Dear brothers and sisters!
Every faithful person, over the course of their life, is embraced by the prayer and love of the Holy Church, and when a person departs from this mortal life, the Church’s prayer for their soul does not cease. Prayer can affect the souls of the departed even more strongly than the souls of the living. Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote about this.
A person, by their nature, by their own lack of faith or pride is imperfect, and is spiritually limited by their material body. Here, on earth, we see God’s providence and our spiritual paths as if through a haze; we can catch a glimpse of the afterlife as if in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12), as was stated by the Apostle. According to the teachings of the Church, at the end of our earthly existence, everything will become clear, and then all our actions will be revealed; the inevitable true light will illuminate our soul and awaken our conscience. And in this new state, the soul of the departed awaits prayerful aid, and it anticipates that we, the living, will help it in its new state and ease its condition through prayer.
If a soul is doomed to remain in hellish torments, then it calls out for help. The Lives of the Saints holds several stories recounting the help that prayer is able to offer to a soul residing in hades, in particular, those of Macarius the Great and Paisius the Great. Saint John of Damascus explains that although there can be no salvific confession in hades: in hades who will confess to You (Ps. 6), according to the words of the prophet, yet there can be confession of another kind – the soulful confession of one’s sins, the repentance of sinners not completely embittered, who in the course of their earthly lives had a heartfelt desire for good and the light. In his teaching on the deceased, Saint John of Damascus writes: “Terrible are the threats of the All-overseeing One, but they are overcome by His unutterable philanthropy, since after the prophet said in hades who will confess to You, there undoubtedly took place the confession of those who came to believe during the salvific descent of the Lord. This is the confession of those Old Testament righteous ones who repented, residing in hades, awaiting the Deliverer, the Redeemer promised to them (1 Pet. 3:19). Without any doubt, such confessions are given by the sinners now descended to hades, and who are not completely devoid of good. And this confession of theirs, in other words, this admission of sins and repentance, the merciful Lord will accept from them, with the intercession of the Holy Church on their behalf and by the petitions of their living relatives, friends and loved ones”.
Some believe that prayer and alms for the dead are useless and fruitless. They say that a sinful soul is unclean, and therefore it has no place to be near the Lord, Who embodies purity and perfection. On top of this they add their doubts: can one hope to receive the Kingdom of Heaven on the back of the merits and prayers of others?
Other people reason, rather primitively, that through the alms-giving and prayers that they “ordered” and paid for in the Church, it is possible for them to appease the Lord.
Prayer for the departed and charity for them is useful only when it is brought with lively faith, when the petitioner takes an active part, that is, they themselves pray for the departed.
Bishop Michael Semenov in his sermon “The Significance of Prayers for the Dead” writes: “Prayer for the dead acts in the same way as prayer for living sinners, invoking love within them in response to the love kindled by fiery prayer, invoking consonant movement in the soul of the departed, awakening them. And it is our duty to strengthen these sacred swells of love, so that they may stir up the souls of the departed. It is essential that this prayer be truly fiery, burning, and not simply a dead list of names recited from a commemoration book, read like an invoice from a store”.
Of course, common church prayer is stronger than the prayer of one person, since common prayer unites the souls of all worshipers. However, deeply mistaken are those who think that it is possible not to take care of the soul in this life, believing it can be saved from hades through the atoning prayers of other believers.
“The prayer of the Church may only save those in whom is planted the seed of life, in whom the sacred beginnings of faith and love of God are preserved,” writes Bishop Michael Semenov. “If the soul has rotted and decayed, if everything alive within it is killed, then, of course, the prayer of the Church will not stimulate a sudden salutary change within it, and will neither awaken nor save it. A grain rots in the ground, and gives life to bread. But if you sow a rotten grain, it will not bear life. Similarly, a soul which has been preparing for corruption its entire life “will not rise to glory”.” It is impossible even for the prayers of the entire Church to save a soul that did not show remorse on earth, that did not reproach itself in sins, that lived without repentance and the desire to ascend higher.”
Such a question may arise: since the Holy Scripture says that some people will go to eternal life, and others to eternal torment (Matt. 25:46), is eternal torment truly pleasing to God, who is Love?
No, Divine love cannot be exhausted, and the Lord, prior to the Terrible Judgment, leaves us with the ability to provide great aid to those who are perishing through prayers and alms-giving, but this is possible only in conjunction with the deep repentance of the sinner. This is shown in the Gospel parable “of the rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19), which tells of a rich man who “fared sumptuously” all his life without noticing that at his gate lay the poor and sick Lazarus, who did not even condemn the rich man, but simply wished to “be fed by the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.” But eventually both died. We see that a different fate befalls each of them: Lazarus “was carried to Abraham’s bosom”, that is, to heaven, and the rich man was “in hades… in torments”. It can be noted that they see each other and are not deprived of their freedom: they can talk, express their feelings and wishes. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to “cool” him in hades. Abraham explains to the rich man the peculiarity of the afterlife: “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those
from there pass to us,” that is, the opportunity to help each other and change dwellings is already passed. But it is possible to talk, it is possible to pray…
Then the rich man continues to ask Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, saying: “Let him testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” But, apparently, these words do not express concern for his brothers, but an indirect justification of himself: he says, if I had received a wonderful sign in my time, I would not be here. And so, I am not guilty.
