I sat on the front pew of the small Orthodox church, a converted Baptist structure with a tall angled roof, a steeple and no dome, gazing at the icon of Jesus above the altar and thinking about the icons of the saints surrounding me. I was contemplating the intercession of the saints, trying to reconcile a lifetime of religious experience with the unchanging teaching of the Church.
Were the saints really, truly surrounding me? Surrounding us?
I knew they were alive in Christ, in His presence. And of course I had read Hebrews 12:1, which says that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” But it’s one thing to acknowledge life after death and God’s people in heaven . . . out there, somewhere. But it’s quite a logical leap—at least, it seemed so to me—to talk to them, as if they can hear us and are somehow involved in this world.
Part of me wanted this idea to be true, but part of me was very suspicious of some sentimental, superstitious idea of talking to invisible people. There are people living on earth right now who have invisible friends, and those people need to be medicated.
But . . . the saints are alive. I accepted the theory. The reality of that theory and how it applies to my life—to the life of the Church—seemed a different thing entirely. I felt a real disconnect between what I believed and what I experienced in everyday life.
I know I’m not alone in this struggle. So we’re going to take some extra time looking at this particular stumbling stone on the Orthodox road. Because it’s a subject that’s deep and wide, we will take two episodes, and even then, we’ll be skimming the surface. Think of this two-parter as an introduction for the time-crunched, and I’ll provide recommendations for further reading and listening.
In part 1, we’ll look at the objections to asking the saints for their prayers, the scriptures that reveal their awareness and involvement on earth, two categories of heavenly intercessors, and the concept of One Church.
In part 2, we’ll look at the early Church’s beliefs, how Jesus’ Resurrection broke the barrier between heaven and earth, and some practical questions. And maybe some cool and inspiring stories, too. I haven’t finished putting it together yet.
If you’re from a Protestant background, I hope my words will help you climb over that boulder in your path. Because the idea of praying to the saints, or, more accurately, of asking them to pray to God for us and along with us, is probably a major stumbling stone on your Orthodox journey. If you were born Orthodox or Catholic, the living reality of the saints has always been a part of your life, and, frankly, I’m a little bit jealous. But even with such a heritage, you live among, work with, and love both Protestant and non-religious people. And all Christians, regardless of background, are swimming upstream against a rationalistic, relentlessly secular society. So it’s good to think through these things together.
One quick note for my fellow pilgrims: In this episode I’ll be talking a lot about Protestant beliefs, but I’m not trying to pick on anybody. I loved Jesus when I was a Protestant, and my many Protestant friends—Evangelical, charismatic, Anglican, nondenominational, Lutheran, etc., etc.—love Him and are serious about following Him too. The reason I’ll keep using the P-word is that among the various Christian groups, Protestants are the only ones who draw a hard line between believers in this life and the next. Also, America’s cultural heritage is Protestant, and that’s the fishbowl in which most of us are swimming. It’s certainly the stream where I began.
A Two-Storey Universe
I grew up in Tulsa, which at the time was a largely Baptist religious culture with a lot of Pentecostalism mixed in. In all my years of church life, as a child, a teenager, and later as an adult living in other states, the saints were simply not acknowledged or mentioned, except possibly as sermon illustrations. And even then, the examples held up to the folks in the pews for emulation were either Old Testament figures, with their biblical stamp of approval; the New Testament disciples, who carried the title of Apostle, not Saint; or people who lived after the Reformation. The twentieth-century German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi prison, was a favorite. He was Lutheran and thus mostly safe.
You’d better believe that these exemplary figures weren’t Catholic, although I’ve known several die-hard Protestants with a secret affection for Saint Francis of Assisi.
The “choir of the saints,” which included small-s saints—all believers who have passed on ahead of us—and the capital-S saints, who definitely were not given special titles in my circles, were on a different plane, maybe, but certainly not among us. The world as I knew it was a saint-free space.
Father Stephen Freeman, who writes the thought-provoking Ancient Faith blog Glory to God for All Things, is a Southerner who grew up in a religious culture similar to mine. In his wonderful book Everywhere Present, he describes its worldview as a “two-storey universe.” He writes,
We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the storey in which we live (p7).
Even for us Protestant Christians who believed that God is with us, and the Holy Spirit lives within us, still, if something happened outside that natural law, we called it a miracle. The question of how often those miracles occur is answered within your own tradition: some of the more liberal, mainline denominations explain away every account of divine activity in the Bible and don’t truck with any miraculous mumbo-jumbo in our day, including saintly intervention.
