What Is a Saint?

What Is a Saint?

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Our primary goal at the  Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) is to share the truth of Orthodoxy with the world. Our secondary goal is to generate fruitful conversations that strengthen us in our own faith and increase our ability to share it in meaningful ways with our fellow human beings. This is why OCN has collected a group of various teachers, philosophers, priests, artists, parents, and writers to post articles on our blog, The Sounding.  Enjoy the following post and feel free to comment below.

What is a Saint?

All-hallow’s Eve, Halloween, is the night before the sacred remembrance of All Saint’s on the religious calendar of Roman Catholic and some Protestant Churches.

“Saint” evokes many images in our minds.  For some, saints are religious heroes of old, whose lives of piety and good works are the “stuff of legend”.  For others, saints are those gentle, old people who sit in rocking chairs, speak in soft voices, read their bibles, and don’t stray far off the reservation.  Still others might think in terms of that famous Billy Joel song, “Only the good die young,” wherein he sang,

They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait/Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t/I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/The sinners are much more fun/You know that only the good die young.

Saints, for many, are seen as buzz-kills, goody-goodies, those men and women who have so devoted themselves to God that they never smile or enjoy themselves.

If this is so, it also makes for a sharp contrast between the perception of the righteous and the party-goers, and wow, how starkly that is seen in Halloween parties for adults where suggestive costuming and drunkenness often reign.  And that carries right on down to the teens.  A simple google search “teen costumes Halloween” (note: I did not put ‘girl’ in the search) yields pages and pages of photos of scantily clad teen girls (there are 54 girls before there is one boy), including one innocent looking teen girl wearing a mini-skirted prison outfit, imprinted with “guilty” across her chest, offering handcuffs from her right hand.  I have visited the detention center and the max-prisons many times: I assure you, this is not a prison-issued outfit.

I have always found it interesting that well-intending Christians, struggling to find wholeness are labeled as “hypocrites” by their decriers.  Ironically, the term “hypocrite”, which is used derogatorily by Jesus quite often in the Christian Bible, is a term that came from the stage.  It means “pretender”, “one who pretends to be other than he really is”.   I find that ironic because “pretender” is precisely what comes with a Halloween costume, particularly in the debauched adult form.  Put on a costume, and “role play”—perhaps doing and saying things that one would never say or do either sober or unmasked.

By contrast, the pursuit of sainthood is not pretending to be someone one isn’t, but struggling to be the one he or she is called to be!  It is not that a saint is someone who is a party-pooper and kill-joy.  Rather, a saint is someone, oftentimes, who has tried the pretender route for long enough and found that it leads to absolute emptiness.  If fulfills nothing, and in the end robs one of human dignity, too!

A saint, from the ancient Christian view, is one who takes his or her clues about what a true human being is from Jesus Christ, and not from the world around us.  The methods of the fallen world have been tried and found lacking generation after generation, and left every human being in a puddle of confusion, regret, sorrow, and eventually, death.  And wishing, rather, to find true love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (against which there is no law!), the struggler seeks example in those who have had the mess of their lives converted into a life worth living—by God’s goodness—in order to imitate them.  That is a saint.

To be sure, there are saints who were pious and faithful from the youngest age.  The Ever-virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother is the finest and best example of such a woman.  And there are numerous others in such a category.  Yet, we “regular Joes” tend to need and desire inspiration from those who were once all-too-like us, but found true life, fulfillment, wholeness, healing!  These are they who were among the muddiest and depraved, but by co-working with God, found themselves sanctified—though they would never have proclaimed this of themselves.  Here are a few examples to look up:

St Mary of Egypt—a woman who wouldn’t call herself a prostitute, because she did what she did for free and for fun.  She is probably the second most well-known woman saint in Christian history.

St Paul of Tarsus—who spent the early part of his adult life persecuting Christians and authorizing their executions.

St Moses the Black—a robber bandit from Africa who repented and became a famous monk.

Sts Cyprian and Justina—Cyprian’s parents devoted him to the devil as a child, and then he himself to the black arts.  He later became a bishop, and Justina an abbess.

St Pelagia the Penitent—another who was converted from sexual license.

St Vladimir—Prince of Kiev (now Ukraine), who was a vicious ruler, whose 180 degree conversion brought Christianity to Rus (present day Russia and surrounding Slavic nations) in 988AD.

As Halloween marches on strongly from an evening of western All Saints Day, to a secularized holiday, to a full-blown season, complete with orange lights and yard decorations, perhaps it is high time to pause and reflect on the one bare thread that gives hope on this occasion:  “hallowed”, “saintly”, “holy”.  The South Carolina motto is “dum spiro spero”: “while I breathe, I hope”.  Maybe this year will be a year to cast off the mask at Halloween, to cast off the masks we wear that cover up our interior pain, and find the examples of holiness to which we can aspire, and by God’s grace even obtain.

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Fr. John Parker

Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.