[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
Here’s the next issue I’m going to address, per our earlier conversation. You said that you were having a hard time understanding prayer to and veneration of saints. This is one of the biggie issues for Protestants. This seems to be due to a misunderstanding of what’s going on, and an intense desire to have authentic worship of God. Hopefully I can address some of those issues and make the practice understandable. It’s an unfortunate turn of events that the intense reaction on this issue has caused Protestantism to lose contact with the Body of Christ that is no longer on this earth.
I’m only going to be dealing here with asking for the intercession of the saints, or prayer to the saints. Due to length I’d like to punt on dealing with veneration to saints and icons into another email. I know that’s a big part of the puzzle for you as well, but this is just too long and I need to cap it off. I think it’ll be easier to deal with that separately. Hopefully you understand.I REALLY tried to keep this one brief, and I thought I would be able to, but it kept creeping longer. Sigh. I did my best.
But before I get into my discussion on the saints I’m going to first vent a little. 🙂 A couple Sundays ago at First Christian as they prepared for communion the pastor got up and read from one of the synoptic passages of the Last Supper and said, “Jesus said, ‘Take and eat, this represents my body.'” I just about choked when I heard that. I’d just spent so much time writing out the letter on the Eucharist so perhaps I was a bit touchy. I know he meant well, but that’s NOT what Jesus said. Sigh. Okay. On with the saints….
How do the Orthodox interact with the Saints? The Orthodox have a strong respect for the saints, and generally want to have them be a part of their life. On a personal level they will take a patron saint, which is a saint that they find meaningful for some reason that they will have a deeper connection with. A person who is raised Orthodox will often have this saint picked for them at birth. A convert will often choose their own based on their own reasons. This patron saint is looked on as an example to be followed, and also something like a mascot. That sounds odd, but has its own worth. It’s great that these wonderful people are remembered from generation to generation, and this is one of the mechanisms by which that occurs. They will have icons of various saints in their homes; typically the patron saints of those in their families or saints that are particularly meaningful for other reasons. Orthodox Christians will include the saints in prayer, both personal and corporate. In Orthodoxy you don’t tend to see as much identification of a saint with specific functions. That seems to be more typical in Roman Catholicism, though there is a bit of that in Orthodoxy. Orthodox Christians will pray to saints and ask them to intercede on their behalf to God. They don’t ask them to act directly, nor do they ask for information. They don’t replace prayer and worship of God with prayer and worship of saints.
Protestantism, particularly in America, is strongly individualistic. This is the opposite of how Orthodox believers approach the Christian life. They see themselves as part of the great community of saints that surround the Lord God of Sabbaoth (Hosts). God is not alone, and we are not alone. This under girds the reality of the Orthodox life with the saints. This goes beyond merely acknowledging the reality of saintly humans, but goes deeper into the understanding that these people are part of the same Body with us, even though they are departed, and that has meaning in our lives. We are never alone when we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
Who are the saints?
It is certainly correct to say that all Christians are saints. The saints are the holy ones of God, called out for a new kingdom. The term got overloaded by the Church over time to specifically refer to individuals of outstanding piety, usually martyrs early on, but without losing the initial, more general meaning. Certainly personal holiness is something that increases over time in a Christian (hopefully), and isn’t an automatic. You can see how the saints in heaven are seen as being perfected in Hebrew 12:22-23:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect
A person specifically called a saint then is a person who has attained that righteousness. A saint isn’t “declared” by the Church as in Roman Catholic terms, but is recognized by the people of the Church and accepted by them. Sometimes this is via miracles that occur in relation to a Saint’s bodily remains, as in the case of Elisha in 2 Kings 13:20-21, or their personal effects, like happened to Paul’s handkerchief in Acts 19:11,12.
Those who are still alive are called to look at other Christians who are exemplars of the faith, some of whom are “dead”, and some of whom are still living. Thus the saints are respected (venerated) for being Christ-like.
What does it mean to “pray” to the saints?
