This article gives readers a universal overview of saints and sainthood, not just in Christianity, but in other world religions as well. It also shines the spotlight on two modern Christian saints: Father Arsenie Boca and Carlo Acutis.
What is a Saint?
When I googled up the definition of the word “saint”, I found the following: “a person acknowledged as holy or virtuous and typically regarded as being in heaven after death.” There’s also the more colloquial usage of the word “saint”, which also incorporates the quality of patience into a person’s overall holiness and virtue, as evidenced by the remark, “You must have been a saint to put up with him (or her) for so long.”
Most Christians typically think of canonized Christian saints when they think of saints or sainthood, but the truth is that all world religions have their saints, and the phenomenon of sainthood is not unique to Christianity. Nevertheless, the typical attitudes and traditions regarding sainthood, and who is or is not a saint, may vary from one religion to another. Furthermore, the phenomenon of sainthood may be more informal, and simply a matter of popular reputation and acclaim in some religions, whereas in other religions, such as Roman Catholicism, the whole matter of saints and sainthood may be a much more formal and institutionalized affair. The Bible tells us that man was created in the image of God, and made just a little bit lower than the angels; within this context, saints could be seen as being bridges between the human realm and the divine or angelic realm.
The veneration of the saints is a key feature of Roman Catholicism; it is conspicuously missing from newer Protestant forms of Christianity. Perhaps the Protestants fear that having all these different saints to venerate would open the door to polytheism and idolatry, but the Catholics are quick to point out the difference between worship, which is due to God alone, and veneration, which is a spiritual attitude of exceptional honor and respect that is due the saints. If you want to dig deeper into the history of Roman Catholicism as it conquered and subjugated various indigenous populations around the world, you could find many cases of religious syncretism involving the substitution of Christian saints for the various tribal deities of the old religion, but this was not the official position of the Catholic Church in those lands and colonies. I suppose that, in the final analysis, it’s all a matter of personal interpretation how idolatrous and polytheistic you consider the veneration of the saints to be.
Why venerate the saints? In my personal opinion, people are in constant need of heroes and role models to look up to, to inspire them, and to guide or model their lives after; that is why biographies of successful or famous people are perennial best sellers. A saint can be seen as a more specialized hero or role model in the field of religion and spirituality – someone whose holiness, virtue or spiritual wisdom one might want to emulate. In my opinion, it is much better to have and hold up such role models than to have none of them at all. Jesus Christ is held up as being the divine Son of God in Christianity, and is held on such a high and lofty pedestal that many may regard the emulation of him as being too remote or unattainable. And so, to give humanity more attainable spiritual role models to look up to, there are the saints, who serve to bridge the human and the divine realms. And so, reading and studying the lives of the saints, who were human beings and came at their spiritual illumination through many different avenues of approach, has been very spiritually edifying and enlightening for many.
In the Beginning Were the Saints
A former spiritual teacher of mine, Paul Twitchell, once wrote that spirituality is not taught, but caught, and by that, he meant that the way of catching spirituality, as opposed to mere religious doctrine and ritual, was to be in the presence of a living saint, and basking in his or her healing and uplifting spiritual energy. The great Indian yoga master, Paramahansa Yogananda, wrote in the beginning of his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, that the spiritual bond between the guru, or spiritual teacher, and his disciple has been the foundation of Hindu spirituality for countless generations. When one studies the histories of various world religions, one finds that the vast majority of them were started by various saints or holy men teaching their core following of loyal disciples. And the same goes for Christianity – an original band of devoted disciples being taught by a spiritual teacher or guru who was also a very holy and saintly individual. And that’s the basic bottom line about Jesus Christ; before all the theologizing about him that came in later centuries, Jesus was a holy and saintly spiritual teacher. And his disciples spent time with him hoping to catch the spiritual energy and enlightenment flowing from him.
