A wonderful project among the Orthodox Churches established in Britain is to list the saints of these western islands that the East shares with the West from the time of our complete communion in the One Body of the Lord’s Church.
With the coming of the people of the Eastern Churches to Britain, obviously their treasured memory is of saints in the lands from which they came and would possibly never see again. We can think of St Sergius of Valaam, St Seraphim of Sarov and St John of Kronstadt from the Russian tradition; St Charalambous and St Silouan of Athos from the Greek Church; St Sava from Serbia; St Charbel from the Maronite Church; desert fathers St Shenouda and St Bishoy from the Coptic Church; St Gregory of Narek from the Armenian tradition, now a doctor of the universal Church; St Olga and St Volodymyr from the Kievan Church to which our Ukrainian Catholic tradition belongs, as well as new martyrs such as the ecumenist Blessed Mykolai Charnetsky. Only recently the Cathedral in Preston of the new Syro-Malabar eparchy has been dedicated to St Alphonsa of Kottayam-Travancore. This is a cause for joy, because it enriches our awareness in Britain of the great cloud of witnesses in the Church from across the world; and western Christians can come to love, venerate and learn from them as our own. There is nothing new in this. The Church in England in the last two hundred years has embraced the saints of Ireland, from St Brigid of Kildara to St Kieran, St Kevin, and St Brendan the Navigator. By the same token, Anglicans who recently brought the Church of England’s patrimony and historical memory into the Catholic Church can now celebrate as their own the post-Reformation saints of Catholic Europe: not only England’s St Edmund Campion and Blessed John Henry Newman, but St Francis de Sales, St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St Alphonsus Liguori and St Maria Goretti.
In the same way our beloved Orthodox brothers and sisters whose Churches have living roots in Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and so on, as well now as here, have taken to their hearts St Columba, St Aidan, St Bede, St Cuthbert, St Chad, St Hilda, St Wilfrid, St Etheldreda, St Erconwald, St Edmund, St Ethelburga, St Dunstan and St Hildelith. This makes immediate sense when you consider that St Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury 668-690, was a bishop from the patriarchate of Antioch.
A shared martyrology from the first millennium is not, however, the end of the story. As St John Paul encouraged the Christians of the West divided on Catholic-Protestant lines, and of the East divided along Catholic-Orthodox lines, there needs to be a healing of our highly charged memories. It then needs to lead, said Pope Benedict, to a reconciliation of those memories. For the saints and martyrs are not holy because they stood up for one side against another, but because they stood for Christ, obedient even unto death. In the First World War, Christendom went into collapse because the home of Christian civilisation in Europe tore itself apart, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant states fell upon each other claiming that the Lord was on their side. But the resounding question of the Scriptures is, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” Pope Benedict XV pleaded for peace and reconciliation among Christians, only to be rebuffed by the combatants, even Catholics. A hundred years on, we are still dealing with the consequences of our European shame, since we placed ethnic, imperial and national interest above the imperatives of human virtue and divine law, of the Kingdom of justice and peace on earth as it is in heaven. Thus our continent came to endure 70 years of atheistic materialist communism, which brought the Churches under its sway to their knees, It was also sucked int the twelve-year hell of the no less atheistic death cult of Nazism. And now, the nations that prided themselves as little as a decade ago as the defenders and restorers of Christian peace, civilisation, and ethical values regard the following of Christ as itself unjust and immoral, as country after country dethrones the sacredness of humanity in God’s image to promote the destruction of life in the very womb in which it was conceived, and the legally enforced liquidation of the terminally ill. It is hard to compare favourably what this is making of our humanity with our western liberal values of human progress and enlightenment. It seems to bear out the necessity of the view of the Fathers of the Church - that the spiritual reality of our existence is superior to the earthly life that we can touch. We think that here is what reality is, and that what lies beyond is somehow less real because less tangible - an inspiring ideal maybe, but not quite substantial. Yet it is the firmer reality; for it is beyond the power of death to destroy it. It has the power to enter our world and connect with it, through making physical beings spiritual, through giving temporary minds the vision that they are eternal souls, through making lives that are not yet completed holy.
In seizing this higher existence as the true reality now, the healing and reconciliation of memories means taking to heart the loves, the beloved and the vision of those with whom we disagree for the earthly moment – and also seeing our own limitations and lack of perfection as the raw material for our repentance and forgiveness, and thus for our recreation raising us up to heavenly living. Yet a few hundred yards from this Cathedral is the site of the Tyburn Tree, a gibbet on which dozens of faithful Catholic priests and lay people were hanged, then drawn and quartered by a sword while still conscious, as traitors to the Anglican state. A few miles in the other direction at Smithfield, Protestant clergy and lay people, faithful to the Christ they saw in the words of the New Testament freshly available to them in English, were burned to death as heretics to the Catholic faith. Above our heads in the Holy Place is the icon of St Josaphat, who was murdered in 1623 in an insurrection of those opposed to the unity of the Eastern Church with the See of Peter at Rome for which he as bishop stood. In turn, 93 Orthodox were sentenced to death in punishment. The wounds are still open and there are other stories in other regions, where division between Christians has led to violence and the shedding of blood, supposedly in the defence of faith.
It was the Lord Jesus Himself who foresaw that the disunity of Christians would be a scandal causing the world to disbelieve in God: “May they all be one as You and I are one,” he prayed to the Father, “so that the world may believe it was You Who sent Me.” So we realise that the once Christian world has turned from life and trust in God, not because it has lost interest in God but because we Christians by our persistent disunity and self-interest have made our protestations about God’s sovereign rule, the reconciling power of His love, the prevailing power of His justice in the face of evil and human adversity, and the healing of His goodness, simply unbelievable.
Pope Benedict on his Apostolic Visit to Britain in 2010 reminded us that we must give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us of the Christ who died on the Cross, is risen and ascended over all. He called on us not to see our Churches as competing monopolies on the truth, but the reliable vessels for entering ever more deeply the mystery of the Church, which is none other than one life in one Lord. In the profound commemorations of the martyrs of English Christian divisions we have come to realise that we belong not to different sides but to a history that unites us. Moreover, when those martyrs, Catholic and Protestant alike, died for fidelity to Christ as they saw it, they did not die in separation and go to a separate purgatory or a separate heaven. They died in union with Christ, and their holiness was not their own but His alone.
In the years to come, we who look on the icons that gaze out from heaven to put us into visual and physical contact with holiness will be saints too. And the saints of Britain will not be those we recognise from the backgrounds and sides to which we belong for the moment, but those people made perfect by the sheer love and dwelling of the Holy Spirit within them. Already in our Catholic Church we venerate saints from the Orthodox Church – notably St Gregory Palamas – just as we honour the spiritual leaders of the non-Catholic west, such as John and Charles Wesley. In parts of Orthodoxy, there is love for Catholic saints like St Francis, St Thomas Aquinas, and St Therese of Lisieux. All this is telling us that the Lord, whose very teaching cured every weakening and dividing sickness among the people, and united us all by His declaration of the Kingdom (Matthew 4.23), is indeed the Perfecter of a faith weighed down with sin in the world, the Pioneer who causes us to run on into the cloud of witnesses (cf. Hebrews 12.2), until we run into each other when finally come to a stop at Him – finding ourselves at last on the Lord’s side and never against anyone else’s, at last holy as He is holy.