O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer, Collect for All Saints’ Day
Talking to Saints and Angels?
Since today is All Saints’ Day, I thought it would be good to write something about the practice of “invoking the saints”. Firstly, I have to say that I am somewhat sympathetic to the practice of asking the Saints to pray and intercede for us. It follows easily from the logic that if we can ask our friends to intercede for us, why can’t we ask the saints as well?
But of course once one raises the question, why ask the saints to pray for you over your own friends, the entire spectre of the Reformation comes back to haunt us. Suddenly issues like the “merits of the saints”, or the saints somehow being more favoured or special, and therefore God will be more amendable to their prayers more than your friend’s, threatens the whole issue of salvation and the basis of justification, etc.
Suffice to say amongst Protestants, there can be absolutely no issue about the “treasury of merits” or the “merits of the saints” (as a side observation, even the Eastern Orthodox don’t buy into the “treasury of merits”, no pun intended). Given that the saints are not somehow more “special” in their intercessions, if they do intercede for us in the first place, why ask them to pray for us?
And in all honesty, I am quite lost myself as to why we should ask the saints to pray for us, assuming that they even do. I have a couple of objections to the practice of asking the saints to pray for us. First, it seems to be so unnecessary given the fact that we have Jesus Christ to intercede for us at the Father’s right hand, who is the infinitely more “meritorious” intercessor over every other saints. Secondly, saints are merely humans, yes, they may be glorified human, but still human. They are not as such omnipresent and therefore do not have the capacity to hear prayers from every corner of the world simultaneously nor do they have the infinite mental capacity to process so many prayers at the same time. They don’t have an infinite mind or consciousness, only God does and Jesus Christ who possesses the divine properties of omnipresence and omni-consciousness and ability to process millions of prayers from everywhere. Finally, I subscribe to the doctrine of “Christian mortalism”, that the soul is not inherently immortal but perishes with the body, and therefore the soul “sleeps” in unconsciousness or may be is in a dreaming state until the general resurrection when Christ returns to raise all mankind from the dead and awake them from their sleep/dream. As such, may be the Apostles are “transfigured” and are resurrected before everyone else, I don’t know, but it’s a bit iffy to be able to say definitely whether or not post-apostolic saints are also resurrected and are awake to hear our prayers.
I realise that my arguments are actually quite vague and weak, but then again, the question of saintly intercession is not one which is explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, and so arguments concerning it, for or against, necessary must be based on indirect inferences and arguments, not quite the rigor one would like to be sure, but then again, we aren’t exactly discussing matters of central importance like the Gospel or the Sacraments.
Because of the inherent ambiguity of the subject, perhaps we ought to heed the counsels of St Paul who, perhaps, prophetically foresaw such disputes and said,
Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind
Naturally Catholics do not “worship” the saints and angels, but to attempt to make sense of saintly intercession is to intrude into those things which we have not seen, nor have we read in the Scriptures. So it might be best to leave it well alone, why practice something which is based on speculation and uncertainty?
Asking God for the Angel’s Help?
So, even though I would not advocate or encourage talking directly to the saints, in so far as there is no such need nor is it certain that they can even hear us, but yet beneath the practice of saintly intercession, when one strips away the excesses and abuses, is I think a vital truth and a very edifying practice which we ought to retain and promote.
Perhaps I can explain this via an example I once read somewhere. In an Anglican Church in Africa, the mission was located at a tribe which had this curious practice. It is the practice of that particular tribe to speak to their ancestors or relatives who had passed on, which practice has even been formalised at certain times at festivals. So the Anglican missionaries on encountering this practice, came up with the following idea: They told the people of the tribe that whatever they want to say to their dead ancestors or relatives, they can simply tell God, and God will pass the message along to their dead relatives or ancestors.
I thought it was an intriguing idea in that it helped to assimilate a local practice into Christianity and the church. (Which example goes to show that we should not be too rigid about such “folk” devotions and stuff, which generally Reformed and Evangelicals are wont to be.) But I cite this example to make a more substantive point: Asking God to talk to the dead.
