Abba Hilarion once came from Palestine to Abba Antony on the mountain: and Abba Antony said to him: “Welcome, morning star, for you rise at break of day.” And Abba Hilarion said: “Peace to you, pillar of light, for you prop up the earth.”
This exchange between Abba Hilarion and Abba Antony comes, in my collection, under the category “Of Charity,” i.e. “On Love.” Thus, key to understanding this imagery is that this is a lesson about love: Abba Antony praises Abba Hilarion for his discipline (“you rise at break of day”), but Abba Hilarion praises Abba Antony for his self-giving, universal love (“you prop up the earth”). In both instances, however, the metaphor is one of light (“morning star”/”pillar of light”), indicating only a difference of degree in yet the same blessedness: communion with the divine.
Related to this, St. John of Kronstadt asks a very important question and provides a compelling and enlightening answer:
How is it that the saints see us and our needs and hear our prayers? Let us make the following comparison: Suppose that you were transplanted to the sun and were united to it. The sun lights the whole earth with its rays, it lights every particle of the earth. In these rays you also see the earth, but you are so small in proportion to the sun, that you would form, so to say, but one ray, and there are an infinite number of such rays. By its identity with the sun this ray takes an intimate part in lighting the whole world through the sun. So also the saintly soul, having become united to God, as to its spiritual sun, sees, through the medium of its spiritual sun, which lights the whole universe, all men and the needs of those that pray. (My Life in Christ 1)
The question—how the saints see our needs and hear our prayers—is a very good one. One need not have an answer to experience this reality, but seeking such an answer can be enlightening and is in this case.
St. John’s answer is that when we “become united to God,” divine light flows through us. We are granted what Blaise Pascal refers to as “the dignity of causality.” We who have received grace get to be, through prayer, vessels by which grace is given to others. He writes in his Pensées,
Why God has established prayer:
1. To communicate to his creatures the dignity of causality.
2. To teach us from whom our virtue comes.
3. To make us deserve other virtues by work.
The saints, filled with divine virtue, continue the work of prayer in the light of heavenly glory, being honored with “the dignity of causality” even still. Indeed, how much more so do they participate in that grace than us, they who are “the spirits of just men made perfect,” who dwell upon “Mount Zion” and are citizens of “the city of the living God” (see Hebrews 12:22-24)?
But how do people cultivate this grace? How is that we too, even now, can “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4)?
A writer by the name of Dionysius has an answer:
The Good indeed is not entirely uncommunicated to any single created being, but benignly sheds forth its super-essential ray, persistently fixed in Itself, by illuminations analogous to each several being, and elevates to Its permitted contemplation and communion and likeness, those holy minds, who, as far as is lawful and reverent, strive after It, and who are neither impotently boastful towards that which is higher than the harmoniously imparted Divine manifestation, nor, in regard to a lower level, lapse downward through their inclining to the worse, but who elevate themselves determinately and unwaveringly to the ray shining upon them; and, by their proportioned love of permitted illuminations, are elevated with a holy reverence, prudently and piously, as on new wings. (The Divine Names 1.2)
He here refers to God as the “Good” in the classical sense—that which is the highest good for all creation. God is our destiny, and righteousness is our wings. And our ascent to the Sun of Righteousness comes in proportion to the righteousness that we ourselves have achieved.
It is for this reason that Christ became man, died, and rose again. As St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes, “our Lord Jesus Christ … did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”
In Christ, through his grace, we are empowered to love as he first loved us, and by that love for God and for others and for all things, we progress in righteousness and take flight to the Source of the light that illumines us. And in so doing we act as conduits of that grace to others, taking on “an intimate part in lighting the whole world.”
Thus, as an Orthodox Christian, I invoke the prayers of the departed saints daily, as fellow citizens of “the city of the living God,” who live in the light of divine love and in love desire to spread that light to others through prayer.
If we cannot be a “pillar of light” and “prop up the earth” with our love like St. Antony, then at least we can strive to be a “morning star” like Abba Hilarion, and rise every morning asking St. Antony and all the saints, who “shine like the brightness of the firmament” (Daniel 12:3)—rays of the Sun of Righteousness—to “prop up” us in grace and love by their prayers.