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March 2, 2021

The Church Without Saints Isn’t the Church


This talk was given in the Church of Saint John the Forerunner (Kinigos) on Vouliagmeni Street in Athens, on 3/1/2015 at Great Vespers on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholaos Planas.

By Archimandrite Chrysostomos Papadakis

So the day itself requires our talk to turn to sanctity in general and then, in particular, to the life Saint Nicholas, whom we’re honoring, as the pride and joy of the parish, which he served in a manner well-pleasing to God when it was still taking its first steps and was sparsely inhabited.

And you parishioners can hardly forget that the parish has been blessed by the saint not only through his tenure as priest, but even more so by the fact that he was buried here and so, through his bodily presence, blesses you all every day.

The greatest spiritual capital the Church has, its greatest, inconceivable and inviolate riches, are the Saints. This demonstrates that it isn’t merely the ark of salvation for our souls, that is souls who are saved simply by avoiding eternal hellfire, but is, rather, for souls who are glorified in the Kingdom of God, even before the final judgment, before the Second Coming, as long as the Church Militant continues to exist.

They’ve been glorified because they were perfectly well-pleasing to God through their lives and reached the state of deification, that is they became gods by Grace, they acquired boldness and, from this boldness, great gifts, even during their life on earth. And their personal sainthood has become a source of sainthood for others.

The Church exists to save souls. To make saints. If you take saints out of its life, its theology and its worship, it ceases to be the Church. You could call it what you like, but it wouldn’t be the Church. And Christ Himself indicates that the Orthodox Church is His Church, the one of which He is the Head, and it holds the treasure of the Grace of the Holy Spirit, Who leads it to ‘all the truth’. He does so, in accordance with His incontrovertible promise, by granting Grace, by manifesting and glorifying His saints in this Church through a host of signs and wonders. It is a consequence of this empirical truth that any Orthodox cleric or lay person who, in word or deed, belittles the saints is lagging behind as far as the faith is concerned. And if I may use the Pauline expression, they ‘condemn themselves’ before God and His saints. On the other hand, empirical truth within the life of the Church shows that those who love the saints and honor them in various ways, particularly by following the Church in the honor it pays them through divine worship, are strong in the faith. If we struggle against our personal passions with the reinforcement of the intercessions of the saints, we may hope in our salvation. The conclusion? Loving the saints is a criterion of genuine Orthodox spiritual life.

Every day our Church honors the memory of lots of saints, because in doing so, through the rubrics of divine worship, it asks for their intercessions and the intervention of their grace in the lives of its children who are struggling. It also presents the saints as examples of the holy life. But the educational force of the feast remains inactive if we either ignore our goal, which is to ‘be holy', or, if we recognize it but choose not to break free of our sweet imprisonment to our worldly mentality. And we don’t want to break free because that would mean treading the path of the Cross. And for this course to begin, to continue and be completed requires an honest struggle, as the recently canonized Athonite elder, Saint Paisios, used to say. A life which doesn’t aim at personal sanctification through honest struggle has no meaning, since it’s satisfied with ‘vanities and the many hardships of the flesh’.

If the aim of our Creator Himself had not been immortality for His creation – and not merely immortality but glorification, that is sanctification - what would have been the point of His incarnation? The whole of the theology of Christian truth is summed up in the single phrase: ‘The incarnation of God and the deification of human beings’. In other words, God became human so that we could become gods. A saint is a god by Grace. As we read in the Lives of the Saints, there are many paths towards sanctification, because there are a great many factors involved. But within the wide variety of personal struggles, we can discern some fundamental features which characterize a saintly life, and a brief mention will be made of these. In any case, many of us have seen and felt them in the lives of our contemporary holy Elders.

The first characteristic is the conscientious observance of God’s commandments. This observance is free, unforced and joyful, because it is not performed out of fear of Hell, nor is it self-serving for the acquisition of good things in the future, but simply out of love for Christ, since this is what He says and wants. And when I say conscientious observance, I mean observance of the smallest detail, because this is what the delicate conscience of the saints requires. This is a conscience so delicate, so sensitive that it would not tolerate even the slightest bad thought. This attitude to life was abundant proof of their unswerving love for Christ, since He said: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ and ‘those who keep my commandments are those who love me’. The sensitivity of the saints on this matter was so great that they suffered and were pained when they saw how those around them scorned the Lord’s commandments, though they gave boundless care and affection, as well as genuine assistance to those who repented and wished to be guided in Christ. Naturally, it would be redundant to deal at any length with the problems the saints had in their immediate and wider environment, because this constancy in obedience to the Lord’s commandments bothered and castigated those who had ‘seared consciences’. And, unfortunately, this can be seen at its worst in the realm of the Church, which not infrequently proved to be demonically harsh, such as in the egregious instance of the treatment of Saint Nektarios.

