So great a cloud of witnesses
As in the earthly life there are poor and rich, so also in the spiritual life, in the spiritual order, there are poor and rich. As the poor ask charity of the rich, and cannot live without help from them, so also in the spiritual order the poor must have recourse to the rich. We are the spiritually poor, whilst the saints, and those who shine even in this present life by their faith and piety, are the spiritually rich. It is to them that we needy ones must have recourse. We must beg for their prayers that they may help us to become simple as children, that they may teach us spiritual wisdom, how to conquer sins, how to love God and our neighbor. May the saints of God pray for us, that we may become like unto them.
— Saint John of Kronstadt (emphasis added)
Sorting out my bookshelf a few days ago, I noticed that the ever-expanding ‘contemporary elders’ section has been displacing many older books. (This section is not labelled or clearly-defined, but more or less includes lives, letters and teachings of Orthodox Saints and elders from the twentieth century to now.) I reflected how, years ago, I used to have much greater patience with theological works and practical but abstract texts like the Philokalia. These days, I feel upheld, comforted and challenged by spending time with Orthodox Christians of my own time who have labored to embody holiness in their own lives. In recent years we’ve been blessed with books by and about many such Christians: works by and about St. John Maximovitch, St. Nektarios, Elder Porphyrios, Elder Païsios, and Fr. Seraphim Rose come to mind. ¶ Perhaps my shift toward this kind of reading is just part of a movement, one which every believer needs to make, from “What is our Faith?” to “How can I live our Faith?” I sometimes wonder if those of us who come to the Faith later in life approach it in too theoretical a way: perhaps catechumens, as they learn about our beliefs, should spend at least as much time with these examples of lived Orthodoxy, especially examples from our own time. It’s odd that, when we bring up our children in the Church, we always introduce Orthodox practice before, or at least along with, dogma; but when we deal with adult catechumens we tend to emphasize dogma first, perhaps because we feel that they’re more “ready” for it. ¶ I’m reminded of a story by a convert about his first visit to an Orthodox church for Divine Liturgy. As he stood tentatively in a corner of the church, a kindly yia-yia approached him and asked “Are you Orthodox?” “No, I’m not.” (pause) “Would you like to be Orthodox?” “Yes, I think I would.” (pause) “Okay, I’ll show you how to light a candle.” I think she had the right idea.
As it happens, I’ve just begun what looks like a lovely example of the kind of Lived Orthodoxy work I’ve been pondering here: Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon. It’s a first-hand account of the life and experiences of a student in the Soviet Union who, with a few friends, embraced the Faith in the 1980s and eventually became a monk. The Russian original has the wonderful title Несвятые Святые (Nesvyatie Svyatie), which I think means something like “Unsaintly Saints.” These examples are so important to us! May we who are poor continue to seek and find the help of those who are rich.