In my experience, Catholic-Protestant dialogues about praying to Saints tend to have two steps. In the first stage, prayer to the Saints is viewed as something suspect, or even evil. In the second stage, prayer to the Saints seems harmless, but also pointless. Let's address each stage in turn.
Is Prayer to the Saints Evil?
|Nikolay Ge, Witch of Endor (1857)|
But the difference between praying to the Saints and conjuring up the dead is exactly the same as the difference between magic and miracles. Magic is condemned in Scripture as well (Rev. 21:8), and precisely for this reason: it seeks to achieve the supernatural by working around God, or by trying to force His hand. J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, admitted as much in an interview with Oprah, saying, “I'm not saying I believe magic is real—I don't. But that's the perennial appeal of magic—the idea that we ourselves have power and we can shape our world.” That's a good definition of magic, and also what makes the appeal of magic so dangerous. It's Lucifer's non serviam all over again: we've got magic, who needs God?
|Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family (1537)|
Having said all that, I understand that to Protestant eyes, a Catholic praying to Mary probably looks a bit like Saul conjuring up Samuel. But with Catholic prayer, we're going through God, not around Him. For example, the Rosary begins, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” followed by the Apostle's Creed, and the Our Father. The only way that the Saints can hear us is through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Is Prayer to the Saints Pointless?
Even assuming the person you're speaking to can accept the idea that going around God is sinful and going through God isn't, you're not quite home free yet. More than once, I've found myself explaining this, only to have the other person say something along the lines of, “So let me get this straight. When you pray a Hail Mary, you're offering up prayer through God to Mary, asking Mary to pray to God for something. Why not just ask God yourself, directly?” The whole thing seems needlessly indirect.
|Philippe de Champaigne, Anne of Austria and Her Children |
at Prayer with St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, (1646)
One answer to this is simply that we think that the prayers of the Saints in glory are more efficacious than the prayers of those of us still mired in sin. Certainly, James 5:16 ties the effectiveness of prayer with the righteousness of the person praying it.
But perhaps the better answer is simply this: all prayer is indirect. The clearest example comes from Matthew 6:7-13, in which Jesus says,
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
Did you catch that? Immediately before introducing us to the Lord's Prayer, Jesus reminds us that our Father already knows what we need before we ask Him. If we're concerned with efficiency, then, that sounds like a good reason to cut out prayer all together. After all, God doesn't just know what we need before we ask. He also knows what we need better than we do. But Jesus doesn't say, “Therefore, don’t worry about praying.” He says, “Pray, then, like this.”
|Philippe de Champaigne, The Annunciation (1644)|
Clearly, then, prayer isn't simply about identifying the solutions to problems as efficiently as we can: God can do that just fine on His own. Rather, it's a transformative process that helps to do at least two things: conform our wills with God's, and draw us into closer union with one another. With that in mind, consider a few examples of prayer from Scripture:
Genesis 18:17-19:29. God tells Abraham that He plans to destroy the city of Sodom for its sinfulness. Abraham then intercedes on behalf of the city, essentially bartering with God until He agrees that if there are even ten righteous people in the entire city, He won't destroy it. There aren't, so Sodom gets destroyed, but as a blessing to Abraham, God saves his nephew Lot, along with Lot's family. This is captured beautifully in Gen. 19:29, “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham, and He brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.” So rather than God negotiating directly with Lot, He goes to Lot's holier uncle, Abraham. Abraham's intercession saves Lot.
Deuteronomy 9:16-21. When Israel, including the high priest Aaron, fall into idolatry, it's through the intercession of Moses that they're saved, after Moses fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights.
|Albrecht Dürer, Mary Praying (1518)|
Luke 16:19-31. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in which the rich man prays to Abraham, asking him for relief from the torments of Hades, and asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the man's brothers of the consequences of their sin.
Luke 22:31-32. Jesus tells Simon Peter that Satan desires to sift all of the Apostles like wheat. Jesus then says that He has prayed for Peter (personally), “that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Clearly, Christ could have prayed for all of the Apostles directly. But He chooses to fortify them through Peter instead.
|Philippe de Champaigne, St. Paul (1640s)|
Romans 15:30. Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for him. And look at the way he describes it: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” So intercessory prayer draws Christians closer together with one another in Christ. Just as Paul sought to have the Roman Christians united to his struggles through intercessory prayer, Catholics today seek to have the Saints in Heaven united to their struggles in the same way.
This final point gets us to the heart of an often-overlooked part of salvation. We're not just saved as individuals detached from one another. We're part of a larger Body of Christ, as St. Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 3:6). Trying to have Christ without the Church is trying to have the Head without the Body (Eph. 5:24), or trying to dissolve the mystical union between the Bridegroom and the Bride (Eph. 5:25-32). It can't be done. For the same reason, Communion with Christ is Communion with the Saints (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
But the Church doesn't just consist of those on Earth: She's also present in Heaven (Revelation 21:2). Given all of this, and particularly in light of Paul's description of the unifying effects of intercessory prayer in Romans 15:30, we should unite ourselves with the rest of the Body of Christ through prayer. We should freely ask others (whether in Heaven or on Earth) for their prayers, and we should offer our prayers for their intentions as well. In this way, we grow closer to bother God and our neighbor.
This, I think, is the key to understanding prayer. It's not about efficiency, or of drawing the shortest distance between points A and B. Instead, it creates a beautiful and complex web, enveloping us ever-tighter within God's saving grasp, and drawing us nearer to one another.