True religion and spirituality is not just an academic exercise – it goes way beyond merely teaching someone how to think and believe. It consists in bringing out the inner man, in awakening one’s latent spiritual potential. This is best done in a personal environment and context, by spending time in the presence of spiritual and awakened individuals – in other words, in the presence of true saints. Barring that, it is also desirable to study under the personal guidance of a spiritual mentor who has progressed further along the spiritual path than oneself. If the spiritual mentor is in earnest, and does his or her job right, he or she can take the aspirant to the point that they themselves have attained. After that, the student or aspirant is on their own; if they apply themselves to their spiritual quest, they will make further progress along the path. The spiritual path consists of awakening one’s latent spiritual potential, and everyone has their own particular spiritual genius inside, just waiting to be brought out. This is what a true guru does; guru is just an acronym for Gee, You Are You!
Are there potential pitfalls in this whole guru thing? There sure are, and perhaps the greatest of them lie in falling victim to false teachers. If you are considering studying with a certain spiritual teacher, it behooves you to subject him or her to careful scrutiny. Is he or she truly filled with the Love of God, or is it merely the love of their own ego? Is he or she filled with the Spirit, and with divine charisma? Merely being charismatic or having a strong presence is no sure sign of a true spiritual teacher, as there are many with false charisma. Is the teacher transformative, and bring about positive life changes in his or her students? If so, this is a hopeful sign. Does the teacher impart true divine wisdom, or is it merely academic book learning? By their fruits shall ye know them, said Jesus. Just because there are false teachers who abuse the trust put in them by their students is no excuse to abandon the quest for a true spiritual teacher, and to use all of one’s powers of spiritual discernment in the search.
A Basic Field Guide to Saints and Sainthood in Christianity
While saints and their veneration is a prominent feature of the older branches of Christianity, namely Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it is conspicuously missing from the newer Protestant denominations. The veneration of the saints not only gives the believer or aspirant spiritual role models to inspire and model their life after, but also many Christians of these older denominations have prayed to various saints for their intercession in times of crisis and have received spiritual aid and support, often in miraculous ways. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have definite standards for sainthood, and do not accept just anybody as being a saint; in Roman Catholicism, the process of becoming a saint is called beatification, and in Eastern Orthodoxy, it is called glorification. The process of becoming a saint is highly institutionalized in Roman Catholicism, and usually begins after the death of the candidate for sainthood. A petition for beatification is usually started by the local church members or congregation who personally knew the candidate, and/or by those who have prayed to him or her and have received spiritual help or guidance. In addition to living a holy and virtuous life, and having the gift of spiritually inspiring and uplifting others, the candidate for sainthood also needs to have at least one miracle accredited to them.
Many are the spiritual gifts that God can bestow on souls, and likewise, Christian saints fall into many different categories, not only according to the nature of their gifts and contributions to the spiritual life of the church, but also according to the various reasons and motives that the church had for making them saints. Frankly speaking, upon closer examination, not all of those who have ascended to sainthood were equally virtuous and holy; saints were also human beings, who have also had their own flaws and human weaknesses. There are common themes and motifs running through the lives of the Christian saints, as diverse as they are. There is usually an initial episode of awakening to the Life of the Spirit, followed by a period of increasing illumination as the budding saint draws nearer to God. Periods of penance or purification, which has often been called a kenosis or emptying out of the self and the ego, as well as what has been described by Saint John of the Cross as the Dark Night of the Soul; such a period is often a prelude to final union with God, or theosis. In spite of their human faults and shortcomings, the saints persevered on the spiritual path and made it to sainthood. The message that the saints’ lives are giving us is, “If I did it, you can do it too.”
Saints are of many different kinds; I will now briefly introduce you to the various kinds of Christian saints as I see them. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but there is a high degree of overlap between them, and a single saint can belong to multiple categories.
Political Saints are those who were made saints primarily for their tireless efforts towards the advancement or spread of the Christian religion. Upon closer examination of the lives of many of these saints, one finds that they were really not that saintly, but the church was willing to overlook these glaring faults because of what they did for the advancement and spread of Christianity. Perhaps the best example of a political saint was Saint Constantine, who was none other than the Roman Emperor Constantine himself; under his rule, Christianity went from being an obscure and persecuted minority religion to being the establishment religion of the Roman Empire. Saint Paul, or Paul / Saul of Tarsus, could also be called a political saint for his extreme makeover of Christianity into a more gentile-friendly religion; however, he had definite spiritual gifts and abilities as well. Other political saints include Saint Athanasius, who was orthodoxy’s champion at the Council of Nicaea, as well as Father Junipero Serra, who was a zealous missionary to the indigenous peoples of California, and tirelessly converted many.
