Reading the lives of the saints is one of the most important spiritual means that is used by the grace of God to make our relationship with the Lord grow and inflame our love for Him and for His Kingdom.
It offers us the practical way to carry out the spiritual principles.
Many of the commandments and teachings may seem to us as being theoretical. But in the lives of the saints, we see them carrying out the Lord’s commandments in their everyday lives.
And so the lives of the saints show us that God’s commandments are beautiful and possible, and not just theoretical ideals.
Many a time some would say in amazement: Who can carry out these ideals?! Is it really possible for one to turn the other cheek to the one who slapped him?! (Mt 5:39). Is it possible that one always ought to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1)? And to pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17)? And is it possible for one to give all he has to the poor (Mt 19:21)?! We see all these questions and many similar ones answered and presented in the lives of the saints.
The Lord permitted that these saints be to us high models in all virtues without exception.
In a truly amazing way that calls for great admiration of the spirituality of these righteous ones , they were raised above the level of material and body, as if they were earthly angels. They lived in the spirit with God, a life of complete victory over all the wars of the enemy. We may even say that they returned to the divine image in which Man was created from the beginning.. Their lives give encouragement to any person to continue on the spiritual path with no fear or hesitation.
So when we read about them we say in confidence:
God is capable of supporting us as He supported them..
The life of righteousness is then possible and available for whoever asks for it. The grace of God is willing to work in every heart and raise it to the highest level, no matter what its condition.. The Spirit of God works, leading souls towards God, granting them all prospects and gifts.
What the saints did is what the Spirit of God did in them. I wonder, when we read the stories of the saints, do we read about how God worked and was glorified in their lives, or do we just read an account of the saints’ heroic deeds?
Do we read about “The communion of the Holy Spirit” (2Cor 13:14) in their lives? When we read the stories of the saints, is it a matter of them being attracted to God, or is it God attracting them by force? Or is it a matter of, as Solomon said in the Song of Songs: “Lead me away! We will run after you” (Song 1:4)?!
The lives of the saints deeply affected all generations throughout the ages.
The story of St Anthony that was written by St Athanasius the Apostolic had an amazing effect on the people of Rome that it became the cause of monasticism spreading there. When St Augustine read it, he was greatly affected and it hence led him to repentance. The same with the lives of the monks in the wilderness of Shiheet. They were attracted by the lives of the anchorite fathers, and so they journeyed from afar to see these earthly angels, and hear from them a word of spiritual benefit. Many recorded the lives of these virtuous fathers, which history has preserved for us to this day.
These saints never wrote about their own lives, but their lives, which others recorded, were a most desirable book.
It was the living history that was read by their generation who lived with it and passed it onto future generations.
It was the divine inspiration itself that passed to us the lives of many prophets and apostles, and so some of the books in the Holy Bible were named after them. These books explain to us God’s work in them, the message that God entrusted to them and their holy lives.
The Church showed great interest in the lives of the saints.
They were recorded in a book called the “Synaxarium”. During each Liturgy, we read one or more stories of those saints whose feast day falls on the same day as the Holy Mass. Their stories are read to comfort us and give us consolation. The church also reads to the faithful another part of the lives of the pure apostles from the “Praxis” which is “The Acts of the Apostles”. Many are the feasts that the church holds for these saints, celebrating the memory and conveying to all their virtuous lives.
Their icons in the churches are placed with candles before them to remind us of the lives of these saints, which may become food for our spirit and an opportunity to contemplate on their virtues. How beautiful is the saying of Mar Isaac:
“Delicious are the lives of the saints, like water to new plants.”
It is a spiritual food that nobody can do without. It brings to us the feeling of God’s love and the love of His ways that lead to the Kingdom.. It also makes us love virtue and love those righteous saints and take them as our fathers and intercessors. We aspire to deepen our relationship with them, as if they were alive with us on earth, so we talk to them and call on them.
Due to our love for them and for their lives, we sometimes call ourselves after their names.
