I reprint this article in honor of All Saints’ Day (which is the Sunday after Pentecost on the Orthodox Calendar).
Doubtless one of the less understood aspects of the Orthodox faith, particularly by Protestants, is the importance of the intercession of the saints. Orthodox doctrine and teaching is quite clear that we do not treat saints as objects of worship, nor as worthy of worship. This would be blasphemous to us. Nevertheless, it is a huge part of the “ethos” of Orthodoxy, probably only understood from the inside and then only after a time.
The first thing I think of in this regard is simply that Scripture never seems to speak of God as “alone.” He is the Lord God of Sabbaoth (Hosts) – He is the “God of a huge crowd” to render it into the vernacular. This is first disclosed to Isaiah in his prophetic vision in chapter 6 of his work – but it is, to some degree, reflected in the fact that the Hebrew word for God is frequently rendered in the plural (Elohim). The Fathers rightly saw in this a veiled reference to the Trinity – but it is also proper to see in this a plural that surrounds God. We do not worship a plural God – but a Triune God – who is nevertheless surrounded by a great Host.
Much of our modern world, governed as it is by images of the dominance of the individual, tends to focus on God as individual. Islam (in certain forms) is radical in this respect – and some forms of modern Christianity have, for all intents and purposes, followed suit. The doctrine of the Trinity is reverenced but not truly understood, much less made the basis for worship. With this has come a radical shift in the understanding of heaven, our life in the Church, the meaning of prayer, the hope of salvation, even the understanding of what salvation itself means.
Orthodox worship and prayer, on the other hand, is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a “great cloud of witnesses,” whom we frequently acknowledge in our prayers, asking for them to join us in our prayer, seeking their prayers for us, just as assuredly they are urging us on from the life in heaven and interceding constantly before God for us.
This is probably the greatest change in my consciousness since becoming Orthodox. We are never alone, nor are we even simply alone with God. I am always with many even when I draw into my closet to pray.
Encouraged by the many stories of the lives of the saints, I am also encouraged by the holy icons, whose images of the saints remind me of these great heroes and heroines. More than that I am truly aware of their presence with me (us). My prayers seem to echo and to crescendo, joined as they are with those who now pray ceaselessly.
Many times there are saints whom one seems to know personally – either because you have frequently asked for their prayers – or for some aspect of their story that seems important – and even occasionally because something has happened that can only be described as having been “sought out” by a saint. An example of this last case is (for me) the not too infrequent phenomenon of simply being “found” by an icon. By this I do not mean buying an icon – but that an icon has come to me by some other means, accompanied by the sense that “this is no accident.” Such stories are not uncommon in Orthodoxy. Some of the greatest icons known to the Church were simply “discovered,” their origins remaining completely unknown to the Church. An excellent example of this is the famous wonder-working “Kursk Root-Icon of the Mother of God.”
I was once asked by an Anglican friend if I ever thought about returning to my former life. There are a thousand reasons I could have given him for “no,” not the least of which being, “I have found the true faith, etc.” But as I recall I simply said to him, “I couldn’t bear the loneliness.” How could I pray without the Mother of God? without the saints? And not in some secretly held “pious opinion” that might be allowed by the Church – but as the Church’s true worship, because it is the revelation of the Lord God of Hosts?
No. “God is with us, understand all ye nations and repent yourselves, for God is with us.”