Those unfamiliar with the Eastern Orthodox Church may falsely assume that we pray to Saints in the same way one prays to God. They also tend to assume that our veneration of the Saints is idolatry. These assumptions usually stem from a misunderstanding about the difference between prayer to God and intercessory prayer, along with a misunderstanding about the Church here on earth and the Church in heaven. In this article, we will correct these misconceptions. We will also explain why the Orthodox pray to Saints and what role it plays in our spiritual lives.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
What is a Saint?
The Eastern Orthodox Church gives the title of “saint” (lowercase s) to anyone who has lived and died in Christ throughout history. While certain Saints (capital s) are officially canonized and commemorated by the Church, every baptized faithful Orthodox Christian is considered a saint, as a member of the royal priesthood that Christ established with the creation of His Church. Those Saints who received canonization stand out as excellent models for those of us who strive to live the life of Christ. A few well-known examples of canonized Saints are the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the writers of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and Saint Basil.
Saints are “those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14) through whom God is “bearing witness, both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will” (Hebrews 2:4). They died as martyrs, making a fearless confession of faith (often with the threat of death) and demonstrating self-sacrificing service to God. Our God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living (Mark 12:27). This means we all remain fully alive in Christ even after we have fallen asleep. Thus, the Saints continue to live with Him in Paradise beside His Throne and pursue communion with Him.
Because Saints are friends of God, our brothers and sisters in the Faith, we ask them to pray to God for us and for forgiveness of our sins (John 15:14-15).
Prayer to God vs. Intercessory prayer to Saints
It’s important to remember that while prayer can be a part of worship – when we pray to God, for example – prayer and worship themselves are not the same. To most Christians, prayer tends to mean speaking to God and/or asking Him for something. This is why many in the West often insist that praying literally is worshiping, because this definition implies that we reserve personal prayer for God alone. However, that does not make it worship.
Often forgotten is the fact that the word pray can also be used as an adverb, a preface before a polite request or instruction (ex: pray pour me a glass of wine). This definition does not imply a specific recipient of the request. Therefore, a Christian could pray to – or ask a request of – anyone, for anything, so long as they do not worship (i.e. devote their entire being to) anyone other than God.
When an Orthodox Christian “prays to” a Saint, what we are really doing is asking that Saint to pray for us, to intercede before God for forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation. This is what the Church calls intercessory prayer. We are not devoting our lives to their service, for such worship and devotion belongs to God alone. Instead, we merely ask the Saint to pray for us, just as we would any other human being. The Scriptures themselves actively exhort us to do this for one another.
The power of intercessory prayer
Jesus Christ, in His resurrected glory, always prays to His Father on behalf of all mankind. As Scripture tells us, “He holds His priesthood permanently because He continues forever. Consequently He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25).
In and through Christ, we can intercede before God for one another. He empowers us (and commands us) to pray for each other and for all creation (1 Timothy 2:1-4; James 5:16-18). When we intercede for someone, we can ask God for any and every kind of blessing. Inspiration. Instruction. Visitation. Healing. Release from temptation. Forgiveness of sins. Salvation. Whatever we usually ask for ourselves, we can – and should – ask for all men, even our enemies.
To understand the power of intercessory prayer, we must remember God knows all things eternally. He exists outside of time. For God, there is no before and after. He knows what we ask before we even ask it. Thus He hears all of our prayers, even for (or to) those who are dead, before we even make them. There is great power in prayer, and even greater power in making that prayer tangible.
Mediator vs. Intercessor
A common objection to the Orthodox practice of asking intercession of the Saints is the assertion that Christ is the only Mediator. Yes, this is true. Christ is the One who affected salvation for us. That is what “Mediator” means. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ established a pathway to communion with God that before did not exist. That is why He is the Mediator.
Saints are not Mediators; they are merely intercessors, praying for us just as we on earth all pray for one another. It is not, as many might put it, “going around God,” given that interceding for one another is something He specifically asks us to do.
Why do Orthodox Christians pray to Saints?