Doctors of the Church are those who achieved sainthood primarily for their great creative and intellectual gifts to the church; these are the scholars, apologists, theologians and philosophers of Christianity. Perhaps the best example of a doctor of the church would be Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose magnum opus was his Summa Theologica, a comprehensive treatise on Christian philosophical theology that blended faith and reason. Saint Paul, or Paul of Tarsus was also a doctor of the church, since he is the major contributor of writings to the New Testament. Many of the old church fathers who were instrumental in formulating and refining Christian doctrine also belong to this category, as does Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval nun who was prodigious and groundbreaking in her creative and intellectual output.
Martyrs are saints who made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up their lives for the cause of Christianity, who were faithful and steadfast even unto death. Saints Peter and Paul were both martyrs who were put to death for their faith, according to Christian tradition. Saint Ignatius of Antioch is another famous early martyr, and wrote letters of support to other would be martyrs. If you also consider Jesus Christ to be a saint, he too was obviously a martyr, and perhaps the greatest of them all. Many of the Christian martyrs died absolutely gruesome and horrendous deaths, such as being slowly roasted alive, and the more stoic forbearance they showed as they were tortured, the more many Christians have admired their faith and their ability to put mind over matter and the body. Martyrdom continues to be popular, as the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson’s blood-and-gore movie, The Passion of the Christ, clearly shows.
Patron Saints are saints that have a special dominion over a certain trade or profession, or over people in certain situations or walks of life. For example, Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians, Saint Elizabeth is the patron saint of expectant mothers, and Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. The Catholics have patron saints for just about everything and everyone. So if you fall upon times of trouble in your trade or profession, for instance, just pray to its patron saint – or if it’s for another that you are praying, then pray to that person’s patron saint. Perhaps the most common kind of patron saint is the saint one was named after; all of these saints have feast days, so, after one’s own birthday, the next most important day for a person to celebrate is the feast day of their patron saint.
Monastics are saints who lived the monastic lifestyle of spiritual retreat from the world, which can basically take two forms: total solitude, or solitary retreat; and the cenobitic lifestyle of living in monastic communities taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in their dedication to God and Christ. The saint who most exemplifies the solitary monastic lifestyle is Saint Anthony of the Desert, who started the movement of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) in the third to fourth centuries AD. The saint who most exemplifies the Christian ideals of living in a monastic community is Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order, and the author of the Rule of Benedict, which was one of the first community constitutions for monastics, and the model for many others to follow. Because monastic communities provide an environment that is so ideal for spiritual pursuits, many Christian saints were also monastics.
Mystics are those who have chosen, or have been chosen by, the path to God through one’s own personal spiritual experiences. They have direct experience of God, Christ and Spirit, and these profound experiences have transformed their lives and the lives of those around them. The mystics know that God is Love, and for this reason, and the divine Love they radiate, the mystics tend to be the most famous and beloved saints of all. Perhaps the best known of the mystic saints are Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Teresa of Avila, but there are many others. After all, the mystical path is the most direct way of drawing closer to God.
Stigmatists are a special breed of Christian mystic – those whose intense prayer and devotion have led them to manifest the wounds, or stigmata, of Christ in their own bodies. From the viewpoint of psychology and psychosomatic medicine, what is imagined, felt or visualized strongly enough can even be manifested physically in one’s own body. Saint Francis of Assisi was a stigmatist, with more recent examples being Saint Theresa Neumann and Saint Padre Pio. Although I am not a stigmatist myself, I have manifested, for some strange and unknown reason, a sign or stigma in the center of my right palm – a small sliver of skin that grows out of the center of my palm. I can bite or pull it out, but it always grows back; I call this my quasi-stigmata.
Inorruptibles are another kind of spooky, twilight zone kind of saint; they are those whose physical bodies have not decayed or decomposed after their death, but have remained incorruptible. Many of these saints can still be viewed encased inside a clear glass canopy, lying perfectly preserved over their sarcophagi, often after centuries have passed. Lest you think that incorruptibility is exclusive to the Christian saints, Paramahansa Yogananda, the Christo-Hindu saint and mystic, remained incorruptible for at least twenty days after his death; it is unknown what happened to his body after that.