A second feature is disengagement from the outside world, not in terms of place, but morality. Saint John the Evangelist says: ‘The whole world lies under the power of the evil one’ and ‘Do not love the world or the things of the world. If people love the world, the love of the Father is not in them’. He means the prevailing, multifarious sins of the world and our attachment to matter. Even though saints such as the holy priests Nicholas Planas and Porphyrios lived in the world, or, indeed others who had contact with a lot of people, they disassociated themselves from the worldly outlook, with all that it implies, because they were linked spiritually to Christ, Who filled them so fully that they often forgot even to feel tiredness, hunger or thirst. They achieved that which we hear in the Third Salutations: ‘Having witnessed a strange birth, let us become strangers to the world, elevating our mind to the heavens’. And since, even while they still lived on earth, they were essentially citizens of heaven, they were able, even when they were silent, to speak charismatically to people’s souls.

The third feature was their true faith: their adherence, in total obedience, to the dogmas of the Church and to its Orthodox Patristic tradition. They denounced heresy and attacked it with their teaching and prayer, though they never hated a heretic as a person. They had the illumined grace of being able to discern an attack from the right, which is one that comes from pseudo-piety, when there is latent egotism which the devil exploits to bring on false visions. In all eras there have been ‘the deceivers and the deceived’, but the saints have always repulsed deceptions through their spiritual gifts and have striven for the salvation of the victims. And they had this attitude because they weren’t spiteful. This is also why they never joined the ranks of the zealots, nor did they behave disrespectfully towards Church leaders, even if they didn’t always agree with some of their actions.

The fourth characteristic was their fortitude in enduring the martyrdom of blood or sorrows, whether these arose from the devil, as direct attacks from him, or from other people, or from lengthy, excruciating sickness.

Our contemporary saint, Luke, Archbishop of Simferopol, the surgeon and wonderworker, who was persecuted so harshly by the atheist establishment, reached the point of saying: ‘I came to love the suffering which cleanses the soul in such a strange way’. Saint Porphyrios, who suffered so much from his various illnesses, said: ‘I never asked the Lord to take away my sicknesses. I would have been ashamed to do so’. He had such spiritual nobility that, in his pain, he glorified God and was happy. And Saint Paisios said: ‘God has hung our salvation on patience’. Towards the end of his life, when he was suffering horrific pains from his cancer, he said: ‘The benefit I’ve seen from my illness I never saw from years of asceticism’. And before him, Saint Nicholas Planas, whom we are honoring, confessed to one of his spiritual daughters: ‘My child, it was because of patience that I managed to make it through all the obstacles that presented themselves’.

These basic features of a holy life were held in abundance by Saint Nicholas Planas, though there were also others, peculiar to him, because of the manner of his personal struggle and his priestly office. As regards the first feature, he didn’t allow himself to stray because of his precise observance of the law of the Gospels.

Although not well-educated, to the extent, in fact, that he made comical mistakes when he read the Gospel, according to the great Greek writer Papadiamantis, who used to chant at the vigils in Saint Elisha’s. Nevertheless, he studied the Scriptures with his spiritual children, as it is written: ‘Your law is the object of my study’. There’s even a photograph that has survived. And it must be stressed that his lack of education wasn’t an obstacle, because it’s the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit that makes theologians out of fishermen, such as the Apostles. What happened to them after the Resurrection – ‘then He opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures’- has occurred throughout the centuries as a sign from God for those who love Him and seek to know ‘the will of God’. Papa-Nicholas never preached a sermon. He had some physical speech impediment. Moses also had a similar problem, but God chose him for the great task of the Exodus and gave him the Law in Sinai. And he saw God.

So Papa-Nicholas never preached, but he was himself a continuous sermon which bore great fruit. This practical sermon, that is his life, endured. It endured because it was the sermon of a holy life, and, as a sermon accompanied by the grace of God, was aimed directly at people’s hearts, and brought them ease and inspiration.

