When regular people deeply engage themselves in prayer and holy living, a whole society can shine in God’s grace. There is an admiration for Russia in the Orthodox Christian world. Saints such as Ignatius Brianchaninov, John of Kronstadt, and Theophan the Recluse are among the greatest writers of our faith. Kings and queens of the nation have practiced the faith from Vladimir (equal to the Apostles) to Nicholas II (Martyred by the Bolsheviks). Monks from Optina, Valaam, and other places have helped to create some of the most inspiring hymns and icons. It is good to remember and reflect upon the heralded saints from this land. But, they aren’t the only ones to emulate or be mindful of.
As he was learning about the ancient Christian faith, Eugene (later Father Seraphim) Rose had many discussions with Nina Podmoshenskaya. The 67- year old escaped from the USSR and shared stories of her life (with Gleb Podmoshensky, the future Father Herman, translating) with the young American. Upper classes of Russians frowned upon Orthodoxy. She had the same distain for the faith until later. One memory that impressed the faith on her was of the holiness of the ordinary faithful believers. “… Her family cook, after putting food in the oven, gone to church ever morning. When he returned to serve the meal, … he emanated a deep spiritual peace that had a calming effect on the entire household ; ‘It was like being in the presence of a real saint and he was just an ordinary layman – people like him were quite common.'”* Holy Russia had it’s pious clergy, devout ascetics, and even believing czars. But, the backbone of the religious culture of the people were the common men and women who lived the faith day in and day out.
The type of saintly emanation Nina spoke of is not something that comes from following popular ministers and ministries. Nor can it be obtained by pointing out the sins of others and not struggling against one’s own. Standing on one side or the other in our “culture war” is irrelevant as this radiance does not come from the “left” or “right,” but from above. It is given only to those who have dedicated their lives to prayer and repentance above all other things. The “maids and cooks” learned how to and practiced being one with God through consistency in their spiritual lives. Even the scriptures teach us this: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; …”**
Among the 4th century African Desert Fathers, Arsenius the Great was a former Roman Aristocrat and deacon before he fled to Egypt and was taught by Abba John the Dwarf. He was observed seeking advice from an obscure native peasant. “Abba, you are well educated in Greek and Latin. Why are you talking with this peasant?” He replied to the critic, “Yes, I do know Greek and Latin.*** But, I don’t know this man’s alphabet.” We need to learn and practice the basics of spiritual living. Common, ordinary people must strive to be the examples to emanate the holiness that our society is lacking.
*Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, pgs. 255-257
**I Corinthians 1:26-2:5
***The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg. 10