We thank God that in these days, many are named after the saints. We give their names to our children so they grow up to love the saints. It is also in recognition of our love for them and our admiration of their lives.. The same when one is consecrated a monk or ordained a priest. He is given the name of one of these saints to show our recognition of the holy life that belongs to this good name.
I would like here to record some of the spiritual effects of the lives of the saints:
The First Effect Is The Example
That is what St Paul the Apostle said: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (Heb 13:7).
Here, we find before us a very wide program. For each virtue that one wants to possess, he’ll find a group of saints guiding him through their lives to the way of obtaining it, setting a practical example and an incentive that attracts him to it.. But I would like here to put an important remark, which is:
We have to take the saints as an example in whatever is possible for us.
For example, may be the life of martyrdom is not available. But we follow the steps of the martyrs in the strength of their faith, their courage, their endurance for the sake of faith, their readiness for eternity, the lack of love for the world or being attached to it.. All that is possible for us.
We might not be able to pray without ceasing, as St Arsanious the Great or St Macarius of Alexandria did.. But at least we should have the love for prayer and the longing to continue in it as much as our spiritual level permits.
We ought to know that the way the saints lived in the wilderness is different from the way we live in the world. So we should not imitate them in fasting for days, for they mastered this after many years of spiritual striving, and the life of calmness also helped them..
Let then our imitation of these high virtues be under spiritual guidance and in wise progression.
There are other virtues that are available for all, such as humility, gentleness, calmness, serving others and tolerating them, keeping from anger and the like.
As for complete silence, it does not suit you, as we have discussed this issue before here on st-takla.org in other sections. But you learn from it: talk when it is necessary and as it is feasible, choosing suitable words that build and are beneficial...
Do not imitate the virtue fully in a way that does not suit you or is not within your capacity. And do not reject it completely in despair. Take from it as much as you can, wisely, in progression and under guidance..
Take the virtue in its spirit and not in its form :
When you read, for example, about the saints of repentance, try to be like them in the fervour of their repentance and in the way they never returned to their sin. Take them as an example in the contrition of their hearts and in their tears. But do not imitate literally those whose repentance led directly to monasticism such as Pelagia, Mary the Egyptian, Moses the Black and Augustine..
Take the repentant’s love for God and his return to Him, the depth of his regret and his disgust of sin... But live within the limits of your personality and your capability and the amount of grace that has been given to you...
The second effect of the lives of the saints is strengthening the faith
This comes from whatever the lives of the saints and confessors offer from holding fast to the faith, to the extent of dying for it or accepting all types of torment in contentment, joy and patience..
Or what is offered by the lives of the heroes of faith those who defended the belief with all strength and all understanding, enduring for its sake imprisonment, exile, homelessness and all means of persecution. Take, for example, Saint Athanasius the Apostolic: He was exiled four times from his See, accused of horrible accusations, sentences were issued against him and was told, “The whole world is against you, Athanasius”..
We read about that and this generation becomes rebuked, those who do not care about the difference in belief or faith, forgetting how much pain the saints endured for the sake of protecting and preserving their faith!!
Local and ecumenical councils would assemble for one point of difference. The saints would do their best in defending the faith and verifying the correct belief. But now, for the sake of getting married or obtaining a divorce, one would change his religion so easily, carelessly or in ignorance!! Or maybe one will disagree with a member of the clergy so he leaves the whole church with its faith and belief. He would not care about the struggle of the saints for the sake of this faith..
Therefore we need to read the lives of the saints, the heroes of faith, to implant within the souls of all the importance of faith and being firm in it, and rejecting what is called non-sectarianism!!
The church is not a sect and it is not a number of sects. But it is a group of the faithful who believe in the correct faith with all its details..
This is the faith, for whose sake the saints were martyred in all generations and many saints suffered and were tormented. Amongst them were monks who lived in the inner wilderness, but lived in faith. How beautiful is the symbolism that is held in shrouding St Paul the Hermit in the robe of St. Athanasius, the defender of faith.
The third effect of the lives of the saints is implanting feelings of humility and contrition
Whenever we read about the heights of spirituality that these saints attained, our souls will be humbled and we will feel as if we are nothing compared to them..
