Memory Eternal: Praying for the Dead
Dr. Clark Carlton · June 14, 2007
Their fate is sealed, right? What do we really know about the eternal state of the souls of those who have gone before us?
“Come now and let us reason together,” saith the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”
Hello, and welcome to Faith and Philosophy, with today’s topic: Memory Eternal: Praying for the Dead. I wrap up a discussion I began four weeks ago concerning Hades, Gehenna, and the Last Judgment. I left off last week by saying that those who are united with Christ in this life shall not be deprived of his presence even in death. St. Paul tells us that death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ, and that for the Christian, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
I also said that the Church uses the word “Hades” to describe the lot of those who die outside of communion with Christ. This is not the state of eternal damnation, as most of our Protestant friends would have it, but a state of sorrowful anticipation of the Last Judgment. I concluded with three questions that I will now take up.
The first is: Why do we pray for departed Christians if we know that they are with Christ? The short answer is that we cannot know the fate of any individual soul for sure. The sacraments are not magic. Baptism does not guarantee salvation. If it did, we would simply go around baptizing everyone and then leaving them to their own devices. We must live the life that Christ offers to us in baptism. We must cooperate with the Spirit granted to us at chrismation, through a life of humble obedience. We must strive to live eucharistically in all that we do, so that our participation in the Eucharist may be unto healing and salvation and not unto judgment and condemnation.
In the Liturgy, even as we are about to receive communion, we pray for a pious ending to our life, painless, blameless, and peaceful, and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ. In the same way, when a brother or sister in Christ dies, we pray that he or she may be granted rest in a place of repose, even as we continue to pray for a good defense at the judgment. In fact, the only departed Orthodox Christians for whom we do not pray are those who have been revealed to the catholic consciousness of the Church as saints.
Here, the service of canonization is very instructive. The bones of a saint are brought into church, feet-first, as for a funeral, and a final memorial service is sung. Then there is a procession with the relics, and when it is over they are placed back in the church on a north-south axis. This symbolically represents the fact that we have moved from praying for the saint to asking for the saint’s prayers. The proclamation of canonization is read, the megalynarion is sung, and the faithful venerate the relics of the saint.
Now, my Evangelical friends would insist that all Christians are saints according to the Bible, and that our practice of praying for the dead betrays a lack of faith and a very fuzzy idea of salvation. Well, aside from the fact that St. Paul says that we are called to be saints, the simple fact is that we cannot know what is in the heart of a person, and God judges the inward heart. Besides, death itself is a traumatic and, as we said before, profoundly unnatural event. Until we go through it ourselves, we cannot really know what it is like.
Over the centuries, the Church has used many images to describe it. I’m a bit reluctant to bring this up, but I’ll live dangerously. One of these images is the famous toll-house metaphor. Quite frankly, I think the Blessed Seraphim Rose made more out of this than was warranted in his book on the life after death. However, the almost-hysterical reaction to what he wrote was grossly exaggerated. The Scripture tells us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. The bottom line is: that is why we pray for the dead.
But this brings up the question of whether or not we can or should pray for the non-Orthodox. The answer is a qualified “yes.” Let me deal with the qualification first. We do not offer Church burials or memorial services for those who are not Orthodox. Think about it for a moment. Would you want your Baptist relatives holding your funeral at a Baptist church? Or your Mormon relatives getting baptized for you? Those who live and die outside the Church get buried outside the Church. It is as simple as that. There is, however, one exception to this rule. At the vespers of Pentecost, we pray—in church and on bended knee—for all those in Hades.
You see, ultimately, the prayer of the Church, like the high priestly prayer of Christ, embraces the whole cosmos. That is why it is perfectly acceptable—more than that—entirely pious to pray for your departed non-Orthodox friends and relatives. Indeed, we even have paraliturgical services for this. There is a marvelous book of akathist hymns that is published by Jordanville, which contains an akathist hymn for the departed. This hymn prayer covers everyone, from pious Christians to suicides to blasphemers, and asks that all may find forgiveness in the light of Christ’s all-embracing love. I personally use this hymn when someone I know dies. Frankly, I find that praying for the dead is one of the greatest privileges of being an Orthodox Christian.
This brings me to the third question: Can those in Hades be saved before the Last Judgment? Again, I will give a qualified “yes” here. First the “yes” and then the qualification. There are a number of stories in the ascetical literature pertaining to this. I mentioned the other week that Markides includes such a story in The Mountain of Silence. It is revealed to a pious monk that his rather nasty elder is suffering in Hades, so he prays. Finally, after a very long time of very arduous prayer, it is revealed to him that his elder has been saved. So until the Last Judgment I guess we can say that nothing is set in stone.
But here is the qualification. The Fathers are unanimous on the fact that there can be no real post-mortem repentance. This life is the arena of salvation, so whatever changes take place in the state of the departed soul, they must be rooted in the way the person lived his life in this world. A great illustration of this is the famous story by Dostoyevsky about the old woman and the onion. You probably know it.
A thoroughly unpleasant old woman dies and is cast into the fire. Here we have a merging of images of the afterlife, which is very common. And her guardian angel goes to see God to see if there’s anything he can do for her. God asks, “Well, didn’t she do anything good?” The angel replied, “She once gave an onion to a beggar.” God said, “Well, try that.” So the angel took the angel and tried to use it to pull her out of the fire. It worked, too, but the others saw her being pulled out and tried to grab onto her so that they could be pulled out as well. “Let go!” the old woman cried. “It is my onion!” At that point, the onion snapped and she fell back into the fire.
This story illustrates the fact that whatever works for our salvation in the next life is rooted in how we live here and now. In this case, the onion that the woman had once given to a beggar—that is, to Christ—had the potential of becoming her salvation, and yet she managed to lose even that chance through her egoistic self-centeredness.
This brings me to the really big question we have to ask ourselves. Exactly how does prayer for the dead work? Whenever I’m asked this question, I usually reply by asking how prayer for the living works. We are enjoined in the Scripture to pray for one another, but what good does it really do? Are we asking God to change his mind about something? Are we asking God to overrule the person’s free will? Certainly not. The point I’m trying to make here is that the “problem,” if you can call it that, of prayer for the dead is precisely the problem of prayer itself. Frankly, I don’t have a neat and tidy answer for you, but let me suggest a possible solution which I think will tie up our discussion quite nicely.
Prayer creates communion: communion between ourselves and God and communion between ourselves and those for whom we pray. God wills the salvation of all persons, saint and sinner alike. When we pray for someone, we are participating in Christ’s love and priestly prayer for that person. In a very real sense, we enter into a relationship of love with that person through Christ. Of course, it is within communion that we find our salvation.
Think back to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man for a minute. There’s an interesting feature of this story that most people overlook. The rich man doesn’t have a name in Hades. Lazarus, the beggar on earth, has a name, and even the rich man knows it. But the rich man has no name. Hades is the land of forgetfulness.
There is a wonderful story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. One day Abba Macarius was walking in the desert and found a skull. He poked it with his cane and asked, “Who are you?” “I was a pagan priest,” replied the skull. Then he explained that he was in Hades. But listen to this description. He said that they were tied, back to back, so that they could not see one another’s faces. You see, Hades is full, and yet, there is no communion there. “But, he said, “when you pray for us, we begin to see one another just a little.”
You see, brothers and sisters, prayer creates communion, and communion creates the possibility for salvation. Now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, the vanquisher of death, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony (Sakharov), have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.