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Why do we pray to saints?

UCA News reporter - Sun, Jul 10th 2022

The Bible teaches that “God created humans in his image” (Genesis 1:27)

The Bible teaches that “God created humans in his image” (Genesis 1:27). Commenting on this, Voltaire (1694-1778) said, “If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”

Our ability and propensity to create, our capacity to love and accept love, our ability to forgive and to transcend self-centeredness — sin-marred though they be — all point to some affinity to divinity in us.

But there is no denying that Voltaire was also right. We frequently “create” God in our image. In fact, a case can be made that most of the time and for most people our “God” is not presented to us by revelation, faith, liturgy, Scripture, theology, philosophy, or mystical or other experience, but is the offspring of our creativity having lost its rootedness in God.

That child of our imagination is very often a royal potentate, earthly kingship writ large. Even the Bible uses such imagery, as in Isaiah or Revelation. This is perhaps inevitable if we wish to grasp the awesome reality of God in some way. We imagine what is, or more accurately was in the once-upon-a-time, the ultimate example of potency, kingship.

However, if we fail to leave the images at the level of imagination and begin to use them as principles for action, we move from imagination as a tool for reflection to imaginings as homemade godlings.

Sometimes we do not ask saints to be our advocates before the throne of God; we ask them to work a miracle or two
on their own rather than bother the Potentate.We turn them into demigods

Recently I heard a rationale for prayer to Mary and other saints that I had picked up as a boy but had neither heard nor thought of in many years.

It goes like this: when wanting a favor from someone in power, it helps to have a go-between, a mutual friend who will speak on my behalf and get a better hearing. Perhaps the king owes that person a favor. In the heavenly court, such friends are the saints who can be asked to speak on our behalf to the King.

And so, we pray to Mary, to saints, or to others who need a miracle or two to qualify for canonization, hoping that they will approach God on our behalf to gain a favor that we might not otherwise merit.

Does Mary enter Jesus’ private chamber with a platter of cookies and a glass of milk saying, “Here, Dear, and don’t forget that Bill Grimm wants to win the lottery”? And does Jesus reply, “Thanks for reminding me, Mom”?

SIn fact, though, “official” prayers do not ask such extraordinary favors as finding lost car keys. The Litany of the Saints simply asks them to “Pray for us.” There are no Mass prayers directed to saints. Instead, we ask the Father to hear the saints who join our prayers.

God knows what I need. (And a winning lottery ticket is probably not on the list.) God’s love does not need activation by wheedling either by me or anyone else.

We ask them to be aware of that communion with us when they turn to God.
Knowing that they are with us is all we really want and need from them

My prayer for what I think I need is always offered under the caveat, “Not mine, but your will be done.” I offer such prayer in recognition that whatever the result, God hears my concern and will be with me no matter the outcome. Asking Mary or some other saint to join my petition adds nothing and might even distract me from recognizing and accepting God’s absolute freedom.

So, why do we pray to saints, asking them to join our recognition that God does, indeed, provide? We should seek the answer closer to home.

In the early 1200s, the word “preien” was adopted and adapted into English from French with the meaning “to ask earnestly.” Several generations later, about the year 1300, the word took on an added or more focused meaning of entreating God or a god or a saint. Today, of course, it is pronounced “pray.”

So, praying was originally something we did with one another. In fact, about the time the word took on its religious overtones, it also came to mean “please” in making requests of one another as in the phrase “pray tell” that we still occasionally say.

We often turn to friends and ask them to pray for us. We do not expect them to deliver cookies and milk to heaven or cash some celestial IOU, but are asking them to be companions in our need. We ask them to be aware of that communion with us when they turn to God. Knowing that they are with us is all we really want and need from them.

That is what we do when we pray to saints. Though they are no longer in this world, they are part of the communion of saints that includes them, our friends here and ourselves in God’s love.

In my need, I am not alone, the communion of saints is with me, sharing faith, hope and love. They “work” on me, not on God.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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