[I am participating in an Ecumenical dialogue between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants. This is my first guest contribution.]
Who is this “Thaddeus?” It would technically be correct to answer this question with “me,” but I want to talk about the Serbian Orthodox Elder who I got the name from. Most people know me as “Shea”, but today I have a new name (or a new name and a redefined old name) because my first and middle name is Shea Patrick, and my “baptismal name” is Thaddeus-Patrick. You’re likely already confused. Good, that’s always a healthy step in one’s spiritual journey, haha!
Baptismal Names? Patron Saints?!
For my Protestant (and non-Christian) friends who are confused as to why I (or anyone) would participate in such things, let me explain. First of all, taking a Christian name comes from Jesus giving His Apostles new names, and we know historically that this was practiced by the early Church (who were very passionate about the need to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we [the Apostles] passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” 2 Thess. 2:15). A new name represents that “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 517).
Secondly, while all Christians are called to be saints, it is the practice of Christianity historically to recognize certain Christians who have passed away as having lived a Godly life that shows us all how to live. A local community who knew someone personally would attest to the miracles, teachings, and mercy that surrounded the person while they had lived, now calling them a Saint, and then the leadership of the Church would officially recognize what had already taken place, “canonizing” the Saint in record and encouraging the rest of the Christian world to celebrate. We imitate the Saints just as St Paul himself says: “imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). I sometimes say that the greatest dogma of the Orthodox Church is the lives of the Saints, because their story and spirit often convey the heart of Christ clearer than any writing of doctrine or rules can. As Elder Thaddeus said, “It is much better to learn from life than from words.”
I think our current culture shows this to be of particular importance, as we in American Christianity have our “heroes,” but they are often people who fit the culture of the World. I think Chris Pratt is a great actor and I’m sure he loves Christ, but at the same time, he’s currently being acknowledged because he’s a celebrity, not because of the fruits of the Spirit. Our heroes should be heroes solely because they lived a Christian life, not because they are Earthly celebrities or push our political values. Evangelism is not brand promotion. The current Marvel film series is one of the better opportunities we have for healthy heroes, seeing nihilistic Thanos wanting to eliminate people as if they are commodities, and Captain America pointing out that heroes don’t count lives (which aligns with the value of the human spirit in Christianity). Of course, we could return to the practice of admiring Godly men and women, and thus go even deeper in our examples than simply relying on what Hollywood promotes. American Christianity finds Christian heroes in Old Testament heroes, but after the books of Acts, our heroes are often intellectual like Martin Luther, or actors like Chris Pratt, or politicians like Trump and Obama, rather than spiritual (humble and loving) people like St Herman of Alaska and Mother Theresa.
Even more than taking their names and looking to them as examples, we “pray” to the Saints and “worship” them. Before you modern English speakers freak out, let me elaborate. To “pray” means to ask, usually politely. Thus, praying to the Saints means asking them to pray for us, and in the mind of historical Christianity this is no different than asking any Christian friend to pray for us. The only way it would be different is when James says that “the prayers of a righteous man avail much” (James 5:16). While God hears all prayers, those closest to Him have something unique about their prayers. The concept of “intercessory prayer” is common in scripture, such as when God will not accept sacrifices on behalf of Job’s friends unless they come from Job because of His righteousness (Job 42:8).
For those concerned that most Christians in 2,000 years of Christian history have “prayed to dead people,” this objection is actually a denial of scripture and Christ’s teaching. Jesus points out that God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living, but he gives the examples of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who the same concerned people would be referring to as “dead”) (Mark 12:26-27). Those who are rooted in scriptural ideas of heaven will see that the Saints should be at least as alive as any of us, now living in paradise with Christ.
As far as the word “worship”, it means literally to express “worth-ship.” Thus, even giving a person a compliment is technically worshiping them. The real issue we must acknowledge is that the Saints have an entirely different “worth-ship” due them than is due to God, but that makes me no more opposed to “venerating” (honoring) the Saints as it would make me opposed to complimenting my friends and family. We honor and ask Saints for their prayers by talking to them, and also by kissing “icons” of them, with our heart having the same intention as kissing a picture of a deceased family member we miss. I even sometimes kiss a picture of my cat Godzilla who passed away because I miss him.
Lastly, the importance of Saints is that they point to Christ, that their mere existence testifies that God’s promises are true, that He brings about to completion the good work He is doing in us (Pil. 1:6), and that Christ’s prayer is possible that we be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Paul says that God is “glorified in His saints” (2 Thess. 1:10). If we truly have Christ in us, then an unbeliever (or Christian) encountering us is having an encounter spiritually with Christ (even if we still are not perfect). St Patrick of Ireland said that “we are Christ’s letter of salvation to the ends of the earth.” Even more so, the encounter with a Saint avails much, as James said, because Christ works easily through them and their submission to Him. One friend of mine who was skeptical of Orthodox Saints (and who is now Orthodox) asked why all the faces of Saints in icons looked exactly the same, and my priest at the time responded that it’s because when you look at them you are supposed to see Christ. The Gospel really does change people, and the Saints are evidence for this. If what we honor is the part that is truly from, and reflects, Christ, then we are honoring exactly what we are supposed to.
