Tell Me Who Your Saints Are, And I Will Tell You What Your Church IS
By Alexei Ilyich Osipov
In order to understand what one or another Christian Church is, it is enough, without even touching its doctrine, to look at its saints. The tree is known by its fruits, and any Church declares those people saints who embodied its ideal in their lives. A saint's canonization therefore reflects that Church's testimony not only about the Christian it is holding up as an example to follow, but it is also primarily the given Church's testimony about its own self. You can more accurately judge the authenticity, or false sanctity, of the Church itself by its saints.
Now, first of all, I will pause at the comparison between the saints of the largest Christian Churches—the [Roman] Catholic and the Orthodox Churches.
One of the major pillars of Catholic sanctity is St. Francis of Assisi (thirteenth century). His spiritual self-awareness is sufficiently clearly revealed from the following facts. One day, St. Francis prayed very long (the subject of his prayer is extraordinarily telling) "about two mercies." "The first is that I … could … experience all the sufferings that You, Sweetest Jesus, experienced in Your torturous passion. The second mercy … is that … I might feel … that boundless love with which You, the Son of God, burned." As we see, St. Francis was not troubled by a feeling of his own sinfulness, as all saints are; clearly seen here is his open pretension to equality with Christ in His sufferings and His love! During this prayer, St. Francis "felt himself completely become Jesus," and something happened to him that had never before happened in the history of the Church: painful, bleeding wounds (stigmata) appeared on him—the marks of "Jesus' sufferings."
Here we must note that the nature of these stigmata is well known in psychiatry. Unceasing concentration of the attention on Christ's sufferings on the cross extremely arouse a person's nerves and psyche, and if practiced long enough, can evoke this phenomenon. There is nothing supernatural or miraculous here. In this "compassion" for Christ, there is not the true love about which the Lord spoke plainly: "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me" (Jn. 14:21). To the contrary, the substitution of dreamy experiences of "compassion" for the struggle with one's own sinful passions is one of the most serious mistakes in spiritual life, which has lead, and still leads, ascetics to self-conceit and pride — obvious prelest, often connected with outright psychological disturbance (see the "sermon" of St. Francis to the birds, the wolf, the turtle-doves, the snakes, the flowers, etc.; his reverence before the fire, the stones, the worms). It is no wonder therefore that St. Francis claimed to redeem the sins of other people through his imitation of Christ.
Also telling is the life's goal that St. Francis set for himself: "I labored and want to labor … because this brings honor." Isn't this why he said openly at the end of his life, "I am not aware of any sin on my part that I have not redeemed through confession and repentance"? All this testifies to his ignorance of his own sins, his unworthiness before God—that is, to total spiritual catastrophe.
By contrast, we cite the moment before death from the life of St. Sisoes the Great (fifth century). "Surrounded at the moment of his death by the brothers, at that minute when he was as if conversing with unseen beings, the brothers' asked him, 'Father, tell us, with whom are you conversing?' Sisoes answered, 'They are angels who have come to take me, but I am praying them to leave me for a short time, in order to repent.' At this the brothers, knowing that Sisoes was perfect in the virtues, protested, 'You have no need to repent, father.' Sisoes replied, 'Truly, I do not know if I have even begun to repent.'" This deep knowledge of one's own imperfection is the main distinguishing characteristic of all true saints.
Here are passages from the notes of Blessed Angela (thirteenth–fourteenth centuries).
"The Holy Spirit," she writes, says to her, "My daughter, My sweetness … I love you very much." "I was with the apostles, and they saw Me with their physical eyes, but they did not feel Me as you do." Then, Angela reveals about herself, "I see in the darkness the Holy Trinity, and it seems to me that I am standing and abiding in the center of the Trinity, which I see in the darkness." She expressed her relationship to Jesus Christ, for example, in such words: "I could bring myself entirely into Jesus Christ." Or, "From His sweetness, and from the sorrow of His departure, I shouted and wanted to die." At this, she began to beat herself so badly that the nuns had to carry her out of the church.
