Icons, Saints, and Monasticism
For Orthodox believers, the church's witness to Christ through the lives of its saints and martyrs, and the consistent teaching of its fathers and preaching of its pastors are of utmost importance. Saints and martyrs overlap in the church's teaching, as to be a true martyr for confessing Christ is to be a saint. Thousands were martyred in the early church, and probably millions more saints were made in the twentieth-century church during the reigns of Stalin, Hitler, and other dictators.
Saints are considered to be icons of Christ in Orthodoxy, an understanding that is related to the Orthodox teaching on theosis, or believers struggling with their passions to become partakers of the divine nature. Saints, perfected people, are windows to heaven and images of Jesus. And icons (wood and paint representations of saints) are windows to the saints, which in turn open on to the presence of the Lord.
Though Orthodox worshippers appear to venerate or even worship icons, they are taught that the veneration is only to that which the icons represent, in other words the saints depicted, and that the saints in turn are depictions or representations of God in Jesus Christ.
Saints, though gone to glory, are not dead but living, as Jesus said regarding the meaning of the resurrection: “Have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31–32).
Monasticism, as a school in which to train the passions or reeducate human nature to divine ends, is also seen in Orthodoxy as integral to making saints. Though most monks and nuns are not thought of as achieving the level of perfection that leads to talk of sainthood, most of those who do achieve that level of retraining, apart from those suffering physical martyrdom, are men and women who take up the monastic life.
Who was St. Seraphim of Sarov?
St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) has been an inspiration to thousands who chose the pursuit of theosis. The purpose of life, he taught, was to acquire the Holy Spirit. “Acquire the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will acquire salvation” was his answer to how to best become a witness for the Gospel.
There are still many Orthodox monasteries in Russia (most of the ones now in use have been rehabilitated after the fall of the Communists), Greece, Romania, and even a few in Great Britain and the United States. The oldest one that has been in existence from ancient times is St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and the Holy Land, which was begun in the fifth century A.D. with support of Emperor Justinian. The most famous center of Orthodox monasticism is Mount Athos, a rugged peninsula that juts into the sea near Thessaloniki in northern Greece. It is the home of scores of large monastic communities, most of which are accessible only by boat from the sea and, once off the boat, by footpaths.