The Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant Churches believe in the saints of the Lord. Yet, one, particularly an outsider to these churches, can be perplexed in the view of these Christian heroes. Such an individual would be inclined to ask these two questions:
- Why do these churches accept the saints into their respective denominations?
- What possible benefit could the saints have in improving the spiritual lives of these Christians?
These inquiries are legitimate. The short answer to these questions is simply this: the saints are venerated in all three denominations of Christianity because they are examples of how to live noble, saintly lives and achieve union with God, which is the goal for any and every Christian. Furthermore, by reading about their lives and spiritual struggles and triumphs, today’s Christians can learn how to better seek and attain this union with God.
However, in order to reach this level of spirituality and closeness with the Lord, one must learn not only what it means to be united with the Almighty God, but also understand the relationship between God and His saints, and how to properly venerate the saints.
Some of the outsiders to the faith misunderstand the meaning of this goal, however. Some critics of Christianity will claim that to be in union with Christ must mean to be like Him in the divine, all-powerful sense. This declaration is erroneous, and it is contrary to correct, Christian thinking. For a Christian, to be united with Christ does not mean to be like Him in the divine, all-powerful sense; rather, it means that a Christian has such a deep level of love for God that he or she devotes his or her life to His will and commandments and also learns how to embody His virtues (i.e., humility, zeal, charity, chastity, forgiveness, kindness, temperance, and patience). It is through this proper definition that the saints exist. All of the saints of the Lord became saints by dedicating their lives to Him and by learning how to attain each and every one of the virtues of Jesus Christ, which allowed them to achieve union with Him.
Yet, some individuals, whether they be outsiders of Christianity or not, are still troubled with the notion that the saints have attained union with God. The reason being that they feel as if the saints are viewed, by those who believe in them, as equal to God. Nonetheless, this criticism is a case in which these individuals misunderstand the relationship between God and His saints. The saints are not equal to Christ; on the contrary, they are followers of Him and His law. In fact, this distinction is crystalized in the Wisdom of Solomon when Solomon writes that those who are obedient to the Almighty and resist the temptations of the world are:
“numbered among the sons of God… the saints.”
The term “sons of God” highlights the distinction between the Christ and His saints. While He was living on earth, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was both fully human and fully divine. The saints, however, do not possess godly divinity. Rather, they had to endure the trials and tribulations associated with their broken and sinful human nature in order to have God, who they saw as their one true father, master, and king, send down the Holy Spirit and have it dwell within them. This notion is reinforced by Saint Augustine of Hippo in his book the City of God. In the religious piece, the holy father brings to light the struggles and the ultimate reward for God’s saints:
But not even the saints and the faithful worshippers of the one true and most high God are safe from the manifold temptations and deceits of the demons. For in this abode of weakness, and in these wicked days, this state of anxiety has also its use, stimulating us to seek with keener longing for that security where peace is complete and unassailable.
In this passage, Saint Augustine humanizes the followers of Christ. He highlights their struggles with the fact that they will face “manifold temptations from the demons in these wicked days,” just like every human being. However, in the eyes of the holy father, these “temptations” and “wicked days” are spiritually beneficial for “the saints and faithful worshippers” of Christ. It is through these trials and tribulations set by the followers of the Evil One that the saints were able to prove that they were the “sons of God,” grow in their faith, prove their love for God, and attain the virtues of Christ. Ultimately, the saints are not to be seen as God’s equal because they are human, and they themselves did not see themselves as gods; rather, they saw themselves as servants (and handmaidens) of the Almighty God.
However, even if the relationship between God and His saints is made clear to the outsiders and critics, they will still question the spiritual ethics concerning the veneration of the saints. Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant Christians who believe in and pray to the saints often state that they venerate them. The word “venerate,” to the outsider, sounds synonymous with the term “worship.” However, this interpretation of the veneration is incorrect. To worship a being (or beings) is to believe that such a being (or such beings) is the epitome of perfection. To a Christian, only Christ is the epitome of perfection.
This Christian truth is echoed by the famous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who, in his letter to his niece about his difficulties on writing his novel The Idiot, talks about how authors are unable to create the perfect protagonist:
“The beautiful is the ideal; but ideals… have long been wavering. There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty [i.e., perfection]: Christ.”
In the eyes of Dostoevsky, no protagonist in any literary piece, no matter how noble or virtuous, can match or exceed Christ, in regards to perfection because they are humans, and humans have flaws and moral shortcomings. In like manner, the saints are human beings who were conceived in sin, and they committed sins themselves, which makes them imperfect. Therefore, the saints are not religious figures to be worshipped, only Christ. Rather, they should be honored for the lives they lived because they, like every individual, are created “in the image of God.”
The difference between a saint and a regular individual is that the saint is able to set an example of how human beings are able to resist the temptations of the ego and the body and, instead, actualize the “image of God” within him or herself and utilize it, thereby bringing it to life and having the ability to attain unity with God. Once the saints bring into actualization the “image of God,” they start to live in union with God. This notion is echoed by Saint Paul. In his letter to the Galatians, the holy apostle declares that he has, in fact, brought “the image of God” within himself to life and, therefore, is one with Christ:
“For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
This quote emphasizes how a Christian can mature his or her faith to that of a saint and, therefore, can achieve union with God. To be one with the Christ – “the absolute beauty” – is salvation in its truest form. To have the same, deep level of faith as Saint Paul gives a Christian a life of peace because now he or she has attained the virtues of Christ. Therefore, for a Christian, to have the Son of God dwell within him or herself is to have the ultimate unity with God, which makes him or her a saint.
The saints are both relatable and aspirational figures in the life of a Christian. They are relatable in the sense that they are human and have dealt with the same temptations that all individuals faced and continue to face. They are aspirational in the sense that they learned to put their faith in God into action and show other individuals how to live a life fully devoted to Christ. Therefore, it is important for Christians today to read about their lives in order to understand how to deepen their faith, love, and trust in God. Without the saints – without an example of someone fully human able to triumph over the powers of darkness – there is no way a Christian can fully attain the virtues of Christ, which means that he or she cannot, ultimately, be in union with Him.