Saint Theophan the Recluse once remarked, “We pray for the departed like for the living, whether or not they had been following the way of righteousness, or designated as saints or sinners.” Many saints have said that our prayer for the deceased can pull them out of hell. God will hear our prayer as an expression of our love and will show mercy for the soul of the deceased sinner. How do we know about the torments of our dead and their need for our prayer? How do they benefit when we mention their name? We can find out, by the grace of God, from those to whom these souls have appeared.
How our prayer helps our dead
Saint Paisios of the Holy Mount received this question from his spiritual daughter, and he answered it with a real-life example.
— What if you found me one day in a deep cellar and asked the Hegumeness to show pity for me and put me somewhere above the ground so I could see the sun while I am still alive. Do you think the Hegumeness would listen?
“Well, if you think the Hegumeness would listen, would not God intervene to ease the plight of the departed because we ask for it? Would not He bring that man from his dungeon and accommodate him in some better dwelling, maybe even a separate flat?
“The Lord wants to help the dead because He has sympathy for them, but He has a sense of propriety. He does not want to give the devil any reason to say to Him, “Why are you saving this sinner – he worked so little in his life!” Our prayer for the dead is His entitlement to intervene», – taught the elder.
Out of His love for every soul, the Lord arranges for all deceased to have someone on earth to pray for them. Every soul has a chance to be saved until His second coming and the Day of Judgement.
A mortally wounded soldier on a battlefield asked a chaplain for some water, but he did not give him anything to drink, even though he had some in his flask. He showed indifference that was untypical of him. When the soldier died, the priest realised his misdeed, fell into despair and started mentioning him in all his prayers. He brought his grief to Elder Paisios. Normally sympathetic, the priest did not know why he had acted that way with the soldier. Elder Paisios explained that God had withdrawn His grace from the priest temporarily because the soldier needed his prayers. If he had given water to the wounded soldier, he would not have remembered him. But his remorse motivated him to pray for him all the time.
“When I pray for the deceased, I usually begin with those who have the greatest need, then for those with smaller needs, and then for everybody else. I do not spend time thinking about my kin, but if I neglect to pray for the deceased through fatigue or shortage of time, my parents will appear to me in my dream. That is because my prayers help the dead and give them reassurance, and the absence of my prayers deprives them of this much-needed relief. If our humble prayers relieve the suffering of our deceased even to the slightest extent, we monastics should have our skin torn off and salt put under it if we did not do it,” wrote Elder Paisios. Our dead cannot repent their sins, and they live only by our prayers.
The importance of remembering the dead during Liturgy
At the beginning of each liturgy, the priest takes peices from the Prosphora for the living and departed named in the prayer notes. He puts them in the Holy Cup after the Communion. These pieces have contact with the Body and Blood of Christ, and the deceased are cleansed of their sins by the expiatory torments of Christ. Ordering forty days’ prayers for the dead and submitting prayer notes are a good way to ease the plight of our deceased.
As Saint John of Shanghai wrote, “The best way to give our love for the deceased and ease their progress is by praying for them, and especially by leaving a prayer note for commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There is nothing more or better that we can do for them. They need our prayers always.”
We find numerous examples in the lives of the Holy Fathers and ordinary priests showing how even a few offertories and intense prayers can change the situation of our dead.
Saint Gregory the Dialogist left a narrative about a presbyter with whom he was acquainted. A known sinner once visited the presbyter. He was enjoying his visit to a sauna when he noticed a stranger who immediately began to assist him. He met him again and again on his every visit to the sauna. To thank the good stranger for his service, he brought with him two Prosphora and offered them to the man. But he could not take them, and cried bitterly, “Father! You may not know this, but I cannot take this holy bread and eat it. In my life, I was the owner of this place, but I have been condemned for my sins. If you wish to give me your love, please offer this bread to the Lord and pray for me at His throne. If you do not see me again, consider it the sign that your prayer has been heard. The presbyter prayed tearfully for the sinner every day of the week, offering the bloodless sacrifice to the Lord on his behalf. On his next visit to the sauna, he was relieved not to see the stranger there anymore.
“At each forty days prayer, a sinner is released from hell,” taught Elder Nikolay Guryanov.
The blessed elder of the Church knew it well. Schema-nun Maria, a spiritual friend of Hegumen Savva (Ostapenko), told this story. At the departure of Schema-nun Sergiya, a monastic sister, the far-sighted Savva said to the people at church, “The soul of the blessed Eldress Sergiya is now standing before an ice mountain. She tries to climb it, but every time she reaches the half-point, she slides to its foot; she almost reaches the top and goes down all the way again. She was allowed this trial for the sin of grumbling. She committed it as the sisters were caring for her before her death,” explained Father Savva and added joyfully, “But we can help her now. We will pray together and clear this hindrance out of her way, so she could proceed on her journey. On the fortieth day of her departure, the Lord will welcome her soul and grant her eternal comfort and glory.”
Details about the life of the righteous soul in the first forty days after departure were revealed to Elder Paisios. He said that these days were a time of trouble for the soul, still uncertain what awaits her after the Last Judgement. But she finds comfort and reassurance in the prayers of the living. One day, the elder met an old woman outside a hotel. She took his blessing, and he kissed her hand in return, noticing the light of grace emanating from her. Soon, she became a nun. After her departure, the elder came to venerate her precious relics. Some days later, several wondrous incidents happened to him. On the seventh day after the nun’s repose, elder Paisios saw her soul. It looked like an angel, resembling in her appearance a twelve-year-old girl, and it glowed. “In the life to come, everyone will be like an angel; there will be no men or women, no old or newborn; all will be of the same sex and age. If we could see a soul departing from a body, it would appear to us like a young child. The face of each will have distinctive features, but all will look like children”, — said the elder. When the elder saw the soul of the newly departed nun a second time, she came to him in a dream and bowed to him in gratitude for his prayers. Father Paisios felt great joy. He counted the days and realised that it happened exactly after forty days from her repose.
Church prayer is not the only thing that can help the deceased. Elder Joseph Hesychast told this story about the righteous priest Father George who baptised him in his native village and for whom the elder prayed all his life. Father George lived in celibacy, gave alms and drove out demons. He served liturgy every day, remembering thousands, and walked around the cemetery serving memorials for the dead. That way, he hoped to deliver the sinners from hell.
Eventually, the elder saw Father George in his dream, and the priest said to him, “In my life, I used to think that only liturgical commemoration could save a soul from hell. But after my death, I also realised that the prayers that you do also deliver the deceased from the torments of hell.”
From that moment on, the Venerable Joseph instructed all his monks to pray with beads for all the dead to save as many souls as possible.
“Great is the comfort and tremendous is the reward to everyone who saves another from a temporary sorrow; even greater will be the comfort of those who pray for a deceased for the forgiveness of their sins and their passage from the darkness of hell to the dominions in heaven,” — said Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov) in a sermon.
As we are making progress to the Great Lent let us remember our departed family and kin, and all deceased in the spirit of Christian love. Let us do so vehemently, during liturgy and in our private prayers. May the Lord forgive them their transgressions and place them in His Heavenly Kingdom, a place where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. Then, when the time for our departure comes, He will find the living who will pray for us. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)