I recently had the opportunity to hear an Orthodox priest speak on the the Orthodox (and Roman) practice of directing our prayers to the Saints of the Church. He gave me permission to partially transcribe his lecture here. As I have shared the stories of many Saints on this blog, it seemed fitting to include also this explanation of the practice and its' validity as a Christian practice.
Orthodox Christians get asked this question a lot: ”why do you pray to the Saints?” To answer this question we first need to understand that the word “pray” means at its elemental level simply “to ask”. Today the word pray is often conflated with worship, which is due only to God. Worship certainly includes prayer, in terms of communing with God and developing our relation to Him, but as praying is essentially asking it does not always include worship.
This leads to a few more questions: “Why do we pray to God, when He knows everything?” Prayer is not about informing God of our needs but acknowledging them & our inability to help ourselves, and turning to the One who is able to help us. Through prayer we purify our hearts, express our humble dependence upon God and unite ourselves to Him.
Next, we need to ask “Why do we ask other people to pray for us when we can go directly to God ourselves?” Prayer is ultimately about communion. To be in communion with God includes being in communion with His Body. We pray for one another because this is a way we express our love for one another and manifest the communion of the Body of Christ. Prayer is also an ascent, and when we pray for one another we ascend and are found in communion with God and one another.
Then, we need to ask “Why do many of us go out of our way to ask certain people to pray for our more serious needs?” We know either because of the Scripture or intuitively that some people’s prayer seems to be more effective because they are righteous and closer to God. As St. James tells us, the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16)
So, if prayer is about communion and we are to be in communion not only with God, but with the whole Church, how do we manifest this communion in a way which includes the Church triumphant, those who have gone before us, especially the Saints? Are those who are asleep in the Lord excluded from the Church?
In Hebrews 12:1 we read that we “are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” And later in the same chapter: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.”
Clearly the writer believes that not only the angels, but the spirits of the righteous are surrounding us. In fact, when we are made members of the Church he says we are joined to the Church in heaven – to these righteous souls made perfect. They are a very real and living part of the Church and when we entered into a relation with Christ who is their Lord and ours, we entered into a relationship with them.
The final question is “Are they dead?” Those who insist that we are addressing dead people are directly contradicting the Scriptures and the words of our Lord. Jesus said to Martha at the grave of her brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.”
The Apostle Paul regularly refers to those who have “fallen asleep in the Lord”. This is not Paul euphemizing death for the sake of his sensitive readers, but instead reflecting a truth to which the Lord himself witnessed in Mark 5:39 “the child is not dead, but sleeping”.
Jesus teaches in John 6 that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood, speaking of the Eucharist, will live forever and not die. God is the God of the living and not the dead: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even the Rich man in Hades could communicate with Abraham across the chasm to Paradise.
But now He has destroyed death through His Resurrection, and the Saints do not die, but live, even though for the time being their soul is not with the body.
When we are joined to the Church we are joined in relationship with the Saints in heaven. The Saints are alive and present, surrounding us. We cannot be in communion with God unless we are in communion with the Church, the Body of Christ. And there is no communion without prayer.
The Saints are alive, and they are part of our communion in Christ, and so we do not hesitate to ask for their intercession. We pray together with the Saints in one fellowship, in one communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which never ends, and in which we express our belief in the word and work of Jesus, the Conqueror of death, in whom we have abundant and eternal life.