To pray the saints to pray

I just read a fantastic article at a fellow Anglican’s blog, haligweorc, highlighting some really great ecclesiological (doctrine of the Church) statements in the Sarum Rite, a pre-Reformation worship liturgy used in England, if I’m not mistaken.

One of the things in particular that I noticed as I read the quoted prayers was the way saints were addressed.  “Praying to saints” is a topic that pretty much universally turns off Evangelicals the second the phrase is uttered; there is rarely a second chance offered, or an open mind to listen.  But what I noticed was that the definition of ‘pray’ isn’t quite as particular as we generally consider it.  As this article about St. Simon and St. Jude also explains, ‘pray’ in its earlier English meaning was more of a generic word for ‘ask.’  It could mean asking God, but it could mean asking anyone else something too.  Check this out:

I confess to God, to blessed Mary, to all the saints, and to you, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, by my fault : I pray holy Mary, all the saints of God,  and you, to pray for me.

This is a prayer that would be prayed by the priest before Mass with the altar party (deacon, readers, candle-bearers, and other such servers and ministers).  To clarify, the rest of the group would pray this too; it was a two-way acknowledgement of personal unworthiness to approach God in worship, and the need for God’s righteousness to fill the believers.  Yes, Catholics believe in grace 😛   Anyway, what I wanted to point out here was the last phrase “I pray [a bunch of people] to pray for me.”

In a modern version of that prayer which I’ve observed & prayed on occasion before Wednesday morning Eucharist at my church, the wording is “I ask [a bunch of people] to pray for me.”

Both articles I cited above say much the same thing on this connection between praying and the saints:

Not only does the Confiteor name the saints—mirroring the prayer at the procession—it places them in the proper relationship to us; we pray together for one another.
haligweorc, 2 lines before the last block quote

I therefore urge everyone who talks about “praying to Saint X” to modernize his language and instead talk about “asking Saint X to join me in praying to God for the recovery of my sick aunt,” or whatever. The other way of talking can mislead others, and it can mislead the speaker.
Justus Anglican Resources, 3rd paragraph before the prayers

That’s pretty different from what I used to imagine when I heard Catholics talking about “praying to saints.”  At worst, we imagine they’re talking to saints as if they’re equals with God, or parts of God’s being, or some such heresy.  Slightly better but still objectionably, we might imagine that they’re treating saints as if they’re some sort of intermediaries between God and ourselves, bridging the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness (which we all acknowledge that Christ has filled).  But in fact, the primary issue here is actually a translation issue!  The word ‘pray’ itself has morphed its meaning over the past few centuries, warping Protestant misunderstanding of Catholic practice, as well as confusing some Catholics in their own theology.

Of course, there remains the other major Protestant objection – what makes us think that the departed can hear us?  Well, that’s another big topic that I can’t address in this post (and which I don’t have a clear understanding about it anyway).  And of course I’m not presuming that what I’ve written here this short post is itself sufficient to convince anyone that including the saints who came before us in our worship liturgies is an appropriate thing.  That’d be quite the ecclesiological treatise!

Really, I just wanted to start working out thoughts on this whole practice of praying to/with saints, and show off Dr. Olsen‘s awesome blog post at haligweorc.  (And more beside the point, any excuse to use Anglo-Saxon words again is good enough for me!)

2015 update – the haligweorc blog has moved over to The St. Bede Blog.  I’ve updated the first link in this post accordingly.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
This entry was posted in Devotional, Theological and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to To pray the saints to pray

  1. Derek Olsen says:

    Thanks for the link, Matthew! (One minor detail, though—I’m only a “father” in the biological sense… :-))

  2. Pingback: Through someone else’s eyes | Leorningcnihtes boc

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