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

Synaxis of the Archangel Michael & the other Bodiless Powers: Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphiel, Jegudiel, & Barachiel

AS THE TITLE of this piece suggests, and as the opening paragraph of Part 1 intimates, I want to suggest that the commemoration of saints is relevant to our secular age. In fact, I believe that telling the stories of holy people promotes the renewal of culture. Before suggesting some ways saints are relevant to a secular age, however, a brief word needs to be said about secularism. The use of the phrase ‘secular age’ is a direct reference to the mammoth 874-page magnum opus of the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor: A Secular Age. While the secularization theses that emerged in the 1960s predicted the inevitable death of religion, many of the most well-known have since recanted their stance. For it is now obvious that religion is not going to die. In fact, it has experienced tremendous growth globally. Acknowledging this reality, Taylor provides an excellent working definition of a secular age. In his words, “The shift to secularity . . . consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” The change he seeks to define and trace in his work “is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. . . . Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith.”

If secularism, then, is an age in which there are many options, an age in which sustaining one’s Christian faith is one of the most difficult options, then what hath the commemoration of saints to do with a secular age? Let me answer this key question by simply offering a list of eight brief points, each of which needs to be developed sometime in the future.

  1. In a secular age obsessed with the future and with the new and improved, the commemoration of saints teaches us to value the past, to value tradition, for the well being of our present and our future.
  2. In a secular age that is emptied of any spiritual reality beyond the material realm – described by Max Weber as disenchantment – the commemoration of saints reinforces the reality of a life beyond this life by asserting that the departed in Christ are alive in Christ. The commemoration of saints thus affirms the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints proclaimed in the Apostles’ Creed.
  3. In a secular age of rampant individualism and fragmented families, the commemoration of saints provides a sense of belonging. The Church is a community of the living and the dead, a family that transcends time and space. In the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the Church we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who encourage us to run with endurance the race set before us.
  4. In a secular age drunk on consumption and comfort, the commemoration of saints challenges us to renounce the vanities and distractions of materialist consumerism for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The saints, both monastic and non-monastic, all took up their cross daily, dying to themselves by renouncing the ways of the world.
  5. In a secular age that organizes its time around work and production, profits and efficiency, the commemoration of saints reshapes our sense of time by slowing it down and organizing it around the Kingdom of God.
  6. In a secular age of reason, the commemoration of saints offers a daily dose of the virtue-forming power of stories, summed up by the Latin proverb “Example is better than precept.”
  7. In a secular age of celebrities – movie stars, athletes, musicians – who provide us with incessant entertainment, the commemoration of saints provides a host of true heroes whose lives were remade by God and thus deserve to be studied and imitated so that our own lives may shine like stars, reflecting the glory of God.
  8. In a secular age that too often produces perverse, dehumanizing art, the commemoration of saints points us to the sacred art of iconography, which offers a sacramental theology of personal presence.

To conclude, I want to elaborate on point number eight and make a subtle tweak to the title of this foreword by replacing the word “commemorate” with “venerate.” Instead of “Commemorating Saints in a Secular Age” I want us to think about “Venerating Saints in a Secular Age.” St. John of Damascus, our patron saint at Eighth Day Institute, supplies the impetus for this subtle shift in terminology.

During the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century, St. John of Damascus penned three treatises in defense of icons. The arguments in these apologies were crucial to the dogmatic formulation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in AD 787 (also known as the Second Council of Nicaea), which ultimately defended the Church’s use of icons. Key to St. John’s argument is the elucidation of two key terms, one of which is “veneration” (the other is “image”). While the New Oxford American Dictionary defines “venerate” as “regard with great respect; revere,” the Greek word for veneration (proskynēsis) implies an action of submission by bowing to the ground.

