Our gathering today is a peculiar one. In the backwoods of West Virginia, a group of men and women from all over America are assembled here to celebrate the great multitude of saints who have shone forth in the land of Russia. Most of us are adult converts to Orthodoxy who speak scarcely a word of Russian. As such, we might understandably ask ourselves—what significance does this feast hold for us, who do not share the ties of blood, language or kinship with the saints set before us?
Of course, for those who do—those born and raised on Russian soil, or those in the diaspora who have not lost a sense of their Russian heritage—today’s feast presents no such perplexities. For over 1,000 years, Orthodox Christianity has been the core of what it means to be truly Russian. It was Orthodoxy that provided the common spiritual basis for the unification of the Slavic peoples, and for their development into one of the world’s great civilizations. Throughout all the sufferings they underwent in the defense and preservation of their existence as a nation, in the face of numerous foes—Germans, Mongols, Poles, or even their own people who abandoned the true faith for godless ideologies—it was more than just a piece of land for which they fought. It was rather for a way of life at the heart of which lay the holy Church of Christ; for the freedom to pursue, not happiness, but holiness. This is not just some sentimental patriotic myth. The icon before us is positive proof that the seed of true sanctity has long been rooted in the Russian land, and has been continually bringing forth God-pleasing fruit.
When we consider the manifold contributions of the Russian nation to the universal body of the Church—her saints, first and foremost, but also her many splendid churches, her chant and iconography, the strong culture of her piety, her steadfast confession of Orthodoxy in the face of atheist persecution—we ought to thank God for the countless men and women who devoted their lives to Christ, and gave everything in order to follow him. And though we ourselves are not Russian, simple Christian charity would compel us to rejoice with those who rejoice, in the words of the Apostle, and to celebrate this day with our Russian brethren, who today have such manifest cause for rejoicing.
But for us in particular who are gathered together in this community, we have all the more reason to be stirred to joy on the present feast, inasmuch as by the all-good Providence of God, we all find ourselves within the bosom of the Russian Church. She is our common mother, our teacher and nurturer in the Orthodox faith. We are not Russian, and yet the rich treasury of her spirituality is freely offered to us. If we so desire, by our own prayers and struggles, by nourishing ourselves on the same sources of spiritual life, by calling on her saints for help, we can become true inheritors of the riches of Holy Russia, the spiritual wealth amassed by the blood and tears of untold generations.
The icon before us is thus a consolation, but at the same time a call to action—think how much more sparsely populated is the icon of All Saints of North America; and how much more sparse would it be if it did not include those saints who were born in the lands of the Old World that have been steeped in Orthodoxy for centuries? Brothers and sisters, the assimilation and preservation of the fulness of the faith, of the striving for true holiness that has animated the Russian soul for a millennium—this great responsibility falls to us. Let it be a humbling and sobering reflection; for if we fail to live worthy of our precious charge, how shall we not be condemned, who nightly sing: “O Orthodox Christians of North America, preserve the Orthodox faith; for this faith is your firm foundation.”
Yes, we should be sobered, but not daunted or discouraged. We know that our purpose and calling as Christians, indeed as humans, is holiness. But we should not have false ideas about what we are striving for. Sanctity takes many forms, as the icon of the Russian saints shows; and of course, there are many more Russian saints who are not depicted here, who are known to God alone. Not all of them were wonderworkers, not all of them were severe fasters, not all of them passed their whole lives without sleep. There are also the everyday saints, the real salt of the earth, those holy people who do not appear to have anything particularly remarkable about them, but who, when you dig a little deeper, reveal a spontaneous and unfeigned depth of genuine spiritual life. Our recent pilgrimage to Russia was full of encounters with just such people. If we cannot attain to the supernatural ascetic labors of the holy fathers, we must at least attain to this measure of holiness, we must carry that same salt of grace.
What is the savour of such sanctity? It is simple, unaffected and unassuming, without concern for outward appearances and worldly criteria. It is an unwavering cheerfulness, born of the humility to view every circumstance with gratitude to God. It is a wholehearted and childlike trust in the Mother of God and the saints. It is the graceful sense of humor that can only come from fully embracing all the sufferings of the path appointed to us by Providence. It is the unthinking doing of good to those in need, even though they may be complete strangers. It is the warm hospitality shown to guests, serving them personally and giving them pride of place. It is the self-sacrifice to give generously of ourselves even when we are already tired and spent. It is the openheartedness to treat each person as a brother. It is quite simply the love of Christ at work in our own hearts. And though we may be damaged in many ways by the world from which we come, so devoid of the savour of true Christianity, we should still be of good cheer; for Christ has overcome the world.
Moreover, we are not alone in our effort to acquire this measure of sanctity. We have the heavenly help of all the Russian saints; and we have also the prayers and brotherly love of our fellow Christians living in Russia today, who are engaged in the same struggle. Together, they comprise the totality of Holy Rus. Having just been in Russia for the first time, in the presence of her saints’ relics, in the places where they lived, breathed and struggled, in the lands permeated and protected by their prayers, I can say that never before had I felt so palpably the true existence of Holy Russia—as a living spiritual reality to which it is possible to consciously join oneself, and thereby to be nourished and strengthened spiritually. In such an environment, holiness no longer feels like an unattainable ideal one reads of in books, but a common occurrence, something perfectly normal and comprehensible, which seems to be lying hidden just beneath the surface of the mundane world around us.
How then are we to access and be benefitted by that same atmosphere of holiness, when it lies on the other side of the globe? I would say, just take a look around you. We too have these saints’ relics; we have their shrines; we have their icons; we know their lives, and we call on their names. As strange and improbable as it may seem, here in a holler of West Virginia, we have our own little corner of Holy Russia. Let us cherish it. Let us be nourished by it. Let us hold it dear. Then we will fully experience the joy of this day—not because we have somehow become Russian and no longer American, but because through the gracious aid of all the saints of the Russian land, we have grown up into the same spirit of holiness.
May it be so, and by their intercessions, may we be counted worthy of a place with them in the heavenly kingdom, through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.