Did They Really Say These Things?

We have all at times read seemingly unbelievable statements from saints. We will briefly analyze three such sayings.

Hasidism is a well-known spiritual movement within Judaism. Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhin (1796–1850), honored as a great tsaddik, a revered holy man, is said to have called miracles “child’s play.” Huh? On the surface, this is an incredible assertion. However, upon digging deeper, we read in a fascinating account1 that Rabbi Friedman viewed miracles as secondary to the higher worlds, presumably more spiritual ones, and that “wiser” holy men go beyond the realm of miracles to these higher worlds. Elsewhere2 we read that the rabbi thought of miracles as distractions that detract from more purely spiritual ends. And so, the lesson gleaned from the rabbi’s terse, instructive words, is for spiritual aspirants not to spend time developing the ability to perform miracles, but rather, in their spiritual strivings, to focus exclusively on God.

St. Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), a standout among Roman Catholic mystics, wrote, “I see without eyes, I understand without understanding, I feel without feeling, and I taste without taste.”3 What in the world? On the surface, this baffling statement appears to defy logic. However, when we look below the surface, we are able to find some clues. When a mystic enters into deep spiritual communion, their sense of self is dissolved. It’s hard to fathom, but their inner spiritual essence merges with the universal spiritual Essence that is God. In such a state, a mystic may sometimes experience a kind of omniscience. Our interpretation of St. Catherine’s words is that she indeed underwent a deep spiritual experience, whereby her sense of self was so attenuated that she identified with the omniscience of God.

In Orthodox Christianity, we read of advanced spiritual masters, called starets (Russian) or geron (Greek). A noted Russian Orthodox monk, St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1833), is considered one such starets. The following quote is attributed to him: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” Hmmm … how can this be? For our answer, we will consult a decidedly non-Christian text, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. A rough translation of aphorism 3:24 states, “By focusing exclusively on the qualities of kindness, compassion, and the like, one develops these same qualities.” In Christian terms, St. Seraphim so thoroughly put into practice Jesus’ counsel to love one another that he became, as it were, love incarnate. It is written of him that wild animals would peacefully gather around his meditation hut. His aura of unconditional love radiated wide and far, and many who came within his orbit were deeply affected by the love he radiated. Hence, he could make such a statement based on his own personal experience.

These three saints, as well as other saints, live in worlds we can only imagine. But they leave us signposts, sometimes using nonrational or enigmatic language, to convey their heightened spiritual experiences. Yes, they did say these things—things which refer to even more wonderful things that can never fully be conveyed in words.

  1. Hasidism: Writings on Devotion, Community, and Life in the Modern World (Waltham: Brandeis, 2020), pp. 105-106.
  2. The Jerusalem Post, “Wonder of miracles,” Nov. 8, 2012.
  3. The Mystical Element of Religion (London: Dent, 1909), p. 276.

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