The word “prayer” did not originally have the strong overtones of divine specific communication or entreaty. In Middle English prayer was an entreaty to any other person, most often another human. You can see in the origin of “prayer” that it originally just meant to “ask” or “question”. Praying to the saints as understood by the Orthodox is simply that. They ask (pray) another person to intercede with God on their behalf. Prayer to the saints is NOT worship of another human. It is not requesting them to act directly on your behalf for some need. It is merely asking for the intercession of another person.
I was recently at the First Christian Church and saw an example of this in action. At the end of the time of worship the leadership of the church came to the front and anyone who had a prayer was encouraged to come and pray with the leaders. Why? Why didn’t these people just pray to Jesus? Well, of course, they could, and did, and were, but they were also doing as God commanded by asking others in the Body of Christ to pray with them. Truly the prayer of the righteous man is effective! The saints are righteous men and women. It is reasonable then to seek their intercession on our behalf in the same way we do with other Christians here around us. In other words, it’s not either/or, but both/and. We should pray BOTH to Jesus, and ask other Christians living and departed to pray to Jesus on our behalf.
As an aside, while I am frequently using the phrase “pray to the saints”, the actual mechanism that is engaged would more clearly be described as praying with the saints. The Saints aren’t the destination of the prayer; God is. This is exactly the same as those people at First Christian who went forward to pray with the leaders of the church. The destination of the prayer wasn’t the pastor. The person was praying with the pastor to God. Any time you see “pray to the saints” feel free to replace that mentally with “asking the saint to pray for me” or something similar.
I have to say that honestly I still have some tension on this issue. I’m going to try and make the case below that asking the saints to intercede with us is normal, natural, and Biblically supported. However, I do think that petitions should be directed to God alone (and of course worship is strictly directed to God). Sometimes language that is used by the Orthodox in prayer skirts around the edges of presenting petitions, though I believe that this is intended as poetic language and that the intent is to ask for intercessions only. I try not to judge the piety of others and read more into what they say than is actually intended, but yes, it does still bother me occasionally.
When did Christians first start praying to/for the departed saints?
There is some evidence that early Jews believed in intercession from the dead, both in the form of the paternal blessings passed down from Abraham to his children, and also 2 Maccabees, where Judas Maccabaeus sees the dead Onias and Jeremiah giving blessing to the Jewish army. You can also find such intercession in Enoch 39:4, which is apocryphal but speaks to the idea of the practice in Judaism. Take it for what it’s worth. There’s also intercessions by angels, as in Zechariah 1:12 or in Tobit 12 who hear the prayers of those on earth and present them to God. That is somewhat bound up in this subject, but I’m not going to address it. Certainly intercession for others is all over the Old Testament.
In Scripture you can see an instance of Paul praying FOR a departed person in 2 Timothy 1:16-18. Protestant commentators agree that Onesiphorus is dead at this point when Paul is writing. This is not quite the same as prayer to a saint for intercession, but not entirely different either. It’s just the reverse of the situation of asking a saint to pray for us. Instead, we pray for them. Moving on….
You can see prayers that were left on the epitaphs of the dead in the Roman catacombs and elsewhere in the early centuries, where Christians asked their dead loved ones to pray for them, or to asked other dead saints (Peter or Paul for instance) to pray for them. You can see good examples in this book: http://books.google.com/books?id=ktng5525YVEC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Chapter 5 is particularly instructive, and requests for the prayers of those who are dead can be seen on page 81, 93, and 94.
From this it seems that there is certainly good evidence for early practice of prayer to departed saints. I’ve never seen anything in the historic record indicating a controversy over prayer to saints.
What do the early Christian writers say regarding prayer to saints?
Considering that the Church consistently fought many heresies, and most of the writings we have from the very early centuries deals with correcting heresies, it certainly seems that if there was an outcry against prayer to saints we would have some record of it. Instead, nothing I can find.
