In this piece I am using the word saints simply to mean individuals who are serious about leading the spiritual life. I do not refer to those who might be considered perfected in holiness but those who, like myself and I presume anyone reading this blog, are souls walking the path to God who regard that path as the true meaning and purpose of life but who have some way to go before reaching its end. So, really just believers but true and sincere believers. Disciples or aspiring, but certainly not realised, saints in the more conventional use of the word.
There have been times in human history when religious practice demanded great feats of asceticism and devotion. In ancient India the rishis performed prodigious feats of tapas which were harsh spiritual practices of austerity and penance that deprived both body and mind of any worldly comfort. The early Christian martyrs gave up everything for their faith, up to and including their lives. In the context of the times this may have been necessary. Life was much more physical then and sacrifice was therefore more focused on the physical and material. Spiritual growth and discipline always involve sacrifice of some sort. It is the renunciation of the worldly part of our nature in order to allow the spiritual to come through. Just because this can be taken too far and seen as important in itself does not mean it is not necessary to some degree.
These times are not like those of the past. The martyrs and the ancient yogis in their different ways suffered and were tested physically. I once met a man in the jungle in India who had remained standing for 20 years. He had a bar to lean on but he never sat or lay down. I found this impressive but pointless. I hope he benefited in some way but it's hard to see how. In 7th century Northumbria St Cuthbert would wade out into the bitterly cold North Sea every night until the water reached up to his neck. There he would chant hymns to God until dawn. In earlier times this may have been a way of conquering the worldly nature for a heroic temperament but now the battle has moved to the mind. That is not to say the battle was not always focused in the mind but it may be that the mind could be overcome by overcoming the body in those days. That is not the case now which is not to say we should not be abstemious in our habits and behaviour. But we need not go to extremes.
Earlier times also saw mystics and seekers of God engage in prayer and meditation for very long periods. This again was a way of conquering the worldly nature and attuning the soul to higher things but I don't believe it is necessary or even desirable nowadays. Perhaps on a retreat but not as a way of living. The present time is just so materialistic, meaning both the mainstream attitude to it and the actual environment itself, that living in this way is not really possible. We should try to keep God in mind as a subliminal presence at all times but for those of us living in the world full and complete focus during all waking hours is not really possible.
Nonetheless, we are being tested and we are being asked to perform feats of mental endurance. The test is psychological in nature and it is a matter of discernment. The endurance is in resisting the extreme spiritual evil of the present time. We are bombarded with anti-spiritual messages from every side but we have to find the mental and spiritual resilience within to counter this. We may have some help from outside, from scripture, from tradition, from religion, but these on their own will not be sufficient. We cannot rely on them alone because the world is such that it can co-opt them to its side. Not really, of course, but it can put up a good impression of having done so which may well deceive us unless we are alive to the truth within. Outer structures can help but they need positive reinforcement from our own inner connection to God so that the truth within them can grow and blossom in our hearts as it should.
Think of religion as a musical score. To make the music in that score audible we have to learn how to read music and also how to play an instrument. The musician needs the score but he also needs to know how to play. This is the balance we require now between outer and inner, between tradition and personal awareness. Of course, a good musician goes beyond just reproducing the notes to make the music come properly alive. This is what the saint is trying to do with the soul.