By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Who is a Saint?
Saints are not just good people, but those who are united with the unincarnate and incarnate Word, with Christ. Sanctity is the shared characteristic of all the Prophets, Apostles, Fathers, Martyrs and Ascetics. All are saints, because they have God’s sanctifying energy and they are Fathers, because they beget spiritual children.
“The distinction between saints and Fathers does not exist in the Fathers. For the Fathers of the Church the saints are Fathers and the Fathers are saints.”
Saints is the name given to those who, through purification and illumination, reach glorification and share in the glorifying energies of God.
“Are those who have arrived at glorification and become saints a reality or are they not a reality? That is the fundamental issue.”
The meaning of sanctity is not humanistic or moralistic but theological. Saints are those who have been spiritually cured. Their hearts have been purified and they have reached illumination of the nous and glorification. They are the real — the active — members of the Body of Christ.
“The current perception is that if someone is a good human being, law-abiding and so on, then he is a good Christian and a prospective saint. In that case, all our grandmothers and grandfathers are prospective saints, according to the criteria of the moralists. Someone with a moralistic perception of sanctity might see things in this way.
In patristic theology, however, there is another perception. Anyone who has been cured is a saint. A saint in the patristic tradition simply means someone who is cured. It means someone who has gone through purification and reached illumination, and from illumination has gone on to glorification. He has been cured and, consequently, he is a saint.
For this reason, in the early Church they called one another saints, even before they died. Why were the Christians called saints — the saints of Thessaloniki, the saints of Corinth and so on — and why did they call living people saints? Why? Because the members of the Church in early times were in the state of illumination. They had noetic prayer at the very least, and as they had noetic prayer and were in the state of illumination, they were called saints.”
In fallen human life the noetic faculty (energy) does not function or functions inadequately. When the noetic faculty is released from the rational faculty (energy) and activated, then the nous is illuminated and, by the action of God and his own collaboration, man reaches glorification. He is a saint. A saint, by God’s action and his own co-operation, becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul analyses this fact. He writes: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). To be led by the Spirit means that they have received the Holy Spirit and acquired the gift of adoption as sons: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15). The spirit of adoption is expressed by prayer of the heart: “By whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15). It is significant that “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). Someone who does not have this Spirit does not have noetic prayer. He is not a son of God by grace and, consequently, he is not a real member of the Body of Christ: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9).
These are the characteristic features of a saint.
“The Apostle Paul says that we do not speak with human wisdom, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. What does this mean and why is the power of the Holy Spirit opposed to the wisdom of this world? It is the power of the energy of the Holy Spirit within man.
Everyone who sees a saint understands that he is a temple of the Holy Spirit. He is not convinced about him being a temple of the Holy Spirit by philosophical arguments or by the theology of this one or another. He sees that he is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because he often even hears Him taking the part of the priest within him.
What does the witness of the Spirit says to man’s spirit? ‘That we are children of God.’ This testimony that the Apostle Paul speaks about, saying that ‘The Spirit cries out Abba, Father in our hearts’, this Spirit, Who cries out within our hearts — is St Paul describing a reality or a figment of the imagination?
St Paul speaks in his Epistles about this power of the Holy Spirit in man’s heart. What is this power? Anyone who looks carefully at what St Paul writes sees that he is speaking about real prayer within the heart of man.”
The difference between deranged people and saints lies in how their noetic faculty functions. If someone’s noetic faculty is identified with the rational faculty and the latter deviates from its normal function, this is insanity. If the noetic faculty is motivated by the Holy Spirit according to God, then the man is a saint.
“The difference between madness and sanctity is that in the first case the noetic faculty is unfettered, unrestrained and so on, and is influenced by someone’s personality in such a way that he becomes insane, because he does not function normally, like an ordinary human being.”
When someone participates in the illuminating and glorifying energies of God, he experiences divine grace in his entire being: in his soul through noetic prayer, and in his body by overcoming the fear of death. Thus he is led to martyrdom.
“The lives of the New Martyrs are a proof that the state of illumination, as it existed in the early Church in the years of persecution, continued to exist as the heart of Orthodoxy in the years of Turkish domination. This power of the faithful to undergo martyrdom is what saved Orthodoxy in the years of Turkish domination, so that not all the Romans [Greeks] became Muslims. Most Romans became Muslims. Why did the small minority who remained not become Muslims? They had great confidence in the saints of the Church, that they were bearers of divine grace and that divine power really existed within them. And what is divine power? It is this power to be able to undergo martyrdom and physical tortures so as not to deny Christ. This was the proof of the true faith.”
The saints, therefore, are not just good people but those who are glorified. There are some who pretend to be saints, but in reality they are hypocrites who lead people astray. Even heretics are good people and may lead moral lives, but because they do not have Orthodox theology and the ascetic teaching of the Church, they go no further than an ethical way of life. They do not share in the glorified energy of God and are unable to cure others.
“In a conference, someone stood up and said that Arius was a holy man. Because he did not know what sanctity was. Other people here were present and they heard him with their own ears. Arius was a saint! What did he mean? He meant that Arius was a good man. There is no doubt at all that he was a good man; Arius was a very good man.”
A good man, however, is not the same as a saint. The saints participate in the glorifying energies of God, and this is obvious, because they are able to help people, work miracles and cure them. Fake doctors may be good people, but they are unable to cure.
“You go to a charlatan and he says ‘Yes, so we shall do this and we shall do that, some liniments …You have this, that, and the other…’ and he gathers up the thousand-drachma notes month after month. In the end the patient is forced to go to another doctor. Then he realises that the first one was a charlatan.”
The aim of the Church is to sanctify its members, but simultaneously to use the appropriate means to achieve this aim. It has been emphasised repeatedly that sanctity is experienced through the action of God and man’s co-operation. God acts and man collaborates.
“Here we have to mention man’s freedom. I always remember that my mother used to say to me, ‘Son,’ she said, in Cappadocian, ‘Son, you can’t force someone to be a saint.’ Of course a human being cannot become a saint by force. Everyone has to choose the path of therapeutic asceticism.”
Therapeutic asceticism is inseparably linked with the sacramental life of the Church. It consists of purification, illumination and glorification, which we encounter in all the patristic teaching of the Church. Therapeutic asceticism is also integrally associated with the Church’s Sacraments.
It should be pointed out here that there is a distinction between the noetic and rational faculties (energies). The noetic faculty must be activated by prayer, whereupon the nous is illuminated. In the first phase the nous, but not the rational faculty, must be emptied of all thoughts (logismoi). This is not a matter of being illiterate, but a special ascetic and ecclesiastical method.
“The Fathers never meant that by being illiterate someone could achieve sanctity, but by emptying the nous of thoughts. That is what they meant, not by mental ignorance.”
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Empirical Dogmatics, Volume 1
The non-quoted text above is Met. Hierotheos. The “quoted” text above is Protopresbyter John Romanides