Praying for the dead, whether one advocates for it or against it, takes on a personal character. I first began discussing the idea of offering this service with our rector, Archdeacon David, around a year ago, although it has come up in conversation earlier. We once had a conversation with Fr. Lionel about the Office for the Dead during the time he was a newly ordained deacon at our parish, and he had fond feelings for it. It is no different for me, and here I want to resist the temptation to try and explain this in dogmatic minutiae. I want to keep it intimate, especially because it was the funeral of our late Rev. Tom Wilding that compelled me to finally finish the work that had languished unfinished. The .pdf file I have attached to this blog post contains the order of Evening Prayer for the Dead, and I have written a brief introduction to it that you will find on the bottom of this post. I am intimately aware of the controversies that surround the prayer for the dead within the Protestant traditions, which is why I have written this short essay and have uploaded the proposed order of service for complete transparency, for open review and critique. I hope to pray Evening Prayer for the Dead at our parish on the first ordinary Saturday of every month, the first occasion being the upcoming July 6. I look forward to hearing any questions and concerns from you all over the two weeks.
The Question of Prayer
Around three and a half years ago in Korea, I attended a funeral with a dear friend of mine. After paying our respects I was surprised to learn that my friend was categorically opposed to praying for the dead. Funerals, he said, only really served the function of catharsis for the living. Those who have passed away are dead and gone, so praying for those who are now either in heaven or hell is useless and merely a sentimental superstition. Having also grown up within Korean Protestant milieus (both my friend and I spent our childhood as Presbyterians) I knew that some Protestants had a strong aversion to praying for the dead, but I was startled at the strictness of his language. There wasn’t much of a debate as both of us had, until that moment, taken for granted that our positions were broadly normative for Christians. That the other person not only thought differently on praying for the dead but thought so strongly about it was a source of great puzzlement for both of us, and because of our deep respect for each other simply chalking up the opposing opinion as a product of sheer theological ignorance wasn’t an option!
The details are complex, but as a general rule it is true that Protestants by large ceased to pray for the dead, in part because many believed that the souls of the departed either went to heaven or hell immediately for good, and in part because praying for the dead appeared to share various similarities to the praying of intercessory prayers to the saints. The Protestant interpretation and emphases on the doctrines of salvation by faith alone, predestination, and the categorical rejection of the doctrine of purgatory all played an important role in the rapid end of prayers for the dead in the various movements of the Reformation (and also in the Radical Reformation, such as the Anabaptists). The classical Anglican tradition, born in the Reformation, also followed the general Protestant consensus against praying for the dead as a devotion.
It would be foolish to think it possible to untangle and resolve the theological tensions between the ancient "Catholic" tradition and the general Protestant rejection of praying for the dead here, and I will not attempt it. I’m only a supplementary clerk. But it seems to me that at heart the question isn’t really about the status of the dead but what the meaning and purpose of prayer is. And this alone is already a difficult question, let alone for someone like me, who like most of my generation were nominally raised as church going Christians but were never taught what prayer fundamentally is. It is easy to see when prayer is false, because you don’t even have to believe in God and prayer to know that praying for our vain pursuits and desires is so blatantly self-serving and hideous that there is no truth to it. Even the atheist knows that such a faith is false because it treats God like a cosmic vending machine, as if tokens of prayer will grant us favourable fortunes. But this still leaves us with the difficulty of recognizing true prayer.
If praying like one of the prosperity gospel swindlers is untrue, then we can discern what true prayer might by reaching out in the opposite way, even if it is by grasping in the darkness of our minds. If the essence of false prayer is pride, then the essence of true prayer must be humility. If that which characterizes the decadence of modern Christianity is narcissism, then the truth must lie in those things that direct our gaze away from self-obsessions towards the Other. In the Christian faith, this truth is nothing other than love. If you will pardon my monstrous abbreviation, it seems to me that true prayer must be the prayers that have no purpose other than to obey The Great Commandment (which is Christ’s own monstrous abbreviation of the Law!): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. If we further tie this question of prayer with St. Paul’s teaching on love in 1 Corinthians 13, the relation of true prayer and love becomes even clearer. Love never ends even as our imperfect knowledge and imperfect prophecies pass into oblivion. Indeed, if we prayed but not in love, we would be noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. True prayer is an act of love.
