We are told in the book of Hebrews that our struggle here is “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” the saints who have gone before us. This Divine reality is probably not what many modern Christians would expect.
I recall the question being put to me some years ago, by a young widow (not Orthodox). I was serving as a Hospice Chaplain. When her young husband died, her question was, “Will he be aware of me when he goes to heaven?”
To a degree, her question and her anxiety were driven by a two-storey vision of the universe. Her departed husband was going to live “up there.” Would he know what is happening in my life “down here?”
The perceived gap (a theological construction) places her husband somewhere that potentially is unaware of our life. The Scriptures, however, teach us something quite different. The “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) is, in fact, the great company of heaven – the departed who are in the “hands of God.” Their concerns are not separated from us, for they are not separated from the Body of Christ.
If you read the Revelation of St. John, it becomes clear that the primary concern of the inhabitants of heaven, within the great saint’s vision, is with the battle here on earth. There is a battle here and there is a war there. The “place of verdure, a place of rest, etc.” found in the Church’s prayers (particularly for the departed) are, in holy Scriptures, a place with a great deal of turmoil. I suspect that the place described in our prayers for the departed are “eschatological” visions of what will be when the battle is over and the strife is past.
But it is quite clear that Scripture has no notion of a two-storey world in which part of us are struggling for the salvation of our souls, while the rest can wipe their brows and say, “I’m glad that’s over.”
The Body of Christ is one Body. There is only One Church – not divided by those who have fallen asleep in Christ and those of us who remain behind. Whether we are here or in the hand of God, the struggle is the struggle of the whole Church. My success or failure in my spiritual life is not my private business, but the concern of a great cloud of witnesses. Neither are they watching only as interested bystanders. Like all witnesses they urge us on and support us with their prayers. Were they to watch us without participating at the same time in our struggles – the watching would be like torture. As it is, their watching is prayer and participation of the deepest sort.
It is for this reason (among many) that many Orthodox services contain the phrase, “Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers have mercy on us and save us.” It is a humility of sorts, demurring to the prayers of greater Christians – but it is also calling on a reality that abides. We are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses stands with me and in me in prayer.
Every prayer we ourselves offer is itself always a participation in the life of the world. We have a participation in the great cloud of witnesses – but we also have a participation in everyone who is. The prayer of a righteous few has an amazing salvific impact on the life of the world. But a few more men and Sodom and Gomorrah would still be standing. To this day we do not know how many or how few in their righteous prayers preserve us before God.
I can recall a conversation with one of my brothers some years back. He wondered about the hermits in the desert. He had an admiration for the asceticism of their lifestyle. His question however was, “But what is the value when no one knows they are there.” The truth is that God knows they are there. The devil knows they are there and he trembles. And we all know they are there whether it is a conscious knowing or not. For their prayers permeate us and our prayers and join with them as they rise before God.
Before God and the witness of heaven there are no secret places. Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us.