Great Questions-Why do we pray for the departed?

One of the gifts of being the cathedral of our diocese is that the Bishop is with us each year for the Great Vigil of Easter. Lent has long been a season of preparation for Baptism (and Confirmation) and the Bishop’s presence with us makes the Confirmation part of that possible on this special and appropriate occasion – and not just for the Cathedral community but for the deanery and the whole diocese.

Along with this opportunity comes the responsibility to offer a time of intentional preparation for those desiring to be baptized, confirmed or received. Over the course of that preparation there are always some great questions. So, here is one from this year’s group of inquiring minds and hearts

Why do we pray for the departed?

If we were Roman Catholics, the answer would be, in part, connected with their doctrine of purgatory. The Episcopal Church does not embrace the concept and doctrine of purgatory, and since we are directed to pray for the departed in the Prayers of the People when we celebrate the Eucharist there must be some other considerations.

Let’s examine several things as we explore the question further.

Prayer: Prayer is a form of conversation. Most often we consider it to be conversation with God. All too often we think of it as being us talking and God listening. It is important for us to practice the listening side of prayer. The Prayer Book tells us that there are seven principal kinds of prayer. They are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession and petition. (More about this can be found in the Catechism, BCP p. 856-857).

The Communion of Saints: St. Paul, for whom this cathedral is named, uses the word “saints” as a term meaning all members of the community of faith. Now, we believe that at the time of one’s earthly death “life is changed not ended” (from the proper preface for the Commemoration of the Dead in the Eucharistic prayers, BCP p. 382), so one who has died an earthly death has not left the community of faith, but entered into another part of it. They are still part of the Communion of Saints, but in a different way.

Not to them, but for them and with them: It is important to understand that we do not pray TO the departed or even to formal saints of the Church (St. Mary, St. Paul, St. John, etc). Prayers of Adoration, in the purest sense of what Adoration is, are reserved for God, in the fullness of the Holy Trinity, alone. But, those whose life is changed not ended, still being a part of the same Communion of Saints of which we are a part, can be engaged in our prayer life just as those we can reach out to and touch.

But for them: None of us would find it strange at all to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for an individual that means a great deal to us – maybe a family member, a friend, a mentor, or even the person who helped us change a flat tire for instance. Praying for the departed becomes a manner of conversation, since we can no longer communicate in the same verbal manner (or text, tweet, or Skype them). Holding them in our hearts before the Divine Presence in prayers of thanksgiving for them, and for their place in our journey, would be natural. So too, prayers of penitence have their place in that conversation. Imagine, if you will, the person who has died with whom we have a strained or broken relationship. As we consider them part of the greater community of saints, prayers of penitence can allow us to convey our sorrow and contrition for our part in the broken relationship. Prayer, again, is a means of continued conversation.

And with them: There are very few of us who would find it strange or uncommon to ask someone we know to pray with us (and even for us) if we are anxious or fearful about something, for an upcoming surgery or a job interview. Maybe we are asking them to pray in thanksgiving for our anniversary, or an occasion of healing, or to offer intercessions for healing or peace of mind. Now consider the fullness of the Communion of Saints as being a gathering of the faithful without the limits of time, space, or the time between human birth and death. It simply makes our prayer-circle, if you will, that much bigger. Also, maybe someone you know has passed from this earthly life, but they had a great passion like peace in the Holy Land (or anywhere else for that matter), and they have inspired you to continue that intercession. This understanding of the Communion of Saints as being the faithful gathered without time/space limits means you continue to share that journey instead of being left on your own.

A concluding word or two: This is about the real relationship. In the most real, the most genuine relationships we have, we do not try to change the other person. The fact is, their presence in our lives changes us. The inclusion of the Communion of Saints in our prayers is not at all like expanding our list of Facebook (or Prayerbook?) friends since more is not quantitative thing. There is no Prayer-O-Meter in the heavens we need to try to register a certain number on so God will give us what we want. (But, probably we’ve all tried to do that at one time or another.) Prayer is ultimately about an authentic relationship with the Pure and Steadfast Love of God – The Real Relationship. That relationship, through direct prayer, and through a continued engagement with God’s chosen vessels of that love and grace, whom we call “saints,” changes us.

Prayerfully, Scott+