The Sunday after Pentecost is the Sunday of All Saints. In the Orthodox Church the feast of All Saints is not on a fixed date as it is in the west. Rather, the feast of All Saints is linked to Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit. This is as it should be, for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost has the effect of producing holy people: saints.
In the English language the connection between the Holy Spirit and the saints is, unfortunately, not so obvious because the two words - holy and saint - differ. Both words, however, translate the same root word in Greek: hagios (singular) and hagioi (plural). This lexicographical information is more than just a curiosity, however, for it reveals a profound truth. Saints are holy because they are filled with the Holy Spirit. And if a saint is, by definition, a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit then we can eliminate a lot of erroneous definitions and caricatures of the saints from our minds. For example, it is easy to caricature the saints as a bunch of goody-two-shoes. Or, on the other hand, to think that saints represent a certain religious personality type.
But this is, quite simply, rubbish. Saints are holy persons because they are filled with the Holy Spirit and thus with the grace of God. To equate that with mere morality is to miss the point almost completely. Or rather, it is to start at the wrong end of the thing. For while all saints are, by most definitions, moral people, by no means are all moral people saints. Likewise, the equation of saints with a certain personality type is rubbish, for if you know anything at all about saints you know how very different they are in regard to the things that define personality (for example, introversion vs. extroversion).
The sad truth is that, outside of the Church, there is no real understanding of saints/holy people because there is very little understanding of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as God, communicates to persons all that God is. This is called grace. And when a person is filled with the grace of God they become a partaker of God. This is fundamentally different than simply changing one’s behavior (i.e. being “good”) or having intense emotions (i.e. a religious experience). The image that the Fathers use over and over again is that of metal in a blacksmith’s forge. When the steel is immersed in the fire it takes on the properties and qualities of the fire. You might almost say it becomes fire but without ceasing to be steel.
The saints become holy because they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Immersed in the divine flame they become divine by grace without ceasing to be human. And thus they are present in the world as signs and witnesses of the kingdom of Heaven. They are already the fruit of Paradise and living witnesses of a Divine reality of which most people only theorize and dream and talk.
St Seraphim famously said that “the goal of life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” If a saint is simply a holy person, one who has acquired the Holy Spirit, this means that the goal of our life is to become saints. Through the prayers of all the saints may we be joined to their heavenly company!
With love in Christ,