One of the greatest Russian religious thinkers of the twentieth century, A. F. Losev, made a biting yet true assessment of Angela's "revelations." He writes, "The seductiveness and delusion of the flesh leads to the point where the Holy Spirit appears to Blessed Angela and whispers these amorous words: 'My daughter, My sweetness, My daughter, My temple, My daughter, my delight, love Me, for I love you greatly, much more than you love Me." The saint is in a sweet languor, and can't contain herself from this love. Her beloved keeps appearing, enflaming her body, heart, and blood. The cross of Christ appears to her as a marriage bed… What could be more contrary to the Byzantine-Muscovite austere and chaste asceticism as these continual blasphemous statements: 'My soul was received into the uncreated light and carried up,' these passionate gazes at the Cross of Christ, at the wounds of Christ, and at different parts of His Body, this forced evoking of bloody spots on her own body, and so on, and so forth? Finally, Christ embraces Angela with His arm which was nailed to the Cross, and she, outside herself with languor, torment, and happiness, says, "Sometimes, from this close embrace, it seems to my soul that it goes into the side of Christ. And the joy that it obtains there, and the light, cannot be retold. They are so great that sometimes I could not stand on my feet, but lay there, unable to speak... and my limbs would go numb."
Another outstanding feature of Catholic sanctity is Catherine of Sienna (fourteenth century), raised by Pope Paul VI to the highest rank of saint—"Doctor of the Church." I will read a few notes about her taken from the Catholic book by Antonio Sicari, Portraits of Saints, published in Russian. These citations (emphasized by me) require no comment.
Catherine was about twenty years old. "She felt that a decisive turnaround should happen in her life, and she continued piously praying to her Lord Jesus, repeating that beautiful, tender formula, which became customary to her: 'Unite with me by marriage in faith!'"
"One day Catherine had a vision: her divine Bridegroom, embracing her, drew her to Himself, but then took her heart out of her chest in order to give her another heart, more resembling His own."
One day, they said that she died. "She herself later said that her heart was torn by the force of divine love, that she had gone through death, and 'had seen the heavenly gates. But "Return, My child," said the Lord to me, "You need to return… I will bring you to the princes and rulers of the Church." "And the humble girl began to send her epistles throughout the whole world—long letters, which she dictated with amazing speed, often three or four at a time, and for various reasons, so that the secretaries could not keep up."
"In Catherine's letters the repeated and insistent use of the phrase, 'I want' particularly stands out." "Some say that in an ecstatic state, she even addressed the insistent words 'I want' to Christ."
From her correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, who she had convinced to return from Avignon to Rome: "I tell you from the name of Christ … I tell you, father, in Jesus Christ… Answer the call of the Holy Spirit which has addressed you."
She writes to the ruler of Milan, "About the Pope, to whom she is entrusted ('even if he were the devil in the flesh, I should not lift my head against him.')"
"To the King of France she writes: 'Do God's will, and my will.'"
No less telling are the "revelations" given to the "Doctor of the Church," Teresa of Avila (sixteenth century) also made known by Pope Paul VI. Before her death, she exclaims, "O my God, my Spouse, finally I shall see You!" This exceedingly strange exclamation is not accidental. It is the logical result of Teresa's whole "spiritual" exercise, the essence of which is revealed in the following fact.
She was so caught up in her "revelations," that she did not see the devil's delusion even in such an outrageous vision as the one cited below. (The Valaam elder, Schema-Abbot John, assessed her spiritual state as follows: "Instead of deification [theosis], a passionate person will become a dreamer, like the Catholic Teresa.")
After his many appearances, "Christ" says to Teresa, "From this day forward, you shall be My spouse… From now on, I am not only your Creator and God, but also your Spouse" "Lord, that I either suffer with You, or die for You!" prayed Teresa and fell down, writes D. Merezhovsky, "in exhaustion from these caresses…" (I cannot cite any more.) It is no wonder, therefore, when Teresa admits, "My Beloved calls my soul with such a penetrating whistle, that I cannot but hear it. This call acts upon the soul so that it is exhausted from desire." It is no accident that the famous American psychologist William James assesses her mystical experience as follows: "The main idea of her religion seems to be an amatory flirtation—if one may say so without irreverence—between the devotee and the deity."
Yet another illustration of sanctity in Catholicism is Therese of Lisieux ("The Little Flower," or "Of the Child Jesus"), who, in 1997, the centennial of her repose, was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by the "infallible" decision of Pope John Paul II. Here are several quotes from the spiritual biography of Therese, who only lived to the age of twenty-two, which eloquently witness to her spiritual state (The Story of a Soul [Paris, 1996]).
