Why Orthodox Christians “Pray to” Saints

Icons of Saints in an Orthodox Church

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.

Icons of female saints in the Orthodox Church

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.

Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.

James 5:16

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

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7 Responses

  1. Hallo John,

    I am also an orthodox and a believer in Christ. I just can’t understand why almost all orthodox tend to pray to other people/men (NOT SAINTS – there was only one saint on this world and that was Jesus Christ).

    22 Revelation 8-9
    8 And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things.

    9 Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God.

    The angel (God’s Angel – not a man from this world) says: “… DO IT NOT: For I am thy fellowservant… . Worship GOD”.

    The angel also calls the prophets ‘servants’ just as he is. No saints but servants.

    Please don’t confuse the words ‘praying to’ and ‘praying for’. Yes, I pray everytime for my mother, brother and family.. . But i dont pray to them, never. Even if they were some of the best men on this world. You look up to them, you learn from them but we dont have to worship them and pray to them. They’re still MAN (but with a more understanding of the world and of the word of God)

  2. (Continuation)

    You also state that people need(or pray to) these ‘saints’ because they would bring our prayer closer to God. Why would I need that? If I want something i ask God for it, directly! There are prayers that whorship these ‘saints’. This in not ok. Kneeling in front of icons and kissing relics is just not right. It clearly stated in the Bible!

    Have a nice day!
    Paul

  3. Paul,

    Christ is risen! It seems you are misunderstanding the meaning of what a Saint is. We see numerous mention of the Saints in Scripture (1 Corinthians 1:2; Romans 1:7; Hebrews 10:10; Psalm 34:9; Romans 16:15; Romans 8:27; Philippians 14:21-22; Colossians 1:26; 1 Timothy 5:10; 1 Corinthians 14:33; Acts 9:32; Ephesians 1:1; among many, many others). These verses in the Scriptures clearly show that every one of us has the ability to become a Saint, and in fact that that is our purpose – achieving communion with God.

    You seem to think we have confused “praying to” and “praying for”. Please understand that we used “praying to” in this article because many who are not Orthodox make that same misconception and actively search for that online. Which is why we correct that misconception within the article. If you carefully reread, you will see that.

    The Orthodox do only worship God. Praying to a Saint and asking them for their intercessions is not the same as worship, as we explain in the article. And neither are kissing icons or bowing before them considered worship. Unfortunately, English is often lacking when it comes to communicating theological truths. Especially the difference between absolute worship of God and veneration of His creation (also referred to as relative worship). In the original Greek, the word for the latter appears in various forms of the noun προσκύνησις, proskynesis, which means to kneel or bow down before, and to show reverence and honor. This is the word we use for the veneration we give to icons and the relics of the Saints. It is also the word we use when we sing, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ,” and “For unto thee are due all glory, honor, and worship…,” and also, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master.”

    This is not, however, the same word we use when referring to our worship and adoration of God. That word is λατρεία, latreia, which means to adore. For example, we find this word in the Doxastikon of the Aposticha for the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils: “Wherefore, following their divine doctrines and believing with assurance, we worship, in one Godhead, the Father, Son, and All-holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence.” We also see it in the Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ, alongside verbal forms of proskynesis: “. . . for they that worshipped (latreia) the stars did learn therefrom to worship (proskynesis) thee, O Sun of justice…” So, instead of giving all their adoration to the stars, the wise men now came to worship and fall down before Christ Himself, the Son of God, the Sun of justice.

    As we offer “worship” to the any Saint, we do so knowing we offer proskynesis. We offer honor and reverence, in “relative worship”. It is God, the Trinity, one in Essence, whom we worship and offer our inward form of adoration as latreia. Thus we stay true to our words and teachings, knowing that what we pray is what we believe. In English, might worship and veneration seem identical; however, the language of the Church clearly differentiates them. And we must politely insist that those who critique Orthodoxy do the same. Prayer can be a form of worship, but not all prayer is worship. Prayer to the One True God is latreia, while prayer to any other Saint (intercessory or otherwise) is offered as proskynesis.

    So you see, Paul, we do not offer worship to anyone other than the One True God. The misconception that we do comes from a lack of understanding of Orthodox theology and a twisting of the Scriptures. God bless.

  4. Hello, thanks for the article. I understand much of what you’re saying. I have a burning question that has yet to be addressed in any explanation I have seen. Here goes;

    1) can anyone besides God see into your heart and know your inner thoughts. Can Saints or any other spiritual being interacting with us on earth hear the prayers you say via inner dialogue?

    2) if saints here on earth cannot, is there something about their being in Heaven that allows them to hear your inner prayers (this isn’t including prayers spoken aloud).

    Are there others beside the Lord that can see your innermost thoughts and hear your prayers that are not uttered aloud? I see no examples of this in the Bible. In the Bible only the Triune God knows men’s hearts and can see their thoughts.

    God bless, thanks again.

    Nick

    1. Nick,

      Christ is risen! Thank you for your question. Saints are those who have attained salvation, which (in the Eastern Orthodox view) means union and communion with God. Being in union with God means being in union with His Divine Energies. Thus, through His Grace they are able to perform miracles, both while living and after having departed. If a Saint, while alive, could perceive events happening thousands of miles away or walk on water after making the sign of the cross over it, why should we find it so hard to believe that they could hear prayers made without the use of our mouths? As the Scripture tells us, with God all things are possible. And the Resurrection of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ has changed everything about the nature of Death and its power over us.

      In thinking about how this is possible, it helps to ask what a prayer actually is. Is it primarily a grammatical construct of words/thoughts expressing a particular desire to someone able to answer? Or do words merely clothe the prayer? Prayer is, in its essence, movement of the heart and spirit towards the one who can help. We are taught that the elders and Saints often prayed beyond thought and beyond words – face to face and heart to heart with God. Consider the woman with the issue of blood: she made no articulate prayer, but instead merely reached out to touch the hem of Christ’s garment and was healed.

      If the Saints are in Christ, then they too touch and communicate His glory, His power, His grace. Think of a sopping wet sponge touched by any number of dry paper towels. What is required for the towels to become wet? Only to touch the sponge. The act of touching instantly communicates the water, whether there is one paper towel or ten thousand. The Saints don’t have to mentally cobble together/process one by one the thousands, or even millions, of requests made to them. It is enough that they stand in the presence of Christ our God full of His love and mercy for us, full of readiness to help, present and dripping with grace. With our prayers we touch them. Our dry empty heart and need makes contact with their abundance in Christ. Their love, their prayer, is not restrained by temporal concerns or limitations. It is simple, whole and wholly in Christ.

      Lastly, in general, keep in mind that Scripture itself was born out of a living Tradition; not everything need be written about in the Scriptures for it to be true of God and His Saints. There is also the oral component of Tradition, which St. Paul makes mention of on several occasions (most notably 2 Thess. 2:15). We hope this was helpful to you. God bless!

  5. Hello, in the article you mentioned “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).

    Yet later in the article you said God is the only one who can forgive sins.

    So which is it can saints forgive sins or only God. Please clarify.

    1. Christopher,

      Christ is in our midst! We apologize for the confusion, and realize the sentence you quoted was rather poorly worded. We will revise it to make the meaning more clear. Only God can forgive sins, and we ask the Saints to pray for our well-being, health, salvation, etc. and also for the forgiveness of our sins. We (and the Saints) pray that God will grant us and others these things. We hope this helps clarify. God bless!

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