Monday, March 7, 2011

Intercession of the Saints

A few days ago, one of my spiritual mentors died. He was a great man, a good man, both considerate and eager to laugh, and I flatter myself to consider him a good personal friend. The last time I saw him before he passed away, I asked him to pray for myself and one of my friends.

There is perhaps no Catholic doctrine that has been easier for me to accept than that of the intercession of the saints. For there is perhaps no practice more natural for someone from my background than the habit of requesting prayer from others, especially from spiritual elders. In this case, I had witnessed the fruits of the Spirit in his life, and I knew his wisdom was greater and prayer life more active than my own.  There is no shame in asking for help from someone who can give it willingly.

If we accept the dogma of the active communion of the saints, then it is no great leap to treat the one as you treat the other. The universal Church is comprised both of the Church Militant among the living and the Church Triumphant among those asleep.  Protestants have a habit of sending prayer requests to any among the living who will listen.  Shouldn't we do the same to the saints of the Church Triumphant?

This understanding even clarifies certain aspects of Catholic canonization practices that initially struck me as 'off.'  For instance, I always wondered about the idea of "patron saints."  But there is a very simple explanation.  If you have a prayer request for a particular issue, you go to the person who knows something about it.  This is not just for the sensation of camaraderie and espirit de corps, but because they would know what to pray for even if you didn't.

If, for instance, I needed prayer support for a ministry to at-risk youth in downtown Seattle, I would probably ask for prayer from the person in my church who dealt with such things.  If I needed prayer for family concerns, I'd ask someone else. If I needed prayer for a particularly challenging line of theological reflections, another person would be in the line of fire.

Individuals created in the image of God are each given the grace to reflect a particular aspect of God's nature in a manner totally unique to them. It shouldn't surprise us that, at different points in our lives, we may particularly need or desire to see one aspect of God more than another, and that the person who most reflected that would be most able to minister to us.

A while back, one of my friends was having trouble with her family. I've grown up with a pretty stable home life, so I didn't have any particular insight or any particular advice to share. As she spoke, she mentioned that her now-deceased grandmother had formerly filled that role that she was now filling, and told me how much she missed her grandmother.

If I had not felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit, I would have fled for the hills, but in that moment I knew instinctively what was about to happen. To be sure, I asked if her grandmother had been a Christian; my friend's immediate answer was "Yes."  I then asked her if I could pray for her family situation.  Specifically, I was going to pray about to her grandmother.

That was, without a doubt, the most carefully constructed prayer in my life.  I knew the 1 Samuel passage about Saul and the witch of Endor, and I took very seriously the idea that anything resembling communicating with the dead was fraught with spiritual danger. But my friend needed prayer, prayer that I didn't feel capable of offering, prayer from someone who could relate to her struggle.  She needed the prayer from her family's patron saint.

That was the first time I asked for prayer from a member of the Church Triumphant.

Why should we consider such prayers off-limits? Especially in light of my Protestant upbringing, I had both the knowledge and the desire to avoid such manifest spiritual dangers, so there was little danger of turning this intercessory request to a saint into anything resembling idolatry. I prayed with such trepidation, such fear of offending the holiness of God that I doubt I could have offended in that way.

This is not to mention the manifold benefits of such prayer requests.  Saints of the Church Triumphant dwell in the constant and immediate Presence of God. There are advantages to living in such a Presence, and total communion with God is certainly one of them. At this point, with this knowledge, you'd think most of our prayer requests would be directed heavenward.

My deceased mentor, a former pastor of my church family, is now living in glory. We may mourn for the separation, and mourn for his family, and at the hole that only reunion with him can fill. But you have to remember that he's probably skipping with sheer Joy at this point, so we can't really mourn for him. If anything, the natural reaction should be to envy him.  The Tenth Commandment said nothing against coveting thy neighbor's salvation!

In the meanwhile, though, as we wait and struggle (ecclesia expectans et militans), we still have friends and allies among those brothers and sisters in Christ who have preceded us. It might be nice if we could remember some of them.  Dan Dungan, pastor of my church family.  Stan McKnight, elder and deacon of the church. C.S. Lewis, one of the most thoroughly converted men in England. Frederic Bastiat, the man who taught me to see God's glory reflected among human communities.  St. Thomas of Aquino, patron saint of theology nerds.

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