We are sometimes tempted to ask, If the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, why is it that so few belong to it? Visibly, if not numerically, Orthodoxy is such a minority religion in this country that it is easy, especially for converts, to become discouraged. Unless we belong to a large parish we do not enjoy the support of 'fellowship groups' as do so many Protestants. In this sense Orthodoxy can be a 'lonely' religion, especially for children and teenagers who find comfort in numbers and in what's popular.
Partly to blame here is our weak sense of history. Our world-view tends to be horizontal--which is the way most Protestants view the Church. If, however, we adopt a vertical, i.e., historical perspective, we find that Orthodoxy is THE dominant Christian faith for all times. Here, too, we discover one of Orthodoxy's greatest treasures: the fellowship with the saints, holy men and women who, in every century, every decade, every year, have testified to the true Faith with their lives.
It is not enough to content ourselves with this knowledge. We must become personally acquainted with the saints. History is helpful, but it speaks primarily to the mind, whereas the Lives of saints speak more directly to the heart (such knowledge is more secure than that which enters the intellect and can be more easily dislodged by rational argument). Saints are living icons which offer us a glimpse of a transfigured world, a return to paradise, the very purpose of our life.
Man has always learned most readily by example, and from the very beginning, the Church has recognized the benefit of preserving the memory of her heroes and their exploits. And so we have the Acts of the Apostles, and the early martyrologies; we have the Lausiac History from the fourth century, a compilation of the lives of the desert-dwellers, those men and women who "wished to lay hold upon their souls and to bind [upon their heads] the crown of holiness"; we have St. Gregory of Tours' Lives of the Fathers of Gaul (Vita Patrum), and St. Gregory the Dialogist's Lives of the Italian saints. In the eighth century Venerable Bede recorded the lives of the early British saints, and in the seventeenth century, in Russia, St. Dimitri of Rostov began compiling lives of saints which ran to twelve thick volumes, one for each month. Today we have available to us in English a rich store of hagiographical material, and we should make proper use of it. As Fr. Seraphim wrote in his introduction to Vita Patrum, "The purpose of the Lives of saints is not to give abstract knowledge but...to edify spiritually and inspire to imitation."
St. Paul made bold to tell his spiritual children, Be ye followers of me (I Cor. 4:16). Indeed, what can speed our ascent on the ladder of virtue more than being able to follow in the footsteps of someone who has successfully gone before us? We read in the Life of St. Anthony the Great that visiting various desert ascetics, he learned from the strengths of each of them, "like a wise bee which hovereth and resteth over plants of every kind which are filled with honey that it may fill its habitation with the goodness of the earth." Likewise, St. John of Kronstadt counsels:
At the end of your morning and evening prayers call upon the saints, so
that seeing every virtue realized in them, you may yourself imitate every
virtue. Learn from the patriarchs childlike faith and obedience to the Lord,
from the prophets and apostles zeal to preach the word of God and the salvation
of men, from the holy bishops zeal to preach the word of God, from the martyrs
and confessors firmness before the infidel and godless, from the ascetics to
crucify your own flesh and its lusts, and from the unmercenary ones not to love
profit and freely to help the needy. (Spiritual Counsels)
In our daily struggle against sin, it is encouraging to know that the saints were men and women of flesh and blood who were beset by many of the same temptations. They can help us not only as inspiring examples of those who have overcome, but also as heavenly intercessors standing before the throne of God. In becoming more closely acquainted with them—through learning about their lives and also through praying to them, we become more aware of the reality and the proximity of the other world. "God's saints," writes St. John of Kronstadt, "as our brethren--but perfect--live and are near us, ever ready to help us, by the grace of God. We live together with them, in the home of our Heavenly Father, only in different parts of it. We live in the earthly, they in the heavenly half; but we can converse with them and they with us."
The poverty of today's world is reflected in its lack of real heroes, men and women who can offer positive values. We in the Orthodox Church are fortunate to have the company of saints.
seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of
witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so
easily beset us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith