Tag Archives: prayer for the dead

In us the dead still belong.

Today, about a week before our Orthodox beginning of Lent, is Saturday of Souls, or Memorial Saturday. In Divine Liturgy we commemorate all those who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and life eternal.” Father Alexander Schmemann writes in Great Lent:

To understand the meaning of this connection between Lent and the prayer for the dead, one must remember that Christianity is the religion of love. Christ left with his disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment “that they love one another,” and he added: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love is thus the foundation, the very life of the Church which is, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the “unity of faith and love.”

I was able to attend Liturgy this morning, and many things contributed to my great joy in participating. Saturday morning is not an “easy” day to make it to church, and I probably could count on one hand the number of these memorial Saturdays that I have attended over the years. They are celebrated often during Lent, and other dates on the church calendar.

Today many of us had offered our contributions to the list of names of the departed that were read aloud as we all prayed. My dear godmother was present with me this morning, which made me feel more complete 🙂 and it happened to be the exact date that my uncle was killed in a plane crash long before I was born — the uncle I wrote about once here.

Today we were also praying especially for two men who more recently fell asleep in Christ, one just 40 days previous. George and Nikolai, memory eternal! Romanian women brought koliva, one made of barley instead of wheat, and other commemorative foods.

Just to stand in church, to stand in Christ, to stand with my departed loved ones — it was awfully sweet. Because of this reality that Metropolitan Anthony speaks of in Courage to Pray:

The life of each one of us does not end at death on this earth and birth into heaven. We place a seal on everyone we meet. This responsibility continues after death, and the living are related to the dead for whom they pray. In the dead we no longer belong completely to the world; in us the dead still belong to history. Prayer for the dead is vital; it expresses the totality of our common life.

It’s my love language, too.

remembering the departed in Orthodox Chrisitian Church - offering bread, boiled wheat and red wine that are blessed by the priest

I want to share an article that is a kind of conversion testimony; it was published earlier this year with the title For the Love, on the blog Persona. The author well conveys the gratitude I also feel for the Church that encourages us above all to love people, and gives us tools for doing that. Tools? What am I saying? The Church gives us The Holy Spirit, a Person of the Holy Trinity Who live in Love, who are the source of any love.

Soon we will be remembering my goddaughter in prayer and song, on the one-year anniversary of her repose in the Lord. These days it is natural for me to think often about the dead, and not only my husband. For that reason I also appreciate what what Fr. Stephen Freeman has to say about our relationship to the departed, and  how, “With the radical individualism of the modern world, the mystery of communion and true participation (koinonia) have been forgotten….” 

The witness that follows is of someone who is discovering koinonia. I join with the writer of Persona in thankfulness for the ways the Church helps me to continue loving my dear Kathleen.

FOR THE LOVE

I attended my first service in an Orthodox Church in December of 2010. In April of 2012 I was chrismated (confirmed) in the church. What I don’t know about the Church could still fill several books, and I’m not very good at being Orthodox.

It’s a tradition that appears confusing and Byzantine to outsiders, with all of its incense and strange pictures, its standing and prostrating and crossing oneself. It seems legalistic, with all of the fasting and written prayers and candle-lighting. Praying to saints and the Virgin Mary? To Protestants, these things are often red flags, warnings of impending Catholicism.

I was frightened when I was first exposed to Orthodoxy. I was educated in a Protestant seminary, where I took classes on the theology of Martin Luther and the spiritual development of women as my electives (I have layers). I found it much easier to read about spirituality than to actually pray. I calmed my doubts with well-reasoned arguments, and I weighed and measured every sermon I heard to assess the soundness of its doctrine. I loved God with my mind.

Yet what drew me to Orthodoxy was not, ultimately the soundness of its doctrine or the reasonableness of its apologetics. From my earliest exposure to the tradition I acknowledged that it was quite likely the oldest expression of Christianity. But what ultimately brought me into the church was not a well-reasoned argument on the merits of prayer to the saints or an articulate defense of the use of icons and veneration of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary). What ultimately brought me to the church was, quite simply, love.

As I participated in the life of the church, I was moved again and again by the love of the people. Yes, I was attracted by the love shown to me by the priest in my parish, and the new friends I made there. But what changed me, what won me over was realizing that at the root of all the practices that I didn’t understand, that seemed superfluous or legalistic, was love.

The Orthodox do not pray to saints because they feel that they cannot go directly to God. They don’t venerate the Theotokos because they feel that Christ alone is not enough. They don’t prostrate or light candles or fast because they feel they must earn their salvation. The Orthodox Church does what it does because they love – the Trinity, each other, the departed, saints – the Church loves them all. More than that, the church understands that we all love, and it gives us concrete ways to express ourselves.

For me, this all became very real a few months before I became a catechumen and began my (formal) journey towards Orthodoxy. When I was a teenager, someone very close to me passed away. The anniversary of her death approached, and I was sad. When I told my priest, he told me that the Church gives us a prayer service that we can pray on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I went to the church and we lit a candle and prayed for her, and those of us who loved her.

koliva with roses 4-15

The Orthodox Church understands that we love people. It encourages us to love deeply. And then, when they’re gone, to be comforted by the love the Church has for them, and for us. At the death of a member of the church, listen to how they are spoken of – in glowing terms, seeing only the best, most beautiful parts of the brother or sister in the faith.

The Church invites us to look upon the saints with a similar love. They are not only examples to follow, but as beloved family members. Prayer, lighting candles, keeping their feast days are the ways that we express our love across time, across the chasm of death.

I told my mother recently that Orthodoxy speaks my love language. In Orthodoxy, faith moved from an intellectual proposition that I accepted to a radical love that changed me. I want to love in the way that the Church loves its people. I want to look at others and see the beautiful image of God and love them with fire and determination. I want to feel the genuine affection that I see for bishops and priests and monks. I want that love to move me outward, to serve and pray and be a better version of myself. I want others to know that they are loved.

I fail all the time. I’m not very good at being Orthodox. But I’d rather try and fail at this than succeed at almost anything else.

–from the blog Persona

This man lived and made me love him.

Today marks three months since my husband fell asleep in the Lord. I recently learned that P1000485in the Orthodox Church a memorial service is often held at three months (as we did at 40 days), and because we also are commemorating The Nativity of St. John the Baptist today, it was convenient to have these prayers right after the Liturgy. I made koliva again but decorated it a little differently.

I like what Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote on the subject of prayer for the dead:

What does it mean to pray for the dead? Are we asking the Lord to act unjustly? Certainly not. By our prayer, we bear witness that the dead have not lived in vain. We show that as well as the many worthless things they did in their lives, they also sowed the seed of charity. We pray for them with love and gratitude; we remember their presence among us. And our prayer for them must be supported by our lives. If we do not bear fruit in our lives of what the dead have taught us, our prayer for them will be feeble indeed. We must be able to say, “Lord, Lord, this man lived and made me love him, he gave me examples to follow and I follow them.” The day will come when we shall be able to say, “The good that you see in my life is not mine; he gave me it, take it and let it be this for his glory, perhaps for his forgiveness….”

The life oP1000496crpf each one of us does not end at death on this earth and birth into heaven. We place a seal on everyone we meet. This responsibility continues after death, and the living are related to the dead for whom they pray. In the dead we no longer belong completely to the world; in us the dead still belong to history. Prayer for the dead is vital; it expresses the totality of our common life.

–Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in Courage to Pray

Trying to remember, hold, and pray.

Three years ago I posted this piece as “Ways to Remember the Dead.” It’s time for me to revisit it and and remember once more.

* * * *

My mother’s brother Bill died before she was married, so I didn’t know him. He was a pilot who died in a plane crash during wartime, after having flown many successful bombing missions over Europe.

All my life I’ve never known more than that, and I never thought to ask my mother more. Or my grandmother, who lost her only son and half of her children when she lost him. No one in my family was very talkative generally, or the sort to tell family stories to children — especially stories of pain and loss.

I wonder what was wrong with me, that I never asked about him? I have recently inherited a beautiful framed portrait of my uncle in uniform, which I hope to put on the wall somewhere. If this portrait had been on the wall of our house when I was young, maybe it would have prompted my mother to talk about him, or me to inquire. Now that I am older, and want to know more about many of my ancestors and relations, there’s no one to ask!

I guess I shouldn’t blame myself for not being more inquisitive when I was younger; probably it isn’t in the nature of children, or even of young adults getting set up in the world, to think about their parents’ and grandparents’ past and about people who aren’t present in the here and now.

And if that is the case, knowing how I feel at this stage, when it’s too late to do anything about my own ignorance of my family history, I think about how to make it better for my own children when I’m gone and they are having similar regrets. All I know to do is to write down what I do know. Then it’s there for anyone to access at whatever time they do come to that place in life where they are more hungry for connection to deeper family roots.

What might it take to feel this connection? Your feelings remembering a grandparent you spent a lot of time with would differ, certainly, from those toward a family member you never met, even if the latter were famous and had a long entry on Wikipedia. There are different kinds of knowing — and loving.

Once my priest talked to me about how to keep from getting offended by other people and to avoid sinning against them. If we hold them in our minds, there are mostly facts there: this person does this, is that, said this, thinks that. We are set up for judging the facts and the person as to whether she is good or bad or whether she likes us or not, if he is trustworthy or not, and so forth.

But if we can hold the person in our hearts, he continued, where the Kingdom of God is, we are holding him in Love. God is there, and God is Love, and the warmth and peace of the Holy Spirit control our responses to the one we are called to love.

Perhaps this is what II Cor 5:16 refers to when it says, “…from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh.” If we strive to know another person according to Christ, in our hearts, there must be an element of prayer involved, as we carry them with us into God’s presence.

We Orthodox pray for the dead not because we have a doctrine of Purgatory (we don’t) but only out of love, a practice I considered at length two years ago in a blog post when my father died. Isn’t this a way to hold the departed, also, in our hearts, and not in our intellect, where for some of them we only have biographical sketches?

Memorial Day is a good day to express my love for my uncle, who died before I was born, and my longing to know him, in prayer. I never sat on his lap or flew a kite with him; I don’t know if he had a sweetheart or what he planned to do after the war. But God made him and knows him, and when He sees Uncle Bill and me, it is in the Now, because our Father sees everything at once.

I can remember my uncle in the Reality of the presence of God, and perhaps I’ll meet up with him later in the coming Kingdom, where it will be obvious that we didn’t miss much by not meeting here on earth, and where we’ll know each other in the best way.