The rich man begins to justify himself, but what is preventing him from saying otherwise to the Lord? What prevents him from exclaiming: “Forgive me, Lazarus, for my hardness of heart! Pray for me, Father Abraham! Lord, have mercy on me!” If the rich man had repented, would Abraham not have interceded on his behalf, and would the Lord not have shown mercy to the repentant? So, in eternal torment remain those that reject the commandments of the prophets and apostles, who themselves push away God’s saving hand.
With its limitations, the human mind may not always understand how the action of prayer extends from one world to another, from the visible one to the invisible, how the prayer of one person can, with the omnipotent help of God, influence another.
In matters of faith, it is safer to affirm oneself not on one’s own wisdom, but on the Word of God, which speaks of prayer with the words of the Apostle: we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered (Rom. 8:26), that is, the Holy Spirit directs our prayer.
And if we do not know for what and how to pray, then for the purpose of our edification and instruction, we have been given the Holy Scripture, which are able to make you wise for salvation (2 Tim. 3:15).
The Scripture commands us to pray “for all men”, but warns against a prayer that “is not pleasing to God and not useful to people”. The epistles teach: I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men (1 Tim. 2:1) and also say: Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (Jam. 5:16). Let us listen to whom the Apostle teaches us to pray for: if anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and he will be given life, for those who commit sin not leading to death; there is sin leading to death; I do not say that he should pray about that (1 Jn. 5:16). Prayer is useless for those who sin leading to death, that is, commit mortal sins and do not repent of them.
The freedom of every person does not prevent us from praying both for the living and for the dead, and if the Holy Scripture does not contain specific instructions and commandments regarding prayer for the departed, then there is no prohibition to do it, which means that prayer for the dead is not repulsive to God, and, as we can see from Church Tradition, it is not without benefit for the one who prays. Therefore, the
commemorative petitions at the panikhida (memorial service) end with the words: “Having entreated for the mercy of God, and the Kingdom of Heaven, and the remission of sins for them and for ourselves and for each other, let us give over our entire lives to Christ God”.
Perhaps the Wisdom of God does not proclaim commandments to pray for the departed so that, prior to their demise, those who are alive do not become lazy in hoping for this allowance, and with fear and diligence work for the salvation of their soul.
But, someone may ask, is prayer for those who died in sins done in vain?
According to the word of the Apostle, vain is the prayer for those who hopelessly fell away from life in their faith, and in their unbelief and impenitence they lived in opposition to God, and there is no benefit from our prayers for them. The prayer for “a brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death”, that is, not guilty of committing mortal sins, may grant him forgiveness of sins even after bodily death. St. John Chrysostom writes about this, calling upon us to help the departed, “with prayers, supplications and alms and intercessions” (1 Corinthians, homily 41). Particularly effective is prayer for the departed during the Divine Liturgy, as St. John Chrysostom writes: “Let us not be weary in giving aid to the departed, and obtaining prayers for them: for the common expiation of the world is even before us… and it is possible from every source to gather pardon…”. Blessed Augustine says that there is no gainsaying that the souls of the departed find solace when “the sacrifice of the Mediator is offered for the dead or alms are given in the Church. But these means are of profit for those who, when they lived, earned merit whereby such things could be of profit to them” (“On faith, hope and love”, ch. 110).
Hierarch Gregory the Dialogist writes about the effect of prayer for a departed monk, deprived of a church burial for the breaking of his vows. Out of compassion for his soul, bloodless sacrifice was offered for thirty days with prayers for him, after which the departed appeared in a vision to his brother and said: “Hitherto have I been in bad case, but now I am well; for this day have I received the communion” (Dialogues., book 4; ch. 55).
In conclusion, we can say that prayer for the departed has long existed in the Church as a pious custom. Since ages past, prayer for the departed has been a consistent part of the Divine services. The well-known rule of this custom was that fervent prayer for the departed should be done with faith and hope in the mercy of God. And in order for this faith and hope to be strong, then the worshiper must cleanse himself of sins while alive, and then, after our death, the prayers of our loved ones will bring comfort to our soul and help in obtaining eternal peace and bliss in the Kingdom of God, with which may the Lord help us, to Whom belongs glory forever! Amen.