extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; endnotes and illustrations have been removed
To all God’s beloved … called to be saints …
— Saint Paul, letter to the Romans
There is but one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints.
— Leon Bloy, The Femme Pauvre
How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.
— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
A saint is a person for whom nothing takes priority over living out God’s will. Some saints gave such a witness to God’s activity in their lives that they have become part of the calendar of the Church, and as a consequence became the subject of icons.
Each saint is unique — they range from geniuses to those known as holy fools, from rulers to flea-bitten pilgrims — and yet each reminds those who encounter them of Christ. Each is a living translation of the Gospel. Such people are marked by self-giving love, courage, freedom and obedience. They are whole, and for this reason we call them holy. The family of words to which holy belongs includes whole, wholesome, healthy and the Old English word for Savior, Hælend. The halos placed around the heads of saints in icons suggest the light of Christ that shines through them. Each saint in a singular way reveals something about who Christ is. In a particular way, each saint draws us closer to Christ.
Most of the saints of the early Church were martyrs, so named from the Greek word for witness. They gave witness by shedding their blood, not that they sought death, but that they would rather die than deny or compromise their faith in Christ. The places they were buried quickly became places where people gathered to pray and where the local church celebrated the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Reverent care for the bodies of those who died for the faith was a hallmark of the Church from its first days. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian early in the third century.
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” wrote Saint Paul, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” His words are an invitation not simply to admire saints from a safe distance, but to live a saintly life.
Paul saw the saints as collectively forming “cloud of witnesses” — all those who have given an example of heroic perseverance in the race toward the Kingdom of God.
People without faith regard the saints as dead and gone, but the Church regards them as very much with us. They are not simply remembered as having once set a good example, but embraced as our companions in day-to-day life. One of the earliest definitions of the Church is that it is the Communion of Saints. They are near to us, nearer than we imagine.
A substantial encyclopedia could be devoted simply to icons of the saints — they number in the thousands. In this small volume there is room only for a sampling of the many saints whose images are often found in churches and homes.
In addition to saints, there are those mysterious but important bodiless creatures we call angels. Icons of the archangels have an important place in iconography. While we know relatively little about them and are only rarely aware of their presence, we are conscious of the crucial role played by the angels who devote themselves to God’s service; and we are also aware of the danger posed by those angels who, following Lucifer, reject obedience, wage war with God, and hold human beings in contempt as creatures made in God’s image.