On Praying for the Living and the Dead

The Window on the West


Pope Saint John Paul II at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes (Source)

The fifth spiritual work of mercy – praying for the living and the dead – can appear as something of a merciful catch-all. Prayer is perhaps the defining commonality of Christians, of people of the Book, and perhaps even of religiously-inclined persons everywhere. From the perspective of some spiritualities (such as the Jesuits), every activity can be a form of prayer: contemplation in action, as the mantra goes. With a quick “Our Father” or a short decade of the rosary, one can neatly check off this spiritual service from the list and so move on to more complex and demanding works of mercy.

Or so it is thought. Yet praying for the living and the dead is a far more challenging and enriching work of mercy than one first might consider. It is far easier to speak well about prayer than to pray well, and so often the barriers of ignorance, pride, and bitterness hinder our ability to offer spiritual attention for our neighbor. Furthermore, it is unpopular to linger on the dead these days, and the notion of praying for those departed seems inconceivable for a society that no longer seriously believes in an afterlife or, at the very least, one of dual destinations. Beyond sentimentality and a sense of humanistic solidarity, the relevance of prayer as service appears difficult to defend.

Nevertheless, prayer must be redeemed, lest all our other works of mercy be in vain. For prayer orients all service towards its true end, tethering it to an eternal plan amidst the turmoils and changes of the world. Prayer holds both history and hope. In prayer, like the Men of Gondor, we remember that which was, is, and will ever be: Númenor, Elvenhome, and that which is beyond. In prayer we make the oaths that will hold us to helping the living as we can while recognizing the things beyond our power to change. It is prayer that fortifies us even as we await an evil day, even as “the Enemy increases and we decrease,” even as it has been “long since we had any hope,” even as we fight the long defeat.

Nothing could better embody the paradoxes of power in powerlessness, of faith without proof, of future promise in the past, than praying for the dead. The radical claim that in death one’s “face was more beautiful even than in life,” the incredulous notion that we who live still have some connection and some obligation to those gone, the insane possibility that we can aid the dead and so too one day we dead can be aided: these are bold statements, matters of faith, transcendent mercies. More than any other work of mercy, praying for the living and the dead allows man to humbly imitate the work of the divine: though prayer is a uniquely human act, paradoxically, it is uniquely akin to the spark of God.

And so, let us pray. Let us pray for the living, those who suffer from all forms of corporal and spiritual sufferings: hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, captivity, sickness, mortality, affliction, ignorance, sin, doubt, burdens, condemnation. Let us pray for that we rise to the occasion of service for others to the limits of our abilities, while recognizing those limits. Let us pray for the dead with faith in their endurance, hope in their salvation, and love transcendent. Through darkness and doubt, through turmoil and tribulation, through hardship and hardness of heart, looking back toward Jerusalem that was, Rome that is, and the kingdom that will ever be, in saecula saeculorum, let us pray.

2015’s Reflection: “On Faith


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