So runs a common exclamation in Orthodox services of prayer. And so begins another offense for those who wonder why the Orthodox “don’t pray directly to God”…or “why do you pray to the saints”…or, worst of all, how do we dare to say, “Most Holy Theotokos (Birth-giver of God), save us!” For “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1Timothy 2:5)… and “surely only God can save us!”
These are common questions in the modern world – both from Protestants as well as from the general public. Many members of the Orthodox Church ask the same questions – they, too, are products of a culture that has great difficulty with such things. What is the great difficulty? I believe the problem can be found in a misunderstanding of who God is as well as what it means for us to be in union with Him.
To a degree, questions about prayer and saints reminds me of a common question I’ve heard from children (and some concerned adults): “Which member of the Trinity should we pray to?” When I have responded by trying to ascertain what the nature of the problem was, I have discovered that some are concerned that if they talk to Jesus, exclusively, they will offend the Father and the Holy Spirit. But if they talk exclusively to the Father, it feels less intimate than it does when they speak to Jesus. And they have no idea what to say to the Holy Spirit. So, the question becomes, “Should we just talk to all of them, or if I just say, ‘God’ can they figure it out?” And so the conversation goes.
It is perhaps the case that most of my readers will have wondered the same thing at some point in their Christian lives. For many, the Trinity is not so much a theological problem as a matter of spiritual etiquette. But the problem reveals a great deal – Christians may say they believe in the Trinity – but are largely clueless or simply confused about what it means. Is there an etiquette of prayer?
Of course, an etiquette of prayer presumes that we actually know what prayer is. I have always had difficulty in small groups of people. I can speak to thousands without difficulty (with a good sound system). Speaking to thousands is quite similar to speaking to one. But in a group of say, six, I am at a loss. To whom do you speak? Whose face doyou look at when you’re speaking? And on and on the questions go. For a man who was nurtured in the old Southern culture of the US, being “polite” is ranked among the commandments.
Speaking to God is not speaking to a group – for though God is Triune or Trinity, He is One. To speak to God is to speak to God. There is a typical manner in which most formal prayers are written in Orthodoxy – addressed to the Father, closing with a glorification of the three persons of the Trinity. But this only describes the most common form. Prayers are also written that are addressed to Christ and a few are addressed to the Holy Spirit (“O Heavenly King,” comes to mind). I should add that when Orthodox prayers begin with the general address, “O God,” it is speaking to the Father – something that generally becomes clear during the body of the prayer.
But this is etiquette and not the meaning of prayer. Prayer is active communion with God. Plain and simple – it is nothing else. When we pray we are uniting ourselves to God in thought, word and deed. We yield ourselves to Him and unite our will to His will, our life to His life. Because it is communion, and not just a conversation, it is reciprocal: God unites Himself to us. He yields Himself to us. He unites our will to His. He unites His life to our life.
Thus St. Paul says:
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ (Gal 4:6).
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom 8:15-17).
St. Paul’s references to the cry of “Abba, Father,” most likely have in mind the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father,” as it is known in most languages. The prayer in many languages (both Hebrew and Greek) begins with the word “Father” (rather than “Our”). Thus it would be the prayer known as the “Abba.”
But St. Paul’s discursus makes clear the nature of our prayers and their essence. Prayer is active communion with God – it indeed is such active communion that he describes it as the Spirit speaking with the voice of the Son to the Father. Prayer is the life of the Triune God on our lips. This is true whether we are saying, “Abba, Father,” or whether we are saying, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is also true if we are saying, “O God, heal my daughter!” It is still true if we are saying, “O God, why did my child die?” Many such expressions of the heart can be found throughout the Psalms. They are the voice of God in the heart of the Psalmist written to teach us to pray. If the Psalms can say it, so can we!
