Today I enjoyed an interesting dialog between Mark Osler and Susan Stabil on prayer and intercession from their respective Christian traditions. They were comparing and contrasting Stabil’s Catholic view on intercession and praying to the Saints, with Osler’s Protestant/Ana-Baptist view on intercession. You can listen to the conversation here.
For Osler, the idea of asking anyone, much less a dead person or Saint to intercede on our behalf was, while not heretical, simply not necessary in light of Christ’s work on the cross and our ability to come freely before the throne of God. That said, Osler none-the-less enjoys learning about the Saints and the role-models they provide for us, sometimes in what not to do.
For Stabil on the other hand, asking others to intercede on her behalf was nothing new, and the fact that a person had passed on to the other side changed nothing, accept maybe that person’s free time and ability to intercede on our behalf, (that last part being said in jest, sort of.) Just as we might ask a trusted friend or family member to intercede for us on our behalf while we are together on earth, we can continue to ask our community, this great cloud of whiteness, Sainted or not, to intercede on our behalf even after they have passed on. Stabil said it is a bit like when you were a child and in trouble. You might ask your friend to go with you to talk to you parents, and in the same way, you and your grandmother might go and talk to Saint Peter, and together you might speak with Christ, asking him to intercede with God the father.
My initial question, which I think I framed rather poorly was, “how much does reality matter?” In other words, what happens when we die? Maybe what I should have asked was “how much does metaphysics matter?” In any case, the question rooted in my somewhat fundamentalist upbringing was this: after we die, can we know and understand what is going on down below, allowing us to intercede on our loved-ones behalf? Can the Saints really pray for us, or are their souls in some kind of soul sleep, awaiting the resurrection of the dead?
For me, the answer I was trying to set up but which I think I framed rather poorly is: no, it does not matter. Sure, there may be a place for this kind of inquiry but it is not directly relevant to how we pray.*
a) God is bigger than our theology. Does something not happen in Osler’s life because he did not get the right Saint involved? Of course not. Does something not happen in Stabil’s life because she beseeched a mythological "Saint" that may or may not actually be able to intercede on her behalf? No, this is silliness. “It is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose” and he will not be thwarted by our misunderstandings.
b) Prayer is not about God. God lacks for nothing. God is all powerful, (except when he seems strangely not.) God does not need us to pray. He invites us to pray. He invites us to be a part of the process of changing the world, and more importantly, invites us into his process of changing us. Whether we erroneously get the Saints involved, or erroneously leave them out, God’s purposes will be effected in us, and often in spite of us.
A beautiful example of this is a story Stabil shared in public on a separate occasion. For a time she was completely unable to address any prayers to any non-existent gods. god simply did not exist and she was not going to play games by praying to something which did not exist. However, she none-the-less was able to seek out, in her own way, a humble, human, broken Saint, someone she could relate to. The miracle occurred when the face of Christ replaced that Saint, and she found God. That is the power of the Saints, real or mythological, and the power of God.
Do metaphysics matter, maybe in some discussions, but not when it comes to our elusive understanding of prayer and intercession. Prayer is about connecting with that which is wholly other, God. If we rightly find that proposition daunting and want to invite the Saints to join us, whether we error or not in doing so is somewhat beside the point. Making that connection is all that matters.
*Let me just say that I believer there is a place for this kind of inquiry. If we are able to ascertain spiritual and metaphysical realities, based on Scripture or other sources then we should make an honest inquiry. But I find much of this talk a bit speculative. In my tradition, many times there is more asserted as fact then the evidence supports.
A good example of this is 1 Corinthians 15 which speaks at length on the dead being raised. However the same scripture passage many would use to suggest that we can not pray to Saints also says: "But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish!"
Don't get me wrong, this may be a topic worth studying, but I think we have to be careful how much we assert as fact, and how much we leave in the realm of mystery.
Also, to truly understand the Catholic position, a great deal more has to be said about their understanding of the church, community, and yes metaphysics, none of which is addressed in this blog post.