Sunday, August 8, 2010

Spiritual Minimalism: Praying to Saints

“Praying to saints is a big waste of time.”

You explain that Catholics do not worship saints. You explain that we are asking the saints for their prayers. Praying to the saints doesn’t replace our prayer to God himself!

“Okay, but if I can pray to God directly, shouldn’t I spend all of my prayer time just praying to Him?”

Here’s the evangelical concern: We only have so much time each day we can pray, so we want to make it count. Praying to saints is just adding another middle man. Let’s cut the fat and just get to the good stuff. We’ll get more out of ten minutes of prayer to God, than eight minutes to God with two minutes of prayer to saints. Besides, our prayers get to God either way.

Sound familiar? Like more and more evangelical beliefs and practices these days, this way of thinking has more to do with secular American culture than anything Christian. Underlying this argument is an attitude that, in keeping with western capitalism, we should try to maximize the personal benefits of our limited spiritual time.

It’s really a matter of efficiency. The simpler the process is, the better. Let’s just get our prayers up to God and call it good. No need to involve others in the process.

Here’s the problem: God is not calling individuals as islands, he is calling a people of God. Yes, it takes more time, but we are relational creatures designed to live life, including the spiritual life, in community. And there is only one bride of Christ, one Church. Whether a person is in this life or the next, if they are one of God’s people, they are a part of His one Church. And God has called us to pray for one another.

So why does it matter if we have others praying for us? Because God wants to use our prayers for each other to affect change in the world – not to distract us from him, but in order to more rightly offer him worship as one body. Does he have to do things that way? No, but he chooses to because he is not only concerned about the end, he is also concerned with the process. Catholics are not looking just to worship God, we are looking to worship God with all the angels and saints in heaven.

When we pray with the saints in heaven, that is what we are doing.  And we are fulfilling God’s command that the whole Church pray for and with one another. A person is not wasting valuable prayer time when he asks for his friends and neighbors to pray for him, so neither is he wasting time when he asks a fellow member of the body of Christ who’s already in heaven to pray for him. Rather, he is more fully worshiping God as He has intended us to - as a people.

Sadly, this attitude of wanting to maximize gain has actually led to evangelicals losing out on a much deeper level. What evangelicals think is just useless fat - praying to people who will just go on and pray to God when we could just pray to God ourselves with that time - is really the fullness of the spiritual life - the full communion of Christians throughout time and space helping each other and worshiping God together.

I call evangelicals, and remind Catholics, not to live the minimum spiritual life they think they need to get by. Let us embrace the fullness of the Church, past and present, knowing that we will gain the depth of the spiritual life as God intended it, in a rich community.


  1. Excellent post!
    The apostles creed tells us "we believe in the Communion of saints", so we know that it was a normative practice of the early Church to invoke the prayers of the saints.

  2. Great post. I remember in Letters to Malcolm somewhere C.S. Lewis making the simple point that since we ask for the prayers of the living, why should we not ask for the prayers of the dead?

  3. we also just have a very American Dreamish conception of heaven, so the saints praying for us makes no sense--if we're all chilling drinking coffee and having movie nights with all our friends (and Jesus of course) for all of eternity, how could we hear people on earth?

    but if we are united to Christ (who hears us and is praying for us) and freed of sin (including selfishness and self-indulgence), the question is more... how could we not pray for the Church on earth? That's what our Savior's heart beats for. If we are perfectly united to Him, our hearts will beat for her as well.

  4. not a slave, that is just beautiful. Thank you.

  5. Excellent post, Brantly. Very timely for me, too. Thanks.

  6. The late priest, Fr. Kevin Fete, (my "go to guy" in heaven now) had a maxim. It was this:

    "Don't make the minimum requirement your maximum responsibility."

  7. I would say that the Protestant concern is not efficiency, but not letting any human being take our attention form God - it's not that they want to maximize benefits, it's that they think God deserves all their attention, much more than any human beings do.

    Now I don't agree with this mindset completely either. I say if it's a good thing to ask a living person to pray for you, why isn't it okay to ask a person who is dead to pray for you?

    But I wouldn't characterize their problems as a selfish desire for efficient use of their prayer time. I would characterize it as a deep reverence for prayer, believing that prayer is worship. Maybe I don't agree with their definition there, but I don't think it's an essentially evil definition either, just different.

  8. I agree with Carla. It's not about efficiency at all. It's about our fear of accidentally worshiping a person rather than God.

    I for one do not understand why Catholics don't understand why Protestants don't want to pray to people. We consider prayer worship. We don't believe in worshiping people. I believe Catholics don't believe in worshiping people either, so why the argument???

    I totally get that Catholics are asking saints for their prayers like I might ask my Dad to pray for me. Fine. But I'm not going to say I'm praying to my Dad. Does that make sense?

    We just want to be sure the focus is on Jesus, that's all. Even though I am not Catholic, I love learning about the lives of the saints. I just don't plan on worshiping them.

    I often wonder too, can all the people in heaven hear me? Can they hear me thinking or just speaking out loud? I get confused on this because I know only God is omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent.

    ~ Z.

    1. I know this is 5 years old, but I wanted to respond for future viewers.

      You hit the nail on the head when you said that Catholics don't view prayer as worship and Protestants do. It should be expanded upon though: Catholics view prayer as a possible method of worship, but it isn't necessarily worship all the time; sometimes it is just a prayer request or a way of speaking to someone who has passed on. If you've ever lost a loved one and mumble something directed to them in your mind now and then, Catholics would view this as 'praying' to them. You mention talking to your dad. Talking, when it is to a deceased individual, is prayer. To Catholics, prayer is not worship unless there is the INTENT to worship. Catholics believe that people in heaven (saints) are able to hear prayers in some fashion, but that doesn't mean those people are all-knowing or all-powerful. As you said, God is omniscient, so it would be impossible to accidentally worship something/someone else if you had no intent of doing so. To Catholics, praying solely to God is the minimum practice of the faith and ignores the fullness of the body of Christ, the 2000 year old tradition of the church, and scriptural support that indicate saints are in heaven praying.

      As for why the argument exists, mostly it's because some Protestant groups are very aggressively anti-Catholic and list prayer to the saints as one of the major reasons. Also, Catholics long for the reunion of all Christians in one unified church, and have a desire to reconcile their beliefs, or at the very least, have their points of view understood (and correctly portrayed in the media).

      I hope that cleared some things up, and I'd like to mention I am someone who was raised Protestant and moved to Catholicism, after years of believing falsehoods about it.