When we honor Saints, we are testifying that the Resurrection is real, that Christ truly transforms people, that a community of Godly love can exist, that the Saints of every generation together show that the gates of Hell have not prevailed over the Church (Matt. 16:18), and that if we submit fully to Christ, we can participate in this process. We are also shown by their Godly lives that they are trustworthy teachers for us to learn from, because who is closer to God than the Righteous, and who knows best the teachings than those closest to the Teacher? For Orthodox, the authority for how we know the teachings of Christ is not my individual interpretation, nor is it a single Pope or Bishop, but it is the whole family of believers in real community, the whole of Church Fathers and Saints in particular, who the Orthodox look to as those who have preserved Christ’s teachings.
The Acquisition of a Patron Saint
I’m definitely not an expert on this, so take my story here as anecdotal rather than in any way authoritative. What I was told as I began to see the unique beauty of the Orthodox Church was that a Saint often picks you. Patron Saints, in my mind, are people who you are compelled towards the life and teachings of, who are praying especially on your behalf, and who you make a point to tell the stories of in order to encourage others. The taking of the name of a Saint, as I said before, testifies to the work in the Church that Christ is always doing, and reminds you that, again, you are a new creation. I also was told that some people took a patron Saint if they already had that Saint’s name, and some people even took two patron saints. I figured I would take St Patrick of Ireland as my patron because Patrick is my middle name, but I felt like there was more to the story (or maybe I just wanted to pick a patron Saint, haha).
I had always felt close to Job and King Solomon from the Old Testament. I’ve always loved the book of Proverbs and the pursuit of wisdom, and I also read Job to comfort myself during some darker periods of my life. One of my friends, who was not a Christian at the time (but is now Orthodox) bought me a beautiful icon of Job that I treasure to this day. I also particularly loved the incredible story of St Juvenaly of Alaska, one of our American Saints, and I highly recommend this short documentary to anyone unfamiliar with His life.
However, when I was first introduced to Orthodoxy by several of my Bible college friends (at which time I strongly disliked Orthodoxy), I visited a monastery with them and was given a book called Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, a collection of the life and sayings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. I started reading the book on the way home, and I found it very insightful into how a Christian should live, and what friendship with Christ looks like. Even more so, there was such a meaningful embrace of suffering, such a transformative perspective of it, that I found myself compelled to look further into historical Christian spiritual writings. It turns out that many of the things I was most impressed by in the elder’s sayings, while based often on the elder’s own experience, were actually commonplace among those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and their lineage with the early Church. A year later, I realized I had never finished the book, and when I returned to it with an understanding of the way the East thinks, I grasped so much more the purpose and meaning behind the elder’s life and ideas as I finished reading it. To be honest, I had spent most of my life wishing I was dead, and hiding it from most people who didn’t understand (or didn’t want to), and reading his book with an understanding of the comforting friendship in Christ that he had discovered, I found myself weeping over what a great gift we have been given to know to be alive and to know Divine love. It was more than just the feel good rush of “authentic community” or emotional music; it was a peace beyond my understanding, birthed from living the Way (the original name for Christianity) in the visible family called the Church.
Over time I learned about the process of canonization of a Saint, and that the response of the Christian community is the evidence of someone’s Sainthood. I realized I could attest to Elder Thaddeus being a Saint and venerate him (being that I thanked Him for living a difficult life in Christ, and I asked Him to pray to Christ as I also prayed to Christ) because I had experienced Him working with Christ in my life. In all my ponderings of possible patrons, I always lamented that Elder Thaddeus was not already canonized as a Saint, because he was so important to me and I would gladly take His name. However, as my chrismation approached (my joining into the “marriage” of the Church, which had been 2 years in the making), one friend pointed out that taking someone’s name was part of what attested to their Sainthood and promoted their canonization. It was immediately obvious to me that I should take Elder Thaddeus as my patron. (My priest pointed out that, technically, I took Elder Thaddeus’ patron Saint as my patron Saint, and if (when) Elder Thaddeus was canonized then he would also be my patron, but to this day I cannot find out which of the several Thaddeuses in Christian history was the Elder’s patron.) Thus, I was chrismated as Thaddeus Patrick.
