Often when I’m in church, I look at the icons surrounding me, and this sense of peace overwhelms me. I feel held by the stories of the lives of the saints. When I was first exploring Orthodoxy, I was excited to learn more of the saints’ stories, but I soon found myself balking at some of the things I read. Some of the stories seemed so strange and unbelievable to me! I brought this struggle to my catechist, and he told me that whether or not these were factual accounts was not a question that would help me grow from these stories. There were more beautiful questions to ask. Now when reading the stories of the saints, I try to be mindful of questions like “What does this story teach me about who this saint was?”
Another thing that has been difficult for me to embrace about the stories of the saints is how I often feel I can’t relate. They are so holy, and I can’t do the things they did. I am reading a book now about Saint John the Wonderworker, and recently I was reading about how he prayed all night and scarcely ever slept. If I go without sleep, I can’t function, and this usually leads to me acting far from saintly. The thought of never sleeping being a goal to work towards was overwhelming to me. I was talking with my fiancé the other day about this, and I loved what he said. He reminded me that we aren’t supposed to imitate the actions of the saints, but instead imitate their virtues. Instead of feeling intimidated by not being able to pray all night, I can look to cultivate a spirit of prayerfulness and vigilance, whatever that looks like for my life. I am learning now that the spiritual life is not about trying to make my life look a certain way; it’s about letting God refine His Image in me and letting Him set a rhythm out of which my life with Him flows.
A few weeks ago at St. Vladimir’s we had a guest lecturer, Dr. Alice-Mary Talbot, give a talk on the varieties of monastic life in Byzantium. It was beautiful to hear how different each of these saint’s journeys were. Some lived in rural settings, some in urban. Some were business owners, while others disavowed all possessions. Some practiced extreme asceticism, whereas others believed in moderation. Each of these monastics was led on a different path, and God was glorified in each story. I love what Metropolitan Kallistos said in The Orthodox Way: “God is both end-point and starting-point. He is the host who welcomes us at the conclusion of the journey, yet He is also the companion who walks by our side at every step along the Way.” I love that picture of God being the journey.
I love that we as Orthodox have patron saints, and we get to specifically try to emulate the virtues our patron saints embodied. When I was looking towards chrismation, I was scouring the stories of saints for one that really resonated with me. I was of course deeply moved by a number of them, but I hadn’t found a story that I felt particularly compelled by. The day before my chrismation, a dear friend sent me the story of Saint Zenaida. From the moment I first read about her, I felt a deep respect for her, connection to her, and a strong desire to live my life as she lived hers. She and her sister, Saint Philonella, were doctors who lived in the first century and were cousins of the Apostle Paul. After their conversion, the sisters moved to the mountains and opened a free medical clinic in a cave with a mineral spring and treated anyone who came to them for help. Saint Zenaida was a contemplative who saw physical, mental, and spiritual health as being intrinsically linked, and she sought to facilitate all types of healing for those who came to her. Saints Zenaida and Philonella are called “the friends of peace.” It is such a gift to have Saint Zenaida as my patron saint and to get to ask for her intercessions. I want to model my life after the virtues of peace, wisdom, and compassion that her story embodies.
I love those moments in church when I look around me and see the icons of the saints reminding me that living a life that gives glory to God is possible. We are all writing a little more day by day of what our life stories will be. I pray the story that my life ultimately tells is a beautiful one, a story of the goodness of a God who Himself is Love and Life. It is such a gift to be, as Scripture says in Hebrews, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses to support me on my journey deeper into God.