Saturday, March 14, 2009

What's the Point in Praying to Saints? Isn't My Prayer Enough?

The following is a list of questions I once received from a non-Catholic, and my responses.

  • How do we know a) that saints can hear our prayers, and that b) they can indeed intercede for us?
  • And I would also ask, how do we know that our prayers are insufficient to reach God and make Him hear us? Doesn't the Bible say that God delights in the prayer of His holy ones?
  • I agree that we need intercession on earth and in heaven, but Christ intercedes for us in heaven. If saints can intercede for us, then why do we need Christ to be our intercessor?
  • Let me develop the angels-intercession train of thought. If we're going to pray to other spirits besides God, besides Christ, why don't we pray to the angels? That would give us more options than just intercession before God. Angels can also intervene in human affairs, so we could pray for them to go talk to God the Father, and we could ask them to come help us directly. It seems a far wiser thing to pray to the angels than to saints, who may or may not be able to even hear our prayers and may or may not be able to actually intercede. We do know for certain that the angels talk directly to God, as seen in Job, but we don't know that the spirits of the saints do.
  • You think that other people's prayers will pay your way into heaven?

1. When considering the Communion of Saints it behooves one first to understand the Church itself. There is a common misconception that the Church is made up solely of what Catholics know as the "Church Militant," that is, those of us who are physically on earth. Yet there is also the "Church Triumphant" is those holy souls that have been saved and are dwelling in Heaven. God, after all, is "God of the living, not of the dead," and his reign over us does not end at the grave. The Church is not isolated to us. We are a part of the whole. That's actually the best reason for why Catholics make such use of statues, icons, medals, and the like. They are a constant reminder that we are not alone, that we are a part of a Church whose Lord and Founder has triumphed over death, and that those who have passed on are still with us, and a part of the same spiritual family. (NB: There is also the "Church Suffering," which is the community of souls in Purgatory--but that's a subject for another post.)

2. Christianity by and large of course rejects the secular understanding of death. Namely, that when you die, that’s it. You’re dead. Disregarding some threads of thought lining the fringe, Protestants and Catholics will agree that when a righteous person dies he will slip neither into nothingness nor into some abstract, happy oblivion. Rather, the righteous person will enjoy the presence of God in a way unique to Heaven, and will be content to bask in Him forever.

But in Protestant thought there is a sort of chasm between Heaven and earth, which is precisely how we understand Hell. The Catholic understanding of the afterlife sharply departs from this. When we die and are accepted into the glory of God's presence, we continue to do God's work, to be in His service. That is to say, the Saints in Heaven are still part of a living, breathing Church, caring for others within that Church, especially those who are still running the race on earth. They've achieved Heaven, and so are helping others do the same.

3. It's been noted that God delights in the prayers of His holy ones. Why then should we imagine he despises the prayers of those very holy ones who have persevered through all trials, and have been found in glory? "The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful." Who among us may be considered more righteous than those granted the beatific vision? Who among us, in our slavery to our own passions, can be considered more just and holy than those who have triumphed, and now stand victorious in Heaven, in the very presence of God? How can we imagine that our own prayers are better heard and more joyfully received than those of the souls who dwell at they very feet of God?

It's no uncommon practice for a man to ask his neighbor to pray for him in times of distress. It's no uncommon practice for a man to entreat his church to keep him in its prayers, to keep his family and friends in its prayers. It's no uncommon practice for this same man to first seek out that friend and neighbor who has a reputation for holiness, who has been blessed with the gift of prayer. Consider the conversation between Our Lord and Abraham preceding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:23-28). Our Lord agreed not to destroy those cities 1) because of the prayers of a righteous man (Abraham), and 2) for the sake of righteous men (those whom he might find in the cities). Our Lord listens and responds to the petitions of righteous men. Our Lord will even have mercy on the unrighteous for the sake of the righteous. Consider further the Lord's rebuke of Eliphaz the Temanite in Job (42:7-10). Eliphaz and his two companions are instructed to make sacrifices and to entreat Job to pray for their sake, for Job's prayers the Lord will hear, but theirs He will not.