So from this idea I thought, could not something similar function in respect to “invoking” the saint’s and angel’s help? Instead of saints and angels serving as intercessors for us to God, can’t we instead ask Jesus Christ, who is the true mediator, not only between us and God, but also between us and all man, including the communion of saints, to get the saint’s and angel’s help? After all, it is Jesus Christ, who reconciled all mankind unto himself and it is through him and in him by which we have fellowship with all the saints and elect. So can’t we ask Christ to send us the saint’s and angel’s help?
And I discovered that the Book of Common Prayer actually does have a collect which ask God to help us by the ministry of the angels. Namely, the collect for St Michael and the All the Angels, which collect even the puritan/Reformed Anglicans did not delete from the prayer book.
O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order; Mercifully grant, that as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So basically in this collect, we’re asking God to grant that the angels, by the appointment of God, “may succour and defend us on earth through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Thus, we ask God to grant us the angel’s help, which seems to me to be perfectly legitimate and fine. To put it in the language of the African example, we ask God to talk to the angels to fly down here to help us! On reflection, this is really not such an unusual practice. Do we not also ask God to grant that by his appointment of earthly rulers and authorities, they may give us peace and minister justice on earth? So what is so unusual about asking God to grant us help by his orders of angels?
Whilst this argument makes sense for angels, it becomes a little difficult with dead saints. Whilst angels are present amongst us, as are our earthly governments and authorities, the same cannot be said of saints, and it is not certain that they are present to us to help us. (And if they are somehow “spiritually” present to aid and succor us, that would again raise too many questions about omnipresence, saints teleporting around the world, or whether they were awake to begin with to do anything for us.)
To these question we now turn.
The Spirit of the Saints?
Let us take a step back from our discussion and ask a more fundamental question: Why would we want the saint’s help anyway?
It is well and good to say of course, that in Christ we have all our needs. Although Christ is of course infinitely relatable to every conceivable particular historic situation in our lives, but the particular event of Christ’s life is of course tied to the “event” of his life two thousand years ago, lived in a very particular way in a very particular situation and circumstance. To relate the life of a Jew, a divine and extraordinary Jew no doubt, but still a Jew of his time, to our time and our lives which is quite vastly different, would need quite a bit of stretching of the imagination and abstraction of the particular details of our lives.
May be we can look at this from a slightly more anthropological point of view. What is the appeal of saintly intercession for Catholics? Well, the thing is, the saints seems to have a particular function and office. There are saints for scholars, teachers, healers, doctors, saints with extraordinary lives, of extraordinary wisdom, courage, charity, compassion, faith, communion with God, which we are better able to identify with because they are not as infallible as Christ. After all, Christ had perfect faith in God and didn’t struggle with trust issues with God (okay, may be he did, but speculate into this would take us way too deep into incarnation issues and kenosis and how human and fallible Christ is.) It helps to have examples of saints with exemplary trust and faith in God who have previously doubted and despaired of God, or who have received much mercy and trusted in Christ’s remission of sins for their manifold faults and failings, and saint’s lives do provide all that detail for us to be able to identify with, especially if they lived closer to our time or lived in circumstances which are more similar to ours.
But the question is, how can all these wonderful and excellent features and things of the saints, be communicated to us for us to be able to appropriate and identify with, in all it’s manifold detail and particularity? It’s not simply a question of a need for some “generalised” virtue or some generic spirit of wisdom or of godliness, etc. We want the excellence and virtues which that particular saint possessed in his or her very particular way.
It is here where I remembered a particular episode in the Scriptures about the relationship between Elijah and Elisha. Let us begin with a basic theological premise: That all “good” and “excellent” spirits, or all virtues and personal graces, ultimately comes from God and is inspired of the Holy Ghost. Then the graces and virtues which the saints possessed, in all the particular way in which it was embodied in historic time, are themselves inspired of the Holy Spirit.