Even though the saints are not worshiped in Catholicism, but only venerated, there still seems to be a definite pantheon of saints up there in heaven who believers can call on in times of need; you might call it a heavenly hierarchy. And at the head of this heavenly hierarchy is the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven, who is regarded as being foremost among the Christian saints. The Catholic Church rigorously investigates the cases of various individuals, or Servants of God, who are in the process of beatification, and if you want to study a life and how holy it was, a life that is already finished is like a completed book that can be read and judged in minute detail from beginning to end to arrive at a final verdict. The Catholic Church has been very active in the canonization of various individuals for sainthood in recent years, and many have opined that it has been too active in this respect. When one looks at the more recently canonized saints, it seems like the vast majority of them have died untimely and tragic deaths, usually from some terminal disease. But I say once again – what about living saints? Aren’t they needed too?
It seems to me that one of the reasons why the Catholic Church has been so active in canonizing new saints in recent years is to put out the message that saints and sainthood is not something that belongs solely to a bygone era, and that it is still possible to be a saint in today’s turbulent, materialistic world. Highlighting the church’s campaign to get “with it” and be thoroughly modern in the canonization of saints is the recent canonization of an Italian youth, Carlo Acutis, who was only fifteen years old when he died of leukemia. Young Carlo was a confirmed computer geek who set about to use the internet to broadcast a spiritually uplifting message; he set up a website, which you can still visit today, that is devoted to the documentation of Eucharistic miracles. For young Carlo, the Eucharist was tasting God’s food, and a direct highway to heaven.
Saints and Sainthood in the Eastern Orthodox Church
The canonization, or official recognition, of saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church is not as legalistic and institutionalized as it is in the Catholic Church, but nevertheless, it does exist. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the process of officially making someone a saint is called glorification, whereas in Catholicism it is called beatification. The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes that man was made in the image of God; that means that every man carries the image, or icon, of God within him or her, just waiting to be cultivated and brought out – and saints are those who have brought out that latent image of divinity within themselves. -3. Because the canonization, or glorification, of saints is not so formalized and institutionalized in the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are also living saints, even today, within its ranks who attract large and devoted followings. A common place for such living saints to “hang out” is Mount Athos, the largest monastic community or enclave within Eastern Orthodoxy, which is also known as Hagion Ouros, or The Holy Mountain; Mount Athos is in northern Greece, near the port city of Thessaloniki, where Paul wrote his epistle to the Thessalonians.
One contemporary writer who has drawn a lot of attention to Mount Athos and its living saints in his writings is the Cypriot – American writer Kyriacos Markides; although his books make for interesting and entertaining reading, the Orthodox Church has felt a need to distance itself somewhat from his writings as being rather fanciful and sensationalized. Nevertheless, Mount Athos does attract its share of spiritual seekers, looking to find a living Orthodox saint and study with him. And I say “him” explicitly because only males are allowed on Mount Athos, whether they be visitors or even the monastics themselves. Within the Orthodox Church, there are saints of many different nationalities, many of whom have been canonized / glorified by the various national churches existing within the larger Orthodox framework. Saint Seraphim of Sarov is probably the most famous of the Russian Orthodox saints, and in Romania, a recent saint was Father Arsenie Boca, who fiercely resisted the Ceausescu regime and died right before its fall. If you are interested in living or contemporary Orthodox saints, I would suggest that you watch the videos of Trisagion Films, which are up on YouTube.
Two Christian Saints in the Spotlight: Father Arsenie Boca and Carlo Acutis
I would now like to shine the spotlight on two Christian saints whose cases for sainthood are quite interesting and exceptional: Father Arsenie Boca, a popular saint of Romania, also known as the Transylvanian Saint; and Carlo Acutis, a teenage computer geek from Italy who has become known as the internet saint. Father Arsenie Boca is from the Eastern Orthodox spiritual tradition, and Carlo Acutis is from the tradition of Roman Catholicism. Both of these saints have lived and died in modern times, with Father Arsenie Boca coming first; therefore, I will shine the spotlight on him first.