But Tulsa was the buckle of the Bible belt, home of faith healers, Oral Roberts University, Rhema Bible Institute, and the prosperity gospel. In these circles, God intervenes in daily life and heals illness through the prayers of those with a gift of healing, so in that sense the belief system was in some ways a one-storey universe. But there was absolutely no possibility that God would heal through the prayers of those who were already dead. Actually, I don’t recall any pastors, teachers, or charismatic friends saying that those who are dead in the flesh yet alive in Christ couldn’t heal or pray or be involved somehow. Those who had passed away before us were simply disregarded. They weren’t mentioned; therefore, they weren’t relevant.
More importantly, the idea of dead folks intervening in the world was to us a product of spiritism or Catholicism, and both were evil. We didn’t mess with that stuff.
Father Stephen expresses this attitude well:
There was an unspoken distance between the living and the dead, and nothing was to disturb it. No one seemed to notice that God Himself was separated from us by the same distance. For if the dead are with Jesus and are now at an unspoken distance, how far away must Jesus be?
This is the modern Western world, born of the Protestant Reformation and shaped by modernity; rational yet longing for mystery and transcendence; vaguely spiritual but increasingly hostile to genuine religious belief. (p. 6)
I can say with certainty that as Protestants we weren’t aware of or interested in the consistent witness of two thousand years of Christian history, with countless stories of the saints appearing to people, bringing with them words of encouragement and prophecy and, yes, gifts of healing. We simply weren’t exposed to these things.
And so I struggled as I entered Orthodoxy. For several years. I was captivated by the unchanging beauty of the theology, the emphasis on repentance and humility within a reverence for God’s love and grace, but . . . I’ve got baggage, folks. Maybe you do too.
In order to orient myself to a concept of life, death, and spiritual reality that was ancient yet new and foreign to me, I needed to begin at a good Evangelical starting place: the Bible.
Scriptures Used as Warnings
First, before we get into biblical examples of heavenly intercessors, let’s clear the air by examining the Scripture verses that are often used as an argument against asking the saints to pray for us.
The one I’ve heard used most frequently is probably one that you know too: 1 Timothy 2:5, which states, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.”
I’ve always been confused as to why people trot out this verse as some sort of proof text. Of course Jesus is the capital-M Mediator; no Christian of any stripe would argue against this.
And every Christian who quotes this text also gives prayer requests to their brothers and sisters in Christ. The same people who in one breath say that Jesus is our sole mediator will in the next breath ask me or their Bible study group or their prayer chain to pray for personal needs. In short, they ask others to mediate—to intervene—for them before God.
So, that verse really doesn’t contribute much to the discussion.
Warning against Occult Practices
“Ah,” some might respond, “but read Deuteronomy 18:10-11, which warns us not to associate with ‘a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.’” This is an important caution against occult practices. But when we ask the saints to pray for us, we are not calling up the dead to do our bidding; we are calling on those who are alive in Christ, who are our brothers and sisters, to pray for us.
In his blog The Morning Offering, Abbot Tryphon writes,
We ask the friends of God to pray for us all the time, when we ask for the prayers of our friends and fellow believers. Asking those who’ve gone on before us is possible because they are alive in Christ, and offer their prayers to Christ just as do we. We all, both those in heaven and those still upon this earth, pray before the same “sole mediator between God and man,” Jesus Christ. It is Christ through whom we approach the Throne of the Father. (“The Intercession of the Saints,” October 24, 2019)
The “Great Gulf” between the Rich Man and Lazarus
However, Protestants who agree that the dead in Christ are alive in Him will point to Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to prove that we are still separated from them. In the story, found in Luke 16:19-31, a rich man lives a sumptuous life and after death is in torment in hades. The poor beggar at his gate, Lazarus, dies and is carried by angels to “Abraham’s bosom,” or heaven. The rich man begs Abraham to warn his five living brothers of their need to repent. Abraham basically tells the rich man that it’s too late, and he adds, “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us” (v. 26).
Many Protestants, including a dear friend of mine, point to this gulf as proof of a chasm between life on earth and eternity—that we live in that two-storey universe. It’s an odd use of Scripture, because it is Abraham, a dead man, who points out that this chasm is between the rich man in hades and those in heaven—a rift between two groups of the dead. The text is clear that the great gulf is in eternity, not between heaven and earth.
