretty apt description of our mission and many others. We were a diocese of worker priests and storefronts.
But what seemed quite grim to me at the time simply “happened.” Today storefronts are rapidly being replaced with beautiful temples and most of the priests are full-time. The diocese is a model to the Church in its health and finances. And it cannot be said that Vladyka “managed” all this. It wasn’t managed: it was planted, nurtured and grew. It has been like the Kingdom of God.
What I have slowly learned is that what I am describing is simply grace; and in a living saint, the presence of grace manifests as Person. The Kingdom of God seems to occur mostly in our peripheral vision. What is causelessly caused can be seen by everyone, but its Cause seen by none.
In August of 2011, the Apostle to the South fell asleep in his home in Dallas, next door to his cathedral. This past weekend, his faithful children brought him home to his cathedral as his body was transferred from its temporary grave in Dallas to a newly constructed chapel built for his crypt. His body, unembalmed, was found to be incorrupt. The Cause of that will not be seen, until we see God face to face in that larger life to which we are called.
God is wonderful in His saints.