Father Arsenie Boca was born on September 29th, 1910 in Vata de Sus in Hunedoara County. He distinguished himself as a painter and artist, a writer and theologian, and as a prophet and mystic. Being born to devout Orthodox parents, his prophetic and visionary gifts were recognized from a very early age. He knew people’s names without asking from the moment he met them, and his ability to look into the hearts of those who came to him for confession was astounding. Father Arsenie Boca also had a world class education to complement his great spiritual gifts; he graduated from Avram Iancu National High School in Brad, Hunedoara in 1929; then he graduated from the Theological Academy in Sibiu in 1933; he also received a scholarship from the Archbishop of Transylvania to study art at the Fine Arts Academy in Bucharest. In the meantime, he took medical classes with professor Francisc Rainer and entered the Christian Mysticism class of Nichifor Crainic.
As an artist, professor Costin Petrescu entrusted Father Boca with doing a painting of Mihai Viteazul, or Michael the Brave, for the Athenaeum in Bucharest. Father Boca then journeyed to Mount Athos for further monastic training; he was tonsured into monasticism in 1940. As a writer and theologian, Father Boca assisted the theologian Dumitru Staniloae from Sibiu in his translation of the Philokalia, an anthology of holy writings by monks from the Hesychast tradition on Mount Athos. With his profound spiritual gifts and prophetic vision, Father Boca was severely persecuted for his resistance to the communist Ceausescu regime; ironically, he passed away on November 28, 1989, less than a month before the fall of communism in Romania. He was buried at the Prislop Monastery in Silvasu de Sus village, and his grave continues to attract large crowds of the faithful to this day; it is said that flowers bloom at his gravesite even in the middle of winter. In spite of Arsenie Boca’s tremendous following and popular acclaim as a saint and holy man in Romania, the Orthodox Church has been slow in formally canonizing him as a saint; a possible snag in this process could be the fact that his paintings do not strictly adhere to Orthodox iconography. – 4, 5.
Carlo Acutis is undoubtedly the Catholic Church’s most modern or contemporary saint; he is also the patron saint of youth, and of computer programmers. Although Italian, Carlo Acutis was born in London, England on May 3, 1991 to wealthy Italian parents, Andrea Acutis and Antonia Salzano; shortly after his birth and baptism, Carlo and his parents moved back to Italy, to Milan. At the age of four, his maternal grandfather died, appearing to the young Carlo in a dream and asking to be prayed for. The young Carlo was always very joyful and exuberant, and displayed a precocious interest in religious and spiritual matters; at only age seven, Carlo asked to have his first communion, which was arranged by the family to take place at the Convent of Saint Ambroggio ad Nemus. Thereafter, Carlo became a frequent recipient of communion; the saintly figures that young Carlo took to be his role models include Saint Francis of Assisi, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, Dominic Savio, Tarcisius and Bernadette Soubirous. Of all the above saints, Carlo was especially fond of Saint Francis of Assisi.
A key theme running through Carlo’s life was the Holy Eucharist; Carlo firmly believed that the Eucharist provides us with a foretaste of heaven, and that the more Eucharist we receive, the more Christ-like we become. Carlo was also an avid “computer geek”, and was also, in many ways, a normal kid of his generation, playing video games and the like. From age eleven onward, Carlo began a massive project of cataloguing and documenting Eucharistic miracles from around the world; this gradually evolved to become a website documenting these miracles, which can still be seen and visited today. You can visit this website by clicking on the link below:
Young Carlo eventually developed leukemia, and when he did, he dedicated all his suffering to the Lord, the Pope and the Church; but still, he acknowledged the fact that there were many who suffered more than he did. He wanted his parents to take him to visit the sites of all the Eucharistic miracles in the world, but his declining health prevented him from undertaking that project. Carlo Acutis died on October 12, 2006, at age fifteen, in Monza, Italy, and is buried at Santa Maria Maggiore. He was beatified on October 10, 2020 at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Assisi, Italy. Carlo’s mother Antonia attributes her successful birthing of twins at age 44, exactly four years to the day after Carlo’s death, to his intercession. Antonia also reported that Carlo had appeared to her in dreams, predicting his own canonization and beatification. – 6.
