There are some ‘Christians’ who deprive themselves of the consolation of prayers for the dead. And who are they? Without doubt those who, knowingly, or in ignorance, love to argue, rather than to believe. Why do they not admit prayers for the dead? It appears to have no other cause than that they do not understand how the efficacy of prayer can extend so far–from one world to another–from the visible to the invisible.
I would ask a man who reasons thus, whether ordinary reason comprehends the efficacy of prayer, made by one living person for another–particularly if it be made for an absent person, or even for some one present–on behalf of any moral or spiritual benefit; such as pardon of sins, amendment of certain faults, subduing of the passions, illumination of the mind, confirmation in virtue? Are not two souls, each taken with its own proper reason, its will, its inclinations, its liberty, two distinct worlds to one another, and all the more distinct, that they are both limited by their bodies? How then can the prayer of one extend its efficacy to the other?
Let any man answer these questions as he will. If he undertake to demonstrate, that the distinction of being and of liberty does not impede the efficacy of prayer for the living; by doing so, he demonstrates, at the same time, the efficacy of prayer for the dead. If he would say, that the efficacy of prayer for the living is possible, although it may not be explicable by the reason, I say in my turn, Do not then deny the efficacy of prayer for the dead, merely because it also is inexplicable, or appears to be so.
But, in my opinion, the safest course is to argue less, and to believe more; and to rely, not on our own wisdom, but on the Word of God. But the Word of God tells us–‘We know now what we should pray for as we ought.’ (Rom. 8:26) Consequently, reason, without grace, cannot teach us whether we ought to pray for any one. ‘But the Spirit Himself,’ continues the Apostle, ‘maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered,’ in the prayer of each one according to his situation; and the Same Spirit, for a common guidance in prayer, especially that made in public, expresses clearly what we ought to ask. 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 again–‘If any man see his brother sin a sin, 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 John 5:16) And again–‘Pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.’ (Jas. 5:16) Again: see how the Apostle St. Paul both prayers for others, and asks their prayers–‘We pray always for you,’ he writes to the Thessalonians, ‘that Our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His Goodness, and the work of faith and 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: ‘Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified even as it is with you.’ (2 Thess. 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, 19)
Without bringing together the numerous testimonies of Holy Scripture upon prayer in general, as being a thing well known, we will apply to the particular object of these reflections those which we have here quoted.
If we know now what we should ask, and, to supply our ignorance, possess that Holy Scripture, ‘which is able to make us wise unto salvation,’ to such a degree, ‘that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works,’ (2 Tim. 3:15, 17) we can rely upon the wisdom and goodness of the Holy Ghost, Who has dictated that Scripture, not only for instructing us, in a satisfactory manner, as to what we should ask; but also for preserving us, by His prohibitions, from addressing to God prayers which would be displeasing to Him. This reliance is justified by the facts themselves. We can see, in fact, how Holy Scriptures, at the same time that it inculcates prayer for all men, restrains the believer from prayer displeasing to God, and useless to men, by forbidding it. ‘There is a sin unto death, I do not say that he shall pray for it.’ It follows from this, that, even if there be not in Holy Scripture any particular, positive, command of prayers for the dead, but it is deduced from more general principles and commands upon prayer; since, on the other hand there is no prohibition which forbids such prayer, as in fact there is not–this absence of prohibition itself, this very silence of Holy Scripture alone, is a proof that prayer for the dead is neither displeasing to God nor useless to men.
A lover of doubt might demand: Is it not superfluous to pray for those who are departed in faith and hope? I rejoin: Is it not superfluous, in appearance, to pray for the saints? And yet St. Paul would have us pray ‘for all the saints.’ Is it not superfluous to pray for the Apostles, who were propagators of grace to all others, and the first among the saints of the Church–God has set in His Church, ‘firstly Apostles’ (1 Cor. 12:28)? And yet, the Apostle Paul asks even those who are not Apostles, to pray for him, and what is more, he did so at the very time when he already approached the crown promised to the exploits of his Apostleship. If pray is useful to the Gospel itself, ‘that the Word of God may have free course, and be glorified,’ although the Gospel is itself ‘the power of God for salvation unto every one that believeth’ (Rom 1:16), is it reasonable–is it possible–to fear that prayer for the faithful departed is superfluous?
