Stained Glass or Icons of Christ?
As a child, I remember staring at the stained glass windows of our Church of England parish, wondering about the people depicted on them. They were all saints, I assumed: pale, bloodless faces, encircled by smoothly curving garments, with dreamy eyes looking listlessly toward heaven. Above each head floated a golden circle - a halo, I was told - since saints are holy. Saints were a different breed of men and women, almost free from earthly qualities, entirely dispassionate, and far, far away from anything any regular person could ever hope to be. The idea of actually knowing someone who was a saint wasn't simply remote - it was impossible, since saints are from a time past, not from the present.
When I became Orthodox, a entirely different picture of saints emerged. Rather than pale, bloodless faces, an image was presented of saints from all nations, who literally poured out their blood for Jesus Christ. The dreamy eyes of the stained glass window saints were gone: Orthodox icons depicted saints looking resolutely ahead, with sobriety and seriousness, never in ecstacy, but rather in solid, quiet joy. The halos, rather than floating above the heads of these holy ones, rose from the shoulders to encompass the whole visage of the saint, thoroughly transfigured by the grace of God. Saints were - and are - real people, of holy life, who were not remote at all, but as close and knowable as the Lord they serve, Who took on human flesh and lived amoung us.
I was further surprised to learn just how many saints had been revealed by God in recent decades. Rather than the false impression that saints were mostly those who lived long ago, calendars show us that the number of saints in each century has actually grown exponentially. The largest numbers emerged during the Muslim persecutions of Christians under the Turks, as well as the millions of martyrs who suffered under various Communist regimes. Yet the number is even larger than these: wonderworking evangelists like Saint Herman of Alaska, shephers like Saint Alexis Toth and Saint Raphael, and so-called "fools for Christ's sake" like Saint John Maximovich, who reposed in 1966. Perhaps most surprising was the living memory of saints in the Orthodox Church - a woman who attended Saint John's parish in Peking, priests who served with Saint Nicolai Velimirovich, or the still-living descendants of Saint Innocent.
Unlike the idea of "official recognition" in the modern West, Orthodoxy reflects a very human, non-bureaucratic idea of the recognition of sanctity. When Saint John Maximovich reposed in 1966, icons and services to his memory emerged from the efforts of the faithful, long before Church authorities entered his name on the calendar. Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, another "fool for Christ" who spoke prophetically and exhibited clairvoyant insight during her lifetime, was locally venerated for decades with the name, "Blessed Xenia", a practice of artificially classifying saints which emerged in the West. Etymologically, whether one speaks of "saint" or "blessed", the distinction is semantic, since both terms mean "holy".
More recently, the martyrdom in 2002 of the young Russian soldier Evgeny Rodinov at the hands of Muslim Chechens presented another example of God's grace in our times. As news spread of his martyrdom, in the face of offers to deny Christ and embrace Mohammed, the faithful in Russia began asking for his prayers, and even writing icons bearing his image. What was the result? Miraculous healings. Just as God does not cease to pour out His grace through holy ones during their lives, so too does He work miracles by their prayers after their earthly death. The story is the same in the case of the righteous Justin Popovich, Seraphim of Platina, and Arseny of Winnipeg - all righteous ones of our own times, to whom services have been written, whose icons are with us, and whose prayers we ask. In all cases, the measurement of sanctity is not "official" recognition (since synods of bishops simply recognize what is already evident to the faithful), or even superior theological writings, but rather in the evident sanctity to be found in the lives affected by miracles wrought through the prayers of these holy ones.
In 2004, a question arose about the proper way to address the reposed holy Archbishop Arseny of Winnipeg, to whose prayers at least one miracle has been attributed. Since a theological program was to bear his name, would it be acceptable to the holy synod to call the program after "Blessed Arseny"? The responses of the holy synod and our local Canadian bishop were telling. Firstly, the idea of intermediary titles was rejected: if a saint is a saint, we should call him so! Secondly, the idea of "official" sanctioning of sanctity was dismissed as foreign to Orthodox practice. Where Christ's grace is evident, in holy writings, service, pastoral care, and miracles, what should possibly stop local veneration? The reason the Russians and Ukrainians love Saint Vladimir, the Georgians Saint Nina, the Greeks Saint Nectarius, is precisely this: the sanctity of these holy ones manifested in their own place and time.
During his life, Saint John Maximovich observed that the West (North America in particular) would never be Orthodox until she began to venerate her own saints. Saint John contributed greatly to this veneration in Western Europe, by promoting the memory of the pre-Schism saints of Gaul (France) and the Netherlands. Ironically, it was from within the Church that he met with the greatest opposition. After all, who were these saints anyway? Weren't they Catholic? And what authority did one individual have in the promotion of such veneration? Decades later, the Saint Herman brotherhood in California, a monastery under St. John's eldership, wrote services and icons for Saint Herman's veneration and eventual canonization, and later promoted the veneration of Saint Xenia, before her canonization.
Saint John and those who laboured with him had the right idea - indeed, they represented the truly Orthodox idea that Christ draws His saints from the world, and that Christian saints can never and should never be far away from us. The remoteness of saints is a concept foreign to the Orthodox faith, since we hold dear the knowledge that Christ took on real human flesh. The presence of Christ's holy ones, in all times and place, including our own, is a given of the Orthodox faith. As faithful, we must embrace the greatness of God's mercy in His saints as He gives it, and reject the stained-glass charicature of the saints that has shaped the North American mind.
We are blessed to know them, and let us pray that we may be blessed to know more in our time.