“Living with the Community of the Saints”
A bulwark of the Orthodox Church’s is its unyielding faith in the presence of the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) or the community of saints, which incessantly intercedes for humankind and surrounds it. Living in the presence of the glorious Holy Trinity, they are portrayed as interceding before God, their intercession symbolised as incense which is now offered before Him (Rev 5:8; 8:3-4). As such, this community of the holy ones play a significant role in the life of the Church as history moves to its culmination in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Who are these saints? The term “holy ones” (Gk hagioi) was an epithet applied to Christians in the early Church. St. Paul, therefore, addresses his letters to “the saints” who in each locality constituted the church (Rom 1:7; I Cor 1:2; II Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2; Eph 1:1). To be a Christian demanded that a person be holy because holiness constituted the essence of God. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ shared this essential divine character (Mk 1:24; Lk 1:35; 4:34; Jn 6:69; I Jn 2:20; Rev 3:7); hence by extension all Christians were to conform to this paradigm as they were named after Him. St. Peter so enjoins his hearers: “…[A]s he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’”(I Pet 1:15-16 citing Lev 11:44-45). But later the term came to be specifically applied to those whose spiritual stature the Church considered exemplary, such as the martyrs and Church Fathers, whose ascetical life and intense devotion received favour from God, and who were extraordinarily endowed with the Holy Spirit to perform miracles, expose theological truths and demonstrate outstanding commitment to Him. It is in this sense that the Orthodox Church so uses the term “saint” today, permitting it to be open-ended to assimilate to this category those who today and tomorrow will conform to its estimate of holiness.
The Orthodox Church views St. Mary as holding the pride of place among the saints as she exemplifies all the qualities requisite in them. In her acceding to the will of God to bear Jesus, she instantiates the concept of synergy, a beloved theme in Orthodox theology. By this is meant the cooperation of humankind with God to effect salvation, for God does not override human freedom. Her conception of Jesus becomes the paradigm for all Christians to allow Jesus to grow in the hearts of each Christian. The conception itself is effected by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, an endowment gifted to every Orthodox Christian at baptism. It is because St. Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, holds such an exalted position that she is depicted as the Queen of Heaven in Rev.12:1ff.
An essential question that arises out of this concept is how does one become holy? There can be no doubt at all that this can be a human achievement. The very fact that humankind belongs to the created world and God alone is Creator and the source of life entails that holiness too is ultimately the gift of God to those He created in His image and likeness (Gen 1:26-28). So, to begin with holiness is experienced as a gift from God. Like authentic life (Gen 2:7) which is sourced from God alone, holiness too has its wellspring in Him. God had intended that Adam and Eve, in their integrated existence as body and soul, should live in intimate fellowship with Him so that ultimately, they could achieve the perfection of true life. Similarly, holiness was to become humankind’s experience as it lived in close proximity to God and imbibed of His holiness, just like the angelic orders. Connected as branches on the True Vine, the saints now experience that divine holiness that enables them to constantly behold the face of God (St. Matt 5:8). In this state of holiness, they now participate in Christ’s continuing intercession for all of creation (Heb 7:25) and its reconciliation with God (Eph 2:16; Col 1:20). Just as this holiness is intrinsically connected to worship and adoration of God by the angels, so also the saints increase in their holiness by their worship and adoration of the Holy Trinity. It thereby becomes a holistic experience in humankind, integrating all his senses, his entire being, into this joyful and ecstatic experience of partaking of the holiness of God.
Corresponding to the experience of holiness as a gift from God, is its flipside as a demand imposed on the person. Incorporated into the Body of Christ through baptism, the Christian no longer conforms to the lifestyle of this world, but in Christ thinks, speaks and acts as part of the new creation (II Cor 5:17). There is no doubt that this calling to holiness is God’s initiative (Eph 1:4; II Tim 1:9); nonetheless, the demand is now is a self-offering as an acceptable holy sacrifice to Him (Rom 12:1). It is such holy conduct that Jesus states that should lead others to glorify the Father (St. Matt 5:16). The Christian is thus encapsulated in this holiness so that it becomes a continuous life process. The demand to be holy becomes, as it were, the reflex of the holiness gifted by God to the Christian, so that in that state s/he is transformed from glory to glory, to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ Himself. Indeed, for the Orthodox Christian, this is the summit of his/her being in Christ.
But this is not an experience that is attained as an individualised believer. Rather, this entire experience of holiness is premised on the fact that the saints are an intrinsic part and parcel of the One, Holy and Apostolic Church. During their earthly life, the saints had participated in the life proffered by the Holy Church, the body of Christ. They had committed their entire being to Christ, enabling herein to taste of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Now, in their existence in the spirit after death, they continue to exist as a part of the Church. For, one must bear in mind, the totality of the Holy Church, those who have, departed, those who live in the present, and those yet to be born, are all present in God’s presence (Heb 12: 23; Rev 7:9-10). With God there is no present, past or future time, only eternity. Therefore, as part of the Church, the saints continue to live as part of the Body of Christ, in one communion and in communion with the Holy Trinity. As a holy community, they are translated onto a divine state that enables them to become intercessors, not just for individuals or individual groups, but for the whole world. What has transpired here is that more than being individual channels of God’s grace, the saints become, like the Holy Trinity, a community that now lives and pleads for the world. That is why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews can describe them as a “cloud of witnesses”.
