This post is part of our No Longer Sola Series.
One of the most prolific arguments against praying to the saints is this idea that they are a distraction from Christ. That if we spend our time asking for the help of intercessors other than Jesus Himself, we are not putting all of our trust in Him. We are not focusing on Him. We are being distracted by lesser things. Most Protestants, in fact, seem to have this mentality that we should be in a spiritual hermitage of sorts. The only people who should be in my soul are me and Jesus.
It’s funny, when I think about it, because most of those same Protestants are totally against the idea of a physical hermitage, of isolating ourselves from others in order to seek Christ. And yet, spiritually, this is exactly what they think we should be doing. So which is it? Is isolation a good thing or is it not? It’s probably a good idea to point out here that, in Orthodoxy, novices and amateurs in monasticism are not to become hermits.
If you attempt to become a hermit too soon, you can be deceived by the Devil, you can go crazy, you can fail to withstand the immense warfare that comes with such isolation. Hermits are experienced and mature monastics, not novices. It is an extreme undertaking, and one that should not be taken lightly.
I feel the same way about spiritual hermitage. Who do we think we are, honestly, that we can isolate ourselves from the Great Cloud of Witnesses that Paul himself appealed to? Are we really so spiritually mature that we think our prayers are the only prayers necessary for our own salvation? That we do not need to be in contact with the Saints who are closer to Christ than we are?
If we aren’t careful we make ourselves into spiritual hermits before our time. We need others, or we lose our spiritual sanity. I used to be someone who thought that praying to the saints is a distraction from Christ, but I understand it differently now. It’s almost as if saying the scoreboard is a distraction from the game.
Scoreboards aren’t distractions. Yes, they are bright and flashy and people sometimes look to them instead of to the court or the field where the real action is happening. But everyone understands scoreboards are necessary tools that help us understand what’s going on in the game and where we are at. Without them games would be much more confusing, and we wouldn’t be as invested because it’s hard to be invested in something you don’t understand.
The saints are this way for me.
When I first began reading the lives of the saints I still was very much confused about God’s relationship toward me. I could not understand for the life of me how He would want anything to do with me. How could He still love me and be merciful to me after all I had done? How could he possibly want me to pray to Him? Why would anyone, especially the King of the Universe, want a relationship with a wretch like me?
And then I read about saints. The saints whose love and mercy were so great and beyond anything I had ever heard. There was the saint who heard the confession of the murderer of his own brother (unbeknownst to the murderer) and he hid him from the authorities and helped him escape and start a new life.
He saved the man who killed his brother, so great was his love and mercy! It was stories like these that pierced my soul, because I knew that Orthodoxy believes in theosis – that we are on a journey to become like God.
Saints become saints because they made such progress in this life on their journey to becoming like God. They are little icons for us, windows into who our Heavenly Father is. And so in learning about these holy people, I learned about God. I was able to say to myself, “If this man can be so kind and compassionate toward someone who hurt him so deeply, then surely God is even more kindhearted toward me.”
Knowing the saints helped me to begin knowing God. Through them I saw glimpses of my Savior. And through my relationships with them I become closer to Christ. Anyone who has ever become a parent has learned this principle. Motherhood and fatherhood are spiritual gifts, not only because they bring forth humility and strip us of our selfishness, but also because parenthood is a way we begin to understand God’s relationship with us.
We see our children wander from us over and over and over again, and we love them still the same and gently guide them back. And we know instinctively that we are like toddlers and that our Lord lovingly guides and patiently corrects us over and over again. Our relationship with our children is a reminder of our relationship with God.
Parenting isn’t some great distraction from Christ, parenting points us to Christ! Worshiping with two hundred other people on a Sunday isn’t distracting us from God. We are walking together toward God; it is helpful and beneficial to pray together!
It is the same with the saints. Praying to them, asking their help, learning from their examples and honoring their lives are not distractions from Christ. These are tools that bring us ever closer to Him, because as we emulate them and ask their help in doing so, we are walking the same journey they walked. The journey of theosis. The journey of becoming by grace what God is by nature.
We look to the saints and the saints point us to Christ. They are not a distraction to our faith any more than parents distract their children in worship. What do parents do? They gently and repeatedly point their children back to what’s happening in the service, and that is what our mothers and fathers in the faith do for us every day. They are a reminder of what a life spent gazing upon Christ is to look like, sound like and feel like. Talking to them enables us to understand these things better, so that in understanding we can emulate them, just as children learn to worship by mimicking their parents on Sunday morning.
The saints are helping me to heal my relationship with God. Drawing near to the saints enables me to draw near to Christ. Calling them a distraction couldn’t be further from the truth.