I think your hesitation is the single biggest thing that holds Protestants back. It is the biggest objection I hear. So of course I don’t take offense, and I recognize how deep and principled your objection is. (The great Orthodox evangelist Fr Peter Gillquist used to say the three biggest roadblocks for Protestants were Mary, Mary, and Mary.)
But this line, below; when I read it I went Oh! because there’s a simple answer for that (though without resolving your further concerns.)
<<My conception of talking to a spirit, and not another embodied human being, IS prayer. So even asking a saint to pray for me, feels like praying to THEM.>>
We need to look at the word “pray.” It is an old English word that means to ask a favor. So you would say to someone at dinner, “I pray thee, pass me the broccoli”. Or to a friend, “I pray thee, pray for me.” That is the difference between “pray” and “Worship.” Worship is offered only to God, but we may “pray” (ask a favor from) a friend. We might do that when we see them, or send them and email, or call on the phone. Those would all be ways of “praying to” your friend, if we were still using old English language.
About the role of the saints in prayer–to take an OT View, imagine God in the center of a circle, and all of the then-living faithful spread out before him in a half-circle, all facing him and worshiping him. There’s a brick wall at the half-way point on each side, and behind it are the dead from all ages, languishing in the realm of Death.
Now we know that they are not insensible or sleeping, because of Samuel arising when Saul sought him. And Jesus described Lazarus with Abraham in Paradise and the rich man in Hades. At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah spoke with him. So they’re not sleeping or “dead to the world,” but alive and aware in the next life—even though, before the Resurrection, that was still a land of shadows (and for the evil, torment).
When Christ rose from the dead, he shattered that brick wall. All of the righteous, the lovers of God, were now able to be in the light, in God’s presence (Paradise). (The evil remaining in Hades, a realm of darkness and cold). Christ has defeated the evil one, broken the bars of Death, and set the righteous free.
All the 2000 years since then, the righteous die and go into that company of believers of all ages. There they await the Final Judgement, when all will be made right and all believers will be united.
Because the wall has been knocked down, there’s now just a thin separation, like a gauze curtain. Christians are strictly forbidden to try to make contact with someone on the other side, to try to see them or draw them into conversation, or anything like that. Sometimes people from that side take the initiative and communicate with someone here; they’re allowed to do that. But we can’t. All we can do is send a request; we can “pray” them to pray to God for us. We drop a postcard in a mailbox and that’s it. No poking around behind the curtain.
I think you see that we are not worshiping them, we’re just asking for their prayers. But you can still ask, Why would we need to do that? Why don’t we just take all our prayers directly to Jesus?
But we *don’t* take our prayers only to Jesus. We ask other people to pray for us. We can’t resist asking others to pray for us. If you try to think it through, you quickly see that it can’t be that we *need* them to pray for us; praying only to God must be enough. Sometimes God acts even when no one prays. But there is something inside that urges us to ask for others’ prayers. It makes us want to pray for them too! When you hear of a friend’s need, your heart cries out. There’s something that happens among believers, in intercessory prayer. You couldn’t say to yourself, “Don’t pray for him, he’s praying for himself and that’s all that should be done.” You want to pray for others.
I think that’s a secondary level of mystery about prayer, why we feel that inner urging to seek others’ prayers. It must have to do with love. It is wonderful to know that God loves us, but that somehow impels us to reach out in love to others. We may not be very good at it, but it’s an impulse that is so natural. It makes them want to love us too.
It can only be God’s love coming to us and then through us and seeking out others to love. Like we are all meant to be linked together in a net-work of love, with so many knots tying us to each other and them to us, and onward and outward forever. In the next life, it truly will be forever.
In Hebrews 12:1, after St Paul has cited a long list of pre-eminent Old Testament leaders, he says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” and exhorts his hearers to fight steadfastly against sin. That “great cloud of witnesses” is the community of the saved on the other side of the gauze curtain. They are awake and aware, and also constantly in God’s presence, constantly in prayer. So we can drop them an email, and not expect a response. It’s enough to send the word. Of course we keep praying to God as well. It doesn’t take anything away from God when we ask our friends – on earth or in Paradise—to pray for us.
This is one of the things that makes more sense as time goes by and you get used to being around Orthodox people. You see what they mean by “praying” to the saints. You see them doing it, and exactly how much and no-more respect they give to the saints. You see that their attitude to God is of a completely different character than their relationship to the saints. Once you see what they mean by it, how they do it, the concerns are allayed. If you just watch how Orthodox do it for awhile, I hope it will make more sense.
Here is a detail of Botticini’s altarpiece “Dormition of the Virgin.” I like it because it shows Mary doing what she does best, and most–she prays to her son for us.