The Universal Traits and Characteristics of Saints
At the beginning of this article, I made the point that the phenomenon of saints and sainthood was not exclusive to Christianity, and that other religions also have their saints as well. This has led some religious scholars to seek out general “family resemblances” or universal traits and characteristics that all saints share, regardless of the particular religious tradition they may belong to. Author John A. Coleman, SJ, of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, came up with the following list of universal traits and characteristics that all world saints share: – 1.
Exemplary Model – The personal life of the saint was / is a model of holiness and exemplary behavior. And so, saints have been the spiritual heroes and role models for other believers.
Extraordinary Teacher – Saints have extraordinary spiritual wisdom and insights to impart, derived not from academic book learning, but from actual life experience on the spiritual path, and the exalted states of consciousness and spiritual awareness they have attained. Many saints have not only taught disciples by word of mouth, but also by putting down their wisdom and insights in writing, whether that be through poetry or prose, in the form of a manual of instructions for aspirants on the spiritual path. Some of the most beloved spiritual classics of all time were written by saints, whether they were Christian, or from some other spiritual tradition or lineage.
Wonder Worker or Source of Benevolent Power – Many, if not most, saints have performed miracles, which have been seen as special signs or manifestations of the exalted state of spiritual power they possess. Wonders and miracles aside, many believers have sought out the company of saints merely to bask in the spiritual power emanating from them, to be vitalized by the Life Force flowing from them. They have conferred blessings, both obvious and subtle, on those who sought their help or intercession, whether while they were living or after they had passed on. In many religious traditions, saints have been able to confer their blessings even through the medium of holy relics, or objects that were personal to them while they were living.
Intercessor – Having such an exalted state of spiritual power, saints have used that power to intercede spiritually on behalf of those believers who sought their help. And this intercession has been undertaken both by saints who were living as well as those who had passed on.
A Life Often Refusing Material Attachments or Comforts – Many saints have led austere, ascetic lifestyles, refusing or spurning the usual material attachments and comforts; others have demonstrated their spiritual detachment from material things or comforts in more subtle and less obvious ways, such as a dedication to “simple living and high thinking”. Whatever way they chose, the saints have demonstrated a timeless spiritual truth: in order to draw nearer to God, we must spiritually detach or distance ourselves from material attachments or comforts.
Possession of a Special or Revelatory Relation to the Holy – This trait can be seen as pertaining to the teaching function of saints, or as an extension or outgrowth of the second trait. Some saints, according to the particular spiritual gifts they have been given, have availed themselves of the opportunity to teach or reveal to their followers special truths or secrets about the Divine and how to approach or access the divine realm. On occasion, God has singled out certain saints for a special revelatory mission, and the saints in question have lovingly obliged. Many saints have also founded religious, monastic or spiritual orders.
Saints and Sainthood in Other Religious Traditions
The reverence of saints and saintly individuals is not unique to Christianity, and most major world religions have their saints as well. These other religious traditions may differ from Christianity in the particulars of how they approach saints and sainthood, however. What follows is a brief discussion of how saints are viewed in other world religions:
Judaism – In Judaism, saintliness is a profound holiness in thought, word and deed that goes beyond the requirements of merely fulfilling the Law of Moses. Perfection in fulfilling the requirements of the Mosaic Law is what is called Hasidut, or piety. A saint proper is called a Tzadik, which means a Righteous One, or a Teacher of Righteousness. Hasidic Jewish groups, especially those in medieval Poland, were usually organized around a central saint, or Tzadik, who was considered to be the very embodiment of holiness and righteousness, and a bridge between the heavenly or divine world and the human world. There have been several rabbis throughout Jewish history, particularly of the mystical variety of Judaism, who have been considered Tzadiks. Rabbis who have been especially revered in Jewish history, and who could be considered to be Tzadiks, include Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Isaac Luria, as well as one Rabbi, affectionately called the Baal Shem Tov, or “He of the Good Name”, who was said to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism. And if you consider that Jesus himself was a Jewish rabbi and a consummate mystic, then you could also call him a Tzadik, or Teacher of Righteousness. – 2.
