Friday, May 4, 2012

Praying with & for the Departed?

In a previous post, we saw that even those who want to recapture the centrality of the hope of the resurrection of the body and the restoration of all things, still hold that we can expect that those who die while we await the Day of Lord and the 'redemption of our bodies'  (Romans 8) experience some conscious existence in God's presence, however incomplete. This has been the view of the vast majority of Christians through the ages.

What is the relationship between those who have died and those still living in the flesh? Does it make sense to pray for the dead? To ask the dead to pray for us?

Here are some thoughts from four Anglicans:

N. T. Wright:

"I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should–not that they should get out of purgatory but that that they will be refreshed and filled with God's joy sand peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love before God?

I do not, however, find in the New Testament or in the earliest Church fathers any suggestion that those at present in heaven or (if you prefer) paradise are actively engaged in praying for those of us in the present life. Nor do I find any suggestion that Christians who are still alive should pray to the saints to intercede to the Father on their behalf."
(Surprised by Hope, p. 172)

C. S. Lewis disagrees with Wright on asking for the prayers of the dead:

"There is clearly a theological defense for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead? There is clearly also a great danger. In some popular practice we see it leading off into an infinitely silly picture of Heaven as an earthly court where applicants will be wise to pull the right wires, discover the best “channels,” and attach themselves to the most influential pressure groups. But I have nothing to do with all this. I am not thinking of adopting the practice myself; and who am I to judge the practice of others?

The consoling thing is that while Christendom is divided about the rationality, and even the lawfulness, of praying to the saints, we are all agreed about praying with them. “With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” One always accepted this ‘with’ theoretically. But it is quite different when one brings it into consciousness at an appropriate moment and wills the association of one’s own little twitter with the voices of the great saints and (we hope) of our own dear dead. They may drown some of its uglier qualities and set off any tiny value it has.

You may say that the distinction between the communion of the saints as I find it in that act and full-fledged prayer to saints is not, after all, very great."
(Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, p. 15-16)

John Polkinghorne:

"If the souls awaiting the final resurrection are held in the mind of God, as we have suggested, then ‘in the Lord’ there will surely be a mediated relationship between the living and the dead. One of the most natural ways in which to express this relationship will be through prayer. No doubt, those who are ‘in Christ’ are wholly within God’s loving care and protection, but we should not argue that this makes it unnecessary or inappropriate for us to pray for them. After all, the same is as true of those among the living who are committed to Christ, as it is of the departed. Many arguments alleged against praying for the dead seem, on the face of it, to apply equally to praying for the living."
(The God of Hope and the End of the World, p. 110)

Helen Oppenheimer: 

"Surely there is no need to assume such a fixity in Heaven that prayer for the dead is simply ruled out. People naturally pray for their nearest and dearest. And, if they find it still natural to go on praying for them when they have died, it is no less than cruel to require them to stop. Dead people are in God’s hands as they were when they were alive. God will do his best for them forever. We cannot improve upon what God will do. But, surely we may be allowed to associate ourselves with it, associate ourselves with that blessing. That is what it could mean to be human means of grace. Perhaps we might even find that we had been allowed to give some kind of particular flavor of our own to the limitless blessings of God. Prayer for the living is surely less puzzling seen in this way, and it seems quite promising to think like this of prayer for the dead, too.”

The Book of Common Prayer assumes prayers for the dead as part of our worship:

“We commend to your mercy all who have died; that your will for them may be fulfilled. And, we pray that we may share with all your saints in your eternal kingdom.”
(Prayers of the People, Form IV)

Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 504)


Robert F said...

Yes, there is a place in the BCP for praying for the dead, but there is no place where petitioning the dead to pray for us is commended as part of worship. And I think that this is a significant and intentional omission. Perhaps it is acceptable to petition the dead saints for prayer in our private devotion if we choose, but I think it would be a mistake to include such petitioning in our formal corporate worship precisely because there are too many disagreements and unanswered questions about the subject.

Matt Gunter said...

That is a fair point, Robert. And Lewis is on shakier ground in that regard. Still, the practice is deep in the Church's tradition. I find it an edifying reminder that the communion of saints transcends the boundary of death.

We pray/chant a Litany of the Saints at our Easter Vigil in which we ask various saints to pray for us.

Robert F said...

I do see that the BCP contains an exhortation to the heavenly hosts that they would join with all those assembled in worship at the Easter Vigil, but it does not seem to invoke specific saints. Is the Litany you mention a supplemental resource that your parish uses? For my own part, I tend to view those who are dead the way I do someone who traveled to a distant place before the advent of electronic communication: although it is perfectly appropriate for me to pray for them, it would be inappropriate, and ineffective, for me to pray to them invoking them for their intercession. I do not believe that death imparts a special direct spiritual communication channel that did not exist before death. If I had a message for someone on the other side of death that I felt it was important to send them, I would give it to God, asking him to convey it to them. I think that in the Kingdom, we relate to others only through Jesus Christ, and that is the most direct and wonderful communication that can exist.