A priest I am delighted to serve wrote me an email asking for help with explaining “praying to saints” to some of his Protestant friends. For what it’s worth, here my response, which may be helpful to other readers (or irksome, as the case may be).
Well, my friend, you always have good questions!
When my Evangelical friends question the involvement of saints in my prayers, there are two important things I point out.
First, the standard Anglican practice is not to pray TO the saints as much as to pray FOR them. Now when I say that, the question becomes, “Why should they need your prayers? They’re already in heaven!” Indeed! But there is nothing in the Bible that says folk stop growing in Christ when they die. In fact, the evidence (particularly in Paul) is that heaven is a continuation of our spiritual growth – we never “become God” (obviously), but we are on an eternal quest to become closer to him.
Why should we expect that a person suddenly becomes “perfect” immediately upon dying? Is it their physical body that was sinful, or their soul? Take me, for example: my personal shortcomings, my sins – are they seated in my cells, my bones, my blood, my muscles, my physical existence? Or, are they seated in my soul, my heart, my mind? Aha! They are indeed seated in my soul. And so, what “stops” the moment I die? My soul? Nope. My body? Yep. My soul continues, and it continues it’s growth in Christ. Forever. Another example – take my grandfather: a good ol’ Texas/Oklahoma farmer who loved Jesus and also had a racist streak in him. Now, was that racist streak located in his physical body? Of course not – it was in his heart, his mind, his soul. Why would I think that the moment he died he suddenly was completely free from whatever caused that racist streak? Nothing in the Bible suggests it. Everyone, when they think about it, recognizes that heaven includes a “proces” – a becoming more like Christ. Paul talks about rewards in heaven (1 Co. 3), but no one believes that you are “stuck” at whatever level of reward you get when you first arrive. No one thinks that for eternity, I’ll be at the lower rung of the heavenlies, while John Wesley is at the top rung. I continue to grow, to improve, to become more Christlike.
Which reminds me of a story from John Wesley. He was a staunch Arminian, and his preaching buddy, George Whitefield, was a staunch Calvinist. They were companions in preaching the Gospel, but antagonists in theology. So, when Whitefield died, Wesley attended his funeral, and a woman approached him and said, “Reverend Wesley, do you believe you shall see George Whitefield in heaven?” He replied, “Certainly not!” She said, “Hmmmpphhh…I thought not,” and walked away. Wesley stopped her and said, “My dear madam, you misunderstand me. George Whitefield will be standing so near the glory of God, and I so far away, that my eyes will not be able to gaze upon his brightness!” (This is paraphrased, but you get the idea).
So, just like you can pray for me to become more Christlike while I have my skin on, you can also pray for your grandmother who has gone on before you to also continue to become more Christlike.
Now, about praying TO saints…
First, the word “pray”: We tend to intepret it as “beseeching God”, and so to pray to anyone but God is to do something wrong. But the word, in English, simply means to ask. Elizabethan (and KJV) English understood this: “Pray, tell me, what is the time?” The word, originally, simply meant to ask.
We must understood that we are not “praying TO the saints”, asking them to do something for us like perform a miracle. We are “asking” the saints to intercede for us. Asking granny to pray for me. Asking St. Patrick to pray that I become a better pastor. Rallying the troops to do spiritual warfare.
Everyone believes you can ask “saints with skin” to pray for you. “Hey, Susie, will you pray for me that I find a better job? Hey Billy, will you pray for my aunt who is having surgery tomorrow?” What is it exactly about these “saints with skin” that allows us to ask their intercession? Is it the fact that they have skin? Or is it the fact that they are in the same “place” as us? That we can contact them physically? No, it is the fact that they are in the same “place” with us spiritually – and that place is “in Christ.”
But…BUT!!! Saint Paul said to be absent from the body (without our skin!) is to be “present with Christ.” So, I’m in Christ, but so is my grandmother. And so is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And so is St. Columba. And so is…well, everybody who has ever died in Christ. So just like I can ask my friend across the street to pray for me, I can also ask my friend across the “great divide” to pray for me.
Finally, this: I have lots of Protestant friends who, in moments of tenderness, will say, “Mama, if you can hear me, pray for me.” My dad, who is 74, still visits the graves of his mom and dad in South Louisiana, and when he’s there he “talks to them.” Tells them about life. Tells them he wishes they could see his ministry in Mexico. Tells them he wishes they could see his grandchildren. Johnny Cash had a great song back in the 70’s called, “Look at them Beans”. It tells the story of his father trying all his life to grow good crops, and always getting thwarted by weather or boll weevils or something. His dad dies, and finally a bumper crop comes in. “Hey, look at them beans! And look at that corn! And I bet them watermelons must be three feet long! Hey look at them tomatoes, and look at them peas. And I know if Papa was here right now, he’d sure be pleased. And Papa, if you can hear me, look at them beans!”
The difference between these sentimental Protestant folk and us is the matter of surety. They say “if you can hear me,” and we believe they can hear us. How? I don’t have a clue. Heavenly email? Who knows! But the witness of the Church for 2000 years is that we are all one in Christ. There are not two churches (one in heaven and one on earth), there is ONE Church, and we are all members of it. So, however the mystery occurs, the faith of the Church is that we are all in this together, and those who have gone before us can intercede for us.
And so, we invite those around the throne – that “great cloud of witnesses” Hebrews calls them, to add their prayers to ours as we continue our battle on earth, the Church Triumphant praying for the Church Militant.
I hope that helps a litte!
God bless you,