Many who look into Orthodoxy find so many things they appreciate. The beautiful architecture, the lovely music, the feeling of timelessness and presence of Tradition. All of it mesmerizes them. But one deal breaker for many interested in the Orthodox Church is our praying to saints. In this post, we explain the meaning of this practice and what role it plays in our salvation.
What it means to “pray”
First, we should clarify what it means to “pray”. Most non-Orthodox Christians have an entirely different understanding of what prayer is. And it is this misunderstanding that (most of the time) leads them to believe we are idolaters and necromancers.
To most Christians, prayer means speaking to God and/or asking Him for something. This definition naturally implies that we reserve prayer for God alone. It’s no surprise, then, why those unfamiliar with the teachings of the Orthodox Faith reject praying to the saints. In Orthodoxy, though, 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 anyone, for anything, so long as they do not worship (i.e. devote their entire being to) anyone other than God.
What is a “Saint”?
The Orthodox Church gives the title of “Saint” to anyone who has lived and died in Christ throughout history. Saints are “the general assembly and Church of the first born”, “the righteous people [who ended their course and were] perfected” (Hebrews 12:23). They 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).
Saints died as martyrs, those who made a fearless confession of faith (often with the threat of death) and demonstrated 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 the Saints remain fully alive in Christ even after they have fallen asleep. They continue to live with Him in Paradise beside His Throne and pursue communion with Him.
Because Saints are friends of God, we make requests of them, asking them to pray to God for us and for forgiveness of our sins. (We sometimes call this intercessory prayer.) They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. A few well-known examples of saints are the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the writers of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and Saint Basil. In Orthodox tradition, commemorate hundreds of Saints.
We know only God can forgive sins; but just as we might ask someone we know to pray for us, we do the same with the Saints. “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.
But why pray to saints?
You might wonder, “Why pray to saints when you could go straight to God?” The answer is 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 isn’t this worshiping the saints?
We must stress here that worship entails the giving of one’s entire life to the one being worshiped. So, while prayer can be a part of worship – when we pray to God, for example – prayer and worship themselves are not the same. When we pray to a saint, we do not devote our lives to serving them; instead, we merely ask for them to pray for us and intercede before God for our salvation.
When we do this, we confirm our belief in Jesus’ words that all are alive in Him. Orthodox Christians do not worship saints. We venerate them. This means we pay them proper respect and love, because we acknowledge that their holiness comes from God. The worship accorded to God is His alone.
Intercessions are normal
Just as we might ask a friend to help us with something, we can also approach the Saints and ask for their help. They 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