The Intercession of the Saints

kurskrooticon1.jpg

Doubtless one of the less understood aspects of the Orthodox faith, particularly by Protestants, is the importance of the intercession of the saints. Orthodox doctrine and teaching is quite clear that we do not treat saints as objects of worship, nor as worthy of worship. This would be blasphemous to us. Nevertheless, it is a huge part of the “ethos” of Orthodoxy, probably only understood from the inside and then only after a time.

The first thing I think of in this regard is simply that Scripture never seems to speak of God as “alone.” He is the Lord God of Sabbaoth (Hosts) – He is the “God of a huge crowd” to render it into the vernacular. This is first disclosed to Isaiah in his prophetic vision in chapter 6 of his work – but it is, to some degree, reflected in the fact that the Hebrew word for God is frequently rendered in the plural (Elohim). The Fathers rightly saw in this a veiled reference to the Trinity – but it is also proper to see in this a plural that surrounds God. We do not worship a plural God – but a Triune God – who is nevertheless surrounded by a great Host.

Much of our modern world, governed as it is by images of the dominance of the individual, tends to focus on God as individual. Islam (in certain forms) is radical in this respect – and some forms of modern Christianity have, for all intents and purposes, followed suit. The doctrine of the Trinity is reverenced but not truly understood, much less made the basis for worship. With this has come a radical shift in the understanding of heaven, our life in the Church, the meaning of prayer, the hope of salvation, even the understanding of what salvation itself means.

Orthodox worship and prayer, on the other hand, is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a “great cloud of witnesses,” whom we frequently acknowledge in our prayers, asking for them to join us in our prayer, seeking their prayers for us, just as assuredly they are urging us on from the life in heaven and interceding constantly before God for us.

This is probably the greatest change in my consciousness since becoming Orthodox. We are never alone, nor are we even simply alone with God. I am always with many even when I draw into my closet to pray.

Encouraged by the many stories of the lives of the saints, I am also encouraged by the holy icons, whose images of the saints remind me of these great heroes and heroines. More than that I am truly aware of their presence with me (us). My prayers seem to echo and to crescendo, joined as they are with those who now pray ceaselessly.

Many times there are saints whom one seems to know personally – either because you have frequently asked for their prayers – or for some aspect of their story that seems important – and even occasionally because something has happened that can only be described as having been “sought out” by a saint. An example of this last case is (for me) the not too infrequent phenomenon of simply being “found” by an icon. By this I do not mean buying an icon – but that an icon has come to me by some other means, accompanied by the sense that “this is no accident.” Such stories are not uncommon in Orthodoxy. Some of the greatest icons known to the Church were simply “discovered,” their origins remaining completely unknown to the Church. An excellent example of this is the famous wonder-working “Kursk Root-Icon of the Mother of God.”

I was once asked by an Anglican friend if I ever thought about returning to my former life. There are a thousand reasons I could have given him for “no,” not the least of which being, “I have found the true faith, etc.” But as I recall I simply said to him, “I couldn’t bear the loneliness.” How could I pray without the Mother of God? without the saints? And not in some secretly held “pious opinion” that might be allowed by the Church – but as the Church’s true worship, because it is the revelation of the Lord God of Hosts?

No. “God is with us, understand all ye nations and repent yourselves, for God is with us.”

31 Responses to “The Intercession of the Saints”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The Photo accompanying the post is of the Kursk Root Icon.

  2. alyssasophia Says:

    And all God’s people said, “Amen!”

  3. Death Bredon Says:

    Thank goodness that the best and bright of the Anglican tradition understand that we stand surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses.”

  4. The Intercession of the Saints « into the light Says:

    […] Jul 19th, 2007 by kevinburt A nice post by Fr Stephen:  The Intercession of the Saints. […]

  5. Jonathan Says:

    We desperately need saints; all the more so in an age with precious few heroes of its own. We also need beauty and the experience of grace lived out in this world, by fellow humans: also rare things. The saints are beauty and grace and God-wardness incarnated all through history, in particularly places and through particular histories, offering to us their example in the past and their prayers- the grace, baraka they manifest and which makes them beautiful- now.