However, I’m not a biblical scholar, so I will get back in my lane and simply quote from the footnotes to this parable in the OSB:
The “great gulf” is not a geographical divide, but the complete separation between virtue and wickedness, a separation that cannot be overcome after death. . . . We learn that souls of the departed have awareness of and concern for the state of those still alive on earth . . . , but also that the intercessions of a wicked man are heard, but avail nothing (contrast Jam 5:16).
I should also point out that the idea of a gulf between the living and the dead in Christ is contradicted by St. Paul’s words in the Book of Hebrews, which I mentioned earlier. After recounting the faith of the heroes of the Old Covenant in chapter 11, which is sometimes called “The Hall of Faith” or “The Faith Hall of Fame,” he begins chapter 12 with, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” This “cloud of witnesses” clearly includes the saints he listed in the previous chapter.
Who Are the Proper Intercessors?
We can see from these Scripture passages, and from friendly or not-so-friendly debates we’ve had with the people in our lives, that the problem isn’t really with others praying for us. The theological problem is with asking those who have fallen asleep in the Lord to pray for us. It is very important to note that only in the past 500 years has the idea of turning to the saints for prayer been viewed as a problem, and even then, only in parts of the West.
Yet the Bible shows that there are two categories of heavenly beings who pray for us.
Angels as Intercessors
The Scriptures teach us that both the angels and the saints who have gone before us intercede for fellow believers on earth.
In the Old Testament, the psalmist actually instructs the heavenly host to pray to God:
Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, you His angels, Who excel in strength, who do His word, / heeding the voice of His word. / Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, / You ministers of His, who do His pleasure.” (Psalm 103:20-21)
And Psalm 148: “Praise Him, all his angels; / praise Him, all his hosts!” (Psalm 148:2)
In the New Testament, St. John in his Revelation recounts his vision of the angels before God:
Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. (Rev. 8:3-4)
It’s easy to see the beautiful link between this passage and the use of incense in the Church, with the plumes of smoke from the censer representing our prayers rising before God. I had read this passage numerous times over the years, but somehow the intercessory angle had escaped me. Let me read verse 4 again: “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” While reading this, I never once asked myself, “Why is an angel offering the prayers of God’s people?”
I had a hazy understanding of guardian angels; I knew that Gabriel in particular brought messages from God to His people. But I never thought of their work going in the other direction: angels also bring our prayers to God. God already hears our prayers, so the angels’ intercession perhaps isn’t strictly necessary, just as a good friend’s intercession for me is not strictly necessary. Yet God allows us, and the angels, the privilege of bringing the prayers of others before Him.
Saints as Intercessors
And that privilege does not cease with the grave. In the Book of Revelation, human beings are the other category of heavenly intercessors; they are called “the elders” before the throne of God. The Orthodox Study Bible notes, “The twenty-four elders are usually interpreted to be elders of the old and new covenants: the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelve apostles, the fullness of both covenants.” Saint John writes of them, “Now when He [Jesus] had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).
In the following chapter, the souls of the martyrs cry out for their persecuted brethren while watching death and destruction on earth: “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Rev. 6:10).
These are powerful examples of the intercession of the saints, but I recall these passages used in my Protestant past in the context of discussions about the End Times. The emphasis was on the opening of the scrolls and on the judgment of God at the end of the world. Never, in a Bible study or a sermon, did I hear anyone say, “Wait a minute. These passages show that the dead, who are alive in Christ, are bringing our prayers before God.” I know now that I didn’t see what was right in front of me on the page because I was looking at the Scriptures through a specific lens. That lens had a filter that blocked the colors of the saints from my vision. Once again, mine was a saint-free world.
Let’s look at some other passages.
Other Biblical Examples of the Active Participation of the Saints
Worship in the Book of Hebrews
While we’re thinking about saints and angels, let’s consider the living reality of Christ and His Church—the Kingdom of heaven. St. Paul writes to the church in the Book of Hebrews,
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect. (Heb. 12:22-23)
Okay, that’s a long list. The “spirits of just men made perfect” refers to the saints in heaven. This understanding of us entering into heavenly worship with the “innumerable company of angels” and with the saints is made explicit in an Orthodox temple: we are surrounded by icons of saints and angels not because we like pretty artwork but because these icons are windows into heavenly reality. The saints and angels are actually present with us in the Liturgy.