Various (probably Philo and Agathopus who were with Ignatius):
[After the death of Ignatius and in a dream] “… some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us, and others still saw him dropping with sweat, as if he had just come from his great labour, and standing by the Lord.” (Martyrdom of Ignatius [A.D. 107 – 116])
Hippolytus of Rome:
[Speaking of the three youths in the fire in Daniel 30] “Tell me, you three boys, remember me, I entreat you, that I also may obtain the same lot of martyrdom with you…” (Commentary on Daniel, 30.1 [A.D. 202-211]
Clement of Alexandria
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels … as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
This next one will probably rankle a bit, since it’s a prayer to Mary (Theotokos), but it’s appropriate to the discussion. It’s a prayer on John Ryland’s Papyrus, from Egypt, around 250 A.D:
“Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Theotokos. Our petitions do not despise in time of trouble…”
Cyprian of Carthage
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy” (Letters 56:5 [A.D. 253]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition . . . ” (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).
I’m including Cyril in the list even though he is out of the ante-Nicene period (but not by much) because he is clearly stating the theological position on prayer to the saints, and because this is still the same practice you’ll find in the Orthodox Church today. It’s a two-fer!
There isn’t a huge list of writings on the subject to really pound the subject home, but there’s some good ones (plus Cyril). It appears that prayer of the saints doesn’t get a lot of air time either for or against in the early writings, but as I said before, this just demonstrates to me that the practice was never a controversy, so there was never an outcry. There’s plenty of evidence that the practice is present early on, and no indication that the practice was ever resisted.
I will say that most places where I find prayer in the early writings it is referring to petitioning God, as is right. As I’ll mention below, this is in line with actual Orthodox practice where the vast majority of prayer is directed to God. Some object that the quotes above don’t specifically say that someone asked the saints to pray for them. I think that is quibbling over trivialities and I don’t see that it affects the conversation at all. Those people will only be satisfied if every single writer spells out the entirety of the Orthodox understanding of prayer with the saints in detail. I’m afraid we can’t go back in time and get their thoughts that specifically.
Up to the reformation the practice was normative in the church as far as I can tell, only being opposed by a couple heretical groups (not heretics because of this practice but because of other views, such as the world being created by the Devil), in the 10th and 12th century.
What about Lactantius?
One counter example I found referenced in the early writings is from a man named Lactantius, who was an adviser to Constantine. Is unclear how important his works would have been, aside from his position with Constantine, since he was not a leader in the Church as far as I can tell, but we should look at them nonetheless to see if they indicate a problem with the practice of praying to the saints.
In his Divine Institutes, Book I, he says:
“They ought therefore to have understood from the mysteries and ceremonies themselves, that they were offering prayers to dead men.”
When you examine the context of what he is talking about it’s clear that what he is referring to men who over time came to be regarded as deities by various people, and were then worshiped (pagan gods). He is not referring to prayers to saints.
In Book 2 he says:
“But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law.”
Again, when read in context, he is constantly referring to pagan gods who are being worshiped as images of dead men who over time were exaggerated into gods. His “prayers to the dead” is clearly referring to worship given to these dead men. He is not at all referring to prayer to saints. His entire aim in that section is clearly aimed at discounting pagan religions. He is not instructing on Christian prayer or the particular act of prayer to saints.
What about Tertullian?
Another quote I’ve seen thrown out is by Tertullian in the work known as The Apology, and says:
“And if we speak of Paradise, the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirit of the saints, severed from the knowledge of this world…”
It seems that Tertullian is indicating that the saints have no knowledge of what’s going on on earth. Well, two problems. First, this clearly contradicts Scripture. Second, that’s not what Tertullian is actually saying. If people would quote a bit more of the context you’d clearly see that Tertullian is talking about bits of Christian wisdom that match up to pagan ideas and fables, matching up hell against a river of flame in the regions of the dead called Pyriphlegethon, and heaven matched to the Elysian planes. His “severed from the knowledge of this world”, when you see the whole sentence, looks different.