Prayer is active communion with God regardless of the words we use. Very often people worry themselves about the content of a prayer. They think, “I cannot possibly say that!” Some become superstitious and think that if they say the wrong thing in the wrong way, bad things will happen. These are understandable thoughts, but they are simply the reflection of our own neuroses (some of them taught us by our own religious culture). Prayer is active communion with God and whatever you think, say or don’t say, it is you, yourself that is being united to God. If you think it, believe it, fear it, wish it, whatever, it is you, and you are God’s. God is not offended with us and our prayers.
The content of our hearts is simply an illustration of the content of our lives at any given time. If I am filled with fear, it’s no good pretending that I am not. God isn’t impressed with my ability to pretend things that are not true. Over the decades of my life as a believer, I have said some very terrible things to God. But there have been some very terrible things in my life. Christ God became man and united Himself even to our sins – (“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” 2Co 5:21). Thus Christ has taken on Himself my anger and my cursing, my doubts and my questions, my rebellion and the secret sins of my life that fill me with self-loathing. All of this He has made His own and nailed it to the Cross that I might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Prayer is active communion with God and this is our salvation. We are saved through union with Christ. Every sacrament, or mystery of the Church, has as its purpose our union with God. In Baptism we are united to Christ’s death and resurrection. In marriage a man and a woman are united and become one flesh in Christ for their salvation. In the Holy Eucharist, whosoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has Christ’s eternal life in them. And so it goes. Everything is about communion with God and communion with God is the content of our salvation:
God has made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the economy of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him (Eph 1:9-10).
This communion (gathered together in one) is salvation – again, pure and simple. This is our paradise, our peace, our resurrection, our hope, our triumph over death and hell, the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal life.
So, why do we pray, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers…”?
The most straightforward answer is that “this is what communion sounds like on the lips of the Church.” We can also say that “through the prayers of our holy fathers…” is the content of the word “our,” in the “Our Father.” For those who wonder why we invoke the saints when we pray, we do so because we were not taught to pray as individuals (except in the admonition to pray in secret). But the content of our prayer, in the words of Christ, always include others. Our Father…our daily bread…our debts. I have known of some who objected to the Lord’s prayer because we ask God to forgive our debts, arguing that they have no idea what others might have done or whether they are sorry, etc. Such thoughts betray a misunderstanding of God and of the nature of our salvation.
“No one is saved alone…” the fathers have said…”but if we fall, we fall alone.” Whoever would ask God to forgive his own private sins, but not intercede for others’ forgiveness, will find that he remains unforgiven – not from his own sins – but unforgiven for the sins of others. Because the nature of communion as salvation – is that we cannot be saved alone. Salvation is communion, and communion requires the other. God is Other, but so is everyone and everything. To seek to unite myself to God apart from all of creation is to wish the destruction of everyone and everything.
Part of the language of communion that the Church has developed over the centuries (and quite early I might add), is the language that is described as “prayer to the saints.” There are many ways to do this wrongly (just as there are many ways to pray to God wrongly). Just as God is not rightly conceived as a “supreme personal being” (this is a caricature of the One God), so it is not right to conceive of our prayers to the saints as getting powerful friends to intercede on our behalf because God likes them more than he does me. I was the younger of two sons for most of my childhood. My older brother would urge me, “You go ask Dad! He’ll listen to you.” My father was indeed a tender-hearted man and was very generous to my young intercessions. But God is nothing like this, nor do such examples have anything to do with prayer.
In a culture that has become deeply individualistic, the view of what it is to be human is profoundly flawed. Our relationships to others have been reduced to moral obligations (etiquette) and contracts. St. Paul’s teaching that in the Church “if one member suffers, all the members suffer…or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice…” (1Co 12:26), is absurd in a world of individuals. There is no communion of individuals and can be none (it is contrary to the notion of the individual). This same culture thinks of God as individual (a Supremely powerful being). If it is incorrect to say this of human beings, it is heresy to say it of God. God is a communion of Persons – One God – Three Persons.
“Prayer to the saints” is, of course, misunderstood by some. Prayer to God is misunderstood by most. Learning that prayer is active communion with God is a great step forward for everyone. To say, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us,” is to embrace the communion that is our life. It is the voice of creation being united in the One God who draws all to Himself.