Silent Sentinels

On October 1, the Church will celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. Icons of this feast portray the Mother of God extending her veil over the whole Church – a graphic presentation of her prayers and maternal love. A similar love and prayer belongs to the saints of heaven, who stand as “a great cloud of witnesses,” urging the Church forward and always surrounding us with their prayer. The small reflection below concerns the saints who live among us on earth – almost unanimously unknown. It should be remember that Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared had only 10 righteous men be found. As it was, the prayers of the righteous Abraham were not without effect. His kinsman, Lot, and family were delivered from that destruction at the hands of angels. It may be that none of us who read this post are among the “silent sentinels” whom I describe. But we can and must join our prayers with theirs (and with the hosts of heaven) as a veil of protection in a world that often seeks its own destruction. May God make is fervent in prayer on behalf of all and for all.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints. I do not know that my friend’s kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

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7 Responses to “Silent Sentinels”

  1. Dymphna Says:

    This was the first icon I was ever given. It was given to me by an Episcopal priest who later joined the Orthodox Church. It hangs in my icon corner.

    The saints do indeed watch over us.

    Thank you, Father, for reminding me of this feast and this truth.

  2. Yannis Says:

    The Saint’s prayer makes all my hairs stand up. Its amazing how much subliminess and terror cannot be separated, at least for me. Sublimeness for the Self, terror for the ego.

    I will search out for the mentioned Saint; what a spiritual master.

  3. davidperi Says:

    How true…that our enemies force us to our Heavenly Father.

  4. Subdeacon Eusebios Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    Another excellent post, and a great reminder that in order to have any hope of being numbered amongst such “silent sentinels” requires one to act out of kindness. To, in the words of our inspiring Hierarch +JONAH, “not resent, not react and keep inner stillness”. It seems to me that this of necessity requires a good deal of struggle, as it clearly doesn’t come naturally to us. I have often felt that it is especially true that the prayers of our monastic brothers and sisters are in fact the glue of the cosmos, that which keeps the world from flying apart at the seams.
    His unworthy servant,
    Eusebios

  5. Maura Says:

    Father Stephen, Bless!

    Many years ago when I first converted to the Church, the service was in a very old, tiny church dedicated to the Protection of the Holy Virgin, so this Feast day (which here is celebrated according to the original calendar) is very special to me. Glory to God for His great condescension towards this sinner.

    And…Saint Nikolai is one of my favourites! I’m reading the first volume of his Missionary Letters.

  6. Greg Says:

    Father bless, I must say this Feast and its icon is very special to me as well: we keep a copy of the icon in a small garden near our home to remind us that we are sustained by the prayers of the Church.

    Protestant readers may not immediately recognize this when first seeing the icon, since it refers immediately to a specific story in Church history, but Orthodox see this as an image of the prayers of the whole Church (triumphant and militant) for all: the imagery of the Virgin as a type of the Church is pervasive throughout the Old and New Testaments (which is pretty much universally recognized across “denominations”) and in the earliest Christian literature (Hermas’ Shepherd, for example). What a perfect icon to accompany this post!

  7. Mary Says:

    FAther, bless. Such people like your former classmate are reminders of God’s kindness. I also was blessed to know someone like that. Two, in fact. They were brothers with hare lips at a time when hare lip surgeries left unfortunate tell tell scars and deformation. Though blond and blue eyed their disfigurement blunted every chance at good looks. But, these boys were Kindness itself. The girls, everyone really, so enjoyed being around them. I’ve often wondered what became of them, and have thought how wise their parents were in teaching them to be good and kind to everyone.

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