As regards the second feature, the voluntary withdrawal from the world, it was obvious and self-evident, if we read the written testimony regarding his life. A holy priest who was a stranger to the worldly outlook couldn’t help but be indifferent to material goods, especially money. He had no possessions, wasn’t avaricious and so was generous. But he was also indifferent to censure and praise, because his mind, his heart, was in heaven.

As regards his attitude towards the Church, this is proven by his extremely humble obedience, even when the powers that be were less than fair to him. Most of all though, in his attitude towards the calendar question, he wasn’t swept away by ignorant zeal.

As regards the fourth feature, that is fortitude in enduring the various sorrows of life, he was magnificent in his peace and tolerance.

Allow me to mention, with all due reverence, two other personal features of Saint Nicholas Planas. One was his simplicity. Even people who knew him well – and loved him – probably thought him naïve, because we know of many instances when he appeared so. But Papa-Nicholas had simplicity in Christ, which is a gift. A gift of God to his inner purity. A gift of God to the guilelessness of his heart, to the humbleness of his thought, to the purity of his intentions and to the extreme innocence of his soul. Holy simplicity can’t be judged in terms of reason, because it transcends logic. It’s unable to produce a bad thought, to be cunning. We read in the Lives of the Saints that this blessing has worked very many miracles. And since we suffer from a lack of it, we don’t work miracles.

Our minds are permanently locked onto bad thoughts, so we’re never at peace with ourselves. It’s important for us to remember that holy simplicity, in its first form, was the charismatic raiment of Adam and Eve, by reason of which they had no sense of shame. This is why the hymnographer who wrote the doxastikon for Vespers in Cheesefare week, which presents Adam sitting weeping outside Paradise after the expulsion, uses this phrase to express his lament: ‘Woe is me, who was naked in simplicity and now I wonder at it’.

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy we heard in the Gospel reading about the call of the first Apostles. Among them was Nathaniel, who was brought to Christ by his friend Philip. It’s worth noting Christ’s comment about Nathaniel, as He saw him approaching. This comment is most appropriate as regards Saint Nicholas, too: ‘Behold, a true Israelite in whom there is no guile’. Because He can read hearts, He saw the holy simplicity of Nathaniel.

The second of these personal features was his intense liturgical life. He was quite unique as regards this holy feature compared to all the other priests who served the Church outside monasteries. At least so far, there’s been no one like him. He served the liturgy on a daily basis, often held vigils, his liturgies lasted for hours and he would remember so many thousands of names.

How many of the living were blessed by God because of him and how many of the departed owed their rest to him.

And from receiving Holy Communion so often how much sanctifying grace his pure soul received, as did his body which had been cleansed by temperance and diligence.

The holy altar was his joy, his spiritual nourishment, his very breath. And it must be remarked here that Papa-Nicholas’ intense sacramental life, his daily liturgies, and particularly his Athonite-style vigils were something of a nuisance for the religious life of Athens at the time. The return to the Fathers still hadn’t occurred and there was no pro-monastic spirit type religious activity, being still under the influence of the West. Against this, Father Nicholas and the core of his spiritual children kept and acknowledged Orthodox tradition. His work was pioneering in terms of the return to the Fathers and to a pro-monastic spirit. All of this blessed work took place within the framework of folk piety, which is the mystical conscience of the Church.

This devotion of ordinary people is the womb of the saints who emerge in the Church and is also the secret garden of the saints hidden in the world. It feeds the monasteries with dedicated souls, it provides staff for missions, it maintains churches and the charity work of the Church, it encourages volunteer activity for the glory of God and of His Church, it is where manifestations of the saints take place, it experiences miracles, small and great, and defends the Church when it is persecuted. The devotion of ordinary people responds to the call of the Church in whatever struggles it is undertaking, it embodies the spirit of the love of the saints, that is, people who read the Lives of the Saints, honor their memory, venerate their icons and their holy relics. The natural protector of this popular devotion is Saint Nicholas Planas, the protector of ordinary, humble, unassuming but struggling Christians. But he’s also the protector and mentor of those priests who have great love for their priesthood and serve the holy altar with humility, simplicity and a clear conscience.

My prayer is that this parish and each of you personally will be under the paternal protection of the celestial prayers of the sanctified priest Nicholas Planas. Amen!