In many languages the word for saint and holy is one and the same. In English, too, the word saint means “holy” or “holy one,” someone recognized as being holy. Holiness, broadly understood over the centuries and across languages and cultures, means being set apart for purity, set apart for God. Of course, the whole world was created holy by God for participation in God’s life. But the world, through us and with us, is fallen. This means that we now recognize particular places, people, and things as holy in this sense of being set apart from the fallen world.
The Church itself is set apart from the world. Membership in the Church entails holiness. St Paul addresses his letters sometimes “To the saints” of a particular place—because everyone in the Church is given the gift of holiness. At other times he writes “To those who are called to be saints”—because that gift is also a calling, something which we must live into. In one sense, we in the Church are saints. But this gift is also a calling: if we are truly of the Church, we must live our lives accordingly. We are all called to be holy, as God himself is holy (Lev 11.44; 1 Pet 1.16). When we fall away from that holiness, we must return to it through repentance and reconciliation. And so our life in the Church is most often a cycle of falling and getting up again.
There are people who do indeed live holy lives, people who, despite their sins, fulfill the calling of holiness by responding to God’s work in their lives. There may be countless unrecognized saints, people who, in the leading of their perhaps unremarkable lives simply get it right. But there are also saints who are recognized and celebrated in the Church. We may marvel at the variety of saints and sanctity that is celebrated by the Church. There are peacemaking saints and military saints (although even the military ones work for peace). There are nobles and paupers, rich and poor, ordained and lay, married and celibate, learned and illiterate. There are cheerful saints and morose ones, gregarious ones and loners, intellectuals and ignoramuses, entirely sane and quite crazy. We recognize that all of them have fulfilled God’s will for them in their particular places and times with their God-given faculties, talents, and idiosyncrasies. They are holy. They remind us of what God’s undistorted image may look like, and they do this specifically by pointing to Jesus Christ.
The very existence of these saints in their variety witnesses to Christ. Jesus himself showed us the way (he is the Way) and showed us that it’s possible to live a holy life with human weaknesses, temptations, and passions. The saints continue to testify to that possibility, and all of them have their eyes on the prize himself, Jesus Christ. That’s what their very lives show us and what the written accounts of their lives also show us. When we speak of the communion of the saints, we refer both to a community existing among the saints as well as to the saints’ communion with us who are still living this life. The communion that we enjoy with the saints is a vital aspect of our common path toward purity, holiness, and life with God.
The saints’ written lives, or vitae, are a particular kind of witness to holiness, a reference to Christ, and in their own way also a source of our doctrine. The “lives of the saints” are not biographies in the strict sense. Biographies, like histories, are never unbiased, but they are supposed to strive to give a balanced portrait of someone’s life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hagiographies (the written lives of the saints) do not pretend to give “the full picture.” Their goal is to edify and inspire us by presenting an undiluted example of holiness.
The “saint’s life” is a literary genre that is often very stylized and, in the manner of legends, can blend history with story. It bears the marks of oral literature, the written versions of stories that had been told orally, or written texts that were meant to be read aloud. The saints certainly performed miracles, and continue to perform them. Some of the miracle stories in the vitae, however, function as metaphorical expressions of aspects of the saint’s life. Instead of telling us, for example, that “St Ignatius bore God in his heart,” his vita will tell us that, when St Ignatius’ heart was cut out after his martyrdom, the word Jesus was found inscribed on it in letters of gold. Vitae often include descriptions and details added for the sake of memorability, edification, and even entertainment. Many of the saints’ lives functioned as the hero stories of their day; it’s no coincidence that some vitae have in past decades been adapted as comic books for the spiritual education and interest of our children. Recognizing the existence of embellishment and exaggeration in the saints’ lives doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as entirely fictitious accounts, nor should it inspire undue cynicism about the process of their composition. Rather it should help us to read them correctly, as childlike adults.
It may help to know that many of the details and embellishments in a classic saint’s life follow patterns. It is typical, for example, to describe a martyr’s death in a particular way according to particular models, based on the martyrdom of St Stephen described in Acts 7 and the second-century martyrdom of St Polycarp of Smyrna. Of course, the countless martyrdoms that have taken place over the centuries follow some familiar patterns, owing to the similarly brutal persecutions that the Church has undergone in every age. But in addition, we find references in the martyrdoms and in other vitae to the life of the ultimate martyr, Jesus Christ. Stories of martyrdoms may therefore feature references to the eucharistic offering (Polycarp and the sweet-smelling loaf; St Ignatius’ wanting to be ground as wheat into the bread presented to the Lord), to martyrs experiencing their drowning as a baptism, and to martyrs who forgive their persecutors, “for they know not what they do.” Hagiography puts a saint’s life into the context in which it finds its true fulfillment: the life of Christ himself. All of the saints’ lives do this in some way or other. The lives of the apostles refer to the Apostle, Christ. The lives of the prophets point to the Prophet himself. The lives of the healers refer us to the Healer. The lives of hierarchs point to the true High Priest.
The written lives of the saints are not intended as instruction manuals for life. If they were, they would probably include more of the saints’ struggles with their passions and perhaps even some of their mistakes, rather than focus only on their perfection. Yet if we read them with some understanding of their function, we receive great insight into genuine Christian life and faith. We touch purity, and our own impurity is judged; we are exposed by their transparency to God and by their burning love. We are reminded of our own calling to be saints in our place and time. This is what happens both when we read saints’ lives and also, more especially, when we come into contact with living saints in our own lives.
Particularly in the context of liturgy and prayer, the saints are people with whom we can experience a profound communion. They are the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12.1). They act as intermediaries between us and God, and pray for us to God, whose company they already enjoy. They also stand with us; their icons in the church and in our homes remind us of their living presence. We have particular saints as our personal patrons and may have them as patrons of our families and our churches. We may have saints with whom we feel a particular kinship, owing to their example in our lives. Our tangible communion with the saints both living and departed is testimony to our faith in eternal life itself.
From Peter C. Bouteneff, Sweeter than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth (SVS Press 2006) 186-190.