Saints: Our Unseen Prayer Partners
by Mark Shea
Some of my non-Catholic friends find prayer to the saints ooky. They ask me, "Since when is talking to a bunch of dead guys Christian?"
Since biblical times. Consider Moses. He had been a dead guy for several centuries when Christ began his ministry, yet he was intensely interested in earthly doings judging by his behavior on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:30-31). Likewise the various deceased saints in Revelations seem intensely interested in our affairs. So too those mysterious dead folk who visited Jerusalem on Good Friday (Matthew 27:52-53). All this seems to indicate our connection with the dead is unbroken by death.
Notice also Christ's reply to the Sadducees, who disbelieved in life after death. Our Lord says the blessed dead are not dead at all, but alive to God. "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:32). The key to this matter, Jesus indicates, lies not so much with the dead as with their God, the "God of the living." Who is He?
God is, in his Trinitarian nature, a kind of Holy Family. He is one God, not three Gods. But the oneness of God is the oneness of love, not the oneness of loneliness. In his very being God is a communion of love between the Father and the Son, a communion so intense that the Spirit of Love between them is Himself a Person: the Holy Spirit. So the Godhead can be pictured as a sort of symphony of love, each Divine Person of the Trinity distinct from the others, yet all united in the One Music of God. That is the divine nature.
Now a very important Catholic book tells us that the central purpose of the gospel was to make us participants in that nature. According to this book, as Christ is, so shall we be. Whatever Christ does, we shall be able to do. As he is prophet, priest and king, so shall we be. As he is perfect, so shall we be (in a subordinate, human way). As he is powerful by the Holy Spirit, so shall we be. As he is love, so shall we be. As he is mediator between God and man, so shall we be.
So what weird Catholic book is this?
It's called the Bible and it spells out in no uncertain terms the glory for which each saved soul is destined in Christ. "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." (Romans 8:29) Likewise Hebrews 12 speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem and of those "spirits of righteous men made perfect" who dwell there and are, as St. John says, "like Him." And 2 Peter 1:4 says God "has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature."
Thus, in Christ, we participate in the very life of God, and that those who do it best of all are the ones who have obtained perfection in heaven at the right hand of God. Does this mean we will dissolve into God or stop being human and become God? On the contrary, it means that we shall become, in union with Christ, more perfectly ourselves and distinct from God than ever. But our distinctness will, like the distinctness between the Father, Son and Spirit, give rise to more love and more union with God. Thus, we shall join his symphony and do whatever Christ himself does, including intercede for those on earth.
"But," someone says, "according to 1 Timothy 2:5 there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus."
True. Not only that, Jesus is also the one Son of God (John 1:14) and the one High Priest (Hebrews 8). Yet he shares that sonship, priesthood and mediatorship with us. Is there scriptural warrant for this? Yes! Where's Jesus? Seated at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:20). Where are we? Right next to him (Ephesians 2:6). How did we get there? God "raised us up" according to that same verse. Why? "To do good works" (like intercede for another) (Ephesians 2:10). How are we to do these good works? "In Christ Jesus" says the same verse. In other words, the prayers of us saints, whether living or dead, totally derive from and depend on Christ.
We know this from experience. Suppose I ask you to pray for me. Am I thereby repudiating Christ as my intercessor before God? No, I am doing his will (and so are you) by recognizing that, as a child of God, you are called to imitate him in this role as in all things. Indeed, it is precisely as you and I obey him in his command to prayer for one another that we discover Christ himself is, in the Holy Spirit, the real guide to all our prayers. We pray "through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit." And as we do, we find that, as St. Paul says, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will" (Romans 8:26-27). In short, the principal Pray-er is not us, but Christ himself, seated at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us and adoring his Father who gives us--out of sheer love--the gift of participating in the eternal conversation between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As it is on earth, so it is in heaven. The saints in glory are like Jesus in all things (as Scripture insists). Therefore, they are like him in his desire and power to love and help their brothers and sisters, especially now that they, like Christ, sit at the right hand of the Father. As Jesus spends his love "interceding for us at the right hand of the Father," so all the blessed dead (who desire in all things to be like him) do too. For God has shared his communal nature of love with them and with us alike. As God himself is, in his Trinitarian nature, a kind of family, so he has chosen to share that nature with us. That is why Scripture says that "his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name" from him (Ephesians 3:14). As God is one in love, so we, in both heaven and earth, are one in him also.
That is why Catholic worship is utterly rooted in the reality of the communion of saints. The Mass, which is the central act of Catholic worship, is offered to God in the context of a Body which includes not only the people next to you in the pew but "angels, archangels, martyrs, apostles, prophets and the Blessed Virgin, and all those who have died in God's friendship." It opens with a prayer of contrition which asks "the Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin, all the angels and saints and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God." It proceeds to prayers and petitions which include prayers both to and for the dead. Its consummation is Holy Communion, which unites us with all who are in Christ, living and dead.
This ought to give us great boldness as we pray. For even the smallest prayer group can call upon saints whose spiritual gifts have been perfected and whose desire to help is unhindered by the cloud of sinfulness anymore. We can, in Christ, really do something to forgive and heal that relationship with our deceased dad whom we were never able to say "I love you" to in this life. We can pray in hope and love, especially those of us who have lost a dear one. For in Christ, the fact is that those who have died are, like Jesus, closer to us than they ever could have been while on earth (John 16:7). They are, in the Spirit, bound to us with unbreakable cords of love which nothing can sever.
It is this and nothing less that the Church, following her Lord, holds out to us as we grapple with the mystery of suffering. It is this and nothing less that we are declaring when we state our faith in "the communion of saints and life everlasting." It is this and nothing less that is meant by Paul's statements that we in Christ are parts of the same body; members not only of Christ, but of one another (Romans 12:5). Such a bond, forged from such a love cannot be broken by a little trifle like death (Romans 8:38-39). For love is stronger than death.
E-mail this article to a friend
'Sheavings' reproduced with permission from Mark Shea
. Copyright © Mark Shea. All rights reserved.