God’s Saints and the Church’s Saints

A significant event in the Orthodox Church occurred last weekend. Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich (d. 1940) was glorified as a saint. He is the first saint recognized by the Orthodox Church who was born in the United States. (In San Francisco in 1863, if you’re curious.) He will be known as St. Sebastian of Jackson. Jackson is southeast of Sacramento in the heart of gold mining area, where much of his early ministry occurred.

Over the last week I have listened to a couple of synopses of his life and he was certainly a remarkable man. But without diminishing his remarkable ministry, I am a bit cynical about the circumstances. The U.S. can claim a certain degree of credit to several saints. There is Peter the Aleut, who was martyred before Alaska was sold to the U.S., so while North American, he is not considered American. There is also John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco (a Russian) and Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn (a Syrian). Bishop Tikhon also spent several years in Alaska and California before returning to Russia to become Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sebastian also served the same congregation in Minneapolis that St Alexis (Toth) served. The thing that struck me in the stories I heard this weekend is that all these guys (except Peter the Aleut, who died earlier) knew each other.

If you remember your American history, the first wave of immigration to North America was almost exclusively northern European and African (if you consider the slaves immigrants). The immigration from Eastern Europe and the Levant did not begin until the mid 1800s. These four American saints (John, Raphael, Alexis, and now Sebastian) were all involved in the formation of the first Orthodox parishes in the United States for these new immigrants.

My cynicism has to do with the fact that I suspect that in three of the four cases, their canonization has less to do with them and their ministry and more to do with the establishment of an Orthodox presence in North America. (John Maximovitch is the exception.) This is especially true of St. Alexis, a Byzantine Catholic who changed jurisdictions to the Orthodox Church. His claim to fame is less about miracles and transfiguration and more about the fact that he led as many as 20,000 Byzantine Catholics out of the Roman Catholic jurisdiction into an Orthodox jurisdiction. In short, that is a jurisdictional sainthood rather than a missionary sainthood.

But as soon as I say this out loud, I must quickly add that I believe there is nothing wrong with their sainthood. Sainthood, in the Orthodox Church, is an odd sort of thing after all. In the Roman Catholic church saints are “canonized,” implying that the Church itself has some sort of authority over these people’s spiritual status. Glorification in the Orthodox Church is a far more pragmatic or functional matter of recognition rather than the highly juridical process in the Roman Catholic church.

“Saint” is a complicated word with two distinct meanings. On the one hand, every Christian is properly thought of as a saint. This is the New Testament usage of the term. Saints are synonymous with church members in the New Testament, with the exception of the Apocalypse where it seems sainthood begins to take on a more technical meaning closely associated with martyrdom.

Thomas Hopko once said that when push comes to shove we don’t actually know who will be in heaven. (His point, by the way, was that there will no doubt be some people that we find to be utterly unsavory that will be in heaven because God’s grace is different than our sensibilities of goodness.) Hopko continued saying that God, salvation, and the human heart are all ineffable and to make absolute judgments about these things can get us into some serious trouble. But that being said, there are certain people whose transformation (or transfiguration, if you will) while still living on this earth was so advanced that it is obvious and unarguable that we will find them in heaven when we die and go there ourselves. These are the people that the Orthodox Church theoretically recognize as saints and glorify because of their obvious union with God while still living on earth.

That is a sentiment that I can embrace because it is far closer to what we actually see in the New Testament than many of our popular assumptions about saints. But I also believe it is a naive sentiment. Recognized Orthodox saints don’t just come along randomly; they are closely associated with very significant times and events in the Orthodox Church. The recognized saints are very good for the party line of the Orthodox Church, and that should surprise no one.

Take the newly glorified St. Sebastian as an example. For the last few decades there is an ongoing struggle figure out how American Orthodoxy fits into world Orthodoxy. The old world still wants to run the show while many American Orthodox are seeking more autonomy in church life. It is no accident that in this time period we begin recognizing and glorifying saints whose ministry was in America, and now with Sebastian, were actually born in America. Conversely, it is no surprise that the Serbian Orthodox Church was quick to send its high powered leadership (because Sebastian was an ethnic Serb and actually died in Serbia) to horn in on take part in the liturgies and activities surrounding his glorification. It was reported that in the speeches the Serbs even tried to make the case that Sebastian was a gift of the Serbs to the Americans (completely ignoring the fact that he was born in northern California and spent his ministry here until  he asked the American church to send him to Serbia to help a church in need). There is a dead-serious political game going on having to do with who gets jurisdictional control over North America, and the newly minted St. Sebastian of Jackson is a pawn in this worldwide chess match.

So it is that I am cynical about shenanigans related to St Sebastian (as well as Sts. John, Raphael, and Alexis) and saints in general. But I am not cynical about the church or about God. This is, after all, how God works. Jacob tried to cheat his uncle and the Bible recognizes it as a story of God’s divine leadership. Jacob’s sons tried to kill their brother Joseph and Joseph in turn tortured the family with the accusation of Benjamin being a thief, and yet it is this utterly disfunctional group of brothers that become the Patriarchs of Israel. Shocking political maneuvering went into several of the great Ecumenical Councils including the occasional assassination or totally underhanded means to make sure the wrong people could not get to the council. But it is this precise process that God used to establish the truth within the historic church.

God seems perfectly happy to use our human underhandedness and manipulation to further his glory and his plan. Recognized saints are a perfect example. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know the actual works of the hidden saints of Christian history! And yet, God’s actual work is almost always done in a hidden manner, far from the notice of others. This is why we end up celebrating and honoring saints who appear to further a particular agenda in the church: the rest of the saints are so quiet and unassuming in their work, we never notice them. Ah, the mysterious ways of God and the predictability of the humans in the church to horn in on and take credit for that work.


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