It is to this aspect of the experience of holiness by the saints as a community on which I would like to focus. God’s covenantal promises are not granted as individualised gifts, but as assurances to the community, the people. As the saints live as a community around the Holy Trinity, as a continuing part of the Holy Church, so also every Orthodox Christian is enjoined to experience God, both as an individual and as a part of the redeemed humanity. That covenantal agreement entails that s/he lives in holiness, not only as an individual, but also as a community. Holiness should be the characteristic not only of the Orthodox Christian but also of the Orthodox Church. It is easy to realise the first half of this, but quite difficult to achieve the expectation of a holy community. But it is when holiness becomes definitive of both Orthodox Christians and the Orthodox Church that we can assuredly claim to exist in a state of holiness.
Two salient features of this saintly community can be set out for our careful consideration. One is that the saintly community today lives for the whole world, for all of creation. The celebration of the Holy Eucharist is for the transformation of the entire universe and the cosmos, not just for Orthodox Christians or Christians. It is when our sense of being as a community is gripped by this overpowering awareness that each one, each parish, each diocese, in fact the entire Church, is one with all of God’s creation that we will begin to experience more fully the presence and power of the community of the saints. When this becomes a strong conviction is when our personal and parish agenda becomes transformed into genuine intentions that benefit humankind. Then our decisions become cleansed of selfish and individualistic motives and begin to reflect the love of God that transcends all boundaries. But this is often not the case. We are still at the stage where our existence as individuals, as parishes take decisions and enact decisions that are parochial. We have much to grow before we begin to reflect the holiness of the saints who are always a part of our Holy Church.
The second important aspect of this saintly community is its constant intercession for all of creation. Theologically, this essential fact is embedded in our worship and prayers, but hardly permeates our existence. While our hymns and prayers maintain this cardinal point, it is not reflected in our thinking or in our actions. It would be truer to state that we have built secure fortresses, whether communal or parish, which isolate us from interaction with others. We are fixated on the idea that as long as we are secure from adversative effects by this isolation, we will be okay. But as the lessons of history teach us, no person, no community, is an island. We isolate ourselves only for our own self-destruction. Like the community of saints, we have to transform ourselves to be a community that finds its calling in caring for others, interceding for others, living for others. In this way we will realise what it means to live in proximity to the community of saints. Holiness becomes, not as a separation from the world, but a lively engagement with it.
As a part of the One, Holy Church, then, the living members connect to the cloud of witnesses by assuming these characteristics of holiness. And thus transformed, the entire Church indeed becomes holy, for those living in the present and those in eternity now radiate the glory of the holiness of the One, Triune God.
Met Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios
Thought for the Month
The Silver Lining in the Cloud
“Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark
As we anxiously labour under the cloud of COVID-19, we wonder when this virus will be eradicated, and what precisely is God’s intend in all this. And with the infection showing no signs of abatement, the situation becomes a fertile ground for all kinds of doomsday predictions. Amidst all this, when we raise our eyes to God for answers, we are reminded that there are no accidents with God; in fact, for those who trust and have faith in Him, all things work for good. As St. Paul writes,” We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Therefore, we have faith that God’s purpose which we cannot understand is working even in the midst of this viral infection to bring about a transformed heaven and a transformed earth. So, we ask ourselves the question: can any good come out of all this? For those with an abiding trust in God’s love, the response will surely be a categorical “Yes”! And so, while the cloud still hovers over us, we look for the proverbial silver lining that points to God continuing to work in these troubled times. Let us look at some of them.
- A Closer Walk with God: At no other point in the liturgical calendar of the Church is there the awareness of God’s proximity than during the Lent. The fast, the selected readings from the Holy Scriptures, the special services and meditations, all create in us an experience that we are walking closer with God. In fact, for some members the Lent is like a spiritual dry cell, for they appear to store up a divine energy, for we never see them in the Church for the rest of the year! The viral infection has only intensified this experience, for we are at one stroke impressed with our mortality and sense that God alone can remove this sickness, a theme that is reiterated in the hymns and prayers of this period. Burdened as we are with a deep sense of helplessness, we have now turned to God with the conviction that He alone can save us from this situation. It is true that we have been deprived of our freedom to worship God in our churches. But that too deeply impresses upon us what we took for granted, that the joy of our Christian fellowship that follows our corporate worship on Sundays is also a gift from God. All this has only made profound our prayers as we raise up our feeble hands to God for salvation, not only from this virus, but also from the disease of sin. Yes, our prayers become more poignant because we now pray with a conviction that God alone can save us from our dreadful situation. Now in the confines of our homes and out of sight of others, we now raise our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1) to God, in a way finding truth in the promise of Christ that when we pray in secret, our heavenly Father will see us in secret and reward our prayers (St Mt 6:6). In a way, the loss of public worship in our churches has been ameliorated by a deep personal proximity to God, an experience we would not have attained without the presence of this virus. Truly, our sense that our entire being is being permeated by the love and presence of God is a blessed outcome of our predicament.