“And if we speak of Paradise, the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirits of the saints, severed from the knowledge of this world by that fiery zone as a sort of enclosure, the Elysian plains have taken possession of their faith.”
I think the most natural reading of what Tertullian is indicating is that the activities in heaven are removed from our awareness, not the reverse. It’s important, however, not to make more of this section of comparison by Tertullian than can be warranted given what he is trying to do. This is not a treatise on heaven or prayer, but rather on truth in pagan beliefs, and besides which using this quote against praying with the saints would again contradict Scripture which clearly indicates neither forgetfulness nor separation of those who are departed from the affairs on earth.
I’ve also seen quotes given by Athenagoras and Irenaeus. They aren’t very convincing to me, so I’ll ignore them for the sake of what brevity I can wring from this subject, unless you’d like to dig in to them. There’s a really good one from Clement of Alexandria where he defines prayer as only going to God, but I’m pretty sure this is a translation issue. Greek had words used to reference communication specifically to God, whereas communication to humans used other words, but English isn’t that specific. The general term prayer in English covers both communication directed to God, and that directed to other humans, so I don’t put much weight in Clement’s text as ruling out communication directed toward the saints (more on that later). I see this as similar to the situation that exists in Greek for concepts of love. We all know that Greek has multiple words to indicate different types of love, but English just doesn’t correspond, so we end up with “I love my wife” and “I love pizza”. I believe the other quotes that are sometimes aired on this subject, such as the one from Clement, are species of this type of translation issue.
Prayer is something that is addressed a lot in the Fathers, as you’d expect. Mostly they talk about how prayer is directed to God, but as I’ve read them I’m comfortable that they are addressing the issue of petitions made to God, which is interpreted into English as prayer, and not communication to other humans, especially departed saints, which is also, unfortunately, translated as prayer. It does make for a somewhat uncomfortable read in some spots, but overall I’m satisfied that reading of the Fathers indicates an awareness of the practice of asking for intercession from the departed saints and an acceptance of it, in as far as it is addressed.
What about the Reformers?
The reformers are a mixed bag on this subject. Luther seems to be generally in sympathy with the view, but strongly opposed any idea that the saints are co-mediators with Christ (the Orthodox also oppose that idea). In early writings Luther says the saints in heaven intercede for those on earth:
“May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of His dear Mother Mary! Amen.” (Commentary on the Magnificat)
Later writings by Luther do weaken this straightforward affirmation, but don’t eliminate it. Calvin on the other hand was strongly opposed to intercession by the saints, so there you go.
Points of Agreement
The saints are alive and aware, not asleep. I probably don’t need to stress this point too much. I think that you are in agreement with the Biblical picture of the “dead” in Christ as being alive and aware. I mention it just to paint the entire picture of why the Orthodox pray to saints. So, let me throw out a list of passages dealing with this: Mark 12:26-27, Hebrews 12:1, Luke 20:37-38, Luke 16:19-31, Luke 23:43, Revelation 4:4-11, Revelation 5:8-10, Revelation 6:9-11,Revelation 7:9-12, Philippians 1:23-24, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-10, Luke 9:28-36.
Should we pray for one another?
Again, I know that this isn’t an issue for Protestants, but it’s part of the picture so I’ll put up some verses on this as well and move on:
Colossians 4:2-4, Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 2:1-5, James 5:16
Where’s the scriptural command to pray to saints?
Nowhere, but this argument does seem to cut both ways. Scripture doesn’t clearly state that we are to pray to departed saints. On the other hand, it doesn’t say not to. It’s just silent on the subject. Having already dealt with Sola Scriptura in a previous letter I’ll just point out that silence or ambiguousness of the Scriptures on a subject is not an argument against. It is also unclear on the Trinitarian existence of God, but that does not make the fully realized doctrine developed over the first centuries non-Biblical. The same is true about the full divinity and humanity of Christ. Or the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Or the make up of the Scriptures themselves. All of these subjects are ambiguous or completely missing from Scripture, and yet are fully affirmed by all Christian groups. Lacking clear statements for or against, the subject must be argued from parts of Scripture, logical affirmations, and the witness of historic practice. Some people will say that Old Testament prohibitions against necromancy are the clear admonition against the practice, but this is wrong, and I’ll address that argument below as it is a fairly common objection.
