|Nikolay Ge, Witch of Endor (1857)|
The first of these objections is simple enough. The Old Testament prohibits divination, witchcraft and mediums (Deuteronomy 18:10). This is why King Saul was sinning when he visited the witch of Endor, and persuaded her to conjure up the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28).
But the difference between praying to the Saints and conjuring up the dead is exactly the same as the difference between magic and miracles. Magic is condemned in Scripture as well (Rev. 21:8), and precisely for this reason: it seeks to achieve the supernatural by working around God, or by trying to force His hand. J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, admitted as much in an interview with Oprah, saying, “I’m not saying I believe magic is real—I don’t. But that’s the perennial appeal of magic—the idea that we ourselves have power and we can shape our world.” That’s a good definition of magic, and also what makes the appeal of magic so dangerous. It’s Lucifer’s non serviam all over again: we’ve got magic, who needs God?
|Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh: An Allegory of the Dinteville Family (1537)|
With miracles, you accomplish the exact same things, but going through God, rather than around Him. The clearest contrast is when Moses faces off with the Egyptian magicians in the Book of Exodus. When Moses and Aaron unleashed the ten plagues, the magicians would attempt to imitate it through magic — sometimes successfully (Exodus 7:10-12; 20-22; Ex. 8:6-7, 16-19; Ex. 9:10-11). My point is that the godly and the sinful thing may look similar, but they’re very different morally. Since miracles involve working through God, they’re tied to faith, and seeking God’s gifts. Since magic involves trying to work around Him, they’re tied to rebellion, and trying to steal God’s power. Even if the end result is the same, it makes a big difference whether we got there by seeking a gift or stealing.
Having said all that, I understand that to Protestant eyes, a Catholic praying to Mary probably looks a bit like Saul conjuring up Samuel. But with Catholic prayer, we’re going through God, not around Him. For example, the Rosary begins, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” followed by the Apostle’s Creed, and the Our Father. The only way that the Saints can hear us is through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Even assuming the person you’re speaking to can accept the idea that going around God is sinful and going through God isn’t, you’re not quite home free yet. More than once, I’ve found myself explaining this, only to have the other person say something along the lines of, “So let me get this straight. When you pray a Hail Mary, you’re offering up prayer through God to Mary, asking Mary to pray to God for something. Why not just ask God yourself, directly?” The whole thing seems needlessly indirect.
|Philippe de Champaigne, Anne of Austria and Her Children
at Prayer with St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, (1646)
One answer to this is simply that we think that the prayers of the Saints in glory are more efficacious than the prayers of those of us still mired in sin. Certainly, James 5:16 ties the effectiveness of prayer with the righteousness of the person praying it.
But perhaps the better answer is simply this: all prayer is indirect. The clearest example comes from Matthew 6:7-13, in which Jesus says,
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
|Philippe de Champaigne, The Annunciation (1644)|
Or to take another example, think of all of the times that God communicates with man through angels. Does an omnipresent God need to send a messenger? Of course not. But He routinely does so in both the Old and New Testament.
Clearly, then, prayer isn’t simply about identifying the solutions to problems as efficiently as we can: God can do that just fine on His own. Rather, it’s a transformative process that helps to do at least two things: conform our wills with God’s, and draw us into closer union with one another. With that in mind, consider a few examples of prayer from Scripture:
Genesis 18:17-19:29. God tells Abraham that He plans to destroy the city of Sodom for its sinfulness. Abraham then intercedes on behalf of the city, essentially bartering with God until He agrees that if there are even ten righteous people in the entire city, He won’t destroy it. There aren’t, so Sodom gets destroyed, but as a blessing to Abraham, God saves his nephew Lot, along with Lot’s family. This is captured beautifully in Gen. 19:29, “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham, and He brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.” So rather than God negotiating directly with Lot, He goes to Lot’s holier uncle, Abraham. Abraham’s intercession saves Lot.
Deuteronomy 9:16-21. When Israel, including the high priest Aaron, fall into idolatry, it’s through the intercession of Moses that they’re saved, after Moses fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights.
|Albrecht Dürer, Mary Praying (1518)|
1 Kings 2:13-25. When Adonijah has a big favor to ask of his brother, King Solomon, he accomplishes it by asking Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, who then asks Solomon on his behalf. In this case, things don’t work out well for Adonijah (he’s asking for Abishag’s hand in marriage, and Solomon immediately realizes that he’s plotting a coup and has him killed). But it’s clear why he chooses such an indirect way. By going to the king’s mother, Bathsheba, the king is more likely to grant the request. Indeed, when Bathsheba enters the room, King Solomon honors her by rising from his throne and bowing to her, telling her that he’ll grant her whatever she asks (1 Kings 2:19-20). Christ is greater than Solomon (Mt. 12:42), but doesn’t love His Mother any less.
Luke 16:19-31. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in which the rich man prays to Abraham, asking him for relief from the torments of Hades, and asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the man’s brothers of the consequences of their sin.
Luke 22:31-32. Jesus tells Simon Peter that Satan desires to sift all of the Apostles like wheat. Jesus then says that He has prayed for Peter (personally), “that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Clearly, Christ could have prayed for all of the Apostles directly. But He chooses to fortify them through Peter instead.
|Philippe de Champaigne, St. Paul (1640s)|