What is a saint?
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
The Church teaches us that we are saints, and St. Paul refers to us that way, but we have to become saints, too.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.
Today, on the second Sunday of Pentecost, we commemorate the saints who come from the place where we live. For us, that’s the saints of North America, of whom there are many. We can always reflect on their lives, but today I want to talk about what it means to be a saint. It’s important for us to understand this because it is our calling, just as it was theirs.
The Church teaches us that we are saints, and St. Paul refers to us that way, but we have to become saints, too. It’s the same with being Orthodox – we are Orthodox, and we are becoming Orthodox.
Pentecost, celebrated just 2 weeks ago, is about sharing the Holy Spirit and making saints – evangelization. All of us who are baptized and chrismated in the church have the Holy Spirit, which means we can become saints.
We know that the apostles, who were fisherman, were asked to be “fishers of men.” We tend to look at saints as people who did miraculous things, incredible things, and we create a distance between saints and ourselves. We might think that a saint is a person written on an icon who had great strength and withstood persecution, and that we might not measure up.
But in fact, you and I must withstand persecution and are called in the same way. What have you withstood in the last 10 weeks as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic? What do you take on and endure in your own life? We don’t want to look at a saint as a person who did a miraculous thing we can read about, and then create a space between them and us. The saints are not far removed from us.
What is a saint?
From the book we use for our catechumens here, Introducing the Orthodox Church: Her Faith and Life, I want to share Fr. Anthony Coniaris’ thoughts about what a saint is:
One – “A saint is one who is constantly conscious of being a sinner and rarely, if ever, conscious of being a saint.”
Two – “In fact, it has been said that there are two types of people in the world: sinners who think they are saints, and saints who know they are sinners.”
Third – “A saint is one who sees himself in the sins of others.”
And lastly – “God’s saints are often afraid, but they count on God’s promise, ‘Fear not.’ They know they are weak, but they depend on His strength. They sin but grieve over every lapse. They never feel they have attained but constantly press on toward the goal.”
In other words, a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.
How do we become saints?
We might wonder what we should have done or could do to become a saint. There’s no formula. God doesn’t outline the road for sainthood. Here are three things that can help us craft the road and walk down it.
The first is the idea of followership. Most businesses and organizations with more than 5 or 6 people in them will talk to you until the cows come home about leadership. Well, there’s another term – Followership. Followership is equally important because followership is the place from which leaders emerge.
Since there’s no formula for making a saint, the church teaches us clearly that we are to listen to and obey Christ. We have to be flexible in doing that so that when we listen and obey, we are following Him the best we can from where we are in life. This is not easy because when you engage the followership of being an Orthodox Christian, you will probably be alone in your decision, you will probably be persecuted or assaulted for the decision (mentally or otherwise), and you may isolate yourself in doing so. Christ speaks of this in the gospel. There is a cost to be Christian and we know it.
So the first idea on that road to sainthood is to do what we can to listen to the church fathers and obey Christ, just like we should listen to those who are senior to us, our mothers and fathers and others – those who we know care about us.
Mending the net
The second idea comes right from the Gospel. You’re going to have to mend the net. You’re going to have to mend the net a lot. The road we walk as Orthodox Christians is going to require mending a lot of nets. Mending is work.
We’re always mending nets. We have to plan for reality, and when it comes, we could be hurt, we could be pushed around and we may suffer. Every day, we have to mend the net of our soul and spirit to keep walking toward Christ. Mend what? In most cases, we are mending our relationship with others and the world on a daily basis.
When Christ found the apostles, they were busy mending their nets. When you are doing the work of fishing, it’s work. When you’re doing the work of walking a spiritual life and trying to appropriate the Holy Spirit, that is work. Count on missing the mark every now and again. Count on needing to mend your net each day. But also count on the Lord to come while you are mending your net and call you to continue and go with Him. This may mean more than ‘letting go’ of a hurt; it will include moving forward differently, that is, being changed.
Each day we have to mend the net of our lives. We have to mend the net of our relationships. We have to mend the net of how we’re going to get along at work. In every area of our lives, we have to mend the net. That’s especially true for relationships.
So that second idea is to always have the strength to come back and mend the net of our lives. As Bishop Anthony says, saints have the best stitching. The saints are always mending their nets. You have to have really good stitching, and you have to understand that the reason you are mending the nets every day is because no one gets to walk down the road to sainthood without bearing a cross. We mend the nets because we walk the road, and to walk the road is to carry a cross.
Actions lead, not feelings
The third idea is that the saints and apostles never let how they felt get ahead of their actions. This is sometimes very hard to put into practice. If I’m following the Lord and mending my net every day, when things go my way all is well and when they don’t, here comes the hard part – what must I do to be changed to fix a net in my life? How do I not let my feelings and what happens to me lead the way on the obedience and the mending that I’m doing? How can I lead with my actions, not my feelings, as I follow Christ and mend my net when things go wrong?
The answer is right there in the Gospel: we have to drop everything and follow Christ. This is what the Gospel said. Hard? Yes. It’s easy to read that those who follow Christ have left “father and mother” and the world. It’s much harder to do, because you’re in relationships with people who may be in situations that you wouldn’t choose or prefer. Yet still, we mend the net and then we wait on the Lord.
So this third idea is to let our actions lead, and not simply pursue things based on how we feel. As we read, saints have no idea where they are going to end up in life, any more than we do. The saints we see around us here didn’t wake up one day and say, “Here’s where I’m going to end up, on a wall in a church in Butler, PA.” It’s the same for us. Saints don’t have any idea and we don’t either, but we wait on the Lord.
As we all know, in life, all roads have curves. It would be cool if the road was straight, with a nice painted line, and all I’ve got to do is stay on it, and at the end of it is the Kingdom of Heaven. No. All roads have curves. It’s going to take strength and confidence to mend that net when it tears again, to go back when you don’t want to, and that same confidence will work to take those feelings of pain, doubt, and injury, and put them in a place where you can go back to following Christ with actions that come from knowing His truth.
It’s simple. And it is simple to say. Here it is. If an action is right, then your feelings will be “righted” by it.
If the action is right FIRST, your feelings will come and be righted as you move forward. That’s the key to the road. Start with the act that comes from the Word of God. Then your feelings will be righted because that act will be right.
This is how we follow the road to the place where our citizenship is, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Saints have great stories of extraordinary acts, but the reality is, each extraordinary act came from many ordinary moments. A series of ordinary acts prepares you for an extraordinary one to come.
Our job, with fear and trembling, is to walk the road of sainthood. Imagine yourself as a piece of wood. To become a saint, you have to “whittle” yourself into shape, sand some of your edges off, work on following the commandments, loving God and your neighbor. We work on ourselves as we walk the road to the kingdom, whittling away what we don’t want to keep, so that when we get to the kingdom, we fit.
In the life we’re given here and now, we have to shape ourselves because when we get to the other side, someone is going to take the shape that we’ve become and put it in, like an architect. Think of yourself as a builder shaping a piece of wood or stone. You’ve got to shape it here on the ground so that it will fit into its place in the building. You work on yourself here because you want to go there, and when you get there, you will to fit. That’s the story of a saint, and that is our story.
So, be a saint… since you already are!
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.