  6. Steve Says:

    This has been an important name for God (“Lord of the Host”) recently too. I’m just struck by how many times it’s used in the OT. I can’t do this salvation thing alone. I am powerless by myself.

  7. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Morning Highlights Says:

    […] Prayer and the cloud of witnesses at Glory to God for All Things. […]

  8. e. barrett Says:

    Being a Protestant I admit to not understanding the intercession of the saints. Isn’t this intercession unnecessary? God doesn’t require it, so why not go directly to him? In fact much of what Jesus did was to remove the need for an intermediary in our relationship with him.

    I don’t have a problem with someone asking for intercession, but to me it seems like an “extra” step. I’d just like to understand this better.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    You do not need the saints in order to get to God, but without the saints around you (they intercede whether you want them to or not – read Revelation) your experience of God is not in agreement with the experience of God described in Scripture, but is more like the modern American inventions of evangelicalism. The God you are praying to is surround by hosts of angels and saints. You cannot isolate Him. The danger is the private God of American Protestantism which is dangerously dissimilar to the God revealed in Scripture.

  10. David Says:

    I have a side question Fr Stephen. Would you say then that ascetics, maybe I’m misapplying terms “desert fathers”, those who go into seclusion are, in fact, not secluded at all?

  11. Handmaid Anna Says:

    Death Bredon, We thought we were among those Anglicans that believed we were surrounded “by a great cloud of witnesses” until we discovered that the person next to you at the alter railing taking communion may or may not believe that. They also have the choice to believe or not that the bread and the wine is really the body and blood of Christ. This inclusion of the protestant thought in Anglicanism was the catalyst that moved us to convert to Orthodoxy.

  12. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    David,
    Considering that we are all given a Guardian Angel at Baptism, I’d say, no even they are not alone, even in the desert.🙂 Glory to God!
    What a beautiful and comforting reality, this cloud of witnesses!
    Christ is in our midst!

  13. Christopher Orr Says:

    Does anyone know which prophets are painted on the Kursk icon and what prophecies they are holding? In all of the photos or reproducitons I have seen the prophets are just mentioned without specifics or the lettering is all Slavonic so i can’t tell who they are or what they are prophesying. It would seem to be such a wonderful evangelism tool to point to an icon of the Mother of God and be able to show that it truly is not about her on her own, but as an integral part of the Incarnation prophesied of old.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    David,

    I would say of the ascetics, that the more aware they are of God, the more aware of the saints, angels, etc. God is the Lord of Hosts. As, noted, we do not have a revelation given to us in some other sort of depiction. Even Christ in the Garden (this might also be an interesting take on His desire for the disciples to watch with Him – as well as guarding their own souls) was not alone – an angel was present (how many more of whom we hear nothing). The angels are present, being the first to proclaim the resurrection to the disciples.

    Where is the God Whom we ignore the saints and all the company of heaven in order to go to “directly?” This is imagination. We may speak to God directly, without mediation, of course, but there are a host of eavesdroppers. Can’t be helped.

    St. Herman of Alaska, when asked if he became lonely in his solitary work in Alaska, replied that he had the company of the angels.

  15. Visibilium Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I apologize in advance for introducing a heterodox note into your thread, but it’s something that’s been with me for awhile.

    While reading assorted internet stuff, I came across a book wherein the protagonist was raised Greek Orthodox and desired to convert to Hinduism. His Hindu spiritual father told him that it was very difficult to convert from Orthodoxy, since it’s considered to be more of a race-religion than a religion. The reason for this is that Orthodoxy has been around for such a long time and, because of that, each baptized Orthodox has around him a crowd of deceased Orthodox to guide the believer in his earthly life.

    I can’t attest to the truth of the book, but it’s an interesting image.

  16. Fatherstephen Says:

    It is an interesting image – and it might be Hindu-speak for “there are too many saints, holy ancestors, angels, etc., for me to introduce you to some of the demons I know.”

    There is an old Greek proverb that a monk saves his family for seven generations – though no one has ever told me whether he saves them for generations to come or generations past – maybe it’s a bit of both.