- Retrieving the Tradition of Family Prayers: But that is not all! What about a tradition that all but disappeared from our homes, what with its fast-changing social mores. For once the veracity of the old adage, that a family that prays together, stays together is driven home with a strong conviction. The deprivation of church services now serves to bring the family together around the feet of God and there as a family we begin to renew a closeness that was rarely seen before. The family is truly the undergirding unit of the parish, the place where God is first experienced, where prayer life is taught and a new generation finds its roots in God and the Church. Devoid of this foundational spiritual bedrock, our young men and women become easy prey to new-found spiritual groups who teach instant spirituality. Now that tradition that had been consigned to oblivion has once more become a feature our family life as they gather together to pray, or even just to view the services on the YouTube. Somewhere in that process I am sure the family will find the chance to pray together. Perhaps, this enforced quarantine will have the salutary consequence of retrieving the tradition of family prayers so that it will become a perduring feature of our families.
An observation that will be made is that most of these services are in Malayalam and so remain unintelligible to many of our young men and women. Allow me to share my experience. I too grew up with little knowledge of my mother tongue. But that was not an impediment for my participation in the family prayers in my grandparents’ home. Even though I couldn’t understand them, the deep sense of being in prayer was always present. And I learned most of these prayers by heart as a result of these daily prayers. Today, they have become meaningful, as they are a rich source of my own prayer life. That, too, I pray will result from this coerced family prayer meetings. And it is when families experience difficulties that they draw closer together, a bond that will preserve their unity and cohesiveness well into the future.
- Regaining the Joy of Family Communications: Surely, there will come a time during this period when we tire of staring at the TV or being engaged with our handsets. And so, we will be forced to engage in talk with family members. Family members talking to each other is another casualty of our communication technological explosion. The paradox is that even as we spend more time in talking to friends and being engaged on social media sites, we rarely talk to family members, even at home. Now out of necessity we indulge in talking to one another. As the days pass, our conversation progresses from small talk to sharing our life stories, so that the bonds that keep a family together are strengthened. Fathers are able to spend quality time with their children and it is my hope that husbands and wives will also talk to each other. In fact, I hope that family members will put aside their handsets so that they can all come together to spend time in talking and sharing their life experiences.
One certain outcome of this lockdown is that families are compelled to have meals together. This used to be a welcome part of growing up in a family. But with the fractured life we lead, families are not always able to come together for meals. Now for a change all come together to share meals as a family. And the experience of sharing a meal as a family now become once more a happy occasion for all to talk and laugh over a good and delicious meal. Our nostalgic recollections should include such reminiscences of the family in later times, so that they can bring a wistful smile of delight to our faces.
- Managing with What We Have: The virtual curfew imposed all over the country has disrupted supply channels so that we have had to curtail our consumption to what is necessary or essential. Because we cannot avail of all what we wish for we are learning to manage with what is essential. What is prepared at home is carefully done so that we have cut down the waste. I recall my childhood days when every part of a pumpkin was served as some dish or other, without diminishing its taste. And there was little to waste, considering the food chain that was a regular feature of our homes in Kerala. Here in the NCR a whole new generation has grown up experiencing a life-style that minimises sacrifice and sharing. Most families enjoy a comfortable financial situation here in the NCR (this can be contested, but I offer this as a relative statement) which allows for a wider range of spending by the upcoming generation. In our changed circumstances there are the demands now for a changed pattern of living which places limits on what is spent, the food eaten and so forth. If nothing else, this upcoming generation will learn that controlling consumption is a virtue that needs to be cultivated. It is also a valuable experience for parents to impose some control, all aimed at enabling the family to become a happy, enriching and valuable learning experience for all.
- Sharing What We Have: The fasts of the Lenten season are not meant to be a goal in Itself, but an exercise in sharing what we have. Thus, the money saved by abstaining from food is to be collected and donated for the relief of those who are financially disadvantaged. Thereby, we learn the art of sacrificing and sharing what we have with others. This is an important lesson of the Lenten season. The onus is on the believer to find out those in need and to share a part of what God has given us with others. We live in a context where our unlimited consumption creates no compunctions in us. At least for a time, the sense that we have extravagantly utilised our assets should compel us to evaluate our life-style and see where we can sacrifice and share our assets with others. We should recall the observation of St. Paul, “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus , for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to giver than to receive’ (Acts 20.35).”
If at the end of all this lockdown we could all so benefit from our difficulties, would that not be a welcome experience? Then, we could surely share the sentiments of Shelley which appears at the beginning of this article. Let us pray that this period will be a time of healing and learning to see the silver lining in the cloud of COVID-19.
Met. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios