IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
There is rejoicing when the saints are praised, says the wise Solomon (Prov. 29.2), for whose spirit is not roused when they hear the exploits of the saints. Not only do their august deeds excite the soul, but their feats turn our attention towards Him for whom they labored – Christ; the pleased Master of His faithful servants, the King of His loyal subjects, the Bridegroom of the chaste Bride; the Judge who crowns the victors of the race.
The Saints, in concert with the Apostle Paul, say, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Cor. 4.10). Not only is the suffering for Christ apparent in the life of the saints, but so is the joy which comes through the life which Christ gives, which comes because of His resurrection.
It is by God’s decree writes St. Isaac the Syrian, that the teaching of the Saints has been preserved for our instruction and strengthening, that we might become wise and learn the ways of God, and keep their histories and lives in view as living and breathing icons, taking our example from them, and making ourselves like unto them.[i] For what will you not learn from the lives of the Saints? Where else will you learn about prayer if the saints had not passed on their experience? Where would you learn of the ascetic struggle - the fasting, the keeping of vigil, the meager diet, the love for God, the love for neighbor. We read of it in the lives of the Saints who lived in the first century, the eleventh century, the twentieth century, and all the times in between. We learn of it from those who lived in cities and those in deserts; those who were married and those who were hesychasts; those who were imprisoned and those who lived freely; those who were clergy and those who were lay people; those who were married and those who were celebite; those who were monks and those who were not.
Today, those who can, have gathered here to honor all the Saints of Russia. It is a land whose embrace of the Orthodox faith was paired with monasticism from its beginnings in the ancient Lavra of Kiev, and has influenced the world ever since. Although a godless and persecuting regime ruled over that land in the past century, the Christian faith was preserved, the blood of the martyrs watered the meadows of Rus’, and Christian life continues to flourish. Often Russia, in times past, has been called “Holy Russia.” This title was given to her due to the holiness of the inhabitants, which dwelt within her borders.
Do we concern ourselves at all with these holy people? Today there is a continuous battle for our minds and our time. But what is the place of reading the lives of these saints, let alone imitating these lives?
There is much to draw our attention away from God, to distract us from prayer, to ignore the teaching of the Apostle Paul, who encourages us to set our minds on things above and not on earthly things (Col. 3.2) and to pray continuously (1 Thess. 5.16). As St. Anthony of Optina wrote,
“The affairs of the world are so numerous that they could hardly be completed in a hundred years, and so important that they will not allow any kind of delay. To our misfortune, only God-pleasing works can be set aside without fear; some until morning, some until next year and some until old age, for which reason it often happens that they remain unfulfilled. I sincerely sympathize but cannot help in any way.
Many times, we will excuse ourselves for the sake of relaxation, to decrease some daily tension, or to get away from the daily grind and therefore engage in hobbies that may harm instead of benefit us.
Many people watch sports. Athletes, the best-of-the-best, of the most exceptional physical fitness, running back and forth across fields, courts, and rinks. However, where did St. Vladimir-the-Great not send his emissaries over the whole world in search of that faith that was well-suited for the Russian people and after that baptized them into the Orthodox faith. Some run for entertainment and money, others for the salvation of countries.
And there are those other Equals-to-the-Apostles who ran to-and-fro across foreign nations preaching the Gospel of Christ. St Nicholas of Japan, born in the Smolensk province of the Russian Empire, who, while living in Japan witnessed the war with his homeland, and though crushed in heart due to his love for his kinsmen, he persevered in preaching the Gospel across the “land of the rising run.”
There is a closer relative in the faith, St. Innocent of Alaska, born in Irkutsk and sent from Russia to this non-Orthodox North American land, lived among the Aleuts, learned and wrote in their language, witnessed to them of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and achieved the goal of the Gospel – saintliness, through love for God and for his neighbor.
Exercised in endurance, patience, and longsuffering, these athletes of the Gospel not only received a trophy for their feats but share the rewards with all those to whom they preached.
There are Olympians, gathering every four years from all around the world, training as though their life depended on it, their futures depending on it, their reputations depending on it. They are the best in their class, and are crowned and then renowned. Then there are the Olympians of the soul, those monks of the Northern Thebaid whose spiritual exercises withered their flesh, sharpened the powers of the soul, drew down the living water of the Holy Spirit, and were able to heal the sick (like St. Anthony of Siya), raise the dead (like St. Sergius of Radonezh), cast out demons (like St. Cyril of White Lake), know the day of their death (like St. Sabbatius of Solovki), and even be visited by the Holy Trinity (like St. Alexander of Svir). We know that they have attained victory and are crowned in the age to come evident by the hand of St. Alexander of Svir, which remains incorrupt and pours out fragrant myrrh to this present day.