Throughout Holy Scripture there are numerous exhortations to pray for one another (e.g., Mt 5:44; Lk 6:28; Acts 8:24; Col 1:9; 1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 1:11, 3:1; Heb 13:18; Jam 5:14, 16). We are explicitly commanded to intercede for each other, and to seek the intercession of others. How are all of these instances allowed, if they truly "unbiblical," in that they rob Christ of His role as Mediator? It is evident that this role of Christ's is no different than any of His other roles, in that he allows us to take some part in it. In the same way, Christ is the creator, shepherd, high priest, supreme judge, sovereign king, and divine physician. But in each of these roles, we are called to imitate Christ, sharing in part with His great power. Man is given creative power through sex, Peter and others were bestowed the responsibility of shepherd, we are a "royal priesthood," men are given royal crowns in heaven, and man is given power to share in ministries of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the same way, Christ, the great Mediator, calls us to be mediators and to intercede for others. And it is by His power as Mediator that we derive our own power. Were it not for Christ, our own intercession would be for naught. Our own prayers for ourselves do reach God, but why would we reject the even richer gift He's given us? Why reject this resource of other people?

4. There's really no reason to disbelieve that the Saints in Heaven can hear our prayers. They certainly not as we, but rather more like Him (cf. Phil 3:20-21). St John talks of the elders in Heaven pouring out unto God the petitions of the faithful on earth from great bowls (cf. Rev 5:8; 8:3-4). The Saints, we can see, are presenting our prayers to God. Our Lord Himself told us of the great celebration in Heaven that takes place in the conversion of one man (cf Lk 15:7,10). Unless a fellow is to believe that God keeps all of the Saints in a celestial closet, it's only natural to believe that those in Heaven know exactly what's going on on earth.

5. Concerning angels, the Church does recognize the influence of angels in our lives, and does entreat their prayers and intervention. From Holy Scripture we gain an enduring devotion to Sts Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and all the archangels, to say nothing of our Angel Guardians of whom Our Lord Himself spoke so highly. They are some of our very dearest friends.

6. As a final note, no one's claimed that the prayers of others will "pay our way into heaven." The only claim which could be skewed to that understanding is the claim that the prayers of others are effective in our lives and in the lives of others. This belief we take from the teachings of Our Lord and of His holy Apostles. It is a purely Christian belief that the intercessory prayers of others may help us in attaining eternal salvation. Otherwise, why would anyone pray for anyone else?


Matt Heltzel said...

Asking others to pray for us is a little different than actually praying to saints, Mary, etc...

If you're going to pray to or hail anyone, why would it ever not be Jesus? Why waste time praying to saints or any other being when you can pray to Jesus Christ who is the only one to whom salvation belongs? (Psalm 3:8)

It just doesn't make sense to me that we should pray to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ, the only intercessor between God and man.

Joel Haubenreich said...

The term itself, "pray/prayer" might be a difficulty. Use in its full and original sense it means no more than to ask, or to ask earnestly, and does not necessarily have to be used in the context of praying to a god or saint. I could, for instance, say "Matt, I pray thee get me a soda from the fridge." We just don't use that sort of language anymore, which is why it sounds weird. The fact remains that simply because we only use "pray" these days to refer to our communication with God or with the saints, it does not follow that we pray to them in the same way. That is, we are aware of the difference between the saints and God, and that intentionality is crucial.

You're right, though, there is some difference between praying to saints and asking your buddy to pray for you. We do award them special honor, because they are Christians who have fought the good fight, won the race, and achieved their place in heaven. But the honor we show to them is still very different, and distinguishably lower, than what we show to God.

I think it'd be interesting to ask your question ("If you're going to hail anyone, why would it ever not be Jesus?") to Gabriel the Archangel. The anatomy of the Hail Mary might be helpful. The angel appeared to Mary and said "Hail, full of grace." Later on, when Mary met Elizabeth, her cousin cried, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" The first half of the prayer merely quotes holy words from Scripture. The second bit was a natural progression. "Holy Mary, Mother of God" rightfully acknowledges her holiness and calls her by her greatest title, "Mother of God." She is the Theotokos, the God-bearer, as Christians have proclaimed since antiquity. And then we ask her to pray for us: "Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." Why wouldn't you want Jesus' mother to pray for you?

When you ask your buddy to pray for you, that doesn't mean he's picking up the slack. You of course continue praying. That's why there is no contradiction between praying directly to God and asking for the saints' intercession as well. The communion of saints reminds us of the corporate nature of Christian life. The Church is one body, one family. You ask them to pray for you because you want your brothers and sisters who love you, and whom you love, to help you on your way.