Whenever we read about the life of the saint Abba Abraam and his gift of giving, would not our souls become contrite?! He who used to give everything, leaving nothing for himself. It even happened once that some gave him a piece of black material to make a garment, as the one he had been wearing was beginning to wear out. But he gave it to a widow who visited him... Or what do we say about Abba John the Merciful who sold all his possessions and gave to the poor. Then when there was nothing left, he sold himself as a slave and donated the money to the poor...!! Would not our souls be humbled when we compare our donations with what these saints gave?!
Truly, the lives of the saints cast away from our souls all the warfares of pride and vain glory, if the enemy attacks us with it.
If our thoughts attacked us concerning our service and we compared ourselves with the life of St Paul the Apostle, who laboured more abundantly than they all (1Cor 15:10). He preached in Jerusalem, Antioch, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and reached Spain. He founded uncountable churches and suffered indescribable hardships (2Cor 11). He used to write epistles even while in prison (Eph 4:1)..Would not our souls become contrite with this comparison and other similar ones?!
No matter how much we become contrite, we will never reach the humility of the saints:
Those who, in spite of all their virtues, would weep over their sins?!
St Macarius the Great wept and made the whole council weep with him.
St Moses the Black, St Shishwy, St Pachomios the Great.. What made all these great ones weep?
St Arsanious would stand up for prayer at sunset with the sun behind him, and would remain standing in prayer until the sun would rise once more the next morning before him. It was said that his eyelashes fell due to much weeping and he used to wet his palm leaves with his tears!! Where is then our humility, no matter how much we humble ourselves?!
St Macarius the Great, the founder of monasticism in Scetis, after having seen two of the anchorite fathers in the inner wilderness, said: “I am not a monk, but I have seen true monks”...!!
The stories before us are endless, and should be sufficient for us..
Maybe we are fought by pride when we compare ourselves with others who are living; we think we are better than them. But when we read the lives of the saints, every mouth will then be quietened and we will realize that we are nothing...
The fourth effect of the lives of the saints is that it gives us the spirit of wisdom and discernment
It shows the correct path for us to follow..
How beautiful is what we read about King David, when he wanted to buy a place to build the temple. Araunah the Jebusite agreed to grant him everything for free, but David refused and said: “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God with that which costs me nothing” (2Sam 24:24).
We also learn wisdom from Abigail and how she managed to rebuke David the Prophet in a way that made her win him on her side (1Sam 25:23-35).
We also learn wisdom from the lives of the wilderness fathers, even from while in their youth, such as in the example of St John the Dwarf and St Tadros, the disciple of St Pachomios was another one. We also learn from the wisdom of the old, such as Abba Agathon and Abba Isidore the Priest and many more.. The wisdom of the fathers is a treasure for whoever wants to learn..
The fifth lesson that we learn from the lives of the saints is that of continual spiritual growth
It is rising up with no limits.. An example of that would be St Paul with all his gifts, his service and how he was caught up to the third heaven. In spite of that, he says: “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.. But one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press towards the goal” (Phil 3:12-14).
The high spiritual levels which the saints achieved in each virtue, prompt us to constantly reach forward without ever being satisfied with whatever level we may achieve. The road before us is long, but the grace is ready to take hold of our hands and lead us through times of trial... following in the footsteps of these saints. Their lives give us ardour that is never suppressed or put out..
The lives of the saints affect us also in so many other ways
We learn how our confessions should be more accurate, as we discover many shortcomings in our lives, compared to their lives..
We also learn the manner in which we address God in prayer when we read their prayers with all the intimacy, humility, love and warmth that they contain..
We also learn the manner in which to deal with people; the way they faced spiritual wars and the way they were victorious.
The one who reads the lives of the saints will continually change for the better: his manner will change, his talk will change, his dealings with others will change. Try to attain this...
Now, on no account do I claim that I have given this subject its due in full. It needs a book or books. All I mentioned are just examples.
I leave for you, dear reader, this wide ocean of contemplation on the benefits of the lives of the saints.
There is no doubt that this subject could contain the whole spiritual life...
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