There are people in Christianity who deprive themselves of the consolation of praying for the reposed. What kind of people are they? Undoubtedly, they are those who, whether perceptibly or imperceptibly to themselves, love to reason more than to believe. Why don’t they accept prayers for the dead? There is no other reason except that it is not clear how the effect of prayer can extend so far—even from one world to the other, from the visible to the invisible.
I would ask someone who reasons this way: Does ordinary reason understand the efficacy of the prayer of a living person for another living person, especially if the prayer is offered for someone who is absent, or even someone who is present, to entreat something moral and spiritual, such as forgiveness of sins, correction from vices, taming of the passions, enlightenment, or strengthening in virtues? Do not two souls, each with its own reason, will, inclinations, and freedom, constitute two distinct worlds—and distinct all the more so because they are obstructed by bodies? How does the prayer of one extend its effect to the other?
If we undertake to explain how the distinction of being and freedom does not prevent the action of prayer for the living, we will also explain how the same distinction does not prevent prayer for the reposed. If they say that the action of prayer for the living is possible, although inexplicable to human reason, then I say: Do not denounce the effect of prayer for the reposed only because it is inexplicable, or seems to be.
And in my opinion, it is safer to reason less in matters of faith and believe more, and be established not on your own wisdom, but on the Word of God. The Word of God says: For we know not what we should pray for as we ought (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, according to reason, without grace, we don’t know whether we can pray for someone. But the Spirit Itself, continues the Apostolic word, maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered, in the prayer of each, according to his particular state; and the same Spirit, for general guidance in prayers, especially public prayers, clearly utters what it is fitting to pray for. For example, I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men (1 Tim. 2:1). And, If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it (1 Jn. 5:16). And again, Pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (Jas. 5:16). Let us hear again how the holy Apostle Paul both prays for others and demands prayers for others. We pray always for you, he writes to the Thessalonians, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power: That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 1:11-12). And further on in the same epistle: Brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you (3:1). And in another epistle: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the Gospel, For which I am an ambassador in bonds (Eph. 6:18-20).
Without gathering further testimonies from Sacred Scripture on prayer in general, as it’s a well-known matter, let us apply these testimonies that have been introduced so far to the special subject of the present reflection.
If we don’t know what to pray for, but for the edification of our ignorance we are given the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation, even to the point that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:15, 17): From the wisdom of the goodness of the Spirit of God, Who uttered this epistle, it behooves us to expect that it will not only satisfactorily instruct us on what to pray for, but will also protect us with prohibitions from praying for something that would not be pleasing to God. This expectation is justified by the matter itself. Now we have seen how the Holy Scriptures, commanding prayer for all men, protect the believer from prayer that is not pleasing to God and not useful to man by its prohibitions: There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it (1 Jn. 5:16). From this it follows that even if there is no special, definitive command about prayer for the departed in the Sacred Scriptures, it is deduced simply from the concepts and commandments about prayer in general; but if, moreover, there is no prohibition against this kind of prayer in the Holy Scriptures, as indeed there is not, this very non-prohibition, the very silence of Sacred Scripture is proof that praying for the reposed is not offensive to God and is not useless for people.
A lover of doubts will ask: Is it not superfluous to pray for those who died with faith and hope? I reply: Is it not superfluous to pray for the saints? However, St. Paul commands us to pray for all the saints. Is it not superfluous to pray for the Apostles, who spread grace to everyone else and are the first saints in the Church: God hath set some in the church, first Apostles (1 Cor. 12:28)? However, the Apostle Paul requires even those who are not Apostles to pray for him, even then as he was drawing near to the crown for the apostolic podvig. There is a prayer for the benefit of the Gospel itself: That the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified (2 Thess. 3:1), although the Gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth (Rom. 1:16)—can we fear superfluity in prayer for believers?
Or they will ask: Is it not futile to pray for those who have died in sin? I respond: It is in vain for those who have died in mortal sin, in spiritual death, and were overtaken by bodily death in this state—for those who inwardly fell away from the spiritual Body of the Church of Christ and from the life of faith, by their unbelief, unrepentance, and determined and total opposition to the grace of God. Where the signs of this bitter death are clear to the enlightened and impartial eye, there is no place for the consolation of prayer: There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. But what can prayer do for a brother [who has] sin[ned] a sin which is not unto death? It can give him life (1 Jn. 5:16). Does this really apply to one who is bodily dead? St. John, whose words now guide us, doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no. He doesn’t forbid prayer for the dead, whereas he forbids prayer for the despondent and hopeless sinner.
