“Let them be one in the Lord and each other’s adornment.”
This description from Saint Gregory the Theologian (Asia Minor; 4th century) is a very fitting one for the relationship a Christian husband and wife should seek to have. However, Saint Gregory originally said this about the relationship between those who are married and those who are monastics.
Perhaps it is important to emphasize from the beginning that by selecting only married Saints’ Lives for this book, we do not intend to divide, oppose, prefer, or in any significant sense separate them from the monastic Saints. In fact, quite a few married Saints later became monastics (for example, after the deaths of their spouses). In any case, as Saint Gregory himself points out in the same passage, both are necessary for the Church.
It has always been important for all Christians to be encouraged to be holy. As we read in Saint Peter’s first epistle, “but as He who called you is holy, so also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy'” (I Peter 1:15-16; Lev. 11:44-45). There also has always been a special need to encourage people to become monastics, since it is an unusual path. Probably now, in our indulgent, “post-Christian” society, monasticism is needed more than ever.
In contrast, there was not a need in the past to encourage marriage. It has simply been the normal way of life for most people, and its value has not been questioned by society at large, or by the Church (where it is considered a holy sacrament). So, the main pastoral need in the past was to encourage Christians who were married to strive to be holy. And this can be done partly by reading Saints’ Lives — any Saints, whether monastic or married.
But today it is also necessary to emphasize the fundamental goodness of marriage itself, since marriage and family life are often disparaged in our society. As part of emphasizing the need for all to seek holiness, it is helpful for people to know that many married people have achieved holiness, even though they remain unknown to the Church as a whole, and also that there are those among the married who have been held up by the Church through formal canonization as examples for all.
Some may wonder how the Lives of the Saints can really be relevant for us today. Even in Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s time and place (Asia Minor; 4th century), people were asking, “How can the Saints of old be examples for us now, since their lives and cultures were so different from ours?” As he wrote, “What then? Someone will say, ‘How can I imitate them, since I am not a Chaldean as I remember Abraham was, nor was I nourished by the daughter of the Egyptian as Scripture teaches about Moses, and in general I do not have in these matters anything in my life corresponding to any one of the ancients? … I do not know how to imitate anyone so far removed from me by the circumstances of his life.'”
Saint Gregory explains that, of course, the circumstances of a Saint’s life — including, we could add, whether they are monastics or married — do not have to resemble ours in any external way, in order to be edifying and to lead us closer to God. Some who are married may well feel closer to, and more inspired by, a monastic Saint than by any of the married Saints. As Saint Gregory goes on to say, “Perhaps, then, the memory of anyone distinguished in life would be enough to fill our need for a beacon light and to show us how we can bring our soul to the sheltered harbor of virtue” (our emphasis). And he suggests that “it may be for this very reason that the daily life of those sublime individuals is recorded in detail, that by imitating the earlier examples of right action those who follow them may conduct their lives to the good.”
A main purpose of reading any of the Saints’ Lives, then, is to be directed to the life of virtue — to be provided with “a beacon light.” Saint Basil the Great (Asia minor; 4th century) emphasizes this point with another helpful image: “Thus, generally, as painters, when they are painting from other pictures, constantly look at the model, and do their best to transfer its lineaments to their own work, so too, he who is desirous of rendering himself perfect in all branches of excellency, must keep his eyes turned to the lives of the Saints as though to living and moving statues, and make their virtue his own by imitation.”
While stressing that anyone holy can edify and guide us, Saint Gregory of Nyssa also says that looking to someone who is like us in some important way can be very helpful: “Human nature is divided into male and female, and the free choice of virtue or of evil is set before both equally. For this reason the corresponding example of virtue for each sex has been exemplified by the divine voice [i.e., Holy Scripture], so that each, by observing the one to which he is akin (the men to Abraham and the women to Sarah), may be directed in the life of virtue by the appropriate examples.”
Thus, although all the Saints’ Lives are edifying for all the faithful, at the same time it is also true that it is encouraging in a special way, for those of us “in the world,” to realize that people who also lived “in the world,” who owned property, had children, worked and shopped “in the marketplace” — and who had all the cares, heartaches, and joys which these things occasion — were able to be so devoted to God as to become holy. And it is very encouraging to remember that some of them have been held up as examples by the Church through formal canonization, for everyone to benefit from their lives and prayers.
The main reason for collecting Lives of married Saints, then, is not because only they can be inspiring to those who are married, but to encourage those who are married to realize that holiness is possible for them in the world, and thus to encourage all married people, along with their children, to strive for this. Our hope is that this book will provide such encouragement. We also hope that it will provide a more complete understanding for those who do not realize that there are canonized Saints who were married, as well as for those who believe that holiness is something only monastics need to strive for — since, they imagine, only the monks can attain it.
It is also important to remember that there are many holy people who have not been formally canonized — and indeed, there are many who have remained unknown to the world. The Church’s canonization of certain holy people as Saints has never implied that these are the only saints, the only people who attained holiness while on earth. Rather, the list of canonized Saints is but a sample of those who have become know to the Church, whom the Church has decided to hold up as examples for all. This is one reason they tend to be those who either had a very public role (for instance, bishops, royalty, abbots and abbesses, wonderworkers, and philanthropists), or those who were part of a monastic community whose members kept their memory alive and made them known.
The Monk Moses, a hermit on Mount Athos who recently collected and published over three hundred brief Lives of married Saints, notes in this book, “it is certain that there are many married Saints who remain unknown to us.” This anonymous quality is not surprising in the case of those Saints who did not have a significant public role, and is in fact generally considered to be a great advantage for the spiritual life. Well-known Saints often wished they could have remained unknown, and urged others to strive for this. Saint Nicholas of Zhicha (Serbia and America; 20th century), in his Prologue from Ochrid, quotes Saint Anthony the Great (Egypt; 4th century) on this matter: “Be fearful of becoming famed for anything that you may do. If men begin to praise you for your deeds, do not rejoice at it or find sweetness therein. Keep your deeds as secret as possible and do not make it necessary for any to speak of them.”