Have you ever noticed that it is easier to organize someone else’s space than your own? I remember when I was in college, I needed a part-time job. I had formerly worked in a customer-service role, and was eager to find something that didn’t require being in front of dozens of people every day. After all, I interacted with people at school all day, and wanted to be able to do some work by myself. I applied for a position cleaning someone’s private home, and was accepted. The pay was quite good, and I could perform my work quietly. When I told my parents and other people who knew me well, however, a general look of surprise came over their faces, because I was generally unable to keep my room straight my whole childhood and collegiate life!
Going through someone else’s home and cleaning just wasn’t as hard as and cleaning my own home. I would go in and basically follow a list of tasks. I was not emotionally invested in anything there (although I did stop to read some books during breaks…), and so it was not hard to go in and get the job done. With my own room, however, I was confronted with having to think hard about what to do with things, where to put them, whether to keep them at all. The choice was sometimes daunting, and I was always one step behind, it felt.
Thankfully I have gotten a lot better at organizing and cleaning, but like most people, I still find it harder to face my own inner self and take action. St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite stated some two hundred years ago: “Men study the heavens, the Earth, and all other things to discover their harmonious relationships and order, but extremely few inquire how to order themselves harmoniously through the acquisition of true virtue.” It’s easier to study other people and other things, and how they relate together, than to stand alone, looking in the mirror, and assessing who is staring back.
Unlike the modern world, however, we don’t have to plan it out alone—we have the witness of others to guide us. The saints are those who have overcome trials in their own lives, in many different ways, and they are able to give us a “set of instructions” as it were as to how we should live our own lives, in order to draw closer to Christ Our Savior, and away from sinfulness. Much like a mentor in our professions, the saints provide us with an example and guidance as to what to do to achieve salvation and union with Christ.
The way we learn about the saints and their example is by reading their Lives. The Lives of the Saints are accounts of varying lengths that describe the life of a saint. There are thousands of such Lives available, in collections and individually. For those just beginning the process, I highly recommend The Prologue from Ochrid, which was compiled by a Serbian bishop last century. The lives here are shorter accounts, which also include poems, reflections, and meditations. The entire passage for the day can be read in under twenty minutes by most people. This work is available as a two-volume hardcover, and can be ordered online, such as on Amazon.com.
There are also many Lives of the Saints available for free online, which can be found by searching. Make sure to limit your searches for Orthodox Christian saints, however, as non-Orthodox Churches also have their own saints, who may reflect the teachings of these other Churches, and not Orthodox teaching. For a much fuller example of a saint’s life, I recommend everyone purchase the book Elder Ieronymos of Aegina by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, which is a book-length account of one of the holiest men to live in the 20th century, a monk who resided on the Greek Island of Aegina. His life is an amazing account of what God’s grace can do to transform us.
Reading the Lives of the Saints is one of the key ways that we grow spiritually. Hearing accounts of people who lived in the 200s, 700s, 1000s, 1500s, and just a few years ago, who came from all walks of life, but who all ended up in the same place—Heaven with Christ—gives us practical ideas on how to live our lives, what sins we might need to overcome, and ways to do it. It also gives us a sense of reassurance, that it is quite possible for us, despite our many sins, to be saved by Christ and transformed. Saints were not always or even usually people who were good from childhood; no, they were often sinners who realized their mistakes, turned to or back to Christ, and were healed of their spiritual illnesses. Saints are such because they radiated Christ. As such, they are examples of Christ living in man and perfecting him, they are a call to us to reach for what seems impossible, but by God’s grace is within reach: the death of sin, and a new life. As we chant in the liturgy on weekdays: “O Son of God, Who art Wondrous in the Saints, save us who chant to Thee, Alleluia!” Saints are true bearers of Christ.
Let us then honor the saints and learn from them by reading their Lives and putting what we read into practice. If we do so, we will experience what they experienced, which came about as a result of their deep love for God and desire to give up everything that kept them apart from Him. If we take this call seriously, then we, too, may become saints one day; but even if not, we will experience greater joy in our families and spiritual peace in our life.