“God will make him a saint for you”: On Rigidity

The relics of 55 saints at the monastic chapel at St. Tikhon's Monastery
The relics of 55 saints at the monastic chapel at St. Tikhon’s Monastery

I spent the day yesterday at St. Tikhon’s with some of my fellow clergy from the Lehigh Valley Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood, and we shared a beautiful day of brotherhood as guests of the monastery.

In one of our conversations, one of the priests was relating time he had spent with a holy elder in Greece (who is still living, though not in good health), Archimandrite Aimilianos (Vafeidis) of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos. He told the story of a woman who came to him who was recently bereaved at her father’s passing.

She asked the elder: “Geronda [Greek for ‘elder’], may I pray to my father even though he is not a saint?”

Fr. Aimilianos replied: “Yes, of course, pray to him, and God will make him a saint for you.”

First I should probably note here for my non-Orthodox and non-Catholic readers that “praying to saints” is not understood as being the same as prayer to God. “To pray” simply means “to ask.” So, when we pray to saints, we are asking them something. And what are we asking? We are asking for their prayers, just as we ask for each other’s prayers here in this life. So we Christians pray to one another all the time, actually. Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians simply keep it up even when someone has departed this life.

What I wanted to highlight here is how the elder redirected this grieving woman so that she could retain the bond of love with her father rather than being hung up on what is “permitted,” what is “official.” This woman’s father will probably never be canonized (though who knows?), but the elder is not speaking here of that. Instead, he was concerned with love, with the connection between a daughter and father, that it be maintained even across the boundary between this life and the next.

This does not mean that canonization (or “glorification”) of saints is meaningless or should be discarded by the Church. Canonization has the purpose of establishing a Christian as a kanon (“measure”) for other Christians, and it is canonization which makes formal the public inclusion of a Christian as part of the common prayer of the whole Church.

The priest who told us the story said that he was discussing the making of saints with the elder, and the elder began pointing at photographs of various holy people in his cell, none of whom had been canonized (some of whom later would be): “He’s a saint. He’s a saint. She’s a saint.”

The priest said that he wanted to ask him “Geronda, are you a saint?” But he did not ask, because he was scared to ask such a question. But he later imagined what the elder would have said: “I am if you need me to be.”

This beautiful story reminded me that we can become so rigid in our thinking. We want things to be official, to be sanctioned, to be all systematized and tidy. But when we make that our primary desire, then we lose sight of what is the desire of God, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4).

Salvation does not come through systems. It comes through love and grace. If we “need” for someone to be a saint, God can make him so. The question of whether God truly shines in holiness in a particular person such that he can be canonized is an important one, but it is not as important as the question of what I will do with the grace that I have received through that person. In canonizing saints, the Church is not in the business of setting up a system of saints but of making salvation available to all through the saints. It is Jesus Christ Who is Himself our salvation.

There is space for systems, for rational schema, but they must serve our human need for salvation in Jesus. The Sabbath—a system with all its rules!—was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Even our dogma serves this same need. We who live so far removed from the formulation of most Christian dogma can tend to attach ourselves to particular formulations. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. We have a creed, after all. But we must remember that even those formulations were themselves often compromises of sorts (the famous homoousios of Nicea was suspicious at first even to Athanasius), designed precisely for the salvation of souls. We can compromise on words, but not on the salvific realities that those words participate in.

This is where the strength of the Church lies, in its unwavering desire and sole purpose that all should be saved.

13 comments:

  1. This raises a question for me:

    If we pray for those who have departed this life outside of the Faith, or even in active disdain for it, will God save them posthumously?

    1. I am not an expert on these things, but I think that Orthodox tradition leans toward “probably not” (not “absolutely not”).

      That said, the question implies that 1) we can know whether someone is going to be saved or not from what we see in this life and 2) that prayer is bound by linear time.

      For #1, I don’t think we can know. Who is to say that the person’s active disdain is not itself a kind of delusion which God will forgive and “improvise” around? Or how do we know what happens in the person’s soul while in the transition into the next life?

      Regarding #2, I am speculating here, but I like to think that prayers I pray now can have an effect on events that have already happened.

    2. I should add that there are things within the Orthodox tradition that do go the other way on this, i.e., that one’s course after death can be reversed by intercession. (Someone emailed me to remind me of that.) But there is also much that says that death is the cutoff, which at least to me seems to be the dominant theme, given all the urgency repentance in this life is given both in Scripture and everywhere else in Orthodoxy.

      In any event, I do not believe this has been dogmatized one way or the other.

      1. Thank you. I read once, I cannot remember where, a saint who said to pray for everyone who has died on that given day, for everyone needs an advocate and friend at the Judgment. I really wish I remembered who said it, as the sentiment’s beauty has stuck with me (and changed my prayers, often).

        RVW

  2. “If we “need” for someone to be a saint, God can make him so.”

    Read the article twice and I still don’t get the logic.

      1. Got it. I think because the point is simple I overlooked it. I must have been expecting a grand scheme or new revelation from your post (because that’s often what I get!), that a foundational truth articulated in a fresh way, God’s providence in this case, threw me off guard. Thanks!

        1. I just realized after reading some of the other comments that I still may not be tracking with you. Are you actually saying something about those persons who “God can make a saint for us,” or are you simply saying something about God’s providence through any given person in one’s life regardless of where they are at with their own salvation? Are you just using the word “saint” here loosely to mean someone or (in the case of Balaam’s donkey or the rocks which would cry out) some-thing that becomes a conduit of God’s grace? Because the traditional use of the word saint actually refers to that person’s own salvation or nearness to God, and if you are using the word in that way, then I am not sure.

          1. I’m not divesting saint of any of its meaning, including the formal, canonical one. Rather, what I’m trying to do is to emphasize why we have saints, people who are held up publicly by the Church—it is for our salvation. So, the question of whether someone is truly a saint in a sort of objective, official sense is really only ultimately important to that person. The Church as a community could function without this or that saint. The more important question is how I will be saved, which includes the saints.

            Saint and its various parallels in other languages means “set apart.” The question is “Set apart for what?” No saint would say, “I am set apart as a saint for my own salvation” but perhaps “I am set apart as a saint for your salvation.”

  3. I found this article so beautiful and full of hope. Thanks for all your words. Your book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, which I call Ortho and Hetero for short, has been instrumental in my journey to Orthodoxy.

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