Why do the Orthodox pray to saints?

Below is a letter I wrote to a friend, which I felt may help others out as well:

http://www.ssppoc.org/In regards to praying to saints, it is one of the most difficult things for Protestant Christians to understand.  I wrestled with it for a while.  In old English, the word “pray” simply meant to ask or implore someone for something.

In modern English, the word has come to mean “to ask God for something.”  So, when we mention “praying to the saints” it seems horrible because we’ve been trained that the word should only be used in regards to praying to the god of whatever religion one adheres.  But that is not a full or accurate understanding of the word “pray.”

Additionally, prayer is more than simply asking for something, as you are finding through practicing the Jesus Prayer.  It is communing, that is, connecting with the Divine in a deep way…establishing a heart to heart connection. 

Lost in prayer by gregkalamp on deviantartWhile you and I pray to God for ourselves, we can also pray to God on behalf of others.  Additionally, we have both asked others to pray for us.  Someone could therefore inquire, “Why do you ask for others to pray for you?  Why not just go straight to God yourself?”  But we know through the wisdom and experience of countless generations of Christians that there is power in praying for one another.  For this reason, we ask the saints to pray for us.

Jesus states in Luke 20:38 “Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him.”  It is the belief of the Church that when a person dies they do not go into “soul sleep” as some heretical groups teach, but rather that person enters into a realm of existence called Paradise, or if they lived an unfaithful life, they go to a temporary holding place sometimes called Hades (which is not the same as Hell).  Most Protestants call this judgment that immediately proceeds death the “Particular Judgment,” in Orthodoxy, it is often referred to as the Toll Houses.

Those who pursued Christ during their earthly life continue to live in communion with our Lord.  Hebrews chapter 11 discusses a great number of saints of the Old Testament and then at the beginning of chapter 12 explains that we are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses.  It is the Church’s belief that these saints are not sitting around idly or goofing off, rather they are interceding for us.  In other words, the Church is fully alive.  Those who lived before us on earth are still alive in Paradise and they are now pursuing communion and prayer with Christ on our behalf.

Most of the saints started out like the rest of us — but they have finished the course in faithfulness.  Therefore, we know that they do not possess any power within themselves to answer our prayers.  In fact, every prayer to a saint really goes to the Person behind the saint: Christ Jesus.  Just as you may hear about people venerating icons, but they are not worshiping a piece of wood with a painting on it.  Rather they are attributing honor to the person in the image, and even more so to the Divine Person who has illuminated that saint.

When we ask a saint to pray for us, we are confirming our belief in Jesus’ words that all are alive to Him and that we need the help of others in our journey.  It is not an act of idolatry, for we know the saints are nobody without Christ enabling them to hear our prayers and to intercede for us.  However, because Christ is within them, they can and do help.  And it is exciting to begin to unify ourselves to this ancient, living Body of Christ, full of members who are constantly communing with our Lord.

That’s the other side of this argument: it is not theoretical.  Throughout all of the ages, countless people can attest to the prayers of the saints bringing healing, raising the dead, changing the course of nature, and stilling the raging storms within their own hearts.  It is a reality that exists that we can step into with Christ; it is not simply a theoretical theology.  It is something that is powerful and it works.

If you still feel a little weird about it, that’s ok.  It took me months to get used to that idea and I very gradually worked my way into it.  Within Orthodoxy, you will find countless new and different ideas.  It is good to take your time and soak in these things for days, weeks, months, or even years.  There is no hurry in trying to understand it all at once.

I don’t have any specific books I can recommend on the topic, though I’m sure there are several good ones out there.  It is something that God has gradually changed in my heart through the experience of prayer.

18 thoughts on “Why do the Orthodox pray to saints?

  1. Great post. I am an evangelical looking in on Orthodoxy and feeling a powerful draw to it and was helped to think about praying to the saints or asking for the saints to pray for me by a book called “Requiem Healing” (Chapter 3) by Michael Mitton and Russ Parker both Anglicans from the same evangelical wing of the Church. I recommend it to any evangelicals pondering the same question you addressed.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation, Mark. I felt a “powerful draw” just like you when I began my journey, though there were a few theological hurdles to overcome on my way in. Godspeed on your journey.

  2. Alright. But, how do the saints actually hear our prayers?

    1. God, who is everywhere present and filling all things, hears our prayers and the innermost secrets of our hearts. Because the saints are in constant communion with the Spirit of God, they receive our prayer by the Spirit.

    2. Revelation 8:3-4 King James Version (KJV)
      3 And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.

      4 And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.

  3. Why not just pray to Jesus Christ directly?

    1. Hello J, this question is addressed in the article that you commented on. See the part that has a header stating “PRAYING WITH THE LIVING” and begins as follows:
      While you and I pray to God for ourselves, we can also pray to God on behalf of others. Additionally, we have both asked others to pray for us. Someone could therefore inquire, “Why do you ask for others to pray for you? Why not just go straight to God yourself?” But we know through the wisdom and experience of countless generations of Christians that there is power in praying for one another. For this reason, we ask the saints to pray for us.

      1. Is it forbidden in Orthodoxy to pray to God directly?
        Thank you for your time.

        1. No, it certainly is not forbidden. In our services, prayers directly to God make up probably 95% or more of the content. I would imagine for many Orthodox Christians, prayers directly to God are far more frequent than prayers to saints. But we occasionally try not to forget our “friends in high places.”

          1. Thank you this is a good thing to know.
            God bless.

  4. I disagree with your reasoning.

  5. Is there a scriptural basis for the saints in Paradise hearing the prayers of those on the earth?

    1. Nothing that explicitly states the saints in Paradise hear our prayers. But there are thousands of stories – modern and ancient – of people who have encountered the saints through prayer. So, we know this is true due to the experience of the Church. It also fits with the theology of the Church – as mentioned above.

      We Christians serve a God who enjoys working through His saints and angels, who is powerful in His saints. The experience of countless Christians can attest to that.

  6. Fr. Jeremy, Thank you so much for taking the time to explain prayer. Is there a book that you recommend that I can read about the experiences you mention above of encounters with Saints.

    1. Hello Karen, the Lives of the Saints is a great starting place to see how the saints have interacted with both ordinary Christians and other saints. You can read the Lives of the Saints in numerous places including the Orthodox Church in America’s website and books like the Prologue of Ohrid.

  7. So how then does this relate to the biblical prohibition to contact the dead?

    1. When Christ became incarnate, dwelt among us, died for us, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven with our human nature, the fabric of reality changed. Some rules in the Old Testament simply don’t apply any more. For example, in OT times, God couldn’t be depicted because He never took on flesh. However, in NT times, we can depict Jesus Christ because He took upon Himself a human body.

      Besides that, necromancy and praying with the saints are two radically different things. All who died in Christ are alive in God; that is what Christ tells us in the Gospel. Praying to the saints is much different than trying to conjure up the spirits of dead people.

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