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Elder Thaddeus was born in 1914 in Vitovnica, Serbia. He was a frail child and was told at 15 years old he would be dead around 20, so he went to the monastery in Milkovo to become a monk under the Russian monks there, where he learned the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He served at several monasteries and was arrested by the German Gestapo twice and sentenced to death. An angel comforted him in his cell and told him he would be released because he had spiritual work to do in Serbia. Elder Thaddeus was released, and eventually became an abbot of several more monasteries. Much of his life was spent in physical pain of all kinds, and was also threatened by the communists in Serbia, but he thanked God for his sufferings and for the closeness to Christ they brought. He reposed on April 1st (April 14th, Old Calendar), after guiding many spiritual children along their way on the life in Christ.
One of Elder Thaddeus’ main teachings, which inspired the title of his book, is that out of our thoughts flow everything else in our life. Some people emphasize external actions and service towards others, but the Elder saw that good actions flowed out of a good change internally. “Even the slightest thought that is not founded on love destroys peace.” He saw God as constantly guiding us to correct our thoughts through prayer, fasting, suffering, lives of Saints, and more. Many times people would come to him about conflicts they were having with other people, and he would warn them that they were having a “war in their thoughts” with the other person, and thus the other person could feel it and would naturally be defensive. If a person had peaceful and Christ-like thoughts, it would soothe those around them. “Cease to think evil of your superiors or colleagues at work, change your evil thoughts to good ones and you will see how the behavior of your one time ‘enemies’ will change.”
Elder Thaddeus, like scripture and many other Orthodox writers, emphasized the sovereignty of God. “A soul which has given itself up to God’s will does not fear anything and is not troubled by anything. About everything that happens, it says: it is God’s will.” He also said, “Nothing ever happens either in the world or in the universe without the will of God or His permission. All that is good and noble is God’s will, and all that is negative and bad happens because He allows it. He knows why He allows these things to happen and for how long.” What is dangerous is when “we believe that everything is in our hands and that we must decide about everything. […] This means that we have very little faith and that we put very little trust in the Lord.” I remember the paranoia of thinking I was constantly ruining God’s plan and sending people to Hell because I wasn’t constantly evangelizing, whereas the Elder’s ideas caused me to remember that God can evangelize anyone at any moment, such as Paul. Elder Thaddeus made me realize that, though I may get to participate in God’s work, my participation is not required (except for my own soul, because God does not force us to come to Him), and I stopped being distracted from living the spiritual life by this paranoia and pride.
The Elder taught the importance of humility, and called it “the perfection of Christian life.” He said that it is a Divine characteristic, and that “where there is humility, whether in the family or in society, it always spreads Divine peace and joy.” He noted that the humble do not wish evil on others even if a person has caused evil, and that they do not get angry even if insulted. “If someone says or does something that is not to our liking and, failing to examine whether he is right or not, we feel offended, then we are in the grip of pride.” In line with Orthodox theology, Elder Thaddeus saw salvation as firmly grounded in humility, and impossible without it, and thus every humbling situation should be seen as a glorious gift. “Sometimes the Lord reveals to us in our thoughts the answers to various questions and mysteries, but sometimes He is silent, so that we might turn to others for advice and so become humble.” Rather than judging others and seeing ourselves as worthy, he said that we should see everyone as higher than themselves. “As long as we pay attention to the negative sides of various people we meet, we will not find peace and repentance. As long as we keep in ourselves the thought of offence, caused to us by enemies, friends, family and neighbors, we will not find peace and quiet and we will live in a hellish state.” He said a better idea was to find the good in everyone, even a thief, and that we had to have the same relationship with everyone, not putting people in categories of those we like or dislike.
Here are some more great quotes from Elder Thaddeus:
- Love is the strongest weapon that exists; there is no power or weapon which can fight love: it overcomes them all.
- The world is ever more sunk into sin and evil and confuses love and passion, yet love and passion have nothing in common. Love is God and passion is what comes from evil spirits.
- There is no such thing as an unforgivable sin except for an unrepented for sin.
- Just as even a tiny speck of dust which has got into your eye can stop you seeing, so also a small care about some irrelevant matter can stop you praying.
- Only love and goodness save both people and the whole world. Nothing is ever obtained through violence. Force merely provokes rejection and hatred.
- If your parents are atheists and you are a believer, do not reproach or taunt them with your faith but pray for them and be good to them.
- We must not preach from our heads but from our hearts. Only what is said from the heart can reach another heart.
- Everything done for the sake of God and not for the sake of glory is good.
- The fear of God is not the instinctive animal fear of this world. That is a hellish quality. We live in a constant state of fear: what will happen tomorrow, in the future? The fear of God is similar to that when you love someone from your heart and you are careful not to offend him or annoy him with your whole being, not only through your thoughts and actions, but through your thoughts too.