With this theological premise in mind, we turn to a passage in 2 Kings 2. In this passage, the prophet Elijah is about to be taken up into heaven, his successor Elisha asks of Elijah before he departs that he might have “a double portion of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Later on, after Elijah was taken up and Elisha took the cloak of Elijah, which he used to test to see whether he could perform the miracles of Elijah (and he could), the sons of the prophets met Elisha at Jericho and recognised at once that “the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:15)
Interpreting this in the light of our foregoing discussion, to say that the “spirit of Elijah” rests upon Elisha is to say that the particular graces, virtues, his prophetic mission and courage and even the power of Elijah to perform miracles, has been given unto Elisha. The spirit which gave Elijah all his gifts, in all his historic particularity, has been now given unto Elisha. Centuries after this, Christ would speak of John the Baptist as also another Elijah, suggesting that the same prophetic mission, including courage to speak confront the enemies of the Gospel, has also been given unto John the Baptist. So in a sense, one could also say that the “spirit of Elijah” rested upon John the Baptist.
Let’s us summarise our reflections from all these. Each saint in history is honoured and remembered for the particular virtues or graces which that saint has been endowed with. Those virtues and graces which the saints have lived out in all it’s particularity, can be summed up in the phrase, “the spirit of [name of saint]”. This spirit which inspired such virtues and graces is ultimately the gift of the Holy Ghost.
So to put this into practice, just as we ask God to grant us the help and ministry of the angels, we can also ask God to grant us the virtue and graces by which the saints of the past lived, and for a portion of the spirit of that saint to be given unto us. So for example, if we are students, we can ask God to grant us the spirit of King Solomon and his wisdom, etc.
This maybe a bit more folksy, but the high Anglican Samuel Johnson himself curiously had a prayer to God asking for the spirit and assistance of his own wife.
O Lord! Governour of heaven and earth, in whose hands are embodied and departed Spirits, if thou hast ordained the Souls of the Dead to minister to the Living, and appointed my departed Wife to have care of me, grant that I may enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration, whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government. Forgive my presumption, enlighten my ignorance, and however meaner agents are employed, grant me the blessed influences of thy holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I’ve always regretted that the rich treasures of past saints, their virtues, their graces and their godly living, etc, have been largely lost to Protestant circles which rather prematurely has cut themselves off from the benefits which the Holy Spirit has given to the church in ages past. Why cut ourselves off from the manifold graces and gifts which God has given unto the saints of past? We may (rightly) have some reservations about talking to saints or invoking the saints, but surely it is entirely right, proper and good, to ask of God for a portion of that spirit which God has given unto the saints for ourselves, for our edification and our spiritual growth.
The Lutherans themselves have rightly retained the use of the traditional lectionary and saints festivals, in the words of the Ausburg Apology,
Our Confession approves honouring the saints in three ways. The first is thanksgiving. We should thank God because He has shown examples of mercy, because He wishes to save people, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the Church. These gifts, since they are the greatest, should be amplified. The saints themselves, who have faithfully used these gifts, should be praised just as Christ praises faithful businessmen (Matthew 25:21, 23). The second service is the strengthening of our faith.When we see Peter’s denial forgiven, we also are encouraged to believe all the more that grace truly super abounds over sin (Romans 5:20). The third honour is the imitation, first of faith, then of the other virtues. Everyone should imitate the saints according to his calling. The adversaries do not require these true honours. They argue only about invocation, which, even if it were not dangerous, still is not necessary.
Whilst it is true that the Lutherans have never quite explicitly spoke of asking to give us the spirit or grace which he has endowed the saints with, but after we have thanked God for the gifts of the saints, the examples of the saints for the strengthening of our faith and for imitation, the next logical step to take is to ask God to give us the spirit or grace which has animated the saints to such excellence of living. And Cranmer in his first prayer book under the influence of Lutheranism, took exactly this step in his Eucharistic prayers concerning the saints, and so I now leave you with a template by which you can invoke the help of the saints and ask for their spirit,
And here we do give unto thee most high praise, and hearty thanks, for the wonderful grace and virtue, declared in all thy saints, from the beginning of the world: And chiefly in the glorious and most blessed virgin Mary, mother of thy son Jesus Christ our Lord and God, and in the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs, whose examples, O Lord, and steadfastness in thy faith, and keeping thy holy commandments, grant us to follow.