Faith in Place
A Cloud of Witnesses: Saints and Martyrs From the Holy Land
reviewed by Patrick Henry Reardon
Unlike the very structured way in which the Roman Catholic Church canonizes its saints, the corresponding Eastern Orthodox method tends to be somewhat informal and “popular,” in the sense that the impulse to declare someone a “saint” tends to arise from the people themselves.
In particular, the veneration of the saints in the East is more likely to develop, at first, on a local level, with or without official approval: Someone dies who was known to live an extraordinarily holy life. This person’s tomb is visited by his or her friends, and then by other individual Christians, sometimes in great numbers, until the place takes on the character of a shrine. In due course, there are reports of miracles, such as sudden healings from disease or injury. These wonders are popularly credited to the intercessions of the holy person who has died.
Eventually the bishops of the region, responding to the popular piety that attends the person’s memory, will authorize an official canonization. This is normally done within a region or country, but eventually the veneration of the saint spreads to other places as well. If the person has been martyred for the Christian faith, the process is greatly accelerated. Indeed, it starts immediately!
The process toward canonization normally begins, nonetheless, with the veneration of a saint within a region or country. Consequently, in the Orthodox Church one finds collections of “lives of the saints” that cover only one country, or even one monastery. There are titles such as The Serbian Patericon, for instance, and The Lives of the Optina Elders. The book under review, A Cloud of Witnesses, boldly covers the entire Holy Land.
It was compiled, written, and edited by Bishop Demetri Khoury, a native of Palestine who grew up in close association with the local veneration of these saints. His long familiarity with that regional veneration is not only the formal inspiration of this book, it also provides much of its material content. This is clearly a labor of love.
Chronological & Devotional Depth
Readers unfamiliar with the Orthodox calendar may be surprised to find the Old Testament saints also contained in this book, in addition to the apostles and other obvious examples from the New Testament. This feature, which gives the collection a great -chronological depth, likewise provides a more extensive range of historical conditions not always found in this genre. The reader gains an enhanced sense of the great variety in which the holiness of God’s saints has been expressed over the centuries.
The biographies of the saints in this volume follow the Orthodox custom of beginning the liturgical year on September 1. In the Orthodox calendar this is the feast of Joshua, the Son of Nun, so our book begins with the Old Testament.
The author includes not only saints who came from the Holy Land and became famous elsewhere (such as St. Andrew of Crete), but also saints who came from elsewhere and settled in the Holy Land (such as St. Jerome).
For many of these saints, the author has included part of a brief liturgical hymn customary to the appropriate feast day. There are many small icons throughout the work, to give some idea of how the church pictures these particular saints. At the end of the book there is a useful glossary of terms.
This book is recommended for its devotional quality. The present reviewer suggests that its reading should take an entire year, proceeding day by day through the whole liturgical calendar, just a few pages at a time.
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