Of Whom the World Was Not Worthy: Commemorating Saints in a Secular Age - Part 1 of 2

Feast of St Paul the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople

G. K. CHESTERTON once said there are only two things that never get boring: stories and persons. Averil Cameron, Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History, takes Chesterton’s assertion a step further. In her book, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse, Cameron argues that the development of a ‘totalizing discourse’ or a ‘Christian rhetoric’ was key to the Christianization of the Roman Empire. By ‘discourse’ or ‘rhetoric’, Cameron means all modes of expression – oral, written, visual, or material – employed by early Christians to articulate their faith and “the power of that expression to persuade.” Of the many possible modes of expression, Cameron focuses on the two noted by Chesterton above as the key features to the success of early Christian rhetoric in the Roman Empire: figural characters and Christian stories. As I continue to reflect on cultural renewal in the twenty-first century, I think Cameron and Chesterton are correct: we need to tell stories and, more specifically, we need to tell stories about people.

More important than what I think, however, is what the Church thinks. The Church believes we need to tell stories about holy people. We find these stories scattered throughout the Old Testament, as encapsulated in the New Testament chapter on faith in the epistle to the Hebrews, which tells the stories of Abel who offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, of Enoch who pleased God and did not see death, of Noah who built an ark when he had never seen rain, of Abraham who obeyed God’s call to go a place he knew not, of Sarah who bore a child when she was past the age of conception, of Moses who led the Israelites through the Red Sea, of the harlot Rahab who received the spies in peace, of Gideon who defeated the Midianites with only three hundred men, and of Samson, David, Samuel, and all the other prophets who, as the author of Hebrews puts it,

through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword.

We also find stories of holy people in the New Testament. In the Gospels we read about John the Forerunner and Baptist preaching in the desert, Mary accepting God’s call through the archangel Gabriel, about the faith of those who lowered their paralytic friend through a roof to be healed by Christ, Peter walking on water, and the hemorrhaging woman who touched the hem of Christ’s garment for healing. In the Acts of the Apostles we read about Stephen the first martyr, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, the shadow of Paul healing the sick, and the resurrection of Eutychus at Troas after falling out of a window listening to Paul preach.

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In addition to biblical stories, the Church has preserved and handed down countless other accounts. We have stories about the conception and birth of the Virgin Mary to her pious parents Joachim and Anna, as well as stories about the Virgin’s dormition (falling asleep), resurrection, and bodily ascension. We have stories about the Christian martyrs who suffered under the Roman Empire during the first three centuries A.D. In this instance, the Church did more than just tell their stories. Early Christians celebrated the Eucharist at the graves of these martyrs, making their tombs into altars. The Orthodox Church has preserved this practice by placing relics of martyrs under the altar of newly consecrated churches and in the antimension (a cloth that is given to the church by a bishop to cover the altar for the celebration of the Eucharist). Both the early Church and this Orthodox tradition are grounded in the biblical account of the Revelation of John who “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Rev. 6.9).

The Church continued to tell stories about holy people long after the age of persecution. We have stories about the great defenders of our Trinitarian and Incarnational faith during the age of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, including figures such as St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Maximus the Confessor, and St. John of Damascus. We have stories about the great spiritual fathers of early Christian monasticism like St. Anthony the Great, St. Paul the Hermit, St. Pachomius, St. John Cassian, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Macarius of Egypt, St. Isaac of Syria, and many others in the alphabetical collection of the sayings of the desert fathers. We have stories of many other saints during the Middle Ages, including figures such as St. Gregory Palamas and St. Symeon the New Theologian in the East and St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola in the West. And we already have many stories of twentieth-century saints from both the East and the West. In the East, there are stories about the Russian martyrs under Stalin called the “New Confessors,” Athonite monks such as St. Silouan and St. Porphyrios, and others like St. Herman of Alaska, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, and St. John of Shanghai. And in the West, there are stories about St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the recently canonized Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, and others on their way to sainthood such as Mother Teresa and Fr. Emil Kapaun.