In the Divine Scriptures, the all-knowing wisdom of God does not loudly proclaim a commandment to pray for the reposed, perhaps so that the living would not, in hoping upon such aid, become lazy in working out their salvation with fear before their bodily death. And while it does not preclude this kind of prayer, does that mean it allows us to discard this, not always strongly reliable, but sometimes, and perhaps often, strong and saving rope, torn away from the shore of temporal life but not attaining the eternal refuge of souls, which between bodily death and the Last general Judgment of Christ, hover over the abyss, now rising by grace, now descending because of what remains of the corrupt nature, now delighting in Divine desire, now entangled in the crude, not quite removed vesture of earthly thoughts?
And perhaps this is why prayer for the departed has existed from antiquity and still exists in the Church, not as a solemnly proclaimed, essential part of the faith and strict commandment, but as a pious tradition and custom, ever supported by the free obedience of faith and by private spiritual experiences. Let us bring forth several testimonies to this.
A gift hath grace, writes the son of Sirach, in the sight of all the living, and restrain not grace from the dead (Sir. 7:33). What does it mean that a gift hath grace? If it’s the gift to the altar, then the words restrain not grace from the dead obviously mean to offer a sacrifice for the departed, or, in other words, to pray for the departed. If someone wants to confess that the grace of giving more plausibly means charity to the poor, then the words restrain not grace from the dead mean to give alms in memory of the departed. Whichever thought the son of Sirach had, they both assume the same thing; they have a common foundation—that the living can and should do good and soul-profiting deeds on behalf of the departed.
In the history of the Maccabees, we find precisely sacrifice and prayer for the departed. Judas offered it for the soldiers who died in the sin of taking as spoils of war gifts given to idols, with which the pious should not defile their hands (2 Macc. 12:39-46).
Prayer for the reposed has been an integral part of Christian public worship ever since it was instituted. All the ancient rites of the Divine Liturgy, beginning with the Liturgy of St. James the brother of the Lord, bear witness to this.
Therefore, there is no doubt that prayer for the departed is an Apostolic tradition.
Even if someone died a sinner, says St. John Chrysostom, “help him as far as possible, not by tears, but by prayers and supplications and alms and offerings. For not unmeaningly have these things been devised, nor do we in vain make mention of the departed in the course of the Divine Mysteries, and approach God in their behalf, beseeching the Lamb Who is before us, Who takes away the sin of the world—not in vain, but that some refreshment may thereby ensue to them. Not in vain does he that stands by the altar cry out when the tremendous Mysteries are celebrated, ‘For all that have fallen asleep in Christ, and for those who perform commemorations in their behalf.’” And further he says: “Let us not then be weary in giving aid to the departed, both by offering on their behalf and obtaining prayers for them: for the common expiation of the world is even before us… And it is possible from every source to gather pardon for them, from our prayers, from our gifts in their behalf, from those whose names are named with theirs” (Homily 41 on 1 Corinthians).1
“Nor can it be denied,” says Blessed Augustine, “that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit, that services of this kind can help them” (On Faith, Hope, and Love 110).2
St. Gregory the Dialogist presents a remarkable experience of the effect of prayer and sacrifice for the departed, of the vow of poverty, which occurred in his monastery. For violating the vow of poverty, in fear of others, one brother was deprived of a Church burial and prayers for thirty days after his death, and then, out of compassion for his soul, the bloodless sacrifice was offered with prayer for him for thirty days. On the last of these days, the reposed appeared in a vision to his surviving blood brother and said: “Up to this moment I was in misery, but now I am well, because this morning I was admitted to communion” (Dialogues 4.55).
But let us be careful not to prolong our words to the point of exhaustion after a long service. For the attentive, what has been said is enough to confirm for ourselves the following not unknown, but often forgotten, rules.
First: Pray for the departed with faith and hope in the mercy of God.
Second: Do not live negligently, but try to strengthen your hope by pure faith and an urgent correction of your sins, that prayers will bring your soul joy after your death and help it receive eternal rest and blessedness in God, Who is ever-blessed and glorified unto the ages. Amen.