By Jackie Morfesis
One of the blessings of Orthodoxy is that we have a rich history of the lives of the saints and martyrs of the Church. One only need to enter an Orthodox Church to see the beautiful icons depicting the saints and martyrs of the faith. Especially the iconostasis, the icon wall, which marks the altar area of the church, the place where the sacraments of the faith are consecrated and brought forth to the faithful.
We commemorate our saints on Saint’s Days. We honor them, venerate them, and hear stories about their lives, their courage, their sacrifice, and the wisdom of their words. We celebrate the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great.
I have always responded personally to St. John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, the forerunner of Christ. The one who knew that our Lord was coming and with great humility, he also knew he was not fit to even tie His shoes. “It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (John 1:27).
Many Orthodox baptize their children with a saint’s name. We celebrate our name day on the day when our patron saint passed into eternity. In so many ways, our faith walk is intimately connected to the lives of the saints, as not only symbols of the faith, but living, breathing, icons of Christ.
Many years ago, when I served as a counselor at Ionian Village, the Greek Orthodox camp for youth in the Peloponnese in Greece, I had an encounter with St. Dionysios. To be clear, we all experienced St. Dionysios as he was the patron St. of Ionian Village, given that the island of Zakynthos was off the coast of the campgrounds. We took a trip to the church of St. Dionysius, and we were able to see his relics and venerate him.
One evening after prayer in the chapel, I returned to my cabin. I went to sleep and was awoken by the presence of a man standing at the side of my bed. A man dressed in a monastic and priestly black robe. He had dark hair and a long beard. His eyes were not the eyes of a normal man, they were instead eyes on fire, swirling circles of fire, emanating a blinding light. The sensation was that of being in the presence of all-consuming holiness.
In addition to seeing this man, who I knew was St. Dionysios, I experienced a very unusual phenomenon, I became soaking wet. I had long hair, and when the vision ended, I went to the shower room and had to ring the water out of my hair.
Fast forward, to years later at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the time, I was presenting an academic paper at a conference at the university and staying on campus in a dorm room. Unbeknownst to me, the university had on its ground the chapel of St. Joan of Arc airlifted there from France and reconstructed. I visited the chapel which had relics of St. John of Arc. On the wall was what appeared to me to be an icon of a saint. As an Orthodox Christian, I venerated the icon.
That evening, once again, I awoke to a man standing beside my bed. This time it was not St. Dionysius but the saint from the icon. He said that I was the first person to venerate him in the chapel. Like my vision of St. Dionysios, the eyes of this saint were also on fire, swirling circles of fire. The next day I went to the library on campus and inquired about the saint and was told it was most likely St. Bernard. Both experiences happened after I had gone to a chapel and prayed.
Two experiences, one overseas in Greece at Ionian Village and one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at Marquette University. I have shared my experiences with others through the years, but this is the first time that I have authored an article documenting them. But it is time for more than one reason.
As I stated, the saints are a great blessing to the faith. As examples of the light of Christ, they stand as examples to us all of the living holy lives. Lives that testify to the eternal as opposed to the temporal. The spiritual as opposed to the worldly. And the remaking, remolding and reforming of our very beings to become God’s purpose for our lives as opposed to our egoistic purposes for our lives.
Yet, we must also be careful not to be so invested in the history of the saints that we forget that we are not venerating them because of their own unique personhood, though they are all a child of God because they gave their lives to Christ and the light they shine is the light of our Lord. The great works that they did were for His glory, not theirs.
We must also be careful to root and anchor our faith in God’s Holy Word. We benefit from the wisdom and prayers and writings of the saints, but we must always rely on God’s Word, hunger for God’s Word, and remember that when we venerate and learn about the saints it is because they loved and served the Lord. Too often, our clergy and even monastics respond with the rote advice that we must be “spending time reading about the faith and the saints,” which is beneficial and instructive, however, we must also first and foremost spend time reading directly from God’s Holy Word and in prayer with the Lord. We must also be cautious about continually relying on the lives of the saints as the only benchmark for living a good Christian life when every single day if we opened our eyes, we would see evidence of Christ’s disciples living good and faithful lives.
Recently, comments were made to me by a representative of the Orthodox faith, a monastic no less, echoing the words of a saint who said he received a message from God that we are to “set our mind on hell” to heal our sinfulness. He could not substantiate these words with scripture – because we know very well that we are to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross and go to God for the healing of our sins, not the demonic realm. We are told to flee from evil repeatedly in scripture, rebuke the darkness, and put on the armor of God because this is spiritual warfare. Mercy on anyone who believes that we are to send out thoughts or minds to the place of eternal suffering to heal our sinfulness or develop humility.
When I was a child, I attended Bible Study at a church in my neighborhood. I will forever be grateful that this non-Orthodox church instilled in me a love and hunger for God’s Word. Tragically, Orthodox Bible Study classes, if they even exist, focus on sharing and reading about the lives of the saints. We can come out of “Bible study” not even learning one new word or passage of scripture. We must teach the faithful to hunger for God’s Word and to long for a deeper personal relationship with Christ. We must also teach faithful Orthodox to pray, to the Lord, for each other, and as spiritual warriors in the realm of the seen and unseen.
We are all called to be saints. We are called to strive to live lives worthy of sainthood. We must also remember that the saints lived lives of becoming saintly, not being born saintly. They struggled, they suffered, they fell short, they missed the mark, not just some, but many sinned greatly. Among them was St. Paul who had a hand in torturing Christians prior to his conversion and the harlots of the desert, most notably St. Mary of Egypt.
One of the deep wounds of modern Orthodoxy is that we take every single word of the saints as gospel, when we should be relying on God’s Holy Word, for even the saints, especially the saintly, were and are attacked and deceived by the demonic forces, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We know very well, that “the closer we move to God the greater will the attacks be upon our spirit.” We also know that the devil is a prowling lion seeking someone to devour. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Yet, through God’s grace, they were saved and lived lives that shine as examples for all eternity.
There would be no personal meaning for us to hear the stories of someone’s life, anyone’s life, if it did not have an application to our own, including the lives of the saints. If it did not serve in some way to elevate our own lives. If there were no relationship to our own life. Two thousand years of Christianity has relevance to our lives because it is not a part of history to be embedded in the past, but because it is alive right here and right now. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). We must not be so invested in the past that we fail to see the relevance and tangible reality of the past in the present.
Most recently, we have been blessed by the movie, “Man of God,” directed by Yelena Popovic. Every moment of this film was a holy gift to not only convey the life of a righteous man but to enrich our own lives and faith walk. Yet, though this film stands as a celebration of God’s glory it is also simultaneously in a paradoxical way, tragic. Tragic because in two-thousand years of Christianity we needed to make a film about a “Man of God,” when every single follower of Christ should be a “Man and Woman of God.”
The next time we attend service, the next time we venerate an icon, the next time we stand upon the solea to partake of Holy Communion, let us remember as we approach the altar and the beautiful iconostasis behind the priest, that we too are part of the family and lineage of those who follow Christ. Discipleship did not end with the early disciples of Christ. Every single Christian is a disciple of Christ. “Therefore go, disciple, all the nations and baptize them in the name of The Father and The Son and The Spirit of Holiness” (Matthew 28:19). We too are part of the history of all those who loved and served the Lord. We too are called to be a living icon in a world so very desperately in need of light.