Islam – The general term for a saint in Islam is Wali, or a Friend of God; a saint who is / was also a spiritual teacher or master is called a Shaykh. If one examines the history of the Islamic saints, we find that many were also accomplished polymaths and intellectuals as well; to become saints, they took up the challenge of going beyond academic knowledge and book learning into direct mystical experience of Fana, or annihilation of the self or ego, and ultimately union with God. Because of this mystical or experiential aspect, many of the Islamic saints, at least the most famous and beloved ones, were Sufis, or adherents of one of the spiritual orders of mystical Islam; some were even the founders of these orders. The tombs of past Sufi masters are revered pilgrimage sites in the Islamic world, and devotees believe that such a pilgrimage confers Baraka, or blessings from the saint. Many Sufi saints have been great mystical poets, as poetry is often better than prose for conveying the essence of the mystical experience; some have also written treatises on the spiritual life which have become beloved spiritual classics to this day. Among the great Sufi saints are Jalalud-din Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi order of the whirling dervishes; Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian scholar and mystic who put forth a non-dualistic theory of Being and creation, and held Jesus Christ in the highest reverence; and Imam Al-Ghazali, the greatest scholar and intellectual of his day who dove into his heart to discover, and be transformed by, the mystical dimension of Islam.
Hinduism – Hinduism has always revered saints and gurus, or spiritual teachers; in fact, the spiritual bond between guru and disciple is considered by many to be the very foundation of Hindu spirituality. Many saints, at least the most famous and exalted of them, have been revered as Sat Gurus, or true spiritual teachers. Saints come in many different forms, and so, they are given many different names and titles in Hinduism: Rishi, which is a sage or seer; Acharya, or a spiritual teacher; Sadhu, or an ascetic renunciant; and Maharaj, or Great King, acknowledging that spiritual mastership over oneself is the greatest kingship of all. Unlike the highly institutionalized approach to saints and sainthood of the Catholic Church, Hinduism has always stressed the importance of living saints and the spiritual power and blessings they convey. Darshan is the experience of seeing or being in the personal presence of a saint or true spiritual master, and being seen by him or her; Shaktipat is the transfer of Shakti, or spiritual energy, from master to disciple, usually by touch, which often sends the disciple into a swoon of ecstasy. Many gurus, or spiritual teachers, have come to the West from India, with varying degrees of genuineness and spiritual attainment, and those who were less genuine have abused the trust put in them by their followers, and have set up personality cults around themselves; however, this is really no excuse to abandon the quest for a living saint.
Sikhism – Sikhism is a religion that was founded on reverence for the guru, or spiritual master; in fact, the lineage of gurus as the spiritual heads of Sikhism is ten in number, with the first nine being human gurus, and the tenth being the Adi Granth Sahib, which is the Bible of Sikhism. Sikh temples are called Gurudwaras, or doors to the guru. The founder of Sikhism was Guru Nanak, a fifteenth century saint of the Punjab in northwestern India. There is a modern day offshoot of Sikhism, known formally as the Radha Soami Satsang of Beas, which is yet another lineage of Sikh masters, that also calls itself Sant Mat, or The Path of the Saints. That’s a pretty strong endorsement on their part of the spiritual power and wisdom of saints.
Buddhism – There are many forms and lineages of Buddhism that developed as Buddhism spread throughout Asia, and all of these forms and lineages have their saints. Basically, although Buddhism has no formalized canonization of saints, like there is in Catholicism, many faithful disciples who meditated and applied the spiritual teachings they were given from their masters eventually blossomed into saints and attained enlightenment. The original enlightened saint of Buddhism was, of course, the Buddha himself, Sakhyamuni; those disciples of his who perfected themselves in meditation and became enlightened were called Arhats. Tibetan Buddhism has its share of saints as well, with the most famous of them being Milarepa and Padmasambhava; most Tibetans, as well as many Westerners, regard the fourteenth Dalai Lama as a living saint. In China and Japan, Bodhidharma, who brought Chan or Zen Buddhism from India to China, is particularly revered. The spiritual ideal in Mahayana Buddhism is the compassionate Bodhisattva, the one who renounces or puts off his own final entry into Nirvana in order to help others on the spiritual path to enlightenment; many Bodhisattvas have entered the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon as savior figures. In Japan, reverence is paid to recently deceased family members, with a small Buddhist altar called a Butsudan being set up in the home, and offerings made to the deceased. The deceased family member is referred to as a Buddha, regardless of their particular level of spiritual attainment during their prior earthly life; this is a very Gnostic-like concept, that the body is quite a prison or impediment, and once we drop our mortal coil and are freed from it, enlightenment dawns of its own accord.
