We do many things in prayer. Sometimes we thank God for things. Sometimes we praise God. But sometimes we ask God for things. We are encouraged, in fact, to present our needs to God. But this is odd. Doesn’t God already know what we need? Furthermore, if God is eternal, then it seems as though God could not change. So why present my needs to God if he can’t do anything about it?
These are deep questions about the very meaning of prayer. In this post, I would like to offer a hypothetical answer. My answer turns on the concept of a sacrament. This concept may be the central concept of Catholic Christianity. A sacrament is an instrument used by God to bless, heal, or convey grace. The objects used by God in this way are entirely ordinary but God has set them aside to use them as a vehicle of grace. We can understand the nation of Israel as a sacrament used to bless the world. The scriptures can be understood sacramentally. So can Jesus.
But what about prayer? Could prayer be a sacrament? It seems likely. God could in fact use people’s prayers as a vehicle for blessing or conveying grace. How would this work? Well, God could choose to bless my mom, for example, by answering my prayers for her. The answering of my prayer is the particular form or way in which God blesses my mom. If you will, my prayer opens up a channel that God can then use to convey blessings or grace. Much in the way that God brings grace through the baptismal waters why can’t he use prayers in the same way? If we understand prayers in this sense, then petitionary prayer seems to make more sense as part of the broader sacramental system by which God blesses the world. Of course, God could bless the world without the use of any physical element. Nevertheless, he seems to choose to use sacraments to convey his grace. Perhaps prayer is just another one of these sacraments.
Why ask the saints to pray for us? Wouldn’t it just make more sense to go to the source? Why not just send my prayer requests directly to Christ?
These are good questions. In his wonderful new book on the Trinity, Fr. Michael Gaitley provides an intriguing and daring answer to this question. His answer comes in three steps.
Step One: Christians Become Incorporated Into Christ. It isn’t that Christians become Christ-like or similar to Christ in some way. They literally become part of the Body of Christ. This isn’t a metaphor. Rather there is a literal ontological change that a Christian undergoes when she comes incorporated into the Body of Christ. Christ literally dwells in us and we dwell in him.
Step Two: After Death, the Saints join in with the Second Person of the Trinity. Heaven, on this view, is a participation in the inner life of God. We participate in the inner life of God by means of the Second Person of the Trinity. He writes that our participation in the life of the Trinity is to become one of the persons of the Trinity. Specifically, we become part of the Incarnate Son (p. 55). Now we will never become the Divine Head, but we will somehow be incorporated into the Divine Body of the Second Person. We will become a small part of it. We will join in with the activity that takes place within the inner life of God. In this way, we will reign with God over all that is. We will reign with him because we will literally be incorporated into him.
Step Three: Praying to a Saint is Another Way of Praying to Christ. When we ask a saint to pray for us, what we are doing is praying to the Body of Christ. Because the saints are literally incorporated into the Second Person, God the Father can act through the saints much as he acts through Christ. They are in complete harmony with the Father and have become a small bit of the Second Person. Praying to a saint is another way of praying to Christ.
I consider this a daring and thrilling understanding of the saints. It makes sense of many otherwise puzzling ideas like how we will reign with God But we still must be careful to distinguish the Head from the Body within the Second Person. This image also gives a much more interesting understanding of heaven and how God will one day be all in all.