Here’s an email I sent to someone who is exploring Orthodoxy, but having trouble with our devotion to St. Mary.
I know what you mean about Mary. She is probably the greatest struggle Protestants have with Orthodoxy. But I think it helps to realize how much the excesses of Western medieval devotion (like viewing her as co-mediatrix with her Son) have made it hard for Protestants to think of her with biblical simplicity. There’s so much reaction against the medieval excess that it’s hard to see her in a normal way.
For example, think of how we feel natural respect and appreciation for St Paul. If it wasn’t for the excesses, we’d find it natural to feel a similar respect and appreciation for Mary.
And where is she now? Hebrews 12:1 says that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the community of all who loved Christ in their earthly life. They now are all alive in his presence, continually worshiping him, continually in prayer. Mary would be among them of course; she loved her Son very much. Maybe she is standing next to St Paul.
That, I think, is the simplest way to look at it; the next step is that Mary is of course not St Paul, but a unique person in her own right—a very unique person with experiences no one on earth can claim. She was closer in her relationship to Jesus than anyone else who ever lived. She fed him, when he was a baby; she taught him how to walk and talk. Why would we not love her as much as we do St. Paul?
Surely, Jesus would have felt for her a very strong, natural, instinctive love. He would certainly want us to regard her with respect, as any man wants people to treat his mother with respect.
Orthodox often say that we don’t preach Mary, we preach Jesus; Mary is for after you come inside the community. Like, if you had a friend you particularly liked and enjoyed spending time with, sometime you might be at his house and meet his mother. You might find out you liked her a lot too. That’s what it’s like. Mary doesn’t take away from our love for Christ; she enhances it, like a flower placed beside his throne.
Since she is among that “great cloud,” we ask her to pray for us. That’s all we do, when we pray to the saints, we just ask them to pray for us, just like we ask friends on earth to pray for us. We don’t expect to get into conversations with the saints; it would be dangerous to seek those sorts of experiences, because the evil one can fake them so easily. We just ask them to pray for us, as if we sent them a message by text or email. There are stories, sure, about various saints (including Mary) appearing to believers or becoming invisibly present, and giving them guidance and hope. But we don’t seek out such things, because we’re so readily susceptible to deception. We just ask them to pray for us.
It’s no different from asking other Christians to pray. If we were supposed to only go directly to Jesus, then I shouldn’t ask you to pray for me. You shouldn’t ask anyone else to pray for your needs. We should all just keep it between us and the Lord, and never ask anyone else’s prayers.
But that’s not the case—people can’t help branching out and soliciting the prayers of others. Logically, how can that help? Are more prayers going to change God’s mind? No, his will is already going to be done. It “does no good” logically to ask anyone else’s prayers. And yet we know we are supposed to pray for other people—we can’t help it, our hearts yearn to pray for them. And we can’t stop ourselves from seeking others to pray for us. We just do this instinctively, out of some sense of living community, of being the whole Body of Christ, whether it’s “logical” or not.
When talking to the saints and asking their prayers, Orthodox feel that sometimes we kind of sense their presence, and get a sense of their personalities. It’s hard to put into words (and of course it’s wise to be on guard against deception). But people who have sensed the presence of any particular saint, all down the centuries, tend to report the same characteristics. With Mary, the sense is particularly of strength and compassion. We feel a great deal of admiration for her. St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ (10th century) said that he “went to heaven” in a vision, for a two-week period in the course of one earthly night. His angel guided him all around, but when he asked to see Mary, the angel said she wasn’t there; she spends all her time on earth, helping those who suffer. That’s in line with the strength of the compassion people have sensed when they ask her prayers.
UPDATE: had a thought about *why* we pray to saints. But rather than start with theology, let’s just start with what people instinctively *do*.
Imagine you had a friend who was going through his last illness, who had always been a faithful intercessor, praying tirelessly for others. At his bedside you might say, “When you get to heaven, please say a prayer for me. Don’t stop praying for me.”
Even afterwards, when you had an urgent prayer need come up he might still come to mind. You might blurt out, “Bill, pray for Kathy”—even if you had no theological explanation for it, even if you had idea how such a thing could work. It would come bursting out of your heart, whether it made sense or not.
Every capital-s Saint started out as an ordinary person, like Bill. But as they prayed and grew in Christ, the Christians living around them realized that there was something different about them. While the people nearest us are the ones most aware of our bad moods and sneaky actions, in this case the reverse happened, and those who knew them best kept seeing more of the light of Christ shining out.
When those holy people died, those who knew them were likely to say, “Theodosia, pray for me!” or “Ephraim, pray for me!,” even before there was a “St” in front of their name. But the people who loved and remembered them also talked about them, and word spread; eventually those “ordinary people” became known everywhere as capital-S Saints. Then they belonged to the whole world. Everyone could know them and ask their prayers, no matter how many years roll by.
This doesn’t answer “why” by giving an intellectual justification, but by just making an observation: people just *do* this. When a holy person dies, his Christian friends ask his prayers. They do this whether they understand the mechanics of it or not. In the Orthodox Church, we have gained a lot of friends over the course of 2000 years who are now in the presence of Jesus. As you start getting to know them, you’ll find some who seem like natural friends. Their whole existence now is prayer, and they are ready to pray for you too.
People may not be asking for Bill’s prayers for a couple of hundred years, much less thousands. The thing that makes people keep going back to the beloved saints of Orthodox history is that they discover “It works!” That these saints are still alive in Christ, they are listening, and their prayers have effect. That will sound strange if you are not used to being in a Christian tradition that still includes the supernatural. Orthodoxy is all about supernatural interaction—though that familiar way of picturing it is exactly backward, its rather that we discover the powerful spiritual world saturates our own ordinary lives, and we gradually learn how to be in the midst of it, wisely choosing to be continually filled further with the presence of Christ.