St. John of Damascus further clarifies the word “veneration” by making an important distinction between two forms. The first form of veneration, according to St. John, is “a form of worship, which we offer to God, alone by nature worthy of veneration.” This form is expressed by the Greek word latreia, and it expresses the worship due exclusively to God (the classical sense of this word indicated a service to the gods). To offer a veneration of latreia to anything other than God is idolatry. The second form of veneration, however, is expressed by the Greek word timē, which simply means “honor.” St. John cites several examples of this second form of veneration from the Scriptures: After Sarah’s death, Abraham venerates the Hittites in his negotiations for a tomb (Gen. 23:7, 12). Likewise, when Joshua encountered the commander of the army of the Lord, he “fell on his face to the earth, and venerated” (Josh. 5:14; cf. Dan. 8:17). Jacob too venerated his brother Esau seven times (“bowed himself to the ground”) upon meeting him after their long separation, as did Joseph and Rachel, Leah and her children, and Jacob’s maids and their children (Gen. 33:3, 6-7). Additionally, St. John continues, there is a veneration of rulers as demonstrated by Joseph’s younger brothers venerating him each time they came before him in Egypt in their search for grain during the great famine – they “bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground” (Gen. 42:6; 43:26; 44:14). Furthermore, St. John describes the veneration of things sacred to God – Israel venerated the temple in Jerusalem as they bowed toward it – something St. John claims to have witnessed himself. According to St. John, in all of these examples those venerating were simply demonstrating honor and respect (timē), not worship, for the “veneration of worship is one thing, veneration offered in honor to those who excel on account of something worthy is another.” St. John concludes with a strong admonition: “Either, therefore, reject all veneration or accept all of these forms with its proper reason and manner.” In other words, if we accept the distinction between the veneration of worship given exclusively to God – latreia – and veneration given in honor – timē – then we must accept the biblically sanctioned veneration of honor given to people and places.

As we strive to live authentic Christian lives in this secular age, and as we seek to renew the culture in which we live, let us return to a tradition of the Church that has been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Instead of ceremoniously celebrating the lives of our cultural celebrities – that is in fact what we regularly do at concerts, films, and sporting events! – let us commemorate and venerate that great cloud of witnesses described in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the chapter on faith. Let us enlarge our vision of and participation in the church by incorporating into our lives the daily veneration of saints. Let us liturgically celebrate the lives of holy people, characterized by St. John of Damascus as (1) those considered servants, friends, and sons of God; (2) those who have become repositories and pure dwelling places of God; (3) those who are living temples and tabernacles of God; and (4) those who have publicly taken their stand with God. Let us heed these concluding words by St. John Damascus at the conclusion of chapter 88 in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith:

The saints must be honored as friends of Christ and children and heirs of God [see John 1:12; Gal. 4:7; Rom. 8:17; John 15:14-15]. . . . Because they have kept undebased the likeness of the divine image to which they were made . . . because they have freely been united to God and receiving Him as a dweller within themselves have through association with Him become by grace what He is by nature. . . .

. . . Let us honor the Mother of God as really and truly God’s Mother. Let us honor the Prophet John as precursor and Baptist, apostle and martyr, for “there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John” (Matt 11.11), as the Lord said, and he was the first herald of the kingdom. Let us honor the Apostles as brethren of the Lord, as eye-witnesses and attendants to His sufferings, whom God the Father “foreknew and predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son”’ (Rom. 8.29), “first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly shepherds and teachers” (1 Cor. 12.28). And let us honor the holy martyrs of the Lord who have been picked from every rank and whose corps commander is Christ’s archdeacon, apostle and protomartyr Stephen; let us honor them as soldiers of Christ who have drunk of His chalice and have then been baptized with the baptism of His life-giving death, and as participants in His sufferings and His glory. Let us also honor those sainted fathers of ours, the God-bearing ascetics who have struggled through the more drawn-out and laborious martyrdom of the conscience, “who wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being in want, distressed, afflicted: wandering in deserts, in mountains and in dens and in caves of the earth: of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb 11.37,38). Let us honor the Prophets who preceded the Grace, the patriarchs and just men who announced beforehand the advent of the Lord. Let us carefully observe the manner of life of all these and let us emulate their faith, charity, hope, zeal, life, patience under suffering, and perseverance unto death, so that we may also share their crowns of glory.

*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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