"During a conversation before my tonsure, I gave a report of the activities I intend to undertake in Carmel. ‘I came to save souls, and first of all, to pray for priests.'” Not having saved herself yet, she came to save others!
She seemingly writes about her unworthiness, but then adds, '"I always harbor the bold hope that I will become a great saint.… I thought that I was born for glory, and sought a path to its accomplishment. And the Lord God … revealed to me that my glory would not be visible to the mortal gaze, and the essence of it consisted in the fact that I would become a great saint!” (See St. Macarius the Great, who was called by his co-ascetics "an earthly god," who only prayed, "God cleanse me a sinner, for I have never done anything good in Thy sight.") Later Theresa writes something even more frank: "In the heart of my Mother the Church I will be Love … then I will be everything … and through this my dream will come true!”
This teaching of Therese's about spiritual love is telling in the extreme. "This was the kiss of love. I felt beloved and said, ‘I love You and entrust myself to You forever.' There was neither forgiveness, nor struggle, nor sacrifice; already, long ago, Jesus and little, poor Theresa looked at each other and understood everything.… This day brought not an exchange of views, but a mingling, when there are no longer two; and Theresa disappeared like a drop of water lost in the depths of the ocean." There is no need to comment on this dreamy romance of a poor girl, who the Catholic Church has—alas! called its "Doctor."
The methodical development of imagination is based in the experience of one of the pillars of Catholic mysticism, the founder of the order of Jesuits and great Catholic saint Ignatius of Loyola (sixteenth century).
His book Spiritual Exercises is a mainstay in Catholic monasteries, and insistently calls upon the Christian to imagine the Holy Trinity and the conversation of the Three Persons, Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels, and so on. This is all categorically forbidden by the saints of the Universal Church. They testify that when an ascetic begins to live in his fantasies, to look at himself in his own "films," and believe them, instead of fulfilling Christ's commandments and struggling with his passions, he comes to complete spiritual and emotional disturbance.
The authoritative collection of ascetical writings of the ancient Church, The Philokalia, decisively forbids such "spiritual exercises." Here are few quotes from that book.
St. Neilos of Sinai (fifth century) warns, "Do not desire to physically see the Angels or Powers, or Christ, that you may not lose your mind from accepting a wolf instead of a shepherd, and worshipping our adversaries, the demons."
St. Symeon the New Theologian (ninth century), discusses those who while praying, "imagine heavenly blessings, the ranks of angels, or habitations of the saints," stating plainly that "this is a sign of prelest (delusion)." "They are deluded who are on that path, who see light with their physical eyes, smell fragrances with their sense of smell, hear voices with their ears, and suchlike."
How right was that nobleman (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote about him), who, when seeing the Catholic book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis (fifteenth century) in his daughter's hands, tore it away from her, saying, "Stop playing romance with God." The examples cited above leave no doubt as to the reasonableness of these words. It is a great misfortune that in Catholicism, as we can see, people have ceased to differentiate between the spiritual and the emotional, sanctity and fantasy. This is the greatest calamity that can befall any Christian Church.
1. M.V. Lodyzhensky, Unseen Light (St. Petersburg, 1915) 109.
2. St. Francis of Assisi. Works (Moscow, Franciscan publishers: 1995) 20; 145.
3. Lodyzhensky, 129.
4. Ibid., 133.
5. The Revelations of Blessed Angela (Moscow, 1918).
6. A. F. Losev, Sketch of Ancient Symbolism and Mythology (Moscow, 1930) 1:867–868.
7. Antonio Siccari, Portraits of Saints, (Milan, 1991).
8. Valaam Elder Schema-Abbot John (Alexeyev), Letters on the Spiritual Life (Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, 2007), 268.
9. D. C. Merezhkovsky, Spanish Mystics (Brussels, 1988), 88.
10. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), 304.
11. St. Neilos of Sinai, "153 Chapters On Prayer,"chap. 115, The Philokalia, 5:2 (Moscow, 1884), 237.
12. St. Symeon the New Theologian, "On Three Kinds of Prayer," The Philokalia (Moscow, 1900), 463–464.
Source: An excerpt from the article "Why Are We Orthodox?".