This article marks the beginning of my collaboration with the OCN blog, the Sounding. So there we go!
The recent book of Archmandrite Tikhon, “Everyday Saints and other stories”, is one of those books that fulfill the prophecies on their back covers: it was impossible to put down and I felt very sorry when it ended. What is so special about this spiritual book, that made it into a major bestseller and almost a pop phenomenon in Russia, is that it brings the elements of faith right where they belong: in real life. I’ve read many books about the unmatched spiritual battles of the saints from the desert of Egypt or other elders from similarly remote places of the earth, and I was very moved and strengthened in my faith by all of them. At the same time, however, they sometimes felt far away, foreign, inapplicable to our decaying secular life. Archmandrite Tikhon’s stories uncover very similar battles but in the much more familiar battleground of our hometowns, showing us what we already knew, but somewhat forgot, that all great saints, before becoming so great, started their lives just as ordinary folks, like you and me.
There is a very interesting peculiarity In Orthodox iconography related to perspective. The typical vanishing lines into the horizon of classical perspective are not only neglected but daringly reversed in iconography. Through this optical resolve, the viewer is transformed from a seeker, looking into God’s world, into the very object of God’s vision. We can go as far as to say that, in a way, through icons, God is looking at us and what He sees is also icons, icons of Himself in each and every one of us. For the God of Love each of His children is a possible saint; this is how He has created us, with this great potential ready to be fulfilled.
Elder Teofil, of blessed memory, from the Sâmb?ta Monastery in Romania, used to say that if a novice, when entering into a monastery, does not want from all his heart to become a saint, he has nothing to do in a monastery. Of course this is not to say that monks should be as vainglorious as to spend their lives seeking out the spiritual gifts of miracles or foretelling or healing or any of the sort, but it is to say that they should be drawn towards perfection, towards fulfilling the words of the Scriptures, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
This call, however, hardly applies only to monks. During Christ’s time on earth, there were no monastic communities, only common folks pressing around Him in throngs, eager to receive the teachings of life. The call for perfection is a universal call for all those trying to follow Him on the path towards salvation, monastics and lay people together.
Looking closer at this commandment though, we soon realize that it appears to be, at least superficially, an impossible task. How can I, a sinner, become as perfect as God, the only sinless One? It is a commandment of the Lord nonetheless, so there should be a way to do it.
A first possible way is given to the apostles: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27) Perfection, deification is not an attribute of man’s efforts but of God’s grace. He is the one who fulfills our imperfect deeds and makes us fit for His Kingdom; but not against our will and not without our active participation.
Another way of looking at it is to admit that God’s perfection can never be achieved; after all, He is of a different essence than us, He is the Maker and we are His creation. But this does not mean that the commandment should be neglected, that we should not try with all our heart to be more God like; it only means that our efforts should never stop, that our spiritual life should be a never-ending quest to better ourselves and achieve more of God’s impossible-to-reach likeness. It is not only the end that should interest us, but it is just as important to pay close attention to the journey. The end gives us purpose, while the journey is our life. How well we fare on this journey is the decisive factor for our place in the Kingdom.
During the extraordinary journey of life, very few of us will reach the heights of sainthood; this is God’s choice, but it is well within our reach to become “everyday saints”, people of God striving with every inch of our being to find more ways of becoming God-like, making the faith real in our lives, bringing in this way the Kingdom of God on earth.