But again, it may be asked, Is not prayer for those who are dead in sin, vain? I answer: it is vain for those who are dead in spiritual death by mortal sin, and who have been struck with corporeal death in that state–for those who have inwardly fallen away from the spiritual body of the Church of Christ, and from the life of faith, by their unbelief, their impatience, their decided and final opposition to the Grace of God. Whenever the signs of this sad death are clear to an enlightened and impartial view, 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 him who hath committed a sin, yet one ‘not unto death’? It can ‘give him life’! But does this apply to him also who is bodily dead? St. John, in the words on which we are now engaged, does not say, ‘Yes.’ But neither does he say, ‘No.’ He does not forbid prayers for the dead, although he does forbid prayer for the impenitent and desperate sinner.
The All-Provident Wisdom of God does not openly proclaim the command of prayer for the dead in Divine Scripture, perhaps on this account; that the living should not, by relying upon such aid, relax their efforts to ‘work out their own salvation with fear and trembling’ before their bodily death…And this, perhaps, is the reason why prayers for the dead have existed from antiquity, and still exists in the Church; not as an institution solemnly proclaimed, and essential to the faith, or as strictly prescribed; but as a tradition, and a pious custom, always upheld by the free obedience of faith, and by frequent spiritual experiences. Let us appeal to some testimonies in its support.
‘Liberality,’ writes the Son of Sirach, ‘hath grace in the sight of every man living; and from the dead withhold it not.’ (Ecclus. 7:33) What is here mean by ‘liberality’? If it be the gift brought to the Altar, the words ‘from the dead withhold it not’ evidently signify, bring an offering for the dead, or, what is the same thing, pray for the dead. If it be supposed more probable that ‘liberality’ signifies benevolence towards the poor, whether the one or the other of these thoughts were that of the Son of Sirach, they both suppose the same foundation, which is common to them–which is, that the living can and ought to perform good works, which may be useful to the souls of the dead.
In the History of the Maccabees we find sacrifice and prayer for the dead actually mentioned. Judas offered it for those soldiers who died in sin of having taken, as spoil of war, ‘the things consecrated to idols,’ with which the just ought not to soil their hands. (2 Macc. 12:39, 46)
Ever since Christian worship has been publicly instituted, prayer for the dead has always been admitted in it, as forming an integral part thereof. All the ancient rituals of the sacred Liturgy prove this, commencing with that of St. James, the Brother of the Lord. Hence there can be no doubt, that pray for the dead was an apostolic tradition.
‘Even if a sinner be dead,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘it is fitting to aid him as much as possible: and that, not by tears, but by prayers, supplications, alms and offerings. In fact, it is not by a foolish fancy, or in vain, that we make memory of the dead in the Divine Mysteries; and that we approach the Immolated Lamb, Who hath taken away the sins of the world, to pray for them; but that it may obtain some refreshment for them. Neither is it in vain that, before the Altar, during the celebration of the Tremendous Mysteries, the priest prays for those who are dead in Jesus Christ, and for those who intercede for them’. (Homily 41 on First Corinthians) And further on he says, ‘Let us not hesitate to help those who are dead and to offer our prayers for them; for the entire world has need of being purified. That is why we pray with hope for all men in the world, when we name them with the martyrs, the confessors, and the priests. For we are all one body, of which they are the more honourable members. And it is possible to obtain their pardon in all ways, as by prayers, by the offerings made for them, by the saints with whom we name them.’
[Sermons and Discourse of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, Choix de Sermons et Discours, vol. ii, p. 25. Paris, 1866]