Friday, September 28, 2007

Prayer to the Saints

Canon John Hollister, one of our regular readers and very active commentators, has kindly given me permission to publish the following cybernetic conversation he has had at another venue.

"Why would any Anglican Christians want to pray to anyone other than God at any time? I have been told by an ACC member that many Anglicans pray the rosary and pray to the saints for their intercession."

Here is Canon Hollister’s reply:

Have you ever asked another Christian to pray for you? Have you ever asked for the assistance of a prayer group or prayer chain, or as a member of such a group prayed for someone else? I would be very surprised if you had not, because praying for one another is both a natural human impulse and a Christian duty.

But if you have done that very natural, communal, and traditional thing, then you have "prayed to someone for their intercession". "To pray" is merely a somewhat antiquated phrase for "to ask sincerely"; thus when a lawyer drafts a Complaint or Petition to begin a lawsuit, it always ends with a "Prayer for Relief" in which the Complainant or Petitioner sets out what it is he wants the court to do for him.

Similarly, "intercession" merely means "asking on behalf of someone else".

"Saint" means "someone who has been sanctified", that is, "has been made holy", which each of us has been by our dedication to God's service that was a major result of our baptism. (That we often do not live up to this holy calling is cause for regret but it does not make our "sanctification" any less real. That is why St. Paul could write "To the Saints which are in Corinth", even though those folks were behaving in a very unholy fashion.)

When we recite the Creed and declare that "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints", we declare our belief that the Church Militant (struggling here on earth) and the Church Triumphant (those who have passed through the Gates of Larger Life to be in fellowship with God) are both one body. That is, because time is merely an aspect of the created order and God, as the Creator, is outside of and not bound by the restrictions of that created order, to God what we think of as past, present, and future are all equally accessible.

Thus all Christians who have ever lived, live now, or will ever live are all equally members of the Church which is the Communion of Saints.

Thus while you may very properly ask me, as another member of the Church Militant, to pray for you, so either or both of us may properly ask a member of the Church Triumphant to pray for us as well. The only difference is that I may well respond to you, or you to me, that "I have put you on my prayer list". The member of the Church Triumphant from whom we beg the same favor cannot respond in a way that we will hear but, as a matter of faith, and if we have chosen a responsible person to whom to address that request, we can be confident that as a good Christian he or she will do as we ask.

Many of us, knowing that Our Lady is, out of all Christians, the most perfectly obedient to God's will, feel that confidence in even greater degree with respect to her. Thus many of us choose to include her among those we ask to pray for us.

It is important to note that in all these cases, we are asking a fellow member of the Church to address his or her prayers TO GOD on our behalf. We do not ask Mary or any other named member of the Church to pray for us because she or he has any greater power than any other member of the Church; it is just another basic human instinct that when we need others' prayers, the more of them we can get the better we feel about it.

"I do not pray for the dead. I believe they are beyond my interference, and are in the hands of God. So why should I ask the dead to pray for me?"

All of us at some time get caught up in the fallacy of thinking about Heaven in the terms we have learned through our experiences here on earth. You say of those members of the Church who are, in merely earthly terms, dead that "they are beyond my interference". But you can only say that if on some level you believe they have been placed beyond the reach of prayer by some force that we cannot withstand.

Here on earth there is one such primary force: time. It is the one dimension known to us which is unidirectional: it flows in only one way and we can neither turn it to the side, and so slow it, or turn it around, and so reverse it.

Time, however, like length, breadth, height, mass, etc., is only an aspect of this created, physical world. It has no application outside of this created order. Thus to God, and we must assume to those who live in fellowship with God, what we perceive as past, present, and future are all equally capable of being known. It is a poor metaphor, as all metaphors
at bottom must be, but think for a moment what it is like to walk down a crowded street. The walker is separated from the others there by physical distances which he or she perceives as forward, backwards, or to one side or the other.

Sometimes, indeed, the effect of those distances is not just to separate us from other walkers but to conceal them from us, behind the crowd or some obstacle, around a corner, or over on the next street. To an observer posted on the top of a tall building, however, his vantage point makes those factors of distance in front, distance behind, or distance to
the side merge into the background and become largely irrelevant: he can see all the walkers on the block below him, and most for many blocks around, equally well.

So it is with God and those who have lived, live now, or will at some future time live where we live now. And since all of these persons are equally present to God, it makes perfect sense for me to pray to Him for His grace and mercy upon them, even though some of them have, from my very limited perspective, "already" died. If you prefer to think of it this way, then you can put it that God knew from the beginning of time that I
would be offering these prayers, and so has, I trust, already taken them into account.

To refuse to pray for the "dead" is a classic Protestant error, one that makes a mockery of the "Communion of Saints" to which we give our assent every time we recite one of the Creeds. It has always been a mystery to me why the Puritans took such a dislike to the departed, especially to the long-departed. After all, they could scarcely have known their forebears in person, and therefore had no principled basis on which to condemn them and to eject them from the Church.

But then Puritans have always had very little time for anyone who was not exactly like themselves, haven't they?


Anonymous said...

Well said, as usual, Fr Hollister. For what it's worth, here's how I've addressed the same issue in the compiler's preface to my as-yet unpublished booklet, "The Pondering Heart: A Rosary for All Christians":

"The reality of (and the lawfulness of invoking) the intercession of the Virgin Mary, or indeed that of any saint, is not one of those things that is so patent in Scripture that belief in it is morally obligatory. As Dr Farrer writes, “no Christian is obliged to invoke the prayers of any saint,” and that includes those now living among us as well as those departed to be with the Lord. However, assuming that the suppliant recognizes that every grace comes from the Father through the Son in the Holy Ghost, there is no harm in either invoking the prayers of the saints or refraining from doing so.

"The trouble starts when one goes from saying that he is not comfortable with doing it himself to making the positive assertion that it is something no Christian ought to do. It seems to me that at this point he enters dangerous territory where, if he is to be consistent, in the end he must deny either the essential unity of the Church as a communion of believers in Christ or the lawfulness of its members asking one another’s prayers.

"In this context it is perhaps not very helpful that the longstanding custom in the West of referring to the Church as Militant (here on earth), Expectant (in paradise), and Triumphant (in heaven) can easily lead people who have not been adequately instructed to think that there are three distinct Churches when in fact there is only one that has three inseparable aspects. If there is only one Church, then an argument against asking the prayers of any of its members who happen no longer to be living in this world can logically – if absurdly – be pursued to the conclusion that it is impious to ask the prayers of any who are still living in it. The excuse that the prohibition of the invocation of the saints’ prayers is necessary to prevent idolatry in the end makes no more sense than the assertion that the sale and use of alcohol must be prohibited to prevent alcoholism. The capacity of any thing to be abused cannot be used as an argument against its use; the primary problem is not with the thing abused, but with the intelligent entity who abuses it."

Fr Samuel L. Edwards

Alice C. Linsley said...

Excellent insights. I am glad that you brought this to our attention. It deserves a wider reading.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

I have also dealt with these issues here:

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Sorry. Need to add ".htm" to the end of that. The 'blog application has cut it off due to length.