This is a post in an on-going series called Catholic Aren’t Crazy exploring misconceptions Protestants have about Catholicism and lessons we can learn from them.
All Saint’s Day has taken on different meanings for different groups of Christians. What seems to stay consistent, though, is that it is a celebration of the victory attained by those faithful Christians who have died. They are no longer pilgrims, as we are, but are the triumphant ones, having finished their race well and been brought into their peace with God. We celebrate Christ’s effectual victory over sin and death and that this has been granted to those that have gone before us.
The hope and encouragement in this holiday is not simply that we “remember” these saints, or meditate on their example. Instead (and this is important), there has been a long-held belief in the Christian Church that we still have a mystical communion and relationship with those saints that have already died. When Christians throughout Church history (and the Bible) have referred to “The Church”, they don’t simply mean those still around today, but all the saints who have ever lived (even in the Old Testament!). We are all the Church.
So we can truly celebrate those that have gone before us because we are truly still connected to them in a very real and vibrant way.
Now, I’m a good Protestant and all, and I absolutely believe in the fact that all Christians are Saints in God. I merely flirt with Catholicism (and even Orthodoxy), but I still think that one of the more mystical graces that many others in the global church embrace that many of us American Protestants do not is this: praying to saints.
I know, I know. It freaks us out. This is “worshipping saints”, right? Prayer is a pedestal only reserved for God, right? Well…
In my opinion, this comes from an oversimplification of the word “prayer”. Too many of us Protestants have this idea that “prayer” is only one thing: at it’s most profound, it’s a worshipful communing dialogue of praise and pleading where oneness is fostered in the Presence of one envelops the presence of the other; at it’s simplest, it’s a speaking to the only person who can answer those prayers, God. Neither of these definitions fit the idea of “praying to saints”. But here is how The Catholic Catechism describes it:
On The intercession of the saints: Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.
Does that sound like “worshipping saints”? Does that sound like “prayer” in the sense that we Protestants usually talk about it? I certainly don’t think so.
What if there was another type of prayer? Not a deep “soul-communing” or even an offering of praise, but just talking to those that have passed? (I wish there were a different word for it than “prayer”.) Can you accept that there may be a way to talk to dead saints that is not the same way we talk to God? I’m starting to think so.
Biblically, this comes from a few places that give two key impressions: (1) the dead still know what’s going on here on earth, and (2) they talk to God about it. (See below for examples.) If this is the case (the logic goes) why shouldn’t we be able to just talk to these people and ask them to talk to God for us? The Catechism never calls them “mediators” as if they’re a substitute for Jesus, neither do they give us salvation. They just have God’s ear.
For my own part, I have begun taking this practice into my life, and it’s been beautiful. Here was my idea: Each Church Year, I’ll look through lists of patron saints (here’s my favorite) and find one who really seemed to have a unique grace in an area of life that I could use some grace in. I would then read as much about them and their own writings as possible, meditating on their life, thought, and practice. I would pray to them, asking for them to intercede on my behalf with God. As you can see in the picture above, I ended up with St. Catherine of Siena, and I’ll introduce her to you next week.
With school and all, I haven’t been able to delve into her story and her writings like I want to, but it’s definitely what I want to do before moving on to someone else. But I have been praying to her. And you know what? I really have felt more empowered and “engraced”. I have felt that connection and kinship with St. Catherine. It has become very natural for me, and doesn’t seem like I’m “cheating on God” by doing something that’s only supposed to be reserved for Him. It’s a completely different type of “praying”.
If you want to take this practice on (and I encourage you to do so), feel free to check out lists of patron saints (they’re all over the web) or a great Christian in history or a family member who was especially strengthened by God in a way that you could really use. Pray to them. Get a picture of them or some sort of tangible object to help focus your thoughts, and just talk to them. Ask them to intercede for you at the throne of God. And then be confident that your prayer is not in vain. I’ll end with these summary words from the Catechism:
On Communion with the saints: It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened. Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself.
Amen. Happy All Saints’ Day! Now go find one and pray to them!
***The most explicit references are in Revelation, where the 24 elders give God the prayers of the saints, as well as the martyrs under the altar of God, who see the suffering on earth and intercede for those below. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you have the dead speaking to one another about the lives and souls of those alive. At the Transfiguration, dead Elijah and Moses are hanging out on the mountaintop. In the Old Testament, Saul is able to conjure up the spirit of the dead Samuel, seeking intercession. Other, little hints abound elsewhere.