The Company of Saints

I was recently with a Roman Catholic family in the final hours of their loved one’s life.  A priest came and administered the Anointing of the Sick (what we used to call "Last Rites").  During the prayers the priest called on various saints to pray for the patient – from Abraham and David, to Mary and Peter, to John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi.  In fact, after the priest named each saint, the family responded with this plea: "Pray for him."  At least 10 times the family called out to different saints to "pray for him." 

I have never been so comforted at someone’s death as I was in this experience.  The thought that these saints of old, from the Bible and from the Church’s tradition, are praying for this dying man – what a comfort!  Surely all we did was ask these saints to pray – I guess we don’t know if Francis and his friends actually got on their heavenly knees and began to pray – but even the thought that such a company of saints would bring this man to God in prayer was amazing.  It was as if that room were filled with saints standing alongside the patient’s wife and children, calling out to God for mercy and peace.  Amazing.

After the priest finished the rite, he asked me to step out in the hallway with him for a minute.  "You’re a Lutheran, but, but . . . you were praying the ‘Hail Mary’."  "Yes, Father, I did.  I learned it in college and, though protestant, I find much comfort in the hope that perhaps the saints are praying with and for us.  Anyway, if I’m not mistaken, Martin Luther had a quite a dedication to Mary the Mother of our Lord."  Before walking away, he hugged me and gave me a look that combined confusion with a newly found admiration.  Who knew that Lutherans could pray the Hail Mary?

I don’t understand why we shouldn’t call on the saints to pray for us or for those in need.  They are our ancestors and predecessors in the faith whose witness has inspired us and whose wisdom has taught us.  They are part of the eternal and timeless body of Christ, and as such are worthy to be asked to pray, just as I might ask you or my pastor to pray.  Going even further, I can’t believe it would hurt to ask these people – these saints, after all, who had a special relationship with God – to pray as well.  It might even help.

I admit that my belief about the role of the saints is not entirely worked out and probably has some unintended consequences for other aspects of my belief in God and the church.  The above paragraph has slippery theological slopes for a protestant.  But . . at that patient’s bedside I was comforted by the image of the company of saints praying for my patient . . . and I believe the family was comforted, too.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Clinical Pastoral Education, Faith & the Church, Liturgy, Lutheran. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Company of Saints

  1. LP says:

    Oh, you know I am loving this post. Good to know I am not alone!

  2. Well–as you both know, one of the reasons I left the Lutheran process was an inability to abide by the article of the CA on “The Invocation of Saints”…

  3. I thought this post would get the attention of both of you . . .
    Surely article XXI of the Augsburg Confession does present some challenges, but of course the Reformers were rallying against various abuses and the supposed merit of praying to the saints. Strip away the polemic of their age – which we managed to do in to achieve full communion with our Episcopalian brethren – and I think you can justify a Lutheran practice of invoking the saints.
    Surely the invocation of the saints has “neither a promise of God, nor a command, nor an example from Scripture,” as the Apology to CA XXI attests. But a prohibition of such a practice, it seems to me, would deny the eternal and timeless nature of the Body of Christ. Somehow those who are in Christ prior to death are still in Christ after death. Somehow I am connected in faith with all the saints – those living and those deceased. Surely, I have little idea of how it all works, but I imagine not even human death can break the bonds of the Body of Christ that unites me with the saints in all time and place. And so with that timeless interconnectedness of the Body of Christ, I am willing to suggest that yes, Lutherans can call on the saints for prayer.
    And that’s all I think I’m suggesting – that we can call on the saints of all time for prayer. I’m not suggesting an elaborate schema of merit connected to the saints, nor in any way do I want to mandate a practice of invoking the saints. But I do wonder if invoking the saints is a practice that is allowed in Christian freedom, acknowledging that in faith we are united in One Body of Christ, and that the timeless living Body of Christ is real, life-giving, and active in the church and world.
    (Much more to write on this, and I’ll likely explore this issue in future posts)

  4. Lee says:

    I don’t know how “official” this is, but I recall at least one of our Lutheran churches had the practice of what I can only call invoking the saints in the preface to the Sanctus during the Eucharist. Something along the lines of “..and so with Peter, and Mary, and all the saints we glorify you and praise your holy name: Holy, holy…”. This seems to directly imply a communion between us and the saints that isn’t severed by death.