- There is not a single being who is perfect. We can only be perfect with God; without Him it is impossible.
In the Orthodox Church, we have many hymns we love to sing, including ones about the Christ-honoring lives of our Saints. These are often presented as part of the canonization process, but because Elder Thaddeus is not canonized, I have written my own:
In the light of Divine Grace, you lived out the way of loving thoughts,
And by thy prayers and wisdom bestowed this path upon the world;
In your physical frailty you found strength beyond the strongest of men,
Now in the gift of peace you left us we cry out: pray for our salvation, O Holy Elder Thaddeus!
Lastly, since Elder Thaddeus reposed in 2003, I am blessed to have what many others do not in regards to their patrons: videos of my patron speaking! There is a playlist here with some videos of the Elder teaching. I am so thankful to listen to his gentle voice, such as one video that is simply him saying the Jesus Prayer in Serbian repeatedly.
St Patrick of Ireland
The amazing thing about St. Patrick is that he is the “most ecumenical Saint” in my eyes. I say that because, not only do Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics all venerate the Saint (or at least as much as Protestants feel comfortable admiring someone), but they all celebrate him on the same day of the Church calendar, March 17th. It saddens me that this sharing of Christian heroes is not more common, but we must continue to pray that we will be one as Christ and the Father are one (John 17:21).
Many legends of St Patrick exist today, but we have at least two surviving writings from him, one being his Confessions and the other being a letter he wrote about a British slave trader attacking Christians. St Patrick’s remarkable mercy is shown in that He was captured as a slave and taken to Ireland, escaped back to Scotland where he was from, and then chose to return to Ireland as a missionary, amidst skepticism and criticisms from his fellow Christians. He eventually became a bishop in Ireland and his love brought many hostile people to the love of Christ in the Church.
In his Confessions, written while he was a bishop, St Patrick speaks in an admirably humble manner, calling himself a plain man and a sinner. He offers the Creed he was taught and explains how, even from a young age, the Lord was guiding and teaching him. Much of the letter he is shocked that God has chosen him to do any sort of work for the Gospel, and he thanks God that his time as a slave gave him an abundant opportunity for prayer. He prays, similar to Christ, that God will have mercy on those who accuse him wrongly. He encourages believers to credit everything to God, to persevere in sufferings, and to treat others with mercy and love.
Here is a hymn of St Patrick in the Orthodox Church:
Holy Bishop Patrick,
Faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock,
You filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel:
The mighty strength of the Trinity!
Now that you stand before the Savior,
Pray that He may preserve us in faith and love!
So… can I call you Shea? Are you Thaddeus now? …Thaddeus Patrick?
You can call me whatever you like! I’ve been called Bushido, Hippo, Stadium, and a bunch of things that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat here, haha. Most people that know me call me Shea, such as my family, and then about half the people at Church call me Shea and half call me Thaddeus. I love being called Thaddeus because it reminds me of how much my life has changed, but besides that I really am indifferent. Some call me ThadPat, and one person dared called me Thaddy Patty.
As Elder Thaddeus says, “One must always love God first. One’s relatives and fellow men come only second after God. We must never be idols to one another, for such is the will of God.” In the Protestant world, it is often assumed that any “veneration of Saints” is idolatry, whereas many other forms of idolatry I have seen get a free pass. Gluttony is rarely discussed, and I was encouraged to eat as much as possible because I was small, though in reality I now see I was overeating for pleasure but no one was watching for this sin. We also idolize marriage, often assuming it will be part of every young person’s life eventually, and pushing them to seek it as the solution to emotional and personal issues like loneliness. In reality, St Paul urges us that it is better to not get married as a person has more time for the kingdom that way (1 Cor. 7). My point is that God doesn’t judge by legal rules, though those have their place and point us to Him. God judges by the heart. The ability for something like veneration to be perverted is not an argument against it, or we would be able to participate in nothing because people even pervert scripture and Christ. The question must be “what does Christ want us to do?” and “what did Christ teach when He was on Earth?”
I hope and pray everyone can find a patron Saint if they have not already, and that they can generally see the beauty of having Christian heroes to look up to solely for their character and spiritual fruits. It is love that shows people who is a Christian (John 13:35), and thus we should also be shown what love is by those who have it, who were shown by Christ. While today we (over)emphasize the individuality of Christianity, historically it was seen as a group effort. Tertullian said “one Christian is no Christian” and in the epistle to the Romans, in the Greek, the “you” pronoun is plural every time it discusses people’s salvation. There’s is no Christian life without a body, and the Saints are key.
Chad (Orthodox) – Ephrem the Syrian- patron saint & hymnologist
Lisa (Catholic) – Lisa’s Saint Posse Part One: St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Zach (Catholic) – COMING SOON
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