Taoism – “What can I do to attain eternal life?” was a question posed to Jesus Christ by a spiritual seeker, and the opening verses of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas promise the reader that if he or she truly understands the full meaning of the sayings of Jesus recorded therein, they will never taste death. Taoism is a popular religion of China that is particularly focused on the attainment of longevity, and ultimately immortality. Taoism has in its pantheon the Eight Immortals who are mythical deities that live in the Taoist paradise; in addition, the founder of Taoism, Lao-tzu, and his disciple, Chuang-tzu, are said to have attained immortality. Through the practice of Taoist internal yoga, or Qigong, many Taoist masters have attained exalted states of consciousness.
Native American Religion and Spirituality refers to a diverse collection of spiritual beliefs, rituals and practices held by the various Native American tribes of North America. Many of these tribes had respected elders who were leaders of their tribal religion, many of whom had powerful “medicine”, or spiritual / supernatural gifts and abilities such as clairvoyance, healing, prophecy and power over the forces of Nature. Native American religion and spirituality has been called shamanistic, with these medicine men acting as shamanic spiritual bridges between the divine and human realms. Black Elk was a famous medicine man of the Lakota or Sioux tribe, and his testament, Black Elk Speaks, has become something akin to a Holy Bible of Native American spirituality. The turbulent, warlike times of colonial expansion in the American West spawned its own spiritual heroes, Native American warriors with special powers of invincibility in battle; good examples were Geronimo, or Goyathlay, of the Apache tribe; and Crazy Horse, or Tashunke Witko, of the Lakotas. Native American saints also include legendary figures from the remote past, such as The Peacemaker of the Iroquois Confederacy and Sweet Medicine of the Cheyenne tribe.
Conclusion: The Path of the Saints
Earlier on, in the section on Sikhism, I mentioned the Radha Soami Satsang of Beas in the Punjab, a religious sect that was centered on a lineage of living spiritual masters; they also called their teachings Sant Mat, or the Path of the Saints. I myself studied with Paul Twitchell and Eckankar, and Paul, or Paulji as he was called by his followers, modeled his own teachings closely on those of Sant Mat. And I discovered just how closely he modeled his teachings on the Path of the Saints when I started to read some books put out by the Radha Soami Satsang, such as Julian Johnson’s The Path of the Masters. Down throughout history, the saints have indeed been the spiritual masters of their day and age. Those who advocate for the veneration of saints, and personal study under them wherever and whenever possible, realize that the saints form the experiential, living heart of a religion, and that without a tradition of living saints, a religion quickly loses its inner spiritual vitality and dies.
The saints, whatever religious tradition they have belonged to, have been the spiritual geniuses of their day, who injected new life into their respective religions. But unfortunately, not everyone was born with the innate gifts to be a spiritual genius of saintly attainment. For the rest of us, and that includes the initial followers of a great saint who was the founder of a religious tradition, there have to be rules and guidelines to follow that are written down to give some structure not only in the areas of faith, belief and doctrine, but also in morals, ethics and virtuous or correct behavior. Without these scriptures and guidelines, the vast majority of us would be lost in a spiritual sense, unable to find our way; we would also witness a decline in the moral fabric of society. You could say that there is a broad dichotomy or polarity that exists within the domain of religion and spirituality: the living spirit of a religion as exemplified in the saints versus the formalized scriptures and guidelines that the rest of us need to follow. A religion, if it is to provide spiritual nourishment and guidance for all its followers, whether they be of greater or lesser spiritual aptitude, must encompass both polarities to be complete.
The Self Realization Fellowship, a religious organization founded to disseminate the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, who many have considered to be a modern saint, phrases the opening invocation of its religious services in this way:
Father, Mother, Friend, Beloved God… Bhagavan Krishna, Jesus Christ… Saints of all religions, we humbly bow to you all…
There you have it, the Path of the Saints!