The life of St Benedict is for me a very fruitful source for reflection and meditation. (Indeed, I had the pleasure a year or so ago of reading all of St. Gregory’s Dialogues [pdf file, an online version begins here].) It has been some time, but I used to read a chapter of his life every weekday during lunch. I have returned to that practice this Lent, and very happy to do so.
I have heard the notion in Orthodox circles that one does not choose a patron saint, but is, rather, chosen by that saint. That’s surely a bit of hyperbole, but it nonetheless rings true in my own experience. I have shared before how it is, in almost identical situations, more than dozen years apart, St. Benedict and Blessed Seraphim made their respective patronages known to me. I have their icons in my prayer corner, and invoke their prayers constantly.
When I was a Protestant, of course, saints’ lives were barely on the radar, and to the degree that they were, they were of mere historical interest, stories to tell to encourage one another in the faith. Gosh, that Ignatios sure did die a violent death. Hope I could die so nobly. And even as an Episcopalian, though there was much more overt celebration of saints’ lives, it was still primarily about biography. Any prayers offered in commemoration to the saints were offered directly to God to instill in us the same love, the same acts of service and martyrdom. But it was primarily historical. To be sure, we believed the saints lived in the presence of Christ. But their lives were historical accounts which we emulated and admired and prayed to God to be like.
In other words, the saints were observed as artefacts, not engaged as persons.
If there were any more interest in saints, it was in those saints who left theological or doctrinal writings we could study. Saints were more available to us through doctrine and the pages of a book, than they were as living beings in Abraham’s bosom.
Coming to Orthodoxy rendered a deep and abiding change. The saints were indeed alive, and they interceded for us. They were not museum pieces, but were united to and with us in God as living, active persons. But more to the point, there was no division between a saint’s theology and the saints life. Indeed, the saint’s life is theology.
And this explains another curious factor I noticed in coming to Orthodoxy: persons were more interested, it seemed to me, in the reading of saints’ lives than theology. If I asked for books to read, I was not given St. John Damascene’s Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, or St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, but rather was told to read the life of St. Thus-and-so (usually one I’d never heard of). St. Herman? Who’s that? Okay, sure. (Later: Wow!)
St. Seraphim of Sarov is another example. Like St. John Cassian’s Conferences, St. Seraphim’s conversation with Motovilov is much like hagiography, not a theological treatise. And yet what a depth of theology resides within that account!
In Orthodoxy, the saints are not merely historical pieces, but active agents involved in our common salvation, and their lives reflect a deep theology. I encourage you to take up one of the lives of the saint, say, St. Benedict, Fr. Seraphim, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Ignatios, or St. Polycarp, and read them slowly and prayerfully.