The Works of Mercy: Pray for the Living and the Dead

One of the sillier things one sometimes hears about the Catholic Church is communicated in jokes like the one about the guy who gets to the Pearly Gates and is ushered inside by St. Peter. As Pete’s showing him around the Elysian Fields, they pass by a little gothic structure and hear voices inside praying in Latin.

“Shh!” says Peter, and leads the new arrival tiptoe past the little building.

Once out of earshot, the new arrival turns to Peter and says, “What’s up with those guys?”

Peter says, “Those are the Catholics. They think they’re the only ones here.”

Nyuk, nyuk.

But, though funny, it’s also a completely false view of average Catholic piety and, most especially, of average Catholic prayer. The Church is, in fact, completely promiscuous with its prayer life. Everybody gets prayed for by the Catholic Church. Sooner or later, in addition to all those people you always pray for as an ordinary Catholic—family, friends, people from the office, that jerk who cut you off on the freeway this morning, the Pope, bishops, priests, favorite religious, politicians, movie stars in embarrassing situations, athletes, rock stars, and sundry media types—Catholics will then go on and cover all the bases they might normally miss (Hitler, Osama bin Laden, that wino you remember seeing when you were twelve, etc.) with the great all purpose prayer “for all those who have no one to pray for them.” And if you don’t get around to it as a layperson in your daily devotions, there’s always the liturgy during the Triduum when everyone with and without a pulse gets a mention before the Throne of Grace. There’s a huge generosity of spirit there that roughly corresponds to the great pagan Greek impulse of cautious piety. The ancients prayed to the Unknown God; we pray for the Unknown Sinner.

That’s the first thing that sticks out to me when I look at Catholics at prayer. It’s a phenomenon that reminds me of Chesterton’s remarks concerning the sharp contrast between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of popular piety. He writes:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticises in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite. The Church can reasonably be justified therefore if she turns the most merciful face or aspect towards men; but it is certainly the most merciful aspect that she does turn.

And so, while our Lord is unafraid to remind his followers that sometimes you should not beat your head against a wall with some hard-hearted, pig-headed dolt who isn’t listening and who only wants to destroy you (“Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.” [Matthew 7:6]), still his Church is not especially eager to make that judgment call till the last possible minute. Similarly, while St. John (following his Master), tells us, “There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that” (1 John 5:16), still and all, Catholics have a long history of praying for those in a state of mortal sin anyway. So outsized is the Catholic instinct to keep hoping for the sinner to the bitter end that one early theologian—Origen—speculated that God’s grace was so overwhelming that, in the end, even the devil himself would be saved. The Church rejected that speculation as contrary to the Faith and my point here is not to re-ignite Origenism (I accept the Church’s teaching on the eternity of hell and the damnation of Satan and the fallen angels). Rather my point is simply that this impulse to pray for the worst of the worst is something in Catholic psychology or culture that seems to be a deep structural feature. Catholic prayer, both in liturgy and popular piety is marked by a stubborn refusal to refuse prayer for anybody. The Church can’t be restrained from praying for the living and the dead (i.e. everybody) and therefore the insistence on our doing likewise finds its expression in the last of the spiritual works of mercy.

So, for instance, there was recently a rather beautiful outpouring of prayer for Christopher Hitchens. The atheist provocateur was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and (as is typical for Catholics) there was a big gush of quite sincere, agenda-free prayer for him. I think the vast bulk of these prayers were basically just motivated by an ordinary human and Christian compassion for somebody in a terrible situation. In my own case, a favorite priest friend of mine died of esophageal cancer and it was painful to watch him slowly starve to death. So I prayed for Hitchens, as did a bunch of others, because (says our faith) that’s what you do: pray for the living and the dead. Hitchens is alive. Good enough for me. Let’s pray. We can quarrel with him when we’re done. And such expressions of agenda-free charity do touch the heart—even Hitchens’ heart. As he said to Hugh Hewitt in an interview: “I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought.”

