One in heaven and earth

In my first of these two posts on Article 22 I considered the practice of praying for those who have died. In this second post on the article, I move on to the question of invoking the prayers of the saints. Both practices seem to stand condemned in the article, which I suggested is particularly reacting (I would say over-reacting) to an over-mechanised and over-systematized economy of prayer and the dead. Here’s a reminder of its wording:

XXII. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

In the first post I sketched some possible biblical roots for the practice of praying for the dead. It is less straightforward to find any direct biblical root for the invocation of the saints. But it is worth considering in this context the portrayal of heaven in the visions of St John the Divine.

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:9-11 NRSV)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10  NRSV)

Heaven as portrayed by Fra Angelico
Heaven as portrayed by Fra Angelico

In the first of these passages one likely explanation of the “twenty-four elders” is the patriarchs of the twelve tribes combined with the apostles: together they symbolize the people of God, engaged in the worship all created things offer to their Creator. In the second passage, the martyrs are represented praying for the coming of God’s final judgement. Taken together, the people of God engage in praise and prayer in heaven. The question to be addressed is how the people of God on earth relate to these heavenly activities.

There are two particular Protestant objections (which are often treated as appropriate cautions by many thinking Catholics) to the invocation of the saints. The first concerns some implicit role as mediators, which they are not, nor have they ever officially been considered as such. This fault is due to an inadequate appreciation of the immanent loving presence of the transcendent God, uniquely revealed in Christ. In this case, it is not that a false understanding of the saints gave rise to a distorted view of God, but that a distorted view of God – particularly an imperial stress on Christos Pantokrator – created space for a wrong understanding of the saints.

The second objection is to the particular language of devotion that seems to put the saints – particularly the Blessed Virgin – in God’s place. All technical distinctions between latreia (worship) given to God alone, and doulia (veneration) given to saints, tend to vanish in the extravagant affection of devotional practice. A good example, at least to my ears, is the Salve Regina: “vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra” (our life, our sweetness and our hope) are phrases that properly belong to the persons of the Trinity, not to our Lady. Devotion to the saints is an example of the problems that can be created when the lex orandi (rule of prayer) is allowed to run free, and not corrected by the lex credendi (rule of faith).

We need to be clear, then, that there were and are real problems associated with the practice of invocation of the saints. For some these are so dominant that the question remains firmly closed, but I consider that a mistake. The Protestant chasm between the living and the dead seems to me to do violence to any conception of the Church as the Body of Christ and, indeed to evacuate the resurrection of some of its potential to reframe the present.

How can you have fellowship with those with whom you can never talk? If the dead are made alive in Christ, then they need to be treated as living. It is certainly possible for our understanding of the saints to slip into derogation of the uniqueness of Christ that is the keystone of biblical faith. However, it is in order to give the biblical doctrines of the Church and the resurrection of Christ their due prominence that we must develop our understanding of the communion of saints.

As the quoted imagery of Revelation suggests, there is no real ecumenical problem in conceiving of the heavenly assembly as one engaged in praise and prayer. The issue is how the church on earth relates to it. One way some have suggested through the maze is the practice of comprecation. this may be as simple as an acknowledgement that we are bound together. It may also ask God to grant us a share in the prayers of the saints, as one of the collects for concluding the intercessions does in Common Worship:

Almighty God,
by your Holy Spirit you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth:
grant that in our earthly pilgrimage
we may ever be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer,
and know ourselves surrounded by their witness
to your power and mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is presented as a unitive text that acknowledges this heavenly fellowship as a living reality, while avoiding any direct address to its members. It probably represents a position that is as far as the whole breadth of Anglicanism can agree to go together. (Or maybe most of it – it’s probably foolish to claim anything for the whole breadth!) The Church of England combines those who splutter at a mention of Mary (seemingly not wanting to be included in the generations that will call her blessed) and those who will happily sing Ye who own the faith of Jesus (”Let us weave our supplications, / she with us and we with her” — which has intriguingly been in most mainstream Anglican hymnals published for over a century). Finding unitive ways of expressing this breadth in public liturgy is important, and perhaps some limited comprecation offers such a way forward.

However, there are those of us who are quite happy to go further, and see nothing wrong in asking the saints for their prayers, just as we ask our friends and fellow-worshippers for their prayers. In one sense it is quite unnecessary and superfluous, except that God seems to wish his children to pray for one another, for themselves and for all his creation, even if he doesn’t, presumably, need them so to do.. It’s just something that as Christians we do for and with one another. One of the opening penitential prayers of the Roman Mass captures this well. I quote the older version, before reactionaries with a tin-ear for the rhythms of English messed around with the missal:

I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

There is no distinction between the prayers of the Church in heaven and the Church on earth here, both are asked for as part of the same action, acknowledging our common fellowship, in one Body of Christ; those who still anticipate the fullness of the resurrection share with those who have entered into it. And, in the end, what we are now is already a participation in what we shall be.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God the three in one,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.