The Saints in the Gospels
Let’s look at two passages in the Book of Matthew. After recounting the horrific Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod put to death all male children under the age of two in an attempt to kill the Jewish King who had been born, St. Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more. (2:18)
This is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:15 (38:15 in the Septuagint). Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, more than 600 years before Jesus was born. He describes Rachel in the present tense as “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted.” But Rachel was the second wife of Jacob, who lived about a thousand years before Jeremiah’s prophecy and thus almost two millenia before the birth of Jesus. The use of the prophecy, both in Jeremiah and later in Matthew, affirms Rachel’s knowledge of events on earth long after her time.
Another passage from Matthew puzzled me for a long time. When the Sadducees were trying to debate with Jesus about eternity, He said, “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:31–32).
Jesus lists three dead men to show that God is the God of the living. As I was trying to understand the role of the saints in our lives, this verse kept coming back to me. Jesus knows His sheep, and they are all alive in Him. We’ll circle back to this in a moment.
The Gospel of Matthew also tells us,
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. (Matt. 17:1-3)
Moses and Elijah had both died and been buried many centuries before Christ, but Peter, James, and John witness them talking with Jesus, aware of and actively involved with His life on earth. Where is that “great gulf” between the living and the dead?
What Does Jesus See?
Let’s return to that pew in the small Orthodox parish. As I sat there, trying to bridge my own inner gulf between living my two-storey life and embracing the communion of the saints through the ages—I thought about the things I had been taught, and not taught. I thought about the saints who had entered eternity before me—both the recognized, capital-S saints and the millions of unknown, small-s saints. I had always sensed a thick, black line between us and them—a slash of black crayon between here and there.
Who drew that line? I was pretty sure at that point that God didn’t draw it.
As I gazed at the saints populating the icon screen, I thought of one particular small-s saint, a woman near the top of my list of people I hope to meet in heaven. I call it my Black Currant Tea List. I’m not exactly sure how the whole food situation will work in eternity, but I like to think, in my more whimsical moments, that we’ll enjoy tea together.
I imagined holding a steaming porcelain cup of black currant tea while across from me sits an elderly Dutchwoman named Corrie Ten Boom, who died in 1983. Her book The Hiding Place, one of my all-time favorites, tells the story of her remarkable family in Holland and their work as part of an underground network that smuggled Jewish people to safety during World War II, as well as her stay in Ravensbruck concentration camp. I reread The Hiding Place about every five years, and each time I learn something new about God, faithfulness, suffering, and forgiveness.
I thought of Corrie, my small-s saint, and tried to imagine the two of us from Jesus’ perspective, knowing that might be a bit . . . I don’t know, presumptuous? Irreverent? Specifically, I wondered about the differences He would see between us. She was, of course, far godlier and more selfless than I will ever be. But we are both His sheep. I am still clothed in flesh; she is not. And we are one in Christ.
As I considered Corrie and other believers who have died, that thick, black line between us began to crack. I didn’t have much understanding at the time, but I was beginning to sense an important truth: the Church is one. There are not two churches, one comprised of those who have “graduated,” so to speak, and the rest of us toiling here on earth. We are one.
As Abbot Tryphon wrote several years ago in his blog,
The historic Church has always venerated the saints because the Church is undivided. The Church Triumphant (in heaven) and the Church Militant (on earth) is one, undivided. When the Church is at worship the cloud of witnesses (those who’ve won the battle and are in heaven with God) are united in this worship before the Throne of God with those on earth. When we enter into the communal worship of the Church here on earth, we are mystically united with the saints in heaven. Death does not separate us from those who’ve gone on before us, for in Christ, there is no death. (“The Role of Saints in our Christian Lives,” The Morning Offering, July 4, 2013)
One Church. The choir of the saints. A cloud of witnesses. It was a lot to think about, and still is.
So I’ll stop here. I’ve gone well beyond my usual length for a blog post. Next time we’ll connect a few dots: how the intercession of the saints is one of the radical consequences of the Resurrection, because Jesus broke down the barrier between heaven and earth. We’ll consider the idea of one undivided Church more deeply, what some of the early Church Fathers had to say about the saints, what veneration means—No, it is not worship—and the practical question, “Why bother to ask the saints to pray for us instead of just relying on our priest and parish friends?”
I hope you can join me.