I tend to approach prayer, not as a saint, but more as a manual laborer. It’s a duty I feel, not especially a thing I like doing or feel competent at. On my blog, I started getting sundry prayer requests from random readers about this and that, and started posting them, largely because I feel inept as an intercessory pray-er and so had a hope that maybe somebody out there in the audience might have the charism I lack when it comes to having a clue how to pray. I thought I was being very clever fobbing this off on others but, of course, what I stupidly failed to foresee was that this would inevitably result in was lots more prayer requests for everything under the sun. I continue post them, along with my fumbling two cents in the courts of the Almighty, advising Him on how to proceed. I haven’t the slightest clue whether my prayers do a lick of good for the person making the prayer request. But I figure that if I mix my prayers in with others who are closer to the Throne then maybe they’ll get lost in the pack and I will look like I know what I’m doing.

Also, I think such prayers, whatever they have done for those requesting prayer, have done me good in simply building the discipline of prayer and not directing my focus to strategizing about earthly junk or giving into “There’s no hope!” thinking first, but rather to God and things that are much bigger and more eternal (like Eternity).

One can always get all navel-gazey about this sort of thing, and sometimes the analysis of motives is worth a look. After the prayer for Hitchens went out on my blog and elsewhere, it was followed by lots of meta-analysis of the prayers and the motivations for same, with reverberations, recriminations and some “How can you pray for him when he’s so nastily atheistic, etc?” Also, you got the charges that this was a form of showy piety (“Look at me! I’m praying for my enemies!”) And there was even the charge that such a prayer can also be a sort of pious Church Lady way of saying, “Screw you, Hitchens! Look at how superiorly loving I am to your and angry atheist buddies!”

Understandable to a degree. The Christian obligation to pray for one’s enemy does put one in an awkward position. It does sound pretty Church Ladyish to respond to some jerk who has just finished reaming you out in a steroid rage with, “God bless you.” Especially, when the physiological fight or flight response leaves you trembling with animal passions of anger that you are trying to master with a decision of the will. To the onlooker you can often resemble a gross hypocrite in denial about his hatred even when you are sincerely laboring to do the right thing.

Moreover, you can find Pharisees who use prayer as a sort of passive aggressive weapon (“I’m writing you about our mutual acquaintance, John Smith, who is so immoral! Let me whisper to you about the juicy details! I’m asking you to tell everybody you know about Smith (that S-M-I-T-H) and the titillating rumors of his gross and nasty private life—so you can pray.”)

And these are but two of the ways that the attempt to pray for the living can get you into trouble, whether real or perceived. But still, we are called to do it, to do it promiscuously, and to do it constantly. For the world is cram-packed with those who require our intercession. It is a world that is dying for want of the common priesthood of our baptism.

The essence of priesthood is twofold: it entails “standing between” and “offering sacrifice”. We stand, as priests, between God and man. And the sacrifice we offer, as laypeople, is ourselves in union with Christ. So Paul tells us:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

Of course, what sanctifies our self-offering is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ who offers his body and blood on the Cross and to us in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Because his body and blood are holy, our bodies are made holy and become part of the offering. And as they are offered in union with Him, they become capable of participating in the work of redeeming the world. That’s why Paul can write one of the most Catholic passages in all of Scripture:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Colossians 1:24)

Paul’s offering of his body (and our offering of ours) is incorporated into Christ’s and so becomes part of the offering Christ makes to the Father in each Mass. Our sufferings are joined to His, but also our prayers are joined to His. For as Paul tells us, we “yield [ourselves] to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and [our] members to God as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13). That includes our tongues, which offer prayer for the living and the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s a bit of a toss up which is harder: praying for the living or the dead. The problem with the living is that they stubbornly retain free will, so there is always the danger that, in the words of the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior: “People, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, will do exactly as they please.” Prayer for things like repentance, healing from addiction, relationships and other such things can all go radically awry. People pray their guts out for things that never come to pass in this world and that can be heartbreaking to endure. Often such prayer can wind up being a journey of discovery not unlike C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. We think we are praying for something only to discover at the end that we were radically wrong—and that God’s grace was changing us, not the ostensible object of our prayers. The grinding stone of the will of another human being can often be the means by which God polishes us through our prayers. That can be no fun, but it is often profoundly necessary.

