Why Do We Pray For Others?
PROFESSOR: Now, there again, that is a thought which I do not very easily understand. It is a general custom among all of us Christians to ask for each other’s prayers, to want another to pray for me, and to have special confidence in a member of the church. Is not this simply a demand of self-love? Is it not that we have only caught the habit of saying what we have heard others say, as a sort of fancy of the mind without any serious consideration? Does God require human intercession, since He foresees everything and acts according to His all-blessed providence and not according to our desire, knowing and settling everything before our petition is made, as the holy gospel says? Can the prayer of many people really be any stronger to overcome His decisions than the prayer of one person? In that case God would be a respecter of persons. Can the prayer of another person really save me when everybody is commended or put to shame on the ground of his own actions? And, therefore, the request for the prayers of another person is to my mind merely a pious expression of spiritual courtesy, which shows signs of humility and a desire to please by preferring one another, and that is all.
MONK: If one take only outward considerations into account, and with an elementary philosophy, it might be put in that way. But the spiritual reason blessed by the light of religion and trained by the experiences of the interior life goes a good deal deeper, contemplates more clearly, and in a mystery reveals something entirely different from what you have put forward. So that we may understand this more quickly and clearly, let us take an example and then verify the truth of it from the Word of God. Let us say that a pupil came to a certain teacher for instruction. His feeble capacities and, what is more, his idleness and lack of concentration prevented him from attaining any success in his studies, and they put him in the category of the idle and unsuccessful. Feeling sad at this, he did not know what to do, nor how to contend with his deficiencies. Then he met another pupil, a classmate of his, who was more able than he, more diligent and successful, and he explained his trouble to him. The other took an interest in him and invited him to work with him. “Let us work together,” he said, “and we shall be keener, more cheerful and, therefore, more successful.” And so they began to study together, each sharing with the other what he understood. The subject of their study was the same. And what followed after several days? The indifferent one became diligent; he came to like his work, his carelessness was changed to ardor and intelligence, which had a beneficial effect upon his character and morals also. And the intelligent one in his turn became more able and industrious. In the effect they had upon one another they arrived at a common advantage. And this is very natural, for man is born in the society of people; he develops his rational understanding through people, habits of life, training, emotions, the action of the will—in a word, everything he receives from the example of his kind. And, therefore, as the life of men consists in the closest relations and the strongest influences of one upon another, he who lives among a certain sort of people becomes accustomed to that kind of habit, behaviour, and morals. Consequently the cool become enthusiastic, the stupid become sharp, the idle are aroused to activity by a lively interest in their fellow men. Spirit can give itself to spirit and act beneficially upon another and attract another to prayer, to attention. It can encourage him in despondency, turn him from vice, and arouse him to holy action. And so by helping each other they can become more devout, more energetic spiritually, more reverent. There you have the secret of prayer for others, which explains the devout custom on the part of Christian people of praying for one another and asking for the prayers of the brethren.
And from this one can see that it is not that God is pleased, as the great ones of this world are, by a great many petitions and intercessions, but that the very spirit and power of prayer cleanses and arouses the soul for whom the prayer is offered and presents it ready for union with God. If mutual prayer by those who are living upon earth is so beneficial, then in the same way we may infer that prayer for the departed also is mutually beneficial because of the very close link that exists between the heavenly world and this. In this way souls of the Church Militant can be drawn into union with souls of the Church Triumphant, or, what is the same thing, the living with the dead.
All that I have said is psychological reasoning, but if we open holy Scripture we can verify the truth of it. (1) Jesus Christ says to the Apostle Peter, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” There you see that the power of Christ’s prayer strengthens the spirit of St. Peter and encourages him when his faith is tested. (2) When the Apostle Peter was kept in prison, “prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him.” Here we have revealed the help which brotherly prayer gives in the troubled circumstances of life. (3) But the clearest precept about prayer for others is put by the holy Apostle James in this way: “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another…. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Here is definite confirmation of the psychological argument above.
And what are we to say of the example of the holy Apostle Paul, which is given to us as the pattern of prayer for one another? One writer observes that this example of the holy Apostle Paul should teach us how necessary prayer for one another is, when so holy and strong a podvizhnik acknowledges his own need of this spiritual help. In the Epistle to the Hebrews he words his request in this way: “Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly” (Heb. 13:18). When we take note of this, how unreasonable it seems to rely upon our own prayers and successes only, when a man so holy, so full of grace, in his humility asks for the prayers of his neighbors (the Hebrews) to be joined to his own. Therefore, in humility, simplicity, and unity of love we should not reject or disdain the help of the prayers of even the feeblest of believers, when the clear-sighted spirit of the Apostle Paul felt no hesitation about it. He asks for the prayers of all in general, knowing that the power of God is made perfect in weakness. Consequently it can at times be made perfect in those who seem able to pray but feebly. Feeling the force of this example, we notice further that prayer one for another strengthens that unity in Christian love which is commanded by God, witnesses to humility in the spirit of him who makes the request, and, so to speak, attracts the spirit of him who prays. Mutual intercession is stimulated in this way.
PROFESSOR: Your analysis and your proofs are admirable and exact, but it would be interesting to hear from you the actual method and form of prayer for
others. For I think that if the fruitfulness and attractive power of prayer depend upon a living interest in our neighbors, and conspicuously upon the constant influence of the spirit of him who prays upon the spirit of him who asked for prayer, such a state of soul might draw one away from the uninterrupted sense of the invisible presence of God and the outpouring of one’s soul before God in one’s own needs. And if one brings one’s neighbor to mind just once or twice in the day, with sympathy for him, asking the help of God for him, would that not be enough for the attracting and strengthening of his soul? To put it briefly, I should like to know exactly how to pray for others.
MONK: Prayer which is offered to God for anything whatever ought not, and cannot, take us away from the sense of the presence of God, for if it is an offering made to God, then, of course, it must be in His presence. So far as the method of praying for others is concerned, it must be noted that the power of this sort of prayer consists in true Christian sympathy with one’s neighbor, and it has an influence upon his soul according to the extent of that sympathy. Therefore, when one happens to remember him (one’s neighbor), or at the time appointed for doing so, it is well to bring a mental view of him into the presence of God, and to offer prayer in the following form: “Most merciful God, Thy will be done, which will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth, save and help Thy servant (Name). Take this desire of mine as a cry of love which Thou hast commanded.” Commonly you will repeat those words when your soul feels moved to do so, or you might tell your beads with this prayer. I have found from experience how beneficially such a prayer acts upon him for whom it is offered.
PROFESSOR: Your views and arguments and the edifying conversation and illuminating thoughts which spring from them are such that I shall feel bound to keep them in my memory, and to give you all the reverence and thanks of my grateful heart.
PILGRIM & PROFESSOR: The time has come for us to go. Most heartily we ask for your prayers upon our journey and upon our companionship.
STARETS: “The God of peace that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20, 21).
– The Way of Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way, pg. 179-183.