    I know I’m probably scandalizing the daylights out of protestant readers with such statements – but my experience of the faith, including the faith as regards the family – is that it is properly influential, even salvific on our families when we are working out our salvation with fear and trembling.

    Orthodoxy makes a great deal of the “ancestors” of Christ, meaning the righteous of the Old Testament, particularly those righteous who were His ancestors, according to the flesh. The Mother of God was the daughter of a priest and His wife, Joachim and Anna, according to tradition (my parish is named for this particular Anna). The two Sundays before the Nativity, we commemorate these righteous – as is most fitting – considering the fact that without their lives there also would not have been a Virgin Mary, and no incarnation. God was not going door to door at the Annunciation looking for willing cooperatives, rather, as is testified by the geneologies, etc., Mary was part of the providence of God, prophesied in Genesis itself. She, indeed is the Second Eve.

  17. Links for 2007-07-20 » anchorite.org Says:

    […] Glory to God for All Things: The Intercession of the Saints […]

  18. Michael Bauman Says:

    We as biological creatures in the midst of such solidness find it too easy to believe that when the biology ceases to function, we are dead, that’s it. Even when we profess a faith to the contrary. So, when the intercession of the saints is broached, the “natural” fleshly thing is to disbelieve it. It is somehow easier to beleive in angels (after all they don’t have a physical body like us). Perhaps if we are as Mary and say in simply humility, “How can that be?” We will learn.

    I am concerned though with the desire on the part of many to want to “protect” God. The intercession of the saints is sometimes looked upon as a violation of God’s soverneighty or Jesus right to be the only mediator, etc. It is so linear: two dimensional and sterile to me. As hard as it is for me to really accept the intercession of the saints, it is far more difficult for me to accept such a lonely and bleack picture, particularly when confronted with Isaiah’s description of heavenly worship.

    Fr. Stephen’s explanation of the Lord God of Hosts is great, it really fits so well with everything else I have come to know about life in the Church. God loves us. He loves us beyond anything we are capable of understanding, why should He not have around Him those He loves and who love Him back? Why should He not listen to them?

    This little snippet from Fr. Thomas Hopko from a speech about life after death in Brisbane Australia has some insight for me too:

    “Some people say, ‘Well, when you die it is too late and it is certainly too late for us to pray for a person. Why should I pray for my mother and father who have departed this life? They are dead and into the presence of God already. There is nothing that these prayers can do, because it’s over for them’. Here our Church would say this, ‘As long as I am alive in this world, it isn’t over for me. And I don’t know what is going on out there, but if I love my mother and father and even my worst enemy, and I know that they are dying and they are going into the presence of the Lord, and have to pass this incredible test and have to really come to love and have faith in God, then I will pray for them will all my heart and soul. I will pray to my last brief that God’s mercy and love would be accepted by them and that they would be saved’. But I also have to say this, our Church teaches that God hears our prayers before we even pray them. In fact our Church teaches that God hears our prayers before He even created the world and us. So if I pray today for my father like I did at the Holy Liturgy this morning, when they say remember the departed, I always say John and Anna as my parents and others, like we all do, God heard that even before He created even the whole world. That prayer becomes part of the whole divine providence for my mother and father and others we pray for. Therefore, it isn’t too late for God, because God hears our prayers whenever we make them for all eternity, and they have an effect upon the whole of creation. One little prayer changes the entire divine providence. So if I pray now for my parents, I am obviously going to pray for them as being already asleep in the Lord, because they are biologically dead. Although I believe that they are alive in God and sometimes I must say have mercy on them. One in a while I even pray to them and say “mum and dad, please help me today. Because I have to give a talk in Brisbane’.”

    Is it not probable that someone like St. Seraphim of Sarov who showed forth the Light of God while yet in physical form is not always active in prayer? The Blessed Virgin Mother of God, Mary whose womb became more spacious than the heavens and contained the uncontainable God?

  19. Chip. Says:

    “I know I’m probably scandalizing the daylights out of protestant readers with such statements” —

    No scandal taken. We (some of us) believe in the “cloud of witnesses” per the Scriptures and in the “communion of saints” per the Creeds. However, we lack guidance about access to such grace.