Many Protestants wonder why Orthodox Christians pray to saints when we could go straight to God. The answer is quite simple. Because we know they will intercede for us before the throne of God (2 Cor. 5:20; Phil. 1:19; James 5:16; Job 42:8; Gen. 20:7; Exodus 32:11-14). We ask the Saints to pray for us because they dedicated themselves to Him – and sometimes gave their very lives. They serve as beautiful examples of how we, too, should fulfill our baptism through service to Christ and His Church.
Because of their righteousness, their prayers have great power with God. We know that God’s hears our prayers; how much more so would He hear the prayers of His Holy Ones! It would be foolish of us to cast the Saints and their loving prayers aside.
But praying to Saints is heretical…isn’t it?
Many Protestants claim that prayer to the Saints, particularly to the Virgin Mary, is heresy. However, there is no outcry about prayer to the Saints being heretical at any time in the history of the early Church. Because such a practice was part of Holy Tradition, long-established and a normative part of the spiritual lives of the early Christians. In fact, as early as AD 107-116, after the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch, we find mention in writing of Christians who witnessed the Saint praying for them in a vision. And the oldest surviving prayer to the Theotokos, “Beneath Thy Protection”, dates back to AD 250.
In addition to the historical evidence, the Bible itself provides ample proof for the practice of intercessory prayer of the Saints. On the basis of the intercession by Christ, who is present at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), by extension other people who have died but are alive in Christ can intercede on behalf of the petitioner (John 11:21-25; Romans 8:38–39). Further, Revelation 8:4 mentions the prayers of the Saints ascending before God, and Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31 indicates that those who are “dead” can pray for the living. We also see this in 2 Maccabees 15:14–17 and in the Book of Enoch; while these books are considered apocryphal to many Protestants, this at the very least roots this practice in Jewish custom, which was carried over into the early Christian Church.
To deny that the Saints in heaven are able to interact with us is equivalent to denying the power of Christ’s Resurrection. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. If the Saints cannot hear us because they are “dead”, this denies that Christ gives them the power to live. Paradise/heaven is not walled off from us; it is interactive and dynamic, and there are ways for us still here on earth to engage with the heavenly. Denying this means rejecting the salvific work of Christ on the Cross and His victory over death.
But you bow to and kiss their icons. Isn’t that idolatry?
According to English language definitions, worship and veneration are often considered synonymous with each other. However, in Greek, the original language of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the two are quite distinct. Veneration (Gr. doulia) means showing great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Most often, we show that honor by kissing the icon of the Saint or briefly bowing before it. While in the West, Protestants might conflate kissing an image or bowing with worship, this association never existed in the Eastern Church. Kissing an image merely conveys love toward the one in the image. Likewise, in many cultures, a bow is merely a respectful way to greet another person.
Veneration, a way of showing delight for what God has done, is different from worship (Gr. latreia), the total giving over of the self to be united with God. In fact, we venerate one another every day, honoring each other as brothers and sisters created in the image of God.
In An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus writes:
[…] to the saints honor must be paid as friends of Christ, as sons and heirs of God […] And further, if the Creator and Lord of all things is called also King of kings and Lord of lords and God of gods (Rev. 19:16; Ps 50:1), surely also the saints are gods and lords and kings […] Now I mean gods and kings and lords not in nature, but as rulers and masters of their passions, and as preserving a truthful likeness to the divine image according to which they were made (for the image of a king is also called king), and as being united to God of their own free-will and receiving Him as an indweller and becoming by grace through participation with Him what He is Himself by nature.4.15
Praying to Saints is normal!
We know only God can forgive sins; but we still ask others to pray for us for any number of reasons. “Please pray for me; I have a job interview this week!” “Please pray for my mother’s quick recovery from surgery.” When an Orthodox Christian prays to a Saint, the same sort of interchange takes place. We merely ask him/her to pray for us, and we ask him/her to ask God to help us with whatever struggles we might encounter.
The Saints pray unceasingly in the presence of God for those of us still awake. And they serve as a shining example for all of us who one day hope to be saints in our own right. Why wouldn’t you want them praying for you?
Read More: How to Choose Your Patron Saint