We all need heroes. We all look to someone in the hope that even we, too, might do something great one day. Characters like Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and even Cinderella point to our fascination with the seemingly normal person doing extraordinary things. We watch TV and are captivated by the stories of the “average Joe” making something of himself or rising to athletic stardom.
But what about the spiritual life? Who can we look to if we want to see lives well-lived? So often, we turn living a spiritual life into an impossible task; so impossible that really only Jesus could do it. We forget that after His ascension, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to give us the strength and the grace to live lives dedicated to Him. He gave us the Church so that we could live out community as His Body.
But what does a holy life look like in the twenty-first century? We tell ourselves, “Sure, people could live holy lives in the fourth century…there was no TV, internet, or any of the other temptations of our day!” We doubt there are any saints who could have understood the struggles that we face.
When I became Orthodox as a teen, I was relieved that I no longer had to be in this fight alone. I was joining a team of Orthodox Christians from all over the world striving to know Christ and to live the Christian life. And not only that, I was joining a community that stretches past the grave to embrace all those who came before us, all the saints who are part of this same Body of Christ.
So I’ve made a point to get to know the saints, especially saints whose lives resembled my own or who faced similar concerns, temptations, or circumstances as I have. Particularly important to me are modern saints (those who were alive in the last century) like St. Arsenios of Cappadocia +1924, St. Nektarios of Aegina +1920, St. George Karslidis of Drama +1959, St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris +1945, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr +1918, and St. Philoumenos of Jacob’s Well +1979. And then there’s even more recent saints like St. Porphyrios +1991 and St. Paisios +1994 (both of Mount Athos).
Since we remembered St. Paisios of Mount Athos on July 12, let’s take a look at his teachings on prayer and what they can tell us about living Orthodox Christian lives today.
St. Paisios was devoted to a life of prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer. He knew that he could be of no help to others if he didn’t have that strong connection to Jesus first. It was only after being filled with the fruits that come from that relationship with Christ that he was able to give back to those who came to him for guidance. So he turned first to scripture and to the saints to help him. He recommended that people read scripture or a saint’s teachings before rising for prayer. This is especially helpful for those of us who struggle with wandering thoughts during prayer.
One of my favorite things about the modern elders like St. Paisios and St. Porphyrios is that they were constantly telling stories from their own lives that helped make sense of spiritual teachings. And they knew what it was like to live in our modern world; they too struggled to live Orthodox Christian lives and even lived into the 1990s.
One time when St. Paisios was discussing the importance of prayer, he told a story from his time in the army.
When I was in the army, during the war, I was a radio operator. I noticed that we felt secure only when we communicated with the Army Division on an hourly basis. When our communication was limited to every two hours, we felt a little bit insecure; sometimes, when we could only be in touch with them twice a day, we felt uncomfortable, lonely and lost. The same thing applies to our prayer. The more we pray, the more secure we feel, on a spiritual basis, of course.
Can you remember the last time you had to go without your cell phone? What about a time you drove through an area without any cell service? In moments like this, it’s so easy to find ourselves worrying about what calls or text messages we might miss or all the other what-ifs of not having a phone when you need one. But as soon as we’re back with service and have a phone in hand, we go right back to our endless scrolling of social media. And back to our desire to stay connected. St. Paisios knew that desire for staying connected too, but he brings our attention to the one and only source that will never disappoint: Christ.
If I want to feel safe and secure, I need to stay connected to Christ. Only in Him do I find true life and peace. Only in Christ do I find what I’m actually looking for when I’m seeking validation and connection all around me. So I need to stay in constant contact with Him, especially living in our world that is so full of distractions and temptations to follow after other things.
And don’t forget, St. Paisios is one of the saints who inspired the Be the Bee series! He said that Orthodox Christians ought to be like the bee (looking for the sweet things) instead of like the fly (landing on and focusing on the bad) as we maneuver through our modern world. So if you’ve benefitted from Be the Bee, give thanks to God for His guidance through the life and teachings of St. Paisios.
In my summer after seminary, I was able to visit the grave of St. Paisios with my classmates. Visiting him was so special for me it was like going up to my grandfather and receiving his loving embrace. And even now, being able to venerate a bit of soil from his grave brings me closer to him as he pulls me into the embrace of our Lord Jesus Christ. I hope that you too will get to know St. Paisios for yourself, and that you will read his teachings as well. Remember, we are all called to be saints. Even and especially today.
Have you gotten to know some of our modern Orthodox saints? What saint’s life reminds you the most of your own?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Photo Credit: depositphotos