There are podcasts, books, electronic books, online books, online courses; so many that one is acutely aware that they all cannot be read even within two lifetimes. Moreover, despite the volume of books, there is an overabundance of topics - privatized space travel and its growing frontiers, nanotechnology, the undermining of morality and world government, medical breakthroughs, crime drama, political corruption, success stories, and whatever topic fits your intellectual bent or the mood you are in.
Nevertheless, where do you find the remedy for the healing of your soul, the brokenness of your heart, your desire for God? St. Justin Popovich says, read the lives of the Saints.
In them can be found everything which is necessary for the soul which hungers and thirsts for eternal righteousness and eternal truth in this life, and which hungers and thirsts for Divine immortality and eternal life. If faith is what you need, there you will find it in abundance: and you will feed your soul with food which will never make it hungry. If you need love, truth, righteousness, hope, meekness, humility, repentance, prayer, or whatever virtue or [spiritual struggle], in them, the Lives of the Saints, you will find a countless number of holy teachers for every [struggle] and will obtain grace-filled help for every virtue.[ii]
There is a Hierarch of great renown and erudition, St. Philaret of Moscow, who at twenty-one years of age was the professor of Greek and Hebrew languages. He became an inspector of Academies and Seminaries, was a monastic, ordained Metropolitan of Moscow, a friend of all monastics, and benefactor in the Optina publishing house. He translated portions of the Bible into Russian, wrote Biblical commentaries, tracts, catechisms, sermons speaking to the souls of his flock, and to the whole Russian land. In his work and in his life is the entire panorama of spiritual life presented.
There are many sophisticated and cultured entertainments, whether they be television dramas, lecture series on philosophy, politics, international relations. But what of those Fools-for-Christ who shunned the world, for the love of God and their own souls? What of that symbol of the Russian land, located in Moscow, and plastered on every travel guide for Russia, the cathedral of St. Basil, the fool-for-Christ. It is not named after the founder of the Orthodox Nation, nor its missionaries, nor any Metropolitans, but for a naked, wandering fool-for-Christ who assisted the poor in acquiring money and food. He was canonized only thirty years after his death. And what does such a fool have to teach us? They are the wise who became fools, as the Apostle Paul writes (1 Cor. 3.18). They became fools for Christ’s sake (1 Cor. 4.10), having left houses, brethern, sisters, mother, father, wife, children, and land for the sake of Christ (Matt. 19.29). In this world, they had no lasting city, moreover, they stored up their treasures where moth and rust could not destroy. And in this regard, how can we fail to mention that holy wanderer, Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, who after the untimely death of her husband, donned his clothes and wandered the streets of St. Petersburg, assisting its inhabitants. Thought to be a fool by the wise and unbelieving, she taught the true philosophy in her life that comes by way of mockeries and deprivations.
Time does not allow us to recount the many holy hierarchs, nuns, unmercenary healers. However, we cannot overlook those who have shone forth in this past century - all those Russians who have held the faith and finished the course with their life at the hands of the godless atheists – men, women, and children, nuns, monastics, hierarchs - tortures, and death. Their death is not a silent death. I shall not die but live, and tell of the works of the Lord, says the Psalmist (117.17) Though their body lay in the earth, even if we do not know where many of them may be, yet their blood speaks and testifies to their love for Christ, a love which transformed a nation and transformed its rulers, especially Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II and the rest of the Royal Martyrs.
All of these Russian saints are human, as we are, obviously, but this fact we sometimes forget. They suffered from passions and weaknesses. What is more, they are also a reminder of the brevity of life as well as the unimaginable rewards which await us in Heaven. Their bodies remain unresurrected and in the earth as an example for us to imitate. God has taken their souls to himself, but their bodies remain here as a reminder for us to imitate them. Their deeds are a spur, a goad, so that we would imitate them in our daily struggle, to overcome our passions; they counsel us to have patience, and they bring us comfort and consolation.
Though we may not be asked to give up our life for Christ and be put to death, yet we are asked to give up our life and put to death our old man. We are asked to give up our life and live for Christ. He teaches us through the Scriptures and through the saints that we are to be constant in prayer, to overcome our flesh, and not give way to its desires, which are opposed to the life of the Spirit. We must toil, we must struggle, we must labor. And these Russian saints are no small help to us in this struggle, for if we would only call upon them to help us, then they would be there when we are beaten down, weary in well-doing, pressed on all side, discouraged, confused by the present times.
Dear Father and brothers, sisters, may we truly honor our fathers and mothers in the Faith. These Russian saints have handed down to us the truths of the Orthodox faith and how to live it. May we not neglect this gift. If only we would struggle a bit more, pray a bit more, call on the Saints for help, and look to that city whose foundations and maker is God who is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF ALL THE SAINTS OF RUSSIA, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
[i] The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. (Boston: Holy Transiguration Monastery, 2011), 140.
[ii] “Introduction to the Lives of the Saints” in Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, trans. Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1997), 47-48.