Perhaps one of the most misunderstood traditions of the Orthodox Chruch (after the ‘Mary issue”) is the idea of venerating and praying to the saints. It is mostly an issue with Protestant Christians who have been raised up in and taught the idea that to do so, especially in front of an icon is tatamount to heresey and idolatry. With that in mind I’d like to try and explain the issue, and what exactly it means to venerate and pray to the departed in Christ.
In order to understand why we Orthodox feel it is right to pray to the saints one must first understand the what the Orthodox believe happens after death. When a Christian dies, we do not believe that that is the end of the story. We believe that their soul then goes to heaven where it continues to be conscious and affective, and after the second coming for Christ their soul will be reunited with the body. This is why we do not say that a fellow Orthodox has died, but rather has ‘fallen asleep in the Lord.’ Scriptural evidence of this continued consciousness can be found in Luke 16:19-31, many verses from Revelation, 2 Corinthians 5:8, the gospel account of the Transfiguration (where Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ and were conversing with him) Hebrews 12:1, John 11:25-26, and verses similar.
These souls then are present and truley alive in heaven. This does not mean that they cease to be able to pray for us on earth, or to act as instruments of God’s grace. There are many stories where saints after death, through their prayers and their holiness have brought about miraculous healings or appeared to us who are still leaving. A recent example of this involved St. Nektarios who died in 1920. Just after he died in the hospital a nurse was changing his clothing. She removed his woolen undershirt and set it on a bed behind here, where lied a paralyzed man. When the saint’s garment touched the man, his paralysis was instantly healed and he was able to walk again. Events like this can also be found in scripture, such as 2 Kings 13:20-21 which describes a man being raised from the dead through contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha, and also in Acts 19:11-12 which describes healing coming about through Saint Paul’s handkerchiefs.
We ask these saints, who live in Christ and are still a part of His church (the Church Triumphant as some describe it) to pray for God us, just like we might ask our friends and family here on earth to pray for us. Since these saints no stand in the presence of God, and since they are now free all bodily passions and distractions, they are able to be in continuous prayer. We here on earth can hardly come close to this and are only able to maintain prayer for a short amount of time before being distracted. This does mean that they can bring out healings or help through their own power. Not at all, and to hold such a view would indeed be incorrect! Rather, it is only through their prayers for us, and only through Christ listening to and answering their prayers, that we can benefit from them. An example of this is a hymn we sing for St. Nina, a woman who brought the Christian faith to Georgia in the early fourth century:
…with the angels thou hast praised in song the Redeemer, praying constantly for us that Christ may grant us His grace and mercy.
There are some who would object that we shouldn’t do this, since the Bible tells us 1 Timothy 2:5 that Christ is the only mediator between God and Man. Well, this is true, Christ is the only one who has reconciled us to God. But that does not mean that we cannot ask others for help in living a holy life! We do not believe that we necessarily need anyone else beside Christ to get to God, but we also do not believe that asking others to pray to God for us hurts.
We as Christians and as the Church of God do not only exist on this earth, in this life. Standing around the throne of God are all the holy people who lived before us, singing praises to God! Their earthly death does not put up a barrier between us and them, and death does not divide the Church of Christ. We should not forget our holy brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers who have gone before us, and should ask them to pray for us to Christ our God just as we would ask our friends and family. Truley we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who share in our joys and sorrows and are able to interceed for us to God! What a joyful thing this is!
I’m sure I’ve not fully explained this entire topic, but I would be more than happy to answer any questions that anyone might have.