  20. The Interecession of Saints « Errare humanum est Says:

    […] The Interecession of Saints July 26, 2007 Posted by wilken in orthodox, saints, catholicism. trackback Here’s an interesting article by Fr. Stephen about the intercession of saints. […]

  21. hamza Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen:
    I am currently writing a paper on intercession of saints in Islam and while doing a search online I found your article. I am sorry that you stated that in focusing on God as an individual, lslam is radical in that aspect. On the contrary, traditional Islam as practiced by the majority of Muslims has always had a rich tradition of devotional prayers and benedictions upon the Prophet as well as the intercession of Saints both living and those who have left this realm. Also, God is always described as having in the Divine presence the Mal’a, which is a heavenly gathering of Prophets, Martyrs, Saints and the righteous. I would suggest you read Thomas Merton’s work on Sufism that is published by Fons Vitae. As a general rule, it is always better to leave other traditions alone unless you really have studied them. What usually results is stereotypical canards repeated by the less educated, and your own area of mastery is then questionable.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    hamza,

    I stand corrected. You learn something new every day. Thanks for the note.

  23. Svend Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve really enjoyed this post, which I also came across while gathering sources for research (for my masters thesis) on saintly intercession across the Abrahamic traditions.

    Hamza’s corrections are accurate, but needlessly uncharitable. You cannot be faulted for having this impression of Islam given how many Muslims under various ideological influences (arid Modernism, Wahhabism) frame Islam so coldly. There’s long been a tendency of greatly overemphasize the parallels between Sunni Islam and Protestant Christianity, even though Islam shares more basic theological principles with Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

    The reality, though, is that normative, historical Sunni Islam has a similarly nuanced approach to a host of doctrinal matters. Simply put, most Orthodox Muslims would share many of your issues with Protestant categories and hermeneutics (or rather lack there of in the case of some prominent wings of American Evangelicalism).

    Incidentally, I’m with you all the way on epistemology if not ultimate theology. WIth all due respect to Protestant friends, I as a Muslim find “sola scriptura” inadequate for capturing the infinite unfolding of Divine Truth (in fact, in its refusal to incorporate inherited patristic & conciliar tradition and scholarly consensus into the religion reminds me of Wahhabism, which has been an intellectual disaster for Muslim societies) and the Protestant view of sainthood (or rather its lack thereof) is depressingly mechanistic for my Sufi inclined sensiblities.

    And the simple binary categories that are routinely used to lump saint veneration in with idolatry are no less viable in Islamic tradition, which despite it’s anxieties about polytheism has a very robust and, yes, salvific role for saints (though not in their own right; their ability to petition before God results from their immersion in the way and light of the Prophet Muhammad; there are some interesting parallels between the Prophet’s role in Islam and that of Lady Mary in Orthodoxy).

    The notions of saints sanctifying and even saving the world by pointing to God and the idea of a “Deposit of Faith” that includes more than just scripture are very familiar to Muslim tradition.

    Some of the details of this are debated within the various schools of thought, but the broad outlines aren’t. Many Muslims today are woefully unware of their tradition, thanks to the triple scourges of cultural illiteracy, arid Modernism and Wahhabi pseudo and related know nothing Islamist revivalist movements.

    Thanks.

  24. Svend Says:

    BTW, in my haste I oversimplified some things a smidgen in that comment. There are certainly are differences among orthodox Muslim scholars about mystical practices and the place of saints in faith (e.g., there have been lively debates over the centuries about whether saints can perform miracles like prophets), but on most disputed issues it’s usually the mystics who find the most support in classical sources (which encompass more than just Scripture), so the impression one gets today of Protestant style scripturalism being the norm in Islamic civilization is dead wrong. There are intra Sufi debates and not all Sufi doctrines or practices are meant for everybody, but what we now often refer to as Sufi Islam is historically the norm.