I’d ask the question too of, should we expect to find much discussion of this practice in the New Testament? Honestly, I don’t think so, and here’s why. The Scripture is largely written up in the early years of budding Christianity. Most of it is written up by the 60s and 70s. How big was the population of dead and martyred saints at this time? Probably pretty small. I doubt that the Church had much time to accumulate much thought about the intercession of the departed saints at the time of writing the Scriptures. Therefore I’d suggest that not finding much discussion of it there is not unexpected. I think this practice is a natural development of the New Testament understanding of all Christians as a unified whole.
Isn’t prayer to the saints necromancy, and forbidden in the Old Testament?
No, it isn’t necromancy. This is an extremely common objection to the intercession of the saints, and one that I find uncharitable and demonstrating an almost intentional obtuseness. Necromancy is an occult practice, practiced by a witch or sorcerer, for the purpose of divination or uncovering hidden knowledge. Literally the word necromancy means “divination by use of a dead body” in the Greek. That’s not even close to asking a departed saint of God to pray for you.
Necromancy was a common practice in antiquity. There are many known forms and they typically involved gathering bones from a dead body, or involving snakes apparently (weird), and with various incantations or meditative practices producing knowledge of the future, real or imagined. There’s references to necromancy all the way back in Homer’s Oddysey, where Ulysses’ invokes dead souls by various rites, to consult with them. There’s a common thread of getting advantage by gaining information from the dead in all necromantic rights. This selfish practice is the opposite of members of the Church praying for one another.
Let’s look at three Old Testament passages commonly cited in connection with this. First, Leviticus 20:27:
27 ‘Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.’ “
A medium/spiritist is one who has a dead person (or potentially a masquerading demon) speaking through them. This is not at all relevant to intercession by a departed saint; apples and oranges. To see this in operation one need only go to Acts 16:16 and see that this demonic manifestation of power bears no resemblance to intercession by saints. All the Protestant commentaries I have access to make no relation to this verse and prayers to departed saints.
Next, Deuteronomy 18:10,11:
10 “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium , or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.
This passage is slightly more expansive than the one in Leviticus, but amounts to the same thing. It forbids any Jew from being a medium, a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. As with Leviticus, the practice of calling of the dead is an occult practice of divination. These practices were common to the Philistine religions that God was making sure they didn’t engage in. It bears absolutely no resemblance to asking intercession of the saints.
Again, I can’t find a Protestant commentary that links this verse to the practice of prayer to the saints.
Finally, 1 Samuel 28:7-19. It’s long so I won’t quote it here. King Saul goes to a necromancer to call up Samuel when he can’t get an answer from God on how to proceed in battle. It appears that she is actually successful, and Samuel is none too pleased. So, is this the same as prayer with the saints? No. Saul 1) goes to a medium, who 2) engages in a necromantic rite, so that 3) he can gain information, and 4) Samuel spoke through the medium to Saul. None of these are the same as prayer with the saints. So, again this really doesn’t apply.
And again, no commentaries link this to prayer to the saints, that I can find.
How about some counter examples? Take a look at the Transfiguration of Jesus in Luke 9:28-36. Jesus engages in conversation with Moses and Elijah, who are dead physically. The disciples see the dead men but don’t indicate any reluctance to engage with them, nor do they indicate any problem with Jesus engaging with them. You could say that certainly Jesus is a special case, so perhaps this is something that’s ok for Him but not for us, but again the disciples show no hesitancy in dealing with their heroes returned from the dead. From this I think we can clarify that contact with the dead is not the same as necromancy.
Here’s another example. The Apostle John in Revelation speaks with the elders in heaven, in Revelation 7:13-17, having a two way conversation, but that’s not considered necromancy.
