church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

Thousands of years ago when I was an Evangelical Protestant in the Anglican Church, I never prayed to the saints or asked for their intercession.  It was made quite clear to me by those around me that obedient Christians never did that and that prayer to the saints (especially to Mary) was idolatry of the worst sort and consequently provoked the ire of the Most High.  Catholics, of course, prayed to Mary and the saints, but real Christians didn’t.  Even when I got out more and grew a bit and realized Catholics were real Christians, I still was convinced that they shouldn’t pray to saints, and that prayer to the saints ran the risk of traffic with demons.  So much for ecumenism! 

       Part of my problem with praying to the saints was that I felt they were dead and therefore couldn’t hear what you were telling them.  I never was stupid enough to call prayer to the saints “necromancy”, for even then I realized that necromancy was not just talking to the dead, but trying to summon them up from the underworld into your presence (see 1 Samuel 28:3f for an example).  The witch of En-dor trying to bring up Samuel or some idiotic modern medium trying to bring up Elvis or your grandmother at a séance were examples of necromancy, but a Catholic saying the rosary or asking St. Francis for his intercession was not.  By anybody’s sensible figuring, those talking to the Blessed Virgin or St. Francis were not trying to bring them up from the underworld (the definition of necromancy), but were simply trying to get a message to them in heaven where they lived.

       My problem was that I couldn’t quite figure out how they could hear us in heaven.  If we could somehow get a message to them, no doubt they would pray and intercede for us, but what evidence was there that they could actually hear our requests for prayer?  That was my Protestant dilemma.  After I had read in history books about how the early church worshipped and what they believed I knew that very early on those early church Christians did believe that the departed and martyred saints could hear us, and did offer prayer to them, asking for their intercession—in fact, as early as the martyrdom of St. Polycarp in about 155 A.D.  And I knew that this was far too early for anyone to cite outside pagan influences as the reason that the Christians prayed to the saints.  After all, the pagans were the ones martyring the early Christians, so it is unlikely in the extreme that those Christians would take a leaf from their persecutor’s playbook.  So the question remained for me:  why did those early Christians offer prayer to the saints and why did this cause no controversy in the Church?  It was all very mysterious.

       Eventually I read Fr. Alexander Schmemann and many pieces began to fall into place.  In particular, Fr. Alexander talked about Christians in that epoch being aware that they were living in “the eighth day”.

       The eighth day is the day of eternity, the day out of time.  Regardless of the Beatles’ song about eight days a week, there are not eight days in a week, but only seven.  After the seventh day, we start counting again at one.  There is no eighth day of the week.

       Except that in Christ, there is.  Sunday is not only the first day of the week, but (if you do keep counting), the eighth day.  Sunday is the day when eternity intersects with time, when the Kingdom breaks into this age.  When we stand before Christ on Sunday at the Eucharist as part of His Body, we experience the Kingdom of God, and a foretaste of the age to come.  That is why the early Christians called that day not “Sunday”, but “the Lord’s Day”.

As Schmemann wrote in his Introduction to Liturgical Theology, “It was precisely in connection with or as a result of this eschatology that there arose the idea of the Lord’s Day, the day of Messianic fulfilment, as the Eighth Day, ‘overcoming’ the week and leading outside of its boundaries…The Eighth Day is the day beyond the limits of the cycle outlined by the week—this is the first day of the New Aeon.”

       As Christians, we live in that New Aeon, not just on Sunday, but every day.  That is why St. Paul said that for Christians, all the old things have passed away, and new things had come (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Christians already live in the Kingdom of God—i.e. in the place where the saints, the martyrs, and the Mother of God now live. Of course it was natural for the early Christians to talk to the saints who were already in the Kingdom, for spiritually that was where the Christians still living on earth were themselves.

       If I had been paying closer attention to my seminary reading, I might have figured this out for myself.  In a fairly old book by Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (published 1958), he wrote regarding the Sunday Eucharist as follows:  “The patristic writers stress in many different ways the truth that the reality of which the Eucharist is the sacrament has its centre and meaning in heaven, and not upon the earth….The worship of the Church below is a participation in the worship of him that sitteth upon the throne in heaven:  ‘with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name.’  Already the Church is eschatologically present in heaven, and her eucharistic worship is a participation even now in the worship of heaven; even now we are present at the marriage-feast of the Lamb.”  Or, as Schmemann expressed it (rather more briefly), at the Eucharist “the Church ascends to the place where her genuine ‘life is hid with Christ in God’.  She ascends to heaven, where the eucharist is celebrated” (from his The Eucharist).  Or, as St. Paul expressed it even more succinctly, God “seated us with [Christ] in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6).

       Since we live in the eighth day, in the Kingdom of God, and celebrate our Eucharist not on earth but in the heavenly places, we are not separated from the saints.  Of course the early Christians asked the saints to pray for them—they were already with them in Christ.  The unity of the Church, uniting those in heaven with those on earth, made the practice of asking the heavenly saints for their prayers inevitable.

Once this eschatological perception and recognition that we already live in the eighth day began to dim, prayer to the saints began to be regarded as a supplication for distant help.  The saints began to be regarded as powerful patrons giving aid to lowly clients, in much the same way as in the Roman world where powerful patrons helped out their inferior petitioners.  The key of ascent began to change into a key of descent:  the saints were now regarded as far away from us in heaven, so that we look up them to send down to us their help.  The prayers and praxis had not changed, but the interior disposition of those offering the prayers had. 

The Church tended to lose its eschatological awareness of itself as already in the Kingdom.  While the persecution lasted, the Church could hardly forget that it didn’t belong here, but in the age to come.  After the persecution ceased, forgetting became a bit easier and our eschatological awareness, though never entirely gone, tended to get pushed to the back of our mind.  The front of our mind was then increasingly occupied by Christological controversy and ecclesiastical politics.

       Now that we have worked through our Christology and have less ecclesiastical power to scramble after, it is, I suggest, just this eschatological awareness that we need desperately to recover.  If we understand that we are already living in the eighth day and are therefore strangers and sojourners on the earth, we will be less likely to conform to all the sad, twisted, and sinful temptations and ideologies of the world around us.   

If we recover our awareness of our eschatological nature temptations to hearken to the world’s ways and embrace her values—whether those values have to do with sexuality, gender, the sanctity of life, or the imperious claims on us made by totalitarian systems—will then have less power to seduce.  We will recognize that everything that is in the world is partial, distorted, and unreliable, and that these values do not belong to us because we do not belong here.  Recovering this awareness means that once again the ancient prayer will be ever in our hearts and on our lips:  “Let grace come, and let the world pass away”. 


Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.