On the other hand, prayer for the dead, while less likely to confront us with the obstinate actuality of the person for whom we pray, has its own challenges. For, of course, the dead are unusually quiet about whether your prayers for them are doing any good. Now and then, blessed souls (like St. Perpetua) are favored with a vision of their dead kid brother Dinocrates turning up happy and healthy in the heavenlies after a Mass was said for him. But most of us don’t seem to rate these aids to faith. Instead, what we have to go on is the insistence of the Church that prayers for the dead, like prayers for the living, are not merely good and pious and consoling to us, but effective for the dead. We don’t merely remember the dead by our prayers, we help them. In short, prayer for the dead is not about us. It’s not about some sort of self-hypnosis or emotional therapy or coping mechanism. It’s about assisting the dead in the completion of some sort of purgation which, but for our prayers, they would be hard pressed to complete themselves.

This involves us in a mystery that cuts right to the heart of the Christian faith in the Incarnation of the Son of God: the understanding of the body as the “hinge of salvation”. What we have that the dead in Purgatory lack is the same thing whereby God saved us: a body. Our body matters so much that God himself so created the universe that we could not be saved without His taking on a body like ours. Oh sure, in some absolute sense, God could have constituted the universe so that some other way of saving us could have been arranged. He’s God. He can do whatever He likes. But we don’t know what He might have done; we only know what He did. And because he did that and not something else, the Son of God Himself could speak of His death as a true necessity for our salvation, stating “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50) and even praying that the cup be taken from him “if it be possible” (Matthew 26:39).

It was not possible. And so the body becomes bound up with the saving power of God. And our offering of our bodies as living sacrifices in union with Christ’s offering of His body in the Sacrifice of the Mass therefore becomes a powerful means by which we can pray for those who have died, helping them on their way to the completion of the process of becoming Christlike. And so, for instance, the Tradition has always linked prayer with fasting or other forms of penance.

Some folk have difficulty with this, though it is difficult, in the end, to see why. If we can pray for each other—if, in fact, we are commanded to pray for each other, as we clearly are in the New Testament, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t pray for those who have died. The practice predates the establishment of the Church, follows from the logic of all prayer (by which creatures are made free participants in Christ’s saving work), and has no internal logical contradiction to it. If we are members of one another and neither life nor death can sever us from the loved of God in Christ, then our prayers can extend beyond the grave to those who are still in the process of becoming fully conformed to the image and likeness of Christ. About the only objection you can make is that the dead, being dead, are past probation and so their choice for heaven or hell has been decided in the moment of their death.

True enough. But what do we know about that? Zilch. What we know is that Christ said to pray for God’s will to be done and for his kingdom to come. So we pray that Joe the Mechanic, who was a decent enough guy and who didn’t rip you off when your alternator broke, will be met with favor in the Great Assizes because the King will say to him, “My alternator was busted and you didn’t rip me off. Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to Me.” You pray for that jerk who gave you swirlies in junior high that, maybe in the years afterward his three divorces and drug-addicted kids helped buff off whatever it was that made him the nasty kid you remember and gave him, in the end, the bitterly won gift of humility. You step onto an airplane that your father helped Boeing build and remember to pray, yet again, for the repose of his soul, grateful for the countless gifts he gave you.

In the end, of course, you often don’t really know what your prayers are doing for those folks in the Beyond. But you know God. And you know that Jesus wants to see them in Heaven even more than you do. You know that while you have never endured the extremity of crucifixion for them, Jesus has. And so, you pray in hope, not that your prayers are hot stuff that God just has to listen in His awe of you, but that joined to His prayers, remarkable things can and have happened down through the centuries when people stop speculating about prayer and begin doing it.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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