You could also look at Revelation 5:8.
Doesn’t praying to the saints makes the saints a mediator, instead of the ONE mediator Jesus?
This is a reference to the description of Jesus as the one mediator between God and man in 1 Timothy 2, and is one of the most common objections I’ve seen to the intercession of saints. If you look at the context of the passage though, it completely reverses the argument.
1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
Paul starts off instructing us to intercede for each other, even regarding non-Christians, that God would save all (v. 4). Then he follows up immediately with the description of Jesus as the one mediator. Clearly if Paul had in mind that Jesus’ role as a mediator in any way annulled our ability, and even duty, to pray for each other he wouldn’t have followed one with the other directly in that fashion. Clearly the two are not contradicting in the least. Instead, Jesus’ role as a mediator (v. 5 points back to v. 4) is the reason why we pray for everyone, making salvation possible for all.
Common objections using this verse confuse intercession with mediation. Christ is the one mediator of a reconciliation between God and man. The saints never mediate between us and God. We are all, however, intercessors for each other. These are two different things. Now in some instances saints are referred to as mediators, but the context makes it clear that the references are more in line with what we would call intercession.
Praying for each other as Christians is simply what we do. It is God’s will that we pray for each other, as expressed in Scripture I’ve already covered.
Does prayer to the saints equate to worship?
I’m not sure I need to spend much time on this assertion. It seems patently false and easily dismissed. Only by taking a very narrow and non-historical view of prayer could this is begin to make sense. “Prayer” does not equal worship. Prayer is communication. When we ask other Christians that we know here on earth to pray for us we are not worshiping them, though we have just prayed for their intercession. I think we are mostly tripped up by our own language here, and reading back our current thinking on prayer as divine specific communication into older texts and scripture. It’s simply a case of defining things differently. We need another English word to cover this!
How could the saints know our needs? Would they care?
Do the saints care about us or know our needs? Well, as we can see in Hebrews 12:1 they are witnesses to our lives. They can’t be witnesses unless they are aware of what goes on here on earth. The saints aren’t omnipresent or omniscient, as God is, but then neither are angels and scripture clearly indicates that angels are aware of our prayers. The most likely answer to this objection is that they are aware because God makes them aware. There’s no need to ascribe to them Godlike powers, merely communion with God. You can see this greater than normal awareness also in the Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah are aware of the upcoming crucifixion, an event that hadn’t yet occurred in time. Probably the knowledge came from God, again. You can also see saints in heaven with knowledge of what’s going on here on earth in Revelation (5:8-10), and also offering the prayers of the saints on earth up to God, which is pretty much the whole thing in a nutshell right there. So, I’d say, yeah, the saints in heaven are aware of events on earth.
As to caring for us, I think that’s safe to say that they do. The saints are considered saints because of their exemplary holiness, and that includes compassion for us here on earth. Knowing how we go through trials and have needs here, why would we think they wouldn’t care? We can also say that we are all one family, on heaven and on earth (Ephesians 3:15,commentary). Paul said there should be no division so that we would all have the same care for one another. Certainly that wouldn’t change after death. We are one body, one bride, one vine in Christ that is commanded to love one another (John 15:14). This isn’t changed by death, which cannot separate us from Christ. This is both why the saints would care, and perhaps even an explanation for their knowledge of events on earth, though that is speculation on my part. They know because they are connected to Christ, as are we.
There is one church in heaven and earth, and we care for one another, and pray for one another.
Can you have relationship with a departed saint? Isn’t it better to have accountability with a person who is present?
As to whether you can have a relationship with someone who is in heaven I think it is reasonable to say that it will certainly not be the same type of relationship as with someone who is present. That doesn’t make it less significant though; merely different. The saint isn’t expected to come and walk on the beach with you, or go chit-chat at Starbucks. But the saint is in a purified state, in the presence of God, and their prayers are therefore common with the will of God, making them effective (all effect is from God, of course). Here again is a case of not making an issue either/or. We don’t JUST pray to Jesus. We don’t JUST pray to saints. We should also have relationship with brothers and sisters still present and have accountability with them. This is Biblical of course and the common practice of all Christians. We just have an unfortunate position of cutting out anyone who has died here on earth but is alive and present with Jesus from our common body of communion. We don’t acknowledge them, know who they are, or seek to be at one with them.
