Praying with the Saints

The God of the Living

the last judgement iconI can think of no easy or short way to explain to a Christian culture, one that has been quite heavily influenced by secularization, the reasons why Orthodox Christians petition the saints for prayer.  It is a great hurdle even for those who are interested in Orthodoxy.  I know it shocked me when, at a Divine Liturgy, the priest asking Mary to intercede for us.  I believe our trouble with this concept stems from a lack of understanding of what the Church is, what prayer is, and where God is.

The Church, that is the body of Christ, is one.  It is not split between those who are living and those who are dead.  There are not two churches.

There is a passage recorded in Luke 20:34-40 in which the Sadducees challenged Jesus about what they felt was the absurdity of the resurrection.  Jesus chastises them saying, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to Him.”

The Two Story Universe

The secularism of the modern age subconsciously forces us to think of life as a two story universe (as Fr Stephen Freeman calls it).  We the living are here on the first floor, and God, heaven, the angels, and the good folk who have passed away are located on the second floor (unless you believe in the false doctrine of “soul sleep,” then these people cease to exist until the resurrection).  This perspective has completely warped our understanding of spirituality.

Jesus prayingWe relegate prayer to the second floor of this universe.  We hope our prayers get “up there” and are heard by God so he can send an angel or some kind of answer “down here.”  Often we pray in order to receive something or to persuade God to act in a certain way.  However, the true purpose of prayer is theosis… that is communion and oneness with God.  We pray in order to connect with God.

Everywhere Present and Filling All Things

God is within us and all around.  He surrounds and pervades every single cell in our body; every subatomic particle is bathed in the presence of the God who literally holds all things together (Col  1:15-17).  Our prayers never need to get “up there” because God is already “down here,” present in every corner of our lives, revealing that there never was a second floor: He is next to us and within us, truly “everywhere present and filling all things.”  God hears our every prayer because He is the one who is breathing within us and enabling us to live and pray.

But our God is in heaven and on earth ~Psalm 113:11 LXX

When we praise and thank God, He is within us.  When we curse and yell or feel lonely, He is within us.  Nothing is hidden, and nothing is going to shock Him.  If you don’t believe me, read the Psalms.  There are some horrendous things in there that make me think, “I wouldn’t want to say that to God!”  But that book is the recordings of humans communing with God, and it is not always pretty because our lives are sometimes quite difficult.

The Church is One

As mentioned before, the Church is one, not two.  All are living to God.  There is not a church in heaven enjoying cloud surfing, completely oblivious to the situation on earth.  Instead, Hebrews chapter 11 recounts many of the Old Testament saints and then continues into chapter 12 to talk about how they surround us,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

Church of the Nativity-praying before an icon of Mary ( we are surrounded by the saints who continue to live in Christ then it only makes sense to ask them to join us in prayer.  If we acknowledge that the faithful Christians (aka saints) are alive in Christ, then we are left with one of three conclusions: either the saints are apathetic and watch us with a detached lack of sympathy; they are watching with care, but are helpless; or they have succeeded in throwing aside every hindrance of this life and are constantly interceding for their brothers and sister on earth in the Church.  I personally believe the third explanation.

Not Idolatry

To ask the saints for prayer is no more idolatrous than asking those in your congregation or friends for prayer.  “Why not go straight to God?” some would ask.  But those same people will usually ask others to pray for them because they acknowledge that there is something special about the Church praying together as one.  Not only that, but we move toward oneness with Christ and His body when we recognize that we are not in this alone, and that we need each other.  Nobody is saved on their own, but we are saved together.  Christ has chosen to bring salvation to the world through His Church, and that includes those whom we can see now and those whom we will one day see.

5 thoughts on “Praying with the Saints

  1. I am usually comfortable with praying with the saints, but not to the saints. Likely, it’s one of those unclear on the concept things, which happens regularly to me.

    I have doubts on exactly how this works, which could be just a facet of humans on earth not readily understanding that there is no uni-directional time in the Infinity of Heaven. So, even if a saint is sleeping/waiting for resurrection in my timeframe now, they’d be able to hear my request for their assistance with my own prayers in their real future, because they don’t experience time flowing only from past to present to future, as they are assured Heaven and can be there in the future and here in my own unidirectional time. Einstein’s Dreams discusses this time out of time — outside this earthly coil far better than I am doing.

    Asking someone to worship with you is clearly not worshiping that person. In church, I join with others in praying, while at the same time, not entirely knowing/believing that said saint is really capable of listening to our collective requests. I either owe my doubts to Calvin, or can conveniently blame him for them. There are things which are obviously a part of Orthodoxy. I accept these, with the sure knowledge that my own understanding will eventually happen. Some things just have to be done over and over, even as they are not understood. The doing eventually provides an understanding that is not found in printed words. Comprehension is robed in peace and lit by love, or may fly in for a bit and then leave at a later moment.

    Whenever I start thinking I’ve done the worst, said the worst, thought the worst, I think on what is in the Psalms and am thus encouraged that my imaginings are deficient in absolute awfulness. And then, as night follows day, I surpass (with horror and little surprise), my own false approvals and stop patting my own back. It’s a great way to take three giant steps back to reality. 🙂 It’s also a reminder that no matter what I may think at any given moment, I’ve likely done more sinning than I recall and far more than I can readily admit with a straight face. Then I have a good laugh at how much I’m in that big old boat with everyone. C.S. Lewis once said he’d violated 9 of the 10 Commandments. Mrs. CS Lewis chimed in that he’d actually gotten that perfect bowling score. …sigh…

    1. I’ve not heard of Einstein’s Dreams, but it sounds fascinating. He was quite brilliant; the read would probably be a bit over my head. As you mentioned, I don’t believe that time is linear outside of our own human experience in this age. Grasping what that really means is a bit tricky.

      You are right about how “doing” can eventually bring us to a place of understanding…that or madness. Hopefully it is the understanding though 🙂

      1. In truth, Einsteins Dreams is not at all above anyone’s head. It wasn’t written by Einstein, but by a very literate physicist whose understanding of time in physics and time in our reality is set forth brilliantly in a rather small volume. Try it. You’ll enjoy it for sure. There’s no need for mathematical literacy in order to become a fan.

        In physics, all elements of an equation are malleable. That means time itself need not proceed linearly in all corners of the Universe, and still all the formulae work brilliantly. Even accurately.

        How amazing is that? Our Universe was created so that time can go sideways and still we have Sun, Moon, Stars, Galaxies, Black Holes, complete with gravity. Or not. Mathematics thus can be employed to demonstrate Infinity. And, as we all know, infinity has little to do with static or jelly donuts. 🙂

        As for doing, understanding follows the actions represented by ‘work’ — another concept that functions even if time is backwards. Think about that the next time you want to get paid for something you’ve done. Exercise care in the direction you run the clock, for reckless anti-clockwise calculations can result in you paying your employer for your own deeds. You’ll understand them, but still and all…

  2. As a non-orthodox, I still have a little trouble with this concept. I don’t have anything against others who want to ask the saints for prayer, although it does seem strange from my contemporary Christian background, but to me, I don’t see how people who have been deemed as “saints” have the same omnipresence as God Himself. Can they really “hear” us and our prayers, just as God himself surely can? I’m not sure. When I pray, I still want to direct my prayers only to Jesus, the Father, or the Holy Spirit. But that’s only my uneducated opinion.

    1. These questions remind me of a little conversation we had last night about this. Those are good questions; I’m not sure I have good answers. I do believe they can hear us, but I have no proof. I have heard and read of people’s interactions with the saints. I think their involvement and their “hearing” of our prayers is directed by God, just as it is with the angels.

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