Love Never Ends
Love never ends. The teaching that love is eternal is something that demands a sincere religious response from us. Christian love is not some cheap romanticism—it is bewildering, it is incomprehensible, and it is cosmic. As St. John teaches: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). Even with our neighbours who are atheists, even if you are not inclined to prayer in any way and do not believe in the eternity of the soul and of the promise of the life everlasting, we all know that our love for our beloved does not end with their death. That our love persists, that our love for our beloved defies the cleavage of death is so universal and so viscerally self-evident that all human beings can mourn for the death of a loved one together across creedal divides. But the Christian must add more to this drama of death, a cosmic interjection that our atheist neighbours might find embarrassingly pious: our love for the beloved does not end with our deaths either. The teaching that love is everlasting must be central to the way we Christians understand our relation to the dearly departed, and a true understanding of our mortal relation to the eternal can only be grounded in the cosmic reality of love. True prayer then, must be a sacrifice of this everlasting love, and I want to suggest that our sacrifice of prayer can only be complete if it keeps the deceased in our hearts too.
In our complacent capitalist age, especially in North America, we live in a world that is deathly afraid of truly facing death in all its horror and sorrow. It is not only capitalist secularism that seeks to trivialize and obscure death—a great deal of contemporary Christianity (be it Protestant, Roman Catholic, or otherwise) in our “developed countries” infantilizes death through syrupy banalities, closely mirroring the way the mourning for the dead is morphed into increasingly self-congratulatory “celebrations of life” in our secular civic lives. So obsessive is our desire to avoid death that our culture has now even developed the curious practice of “living funerals”. But who among us are untouched by death? Who among us do not have loved ones who have departed from us, loved ones who have lost loved ones? Even with the dead in front of us we are increasingly incapable of looking death in the face, as if by papering over the grievousness of death we will outrun both the finality of their departure and our own impending end. But brethren, we will all return to the dust.
What is so tragic about our contemporary approach to death is that it reveals how artificial our constant calls to “the good life” can be. Can an image of good life be authentic if the picture it presents constantly seeks to avoid the problem of suffering and death? Can the idyllic consumerist paradise our late capitalist world says our lives should look like really be a good life if it ignores the inevitable decline of our flesh and mind? Can we really continue to talk so self-contentedly about the supposed progress of history while the environment is decimated by our uncontrolled consumption, our continent is gripped by the most destructive drug crisis we have ever seen in its history, and the ethnonationalist demons again march openly in our streets? Avoiding death not only is an attempt to veil our own mortality from ourselves, but it is to also fail in loving our beloved and mortal neighbours; it is to fracture the everlasting connection between us and our dearly departed. For the atheist our forgetfulness of death and our mortality is a tragic childishness, an inauthentic apprehension of our lives and the lives of others. For the Christian it also separates us from the love that continues to flow between us and the departed, and the forgetfulness of death is also the path that inevitably leads to idolatry and the tacit rejection of the Nativity, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Lord.
But brethren, Christian love is not merely romantic, it is so much more than the fragility of childish fancies that fade away and are discarded when inconvenient. The love of Christ, the secret of the immortality of love lies in its powerlessness and senseless charity. It gives without reserve. The more stupid and helpless it appears the greater is its depths and heights. Death is mute and evil is impotent before love. The self-styled leaders of our world, be they prophets, teachers, politicians, gurus, intellectuals, clergy, and royalty, are all impotent before it. Dumb, blind love is the meaning of human existence, and the purpose of Christian practice is to pour out our lives into our troubled world, not feed it pathetic moralistic self-help platitudes that require absolutely nothing from us. To follow in the footsteps of Christ, the Apostles, the martyrs, and all the saints is to render ourselves vulnerable, to allow love to overwhelm us and drown our pride. The drama of salvation is not a record of compromised humans constantly failing to overcome evil. No, it is the record of a cosmic war fought by unrelenting evil struggling to pulverize the meek jewels of human love with death. But death has no power before love.