Telling stories about holy people, then, is nothing new. It is something the Church has been doing from the very beginning. And when I say ‘from the beginning’, I do not mean merely from the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that is, from the time we typically think of as the beginning of the Church. My view of the Church has been enlarged under the influence of St. Porphyrios (formerly known as Elder Porphyrios but recently canonized) who says this about the Church:

The three persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the eternal Church. The angels and human beings existed in the thought and love of the Triune God from the beginning. We human beings were not born now, we existed before the ages in God’s omniscience.

This idea of the Church preexisting creation can also be found in the Apostolic Fathers, in the first century Second Epistle of Clement:

Brethren, if we do the will of our Father God, we shall belong to the first Church, the spiritual one which was created before the sun and moon. . . . the books and the Apostles declare that the Church belongs not to the present, but has existed from the beginning . . .

So when I say ‘from the beginning’, while I now see the Church as preceding earthly time, in this instance I mean the beginnings in Genesis where we read the creation story of Adam and Eve, followed by the story of Abel the first martyr, and all the ensuing stories in the Old Testament, New Testament, and beyond.

Telling stories about holy people is a tradition the Church has been doing for thousands of years. I believe we must continue this tradition if we have any hope for renewing our culture. This is why Eighth Day Institute (‘EDI’) organizes the Hall of Men where men gather twice a month to learn about the story of a hero (we’ve been doing this for ten years now, and in that time 198 heroes have been presented). This is why EDI organizes the Sisters of Sophia where women gather once a month to do the same thing. And this is why EDI organizes various annual feasts, such as the Feast of St. Patrick the Enlightener of Ireland, the Inklings Festival, the Feast of the Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and Eighth Day Symposium’s Festal Banquet (so far we’ve celebrated the life of St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Anthony the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Basil the Great; we’ll celebrate the life of St. Mary of Egypt in 2019). We must continue this tradition of telling the stories of holy people.

Thus far I have described this tradition as the telling of stories about holy people. To be more accurate, however, the Church requires more than the mere telling of a story. This Christian tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation for so many years has at least two other integral dimensions. First, although telling the stories of saints is indeed a didactic exercise, it is not limited to the function of a teaching tool. In the Church’s language, it is also an opportunity for commemoration, defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary in this way: “recall and show respect for (someone or something) in a ceremony; celebrate (an event, a person, or a situation) by doing or building something.” So we recall the life of the saint by telling the story, but we also ceremoniously celebrate and show respect for the saint. This leads to the second additional dimension, which is context. The context for the Church’s commemoration is liturgical. The commemoration of a saint is a liturgical act, a liturgical commemoration. It occurs within the context of the traditional prayer life of the Church, whether it be a Eucharistic liturgy or part of the daily cycle of prayers. In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, for example, certain Sundays are dedicated to saints: Sunday of All Saints on the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council on the seventh Sunday after the Feast of Pascha (Easter), and the Lenten Sundays dedicated to the Publican (three Sundays before Lent), the Prodigal Son (two Sundays before Lent), St. Gregory Palamas (second Sunday), St. John Climacus (fourth Sunday), and St. Mary of Egypt (fifth Sunday). Additionally, each day of the week commemorates a particular person (or event): Angels on Mondays, St. John the Forerunner and Baptist on Tuesdays, the betrayal of Judas on Wednesdays, the Apostles on Thursdays, the Cross on Fridays, those who have fallen asleep on Saturdays, and the Resurrection of Christ on Sundays. And finally, the true birthdays of various saints – the day they physically died and entered the Kingdom – are commemorated every single day of the year. The Church clearly believes there is something vital to learning about the lives of holy people through ceremonious celebrations within the context of the liturgical life of the Church.

*Adapted from a lecture presented for the Feast of St. Patrick, March 17, 2014, at The Ladder, Headquarters for Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, KS; published in Microsynaxis No. 2, Fall 2014.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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