  5. liz says:

    I love the practice of invoking the saints to pray with or for us, and have found a great deal of comfort in imagining my departed loved ones gathering with the whole communion of saints as we all pray together. What troubles me is the practice of praying TO the saints as a substitute for praying to God.

  6. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession (which I don’t have in front of me right now) and also Luther’s essay on the Magnificat describe that the saints continually pray for and with the church – so yes, in the Proper Preface we often recall that with Peter, Mary Magdelene and all the saints we pray . . . Lutherans have traditionally accepted that the saints indeed do pray and that we do join with them in the celebration of the communion table.
    But my musings in this post push things a bit further beyond the Lutheran comfort zone – I am wondering if we can call on individual saints to pray for specific things. Can I ask Mary or Peter or Francis to pray for me, my loved one, or world peace? Despite protestations from the Reformers that we cannot do so (or, at least, that there is no promise nor command nor example from Scripture that a practice of calling on the saints for prayer should be followed), I’m playing with the possibility that yes, indeed, we can call on saints to pray for us.
    This is a work in progress that is begging for my attention. Unfortunately, a CPE clinical report and book presentation, a sermon and an adult forum are more looming over me these days. Argh! This stuff of saints and prayer is so much more interesting, however . . .

  7. Lee says:

    If we allow, then, that death doesn’t sever the connections between us and the saints in glory, then I wonder why it would be any more suspect to ask Mary or Peter or whoever to pray for us than if you or I were to ask for each others’ prayers? Anyway, that’s the standard Roman Catholic (and Orthodox, Anglican) argument as I understand it.

  8. Bill says:

    I don’t know what it is, but my Calvinist blood runs cold at the thought of singling out individuals as having special relationships to God. It’s a thought that I always believed Calvin got from Luther and Melancthon, that all members of Christ’s church are saints. Just as they have no need of a priest other than Christ to intervene on their behalf, no member of Christ’s body is any less in the God-relationship department than any other one is.
    That being said, if there is any comfort in calling on others in our congregations and among our friends and families to pray with us and for us, why not call on the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses for the same purpose? I however, wouldn’t address a prayer to my wife, or my mother, nor to Peter or Mary. The addressee of my “prayers” is always God, but I don’t exclude the possibility of one-sided conversations with those who have departed this earthly life. I just don’t usually talk to Peter or Mary because I didn’t know them personally. My grandfather or best friend would be easier for such a purpose.
    So, there are my two cents.

  9. Dave B. says:

    Hey, all,
    This is a really interesting conversation. Thanks for starting it.
    My own two cents: it’s quite right (and important) that our connection with other Christians is not severed by death. It’s very important to hold onto that. I suppose I don’t even have a problem with asking departed Christians to pray for me. But where my Protestant hackles start kicking is when we elevate certain departed Christians over others due to the strength of their intercessory abilities (e.g., I’ve heard Catholics talk about the Blessed Virgin as ‘mighty in intercession before God’). Why do we pray to the BVM and not, say, my departed grandmother? Why do we ascribe St. Jude greater intercessory power than someone else? That seems to me to be a key part of the whole idea of sainthood, and it does, I think, create a spiritual hierarchy before God, and infringes on the uniquely mediatorial role that belongs to Jesus alone.

  10. Dag, this is good conversation. Thanks for your comments. We even have protestants (such as myself!) conceding that we are not severed from the saints of old in Christ, and that we could call on the saints to pray. Whether we should is another question.
    When I suggested in this post that “it might even help” if we asked saints to pray for us, particularly given their “special relationship with God,” I think I was speaking in the vein of James 5:16b: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Now, what kind of Lutheran am I quoting James (which Luther dubbed an “epistle of straw”) in defense of invoking the saints? I’ve got issues.
    I hope the conversation continues. I’d love to see more on this from LutherPunk and Derek, if they care to expound on this. Many thanks to Lee for his post <a href="http://thinkingreed.wordpress.com/2007/03/08/so-great-a-cloud-of-witnesses/&quot; So great a cloud of witnesses over at his blog. Otherwise, you’ll see a post or two next week in which I wrestle with the invocation of the saints, the Augsburg Confession, and some of Luther’s writings. Thanks.

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