It is hard to learn how to do anything without a good example of how to do it. Teachers, coaches, managers, and others who give us assignments often have to model how to do what they ask of us. Without clear examples, most of us will not succeed in getting the job done. That is why it is so important for us to study the lives of the saints, the great examples of what it means for Christians to live holy lives.
Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate St. Nektarius of Pentapolis the Wonderworker, who exemplifies St. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians to “walk as children of light” and to do “what is pleasing the Lord” with purity in the midst of a corrupt world that is so full of darkness and temptation. St. Nektarius was a Greek born in the middle of the 19th century. He became a monk, a priest, and ultimately a metropolitan. Despite Nektarius’ childlike innocence and humility, his rapid rise to prominence in the Church roused the jealousy of others who were not so virtuous. They made false accusations against him, which resulted in his losing his position and being unable to find suitable work. So he accepted the humble place of a provincial preacher, led a theological school, and gave generously to the needy even as he lived in poverty. He oversaw the building of a women’s monastery, provided spiritual direction to many, and devoted himself to intense prayer during which he was sometimes seen elevated above the ground. His personal holiness was such that his prayers healed the sick, cast out demons, and ended a drought. The saint’s enemies continued to circulate vicious rumors about him, but Nektarius never defended himself and instead simply forgave them. His relics were found to be incorrupt after his death, and sicknesses of all kinds—especially cancer-- have been healed through his intercessions.
We certainly ask righteous people we know today to pray for us because we trust that God will hear their prayers. That is a good and ancient practice. In the same way, asking for the prayers of saints such as St. Nektarius is an intrinsic part of the Christian life. The word saint means “holy” and the saints are those in whose lives the holiness of God is powerfully evident. They are now part of that great cloud of witnesses that inspires us to run the race in obedience to Jesus Christ. (Heb. 12:-1-2) As described in the Book of Revelation, they intercede for us around the heavenly throne.
Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and the saints’ physical remains or relics are often incorrupt or preserved from decay. Their bodies manifest the holiness evident in their lives, which is why the bones of the prophet Elisha raised a dead man in the Old Testament. (2 Kings 13:21) Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched St. Paul healed the sick and cast out demons in Acts. (19:12) Remember that Jesus Christ rose from the dead with a glorified body. Our hope for life eternal is the resurrection of the whole person—body, soul, and spirit. So it should not be surprising that the physical bodies of holy people are often conduits of our Lord’s blessing to the rest of us who also have physical bodies. That has been the experience of the Church since the very beginning of the faith.
To remember and honor the saints, as well as to ask for their intercessions, is ultimately to give thanks and praise to God, for their great virtues are His gifts. If we want evidence of the truth of the Gospel , of our hope to participate personally in the holiness and eternal life of our Lord, we should look to the saints, whose lives are truly living icons of His salvation. They are like our hall of fame, the greatest examples of what it means to be fully open and receptive to God’s presence and power in our lives. Like the Thetotokos, the greatest of the saints, they always point to Christ, inviting us to give ourselves to Him. As we say so often in our services, “Calling to remembrance our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.” The saints are certainly not distractions from faithfulness to the Lord. The very opposite is true, as they inspire us by their examples and prayers to take up our crosses and follow Him, even as they did.
We need that inspiration because, as St. Paul reminded the Ephesians, it is so easy to be spiritually asleep. It is so easy to fail to be alert to the temptations all around us and especially that we have allowed to take root in our hearts due to our own laziness. Even as the person who has drunk too much wine tends to let his guard down and find it hard to control himself, we too easily become drunk with our own passions or self-centered desires. We too often think, act, and speak foolishly, participating in “the unfruitful works of darkness” because they are popular, appealing, and all too familiar.
If we define a good life by what is celebrated in popular culture--in movies, television, music, the internet, advertisements, or what most think of as the “conventional wisdom”—we will be lulled into thinking that we are doing just fine spiritually no matter we believe or how we live. If we pay too much attention to popular versions of religion in our culture, we will hold ourselves to no higher standard than whatever makes us momentarily happy or serves whatever political agenda we may like. If we fill our minds with graphic images of sex and violence in the name of entertainment, we will no longer consider a life of purity to be desirable or even possible. The more comfortable we become with gratifying every desire, the more we will excuse ourselves from pursuing holiness in the relationship between man and woman as though that is somehow outdated and irrelevant.
That is precisely why we need to remember the saints, not as distant historical figures, but as fellow members of the Body of Christ, as our friends and personal examples, as holy people for whose prayers we ask every day of our lives. If we hold ourselves to the standard that they set in faithful service to Jesus Christ, we will be less inclined to let ourselves off the hook by having expectations no higher than those of our darkened and corrupt world. When they become our spiritual companions, we will be less likely to think of ours as a lonely and impossible path. Every temptation we face, they faced. Every virtue we seek to cultivate, they developed in their own lives. Every pain or difficulty that we encounter, they know. They are examples of how to live faithfully in a world where there is nothing new under the sun.
We should commemorate St. Nektarius of Pentapolis the Wonderworker by living as he did in faithfulness to our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us wake up spiritually and “walk as children of light,” refusing to conform ourselves to the darkness and instead keeping our eyes on the prize of finishing the race. The saints have shown us how to do that and now they cheer us on to victory through their intercessions. As Orthodox Christians, we must take full advantage of their example, their intercession, and their companionship. They are shining lights of what it means to be truly human in Jesus Christ and they invite us to join them. By God’s grace, we can. The only question is whether we will choose to do so.