So great a cloud of witnesses

Chris, the Lutheran Zephyr, is wrestling with the question of asking the saints to pray for us.

For me this falls under the category of “all may, none must.” I can see why some are uncomfortable with it, and I wouldn’t presume to judge someone else’s piety.

The argument that it’s permissible is, I think, pretty straightforward: We ask fellow Christians to pray for us, and we have no reason to think that death severs our communion with the Christians who’ve gone before us. As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has put it, “the New Testament hardly permits us to think that death can sever the fellowship of believers — and the eucharistic prayers also of Protestant bodies explicitly deny that it does.” So, there’s no insuperable theological reason for not asking the saints to pray for us.

I can see how, in practice, devotion to the saints can and has led to abuses. But the abuse of a thing is not a compelling argument against its proper use. Many good things in Christendom have been subject to abuse: confession, the Mass itself, and so on. We might even suspect that things which are very good and valuable are particularly prone to abuse since they’re so important in people’s lives.

Which is why, I think, the best way to get over worries about invoking the saints (if one wants to get over it) is to actually do it. Although Mariology is a different, though obviously not unrelated, issue, one thing that I think has helped me gain a better understanding of it is by actually incorporating some Marian devotions into my prayer life. I’ve found the Angelus to be a good place to start. It’s beautiful, brief, and easily incorporated into one’s daily routine (the tradition is to recite it morning, noon, and evening). It’s also very Scriptural and Christocentric, being a commemoration of the Incarnation and of our salvation and hope in Jesus.

8 thoughts on “So great a cloud of witnesses

  1. Lee,

    Thank you for the Robert Jenson quote and your comments. You are much more well-read than I am, and I appreciate your insights. Particularly, I like your counter intuitive advice – “the best way to get over worries about invoking the saints (if one wants to get over it) is to actually do it.” I’m moving in that direction . . .

    Peace to you, and thanks.

  2. Lee, I concur with your first point, but I suspect your second, or at least need more clarification on a first reading.

    Your invocation of Pascal in your “Up from Atheism” post (a quite informative and inspiring post, by the way) seems to have caught your imagination. While I agreed with your use there, I don’t think “if you can’t get over your nagging theological objections, just do it” is not necessarily a dictum that one can apply to every situation.

    For me, whenever there has been a change in my practice or thinking, it has come after a long period of wrestling. Almost invariably I know when the shift in my thinking has occurred and begin to change the practice. It is when the arguments for (or against) doing something become less convincing than the arguments against (or for) doing something. Maybe that’s too obvious.

    Perhaps you are saying that one only “tests the spirits” (1 John) by actually testing them. I hope this is what you were trying to say, rather than “don’t listen to those nagging theological doubts.”

  3. Joshie (Poo)

    Any long-time reader of this blog or its predessor knows Lee is not the sort of person who believes in turning off one’s brain for the sake of faith.

    There’s a difference between being uncomfortable with something and having serious concerns about something. The former is a visceral, emotional response to something and the latter is the result of examining something critically.

    I feel uncomfortable with praying the Angelus. But I agree entirely with Lee’s rationale for doing so. My discomfort with the Angelus is solely emotional. I grew up and was educated in a very “low” church tradition and as a result I sometimes get a nagging feeling that what I’m doing is improper, even though I know it isn’t.

    On the other hand, I have concerns about Macquerrie’s mariology, which I expressed in comments on Lee’s posts on that topic at the former blog. Those concerns are that a high mariology pushes Christology too high and that an overmighty Mariology can lead to neglect of the rest of the faith, as some have claimed happens in Latin America. Those are intellectual concerns.

    I think Lee’s point is that sometimes the best way to rid ourselves of emotional worries with no intellectual basis is to dive right into the practices. That has helped me a good deal in my spiritual life as well.

  4. Right – sorry I was a bit unclear on that. And I hope this post didn’t sound too prescriptive; I’m just recording what I’ve personally found helpful.

    But, yeah, I wouldn’t advocate anyone engaging in a practice that they believed they had good theological considerations against. I was trying to get at what Joshie (Poo) said – that one can have an emotional aversion to something even after being convinced intellectually. And in that case I’ve found that “just do it” goes a long way.

  5. I once went to a Catholic discussion group to give a talk. The leader finished his opening prayer with “Sts. Cyril and Methodius pray for us” (the talk was about Mongolia, Buddhism, and missions so it was quite an appropriate reference). But I thought, how do you know Cyril and Methodius heard you?

    How indeed? We know that Christ, even in His human nature, through the personal union with the divine nature has been granted gifts of omnipresence, and so on. What about Sts. Cyril and Methodius? Of course if they knew their fellow Christians needed help they would pray for them. And the saints in glory do seem to have some sense of what’s going on in the church militant (see the martyrs under the altar in Revelation). But can they hear individual prayers all over the world at once? I see no real warrant to believe that is the case.

  6. Joshie says that any long-time reader knows that Lee does not turn off his brain. Being a long-time reader, I concur with his statement. But I still maintain that Lee’s original statement needed more fleshing-out. That he has done.

  7. I’ve been known to turn off my brain. I watched several hours worth of American Idol this week, for instance.

    p.s. CPA – good question.

  8. Pingback: A Marian witness « A Thinking Reed

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