  25. Danny Says:

    Father Stephen,

    This is sooo interesting, AND encouraging! Having been raised Catholic, I remember as a child hearing “Catholicism isn’t the only way to God, but we believe it’s the best way”. And I’ve given much thought to the fact that the word “catholic” means “universal”.

    As an adult (and Methodist), I became immersed in the Bible as “God’s Holy Word” and strangely enough was pointed back to the concept of the “universal God” and His incredible extent. There’s no way I could have conceived, as a child, what God’s Holy Spirit has blessed me with today. It seems the vision of the Virgin Mary is not limited by religion or even time and space, but comes to those who keep these things in their heart and ponder what they mean. (And according to scripture, a “pure heart” doesn’t hurt either.) But I sense now that our Holy Bible may be just a divinely designed launching pad from which the journey only begins. It basically separates us from this world system and all its corruption. Salt and light inhibits corruption, no?

    To be able to say “I did it my way” was once my goal. Now I have to admit that I, by myself, am less than nothing. To deny “The Heavenly Hosts” was for me an isolationist tendency based on selfish pride and lack of maturity. Satan loves to see that. After all, his strategy has always been to divide and conquer.

    What excites me (but doesn’t surprise me) is the discovery that all over the world people are hearing the same essential Truth, as at Pentecost. Just like the multicolored kernels of Mexican corn displayed at Thanksgiving (red, yellow, black, and white) they’re all of one ear. Look out, turkeys. That coat of many colors may have become a family coat of arms, huh?

    And to my friends of the Islamic faith, I must admit that I have not pondered the Koran. I wasn’t launched from there. In the event that it is not possible to come together in this world, we may have to meet in an environment more reflective of the light God sends into this world. I long for the day when we can all say,
    “The Eagle Has Landed” and “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

    And the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow
    Gives the luster of mid-day to objects below.

    When God’s children all over the world stand up as The Republic, One Nation Under God, ….that will be satan’s worst nightmare.

    Father Stephens, I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments and their responses. I knew you were the real thing when you responded to hamza (Jan 10, 2008) as a brother. Not surprizing, since stephanos means “crown”.

    I’ll take all the intercession and guidance that God and His saints will bless me with.

    Sincerely,
    Danny

  26. fatherstephen Says:

    Thank you, Danny.

    Lest I be misleading in my efforts of kindness… God will save whomever He wishes and He gives His grace to everyone. But the Truth is only found in Jesus Christ (the Koran and Christ cannot both be true). But God is working in ways we do not understand as well as those we do. The kindness and generosity of God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ in Whom alone is true salvation. But there will be many from the East and the West who will sit down at the banquet table in the Kingdom of God. May God grant you to be there!

  27. Danny Says:

    Thanks Fr. Stephen,

    I guess “universe” does mean “one story”. Its mysteries call me deeper, but I’ll never venture too far from the Son. As Ray Charles said in a song, “Baby it’s cold outside”. Discernment of the Truth is my passion, and if it doesn’t harmonize with my Master’s voice, it’s not my calling.
    Thank you for your blessing.

    Sincerely,
    Danny

  28. David Jerry Says:

    Thank God for the communion of the saints. It is very difficult nowadays to find someone righteous enough to be our interceder. Thank God for the cloud of witnesses, our interceders in high places. O, Theotokos, please pray for us.

  29. Barnabas Says:

    David,

    How every interesting thank you for posting. There are a few points I’d like to make, whilst hoping I don’t speak out of turn.

    As Father Stephen explains, the Catholicity of the Church is more about fullness than universality.

    Because it is impossible to contain the immanence of the Living One of John of Patmos, or the Elohim of Daniel and the Adonai of Isaiah and Ezekiel, we are given the Eucharist, that we may dwell in His Presence, for as long as we can bear it.

    That God should make Himself known to us is a mystery unto itself. That He should have done so while we were still undeserving sinners, is another matter altogether.

    He is worthy, He is worthy, He is with us.

  30. Intercession of the Saints | Living a Liturgical Life Says:

    […] post called Oxymorons, Necromancy, and Prayers to Saints. And, another good one on the subject of The Intercession of the Saints was written a few years back by Fr. Stephen […]

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