Many people have mistaken beliefs about “saints.” Some think that “saints” are only those people through whom God worked miracles. Others believe that “saints” are only those people who do no wrong at all. But let’s put these aside and discover what a saint is. Because, as we’ll discover, becoming a saint is not just a desirable outcome of leading a Christian life, but is in fact is the whole purpose of the Christian life. Unless one strives for sainthood, one is not a true Christian.
What is a Saint?
The word “saint” means “one who is holy”. To be holy means to be set apart for God; to be devoted and dedicated to God. In that sense, all Christians are called to be, and indeed are required to become saints. St Paul regularly refers to the Christians of his times as “saints”.
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints... To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together... To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.
(Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Philippians 1:1.)
The call for sainthood or holiness begins from the time of the Old Testament: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2); and remains applicable to all Christians across the generations. This is why, in the Liturgy we chant “Holy things are for the holy people”—meaning the Holy things of God are for those who are dedicated and devoted to Him.
Devotion and dedication to God requires us to remain in communion with Him through prayers and the sacraments, and by keeping His commandments. When a lawyer asked Jesus Christ “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36), Jesus gave him not one, but two, and emphasised that on both commandments “hang all the Law and the Prophets”. First “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and second, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). The Lord drew the lawyer’s attention to two themes: firstly, to his relationship with God, and secondly to his relationship with his neighbour—his fellow human beings. The fact that Jesus gave two commandments and emphasised that both were great, demonstrates that these two themes are interdependent and interrelated. In other words, one cannot do one and ignore the other. So in order to be a true Christian, it is not enough to just love and worship God, attend services, fast and pray. Your love for God is not complete unless your love for God is demonstrated by your love to your neighbour. For you cannot love God and hate His people. You cannot love God and hate His creation. You must love both of them.
How do we become Saints?
Keeping the commandments, and participating in the sacraments and liturgical life of the Church is only the preparation we have, and is the beginning of the process of becoming a saint. It is crucial to realise that it is not the person’s deeds that makes him, or her, a saint. It is only God who sanctifies a person, thereby changing the sinful human nature to sainthood. God calls us all to live in communion with Him, but the each person must freely answer the Divine calling. If we answer by devoting and dedicating ourselves to Him, living in communion with Him through the Church and keeping His commandments, then God lives within us, and it is His Holy Presence that begins to gradually change us from sinners to saints. God is present in every Christian who has been baptised in His Name. The same Holy Spirit who descended upon, and empowered, the Apostles at Pentecost is given to each and everyone of us at Baptism. The Apostles and other saints were sanctified because they allowed the Holy Spirit to dwell and work within them. Since we also have the same Holy Spirit in us, the potential of sainthood is available to each and every one of us as well. We begin now to see that a saint is a person who allows God's Light to shine through them.
For God's Light to shine through us, our darkened sinful nature has to be cut through. Saint Peter in his first epistles explains what this process entails:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He Who called you is Holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am Holy.’
(1 Peter 1:14-16)
Thus, sainthood requires freedom from the passions. “Passions” in Greek means “things that control you”. Passions, then, include any desire, fear, habit, need, emotion, addiction, etc. which we find hard to control, and which we succumb to time and time again. To free ourselves from passions, we must continually struggle to “walk in the Spirit” and resist fulfilling “the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). The whole aim and purpose of this struggle is to become as holy as “He Who called us” so that His Holiness, His Glory, His Light is reflected in all our conduct.
This is precisely what salvation is according to Orthodoxy. Salvation is “deification”—becoming like God. Orthodoxy teaches that God created humanity in His Image in order to reflect His likeness. But the Fall halted this process. The whole purpose of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and the Resurrection is to invite and empower people to resume their original vocation which is to grow in the likeness of God. “God became Man so that man can become like God”, is the famous teaching of St Athanasius. Jesus Christ is the perfect model of sainthood. Sanctification—the process of becoming a saint—frees humanity from enslavement to the flesh so that once again we can reflect God’s likeness. From this perspective, we can see that to become a saint is to be saved; and salvation is what Christianity is all about.
However, we all know that the change in human nature from sinfulness to sainthood is not easy, automatic or instantaneous; but rather it takes a whole lifetime of struggle. But as long as we accept the calling and allow the process of sanctification to begin then we enter the process of becoming saints. So true Christians are not perfect, but are in the process of being perfected by God!
Saints are not a special breed of people, they were born sinful like you and me. But they became saints because they answered God’s calling and allowed Him to sanctify them with His presence. The same invitation is extended to all people. God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The lives of the canonised Saints bear witness to the authenticity and the truth of the Gospel and the teachings of the Orthodox Church. It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church remembers them, venerates them, and asks them to help us make the same journey they made through “the narrow gate”, and to help us travel “the difficult way that leads to life” (Matthew 7:13-14).
This teaching was given by Fr. George Nasr, of St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Melbourne, at the Clergy conference in Sydney, NSW, in May 2008.