How much do Orthodox pray to the saints, versus to Jesus? Isn’t this too much attention in the wrong place?
This may be somewhat surprising, but the answer to how much prayer goes to saints is, not that much. For something that is by quantity a small portion of Orthodox practice it is surely made into something of huge proportions by opponents of the practice. I typically do morning and evening prayers found in the Orthodox Study Bible, or a small Orthodox prayer book. I looked to see how much time is given to asking the saints for intercession, or even just referencing the saints. In the OSB out of about 3 pages of material for morning prayers you might find 2 or 3 lines that include even a reference to the saints. The small prayer book is about the same, but includes a few extra lines about Mary. The evening prayers have even less of a reference to saints. In the divine liturgy you get frequent reference to the saints or requests to them to pray for us, but considering that the liturgy may last 2 to 2 1/2 hours, the percentage of time spent engaging the saints versus direct prayer to God is really minimal. It’s there, but if quantity means anything (not that it does) certainly the vast majority of prayer is directed to God.
Can the saints answer our prayers directly? Is it within their power to grant requests?
No, and no. 🙂 Neither proposition is Orthodox.
Saints in heaven are very highly respected by Orthodox believers. There’s certainly no getting around that, nor do I think we need to. This is an exemplary practice and Protestants engage in it as well. We all highly respect Peter and Paul, Stephen for his martyrdom, etc. I think it is clear that those in heaven are aware of our situation on earth, and desire to pray for us. The act of piety on the Orthodox believer’s part of asking for those saints to pray for him demonstrates humility and oneness in the Body of Christ. It is in line with Biblical mandates for how the Church is to act. There is no smoking gun verse instructing us to ask saints in heaven to pray for us, but neither is there one against. The practice doesn’t seem to be at all harmful, any more than asking our brothers and sisters here on earth to pray for us. Historically it seems to be going on in the early church, and is referenced in various writings. Claims that asking saints to pray for us amounts to necromancy I reject on all counts, as I do those claims that this is polytheism. No worship is occurring. Finally, this practice in no way replaces or diminishes prayer to God. The vast majority of Orthodox prayer is made to God, and what little is directed at saints is merely asking them to intercede for us.
Given all that, I can find no reason to reject the practice. The Protestant in me could wish for a smoking gun verse, for or against, but there just isn’t one. It’s not addressed. Unfortunately this is true for a lot of the controversial points. It makes sense why, of course. If there was a definitive verse or verses, it wouldn’t be a controversy. Instead it would be settled. 🙂 Sometimes life is not that simple. Instead you have to look at the whole package of a position and say, what makes the most sense of Scripture and holds to the most consistent witness of history. I think the balance of evidence weighs in favor of prayer to the saints, and I’d need much stronger objections raised than I’ve seen to decide that this is an aberrant practice and reject it.
There’s only so far I can let my own reasoning take me without resting in the Church, which has the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth. Some of these issues seem pretty straight forward to me. Some don’t. Actually I find Sola Scriptura and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist to be two of the easier subjects to deal with, since there is ample Scriptural, historical, and philosophical support to decide in one direction for me. Prayer to the saints is one that is somewhere in the middle. It has decent support and makes a certain sense. As I said earlier, I do still have tension sometimes when reading some of the stronger poetic language, but that’s mostly culture shock I think. I take a deep breath, read it calmly, and accept that while it is not natural to my prayer life it is not something to be summarily rejected. Most of the time, though, I happily enjoy a new found source of support when I ask the departed holy ones of God to pray for me. I’ll take all the prayer I can get!
Some other sites to reference on this subject:
Some extra audio on this subject: