Prayer to the Saints

I got an email from someone asked me why we Orthodox “pray” to the saints. This is a question I hear a lot, and from a Protestant point of view it’s a reasonable one. Here’s my reply:

I think your hesitation is the single biggest concern that Protestants have about Orthodoxy, 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 when I read this line in your email I went Oh! because there’s a simple answer for that one. You wrote:

<<My conception is that talking to a spirit, rather than an 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 word in English, and it means to ask a favor. So you might say to someone at dinner, “I pray thee, pass me the spinach.” Or you could say to a friend, “I pray thee, pray for me.”

That’s the difference between “pray” and “worship.” Worship is offered only to God, but we may “pray” (ask a favor from) a friend. We might make that request in different ways—asking them when we see them, or sending them an email, or calling them on the phone. Those would all be ways of “praying” your friend to pray for you, if we were still using the term in the old way.

Now let’s look at how things were before Christ’s Resurrection. Imagine God at the center of a half-circle, with a brick wall behind him. All of the living faithful are spread out before him in that half-circle sweep, all facing him and worshiping him. But there’s a brick wall behind him, and behind it are the dead from all ages, languishing in the realm of Death.

We know that the dead were not insensible or sleeping because of several incidents in the Bible. When King Saul sought the advice of the prophet Samuel and had a medium call him up, Samuel was awake and aware and mightily annoyed. When Jesus told the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, both Lazarus and Abraham were awake in Paradise and the rich man was all too conscious of his suffering in Hades. At Christ’s Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with him, alive and conversational in his presence. So the Bible tells us that the dead are 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.

When Christ rose from the dead, he shattered the brick wall. All of the righteous, the lovers of God, were now able to be in the light, in God’s presence, in Paradise. The evil remained in Sheol, also called Hades, a realm of darkness and pain. By his Resurrection, Christ defeated the evil one, broke the bars of Death, and set the righteous free. And all the 2000 years since then, the righteous die and go into that company of believers, worshiping before the throne of God.

Since that brick wall was knocked down, there’s now just a thin separation between the living and the righteous departed, like a gauze curtain. We are strictly forbidden to try to interact with someone on the other side, to try to see them or draw them into conversation. All we can do is send them a request. The request is always the same: we “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 the departed, we’re just asking for their prayers. But you could still ask, Why do 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; if we prayed only to God, that must be enough. In fact, 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 to God for them. That’s something that spontaneously happens among believers, in intercessory prayer. You wouldn’t say to yourself, “Don’t pray for him, he’s praying for himself.” You want to pray for others.

I think that’s a second 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 somehow his love also impels us to reach out in love to others. We may not be very good at it, but it’s an impulse that comes very naturally. And it moves others to love us too.

That must be God’s love coming to us, and then going through us and seeking out others to love. It’s like we are all meant to be linked together in a network 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…” 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 know they will pray. We don’t expect a response; it’s enough just to send the word. And of course we keep praying directly 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, when you can see in practice what “praying” to the saints means. You see them doing it, and you can see the respect, but not worship, they give to the saints. You see that their relationship with God is of a completely different character than their relationship to the saints. The saints are their listening friends on the other side of the gauze curtain. Once you see how they handle prayer to the saints, these worries are resolved. If you just watch how Orthodox do it for a while, 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 what she does most–she prays to her son for us.


About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


  1. I appreciate your articles and look forward to reading them. I have tried to find the article titled “When Reality No Longer Gets In” but cannot find a working link.

  2. We need to look at the word “pray.” It is an old word in English, and it means to ask a favor. So you might say to someone at dinner, “I pray thee, pass me the spinach.” Or you could say to a friend, “I pray thee, pray for me.”

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