I can only say that in the depths of my guts and in the corners of my heart, I confess that praying for the dead is a deeply human thing to do. It is, I believe, one of the purest acts of love that can be performed by us mortals, an act of love given for those who we have committed to the earth and will never see again in this life, an act of love given by us as mortals in a way that can only be done by mortals; a remembrance of our beloved and of our own real and urgent mortality in perpetuity. There is a beauty to praying for the dead because it is good, and it is good because it speaks to the everlasting love between us and our beloved that death cannot destroy. If true prayer is nothing other than an act of love, and if our love for our dearly departed is everlasting, how can we not pray for them? I am aware that this plea is not a systematically rigorous doctrinal argument. My only hope here is to illicit our parish to consider the problem of death, to not fear it. I pray that, even if you still remain theologically doubtful about prayers for the dead being a proper Christian practice, that we can, together, overcome our sorrows that prevent us from thinking about our dearly departed and the Crucifixion, and have faith in our Lord’s mercy and the life of the world to come.
A Short Introduction to the Office for the Dead
I will only give a short introduction to the Office for the Dead here, as I have uploaded a pdf file of the proposed service for you to review. The rite of the Office for the Dead has undergone little change from its earliest forms and is consequently one of the most ancient extant heirlooms we have of the Christian tradition. The order I am proposing has tried to keep faithful to the ancient Vespers for the Dead, although it has been reorganized to match the form of Evening Prayer in the classical Anglican Daily Office. I have added in a reading from 1 Corinthians 15, reflecting the time honoured tradition of reading this passage in the Anglican funeral liturgy. The ancient Office for the Dead only recited various passages from the Book of Job. The section called “The Commemoration” is the only novel addition I have introduced.
The prayers of the Office for the Dead were said by many religious orders, clergy, and laypeople over our long Christian history who were devoted to saying these prayers regularly. The most solemn penitential liturgies were traditionally insulated from the course of liturgical developments over the centuries, which gives them their characteristic sparseness. Consequently, the Office for the Dead lacks various aspects of the Divine Office that are familiar to us. There are no opening or closing versicles, no acclamations of Alleluia or Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit at the end of psalms and canticles as is customary. Instead, petitions to God for the souls of the departed are prayed: “Grant eternal rest unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” The sparse rite is made even simpler by the fact that it has little variability. It does not change according to the season. It is constant, like all our impending mortal ends.
The ancient prayers of the Office for the Dead show us, in all its unembellished starkness, the trials we face in the mortal life, the frailty of our human flesh and our moral failures, and our bondage to sin. In its robust and authentic Christian witness, there is no place for false pretensions of self-righteousness, no presumptuous proclamations that the deceased have by their virtuous conduct attained salvation. Despite the penitential petitions to God to not despise the works of his own hands, to forgive us of our sins, what cuts through in the rite is its equally robust and faithful confidence in the mercy and loving kindness of God. In this way, I believe the Office for the Dead is an exemplary expression of the sober Christian recognition of evil and the human bondage to sin, and the Christian faith in a just, merciful, and loving God. This tension, as difficult it is for us, is maintained instead of being reduced to a false assurance of our virtue or the worship of an arbitrary God.
We are still left with some of the classic Protestant objections to the practice, of which there are no real easy answers. But while an appeal to antiquity does not alone confer legitimacy to a practice, I want us to reflect, without recourse to an arrogant dismissal of the past as idiotic and obsolete, on why the majority of Christians from the earliest days to our own time have prayed for the dead. It is a simple but difficult question: what if we were wrong?