Monday, October 15, 2007

my patron saint

If you're relatively new to this blog, you might have missed my post on Peter the Aleut, which I wrote right before I decided on him as my patron saint almost a year ago. If so, and if you've been wondering what his picture is doing on my site (and why I'm asking him to pray for me), it might be worth a look back. For a brief life of St. Peter (which is about all we have), try the OCA saints site.

As for the broader question of why one would need a patron saint in the first place, or why we ask their prayers, it's just one of those things that has been part of Christian Tradition from about as far back as anyone can tell. The early Christians met in secret, often in tombs and catacombs where they buried their dead. The practice of using the tomb of a martyr as an altar in their services links directly to John's vision of the martyr souls under the altar in heaven (Rev 6:9-11) and to the continuing practice of placing saints' relics in the altar and antimension of every Orthodox church. (I'm not sure if Catholics still follow this practice--I'm pretty sure they used to.) Back then, they had no problem understanding that departed saints were still very much a part of the life and worship of the Church. We pray for them, and they pray for us, and even outside the corporate worship of the gathered Church, their presence before the throne of God in heaven ensures that we always come before him as part of Christ's body.

The taking of a saint's name is not practiced in every Orthodox culture (though I think even when it is not each individual, or at least each family, still has a patron). But assigning of new names has been part of God's interaction with his people for millennia. He changed the names of the patriarchs Abraham and Sarah and of Jacob. The prophet Daniel was actually given a new name by the Babylonians, but it was important to retain his original, Hebrew name as well. Christ gave St. Peter his name, and St. Paul seems to have changed at least the name he went by after his conversion. Again, we see in St. John's Revelation (2:17; 3:12) an allusion to the early Christian practice of taking a new name in baptism. This practice continues among the Orthodox to this day.

When we are born into this world physically, God gives us in particular to one set of parents. Although we are called to love all humankind, we learn first to love those in our family, because love over-generalized is no love at all. Similarly, it is easy to get lost among the myriad of saints. Having one patron assigned at baptism helps to narrow the focus. All the thousands of saints remembered throughout the year are important, but one day a year I celebrate in particular the memory of my saint. Any of them might pray for me, but there is one I can always go to by default. If I can learn to love this one saint in particular, it will be that much easier to develop my relationship with others. I see his icon when I pray at home, I sing his troparion when I think of him, and I remember that the saints in heaven pray for us in our struggle here on earth.

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