The first words of the troparion to St Nicholas, whom we celebrate today, extol him as a “rule of faith”. The word “rule” here is a translation of the Greek word “kanon” (often written in English as “canon”), a word used by St Paul and others which originally meant something like a ruler, a measuring rod, or a straight edge. From there it would come to mean different things in different contexts, but all of these would carry the general idea of a norm or ideal.
In regard to the Bible, canon refers to the books that are included in the Church’s scriptures. From at least the second century the term is used by the Church to mean the Rule of Faith, i.e. that which defines the Church’s faith in regard to belief in God, Christ, etc. It is what Christians believe and confess essentially, what will become over time our Credal affirmation confessed most especially at Baptism and in the Liturgy.
We could go on and explore several other ways in which the Church uses the term canon, for example, as norms determined by Church Councils for dealing with pastoral situations. But we are thinking about canon right now because, as we noted, the troparion to St Nicholas begins by calling him a “rule of faith.”
Now I, for one, find this remarkable. The canon of Scripture? Sure. The Creed as a canon of faith? Of course. The rulings of Ecumenical Councils as canons of faith and life and practice? Okay. But what does it mean to call a saint a rule of faith? It means, quite simply and quite beautifully, that if we want to know what a Christian is, we can point to the saint and say, “There! Look! That is what a Christian is.”
St Silouan the Athonite once wrote that if:
St Silouan is not saying that a restoration of the Scriptures would be possible because the saints have memorized the Bible and could thus reproduce it. Rather, the Scriptures could be restored precisely because the saints are themselves a rule of faith. The Gospel, the commandments of Christ, and the Orthodox Faith are not something external to them. Instead, with St Paul, they are “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
To call St Nicholas or any of the saints a rule of faith means that they have become, in a sense, "little Christs." Their lives have become so united to His life that they can say with St Paul, "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." And thus, also with St Paul, can they say, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
Someone once came to me and told me that he’d read a few books on the prayer, and that he later forced himself to apply what he read. The result, he said, was that he felt pain in his heart. I said to him: “You don’t have the material necessary for humility (i.e. sins)? Humble yourself; then you’ll feel how necessary God’s mercy is. And then, the prayer will gush forth by itself, without force.”
+St Paisios the Athonite
According to the Gospel, it should be said that undoubtedly each person is given his own saving cross. This cross has grown on the soil of our heart, and it is only through this cross that we can be saved. From this it follows that if we refuse to carry our cross of obedience for no legitimate reason, we refuse to go by the way of Christ, by the saving way, and we want to invent for ourselves another way, free of labor, for attaining the Kingdom of Heaven. But this cannot be. The Kingdom of God suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Cf. Mt. 11:12).
+St. Anatoly of Optina
Of course, it would be easier to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather-bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way, for the kingdom of God is not attained by enduring one or two troubles, but many!
+St Anthony of Optina