Project Canterbury

On Prayers to the Dead.
By J.G.H. Barry, D.D.

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1919.



I hope you will not be disappointed in this book which you have so kindly permitted me to dedicate to you. I trust you have not been expecting an elaborate and learned treatise on the Invocation of Saints which you could show with pride as an illustration of the erudition of the clergy of the American Church. In the possible case that you have been expecting something other than I have to offer, it is perhaps as well that I should make clear my purpose in writing. I have had no intention of producing a work of original research; that would be as far beyond my reach as it is beyond my intention. I doubt if there is any more research of value to be done on the subject of Invocation. And in any case there is a sufficient number of learned treatises in existence to supply the need of scholars, as the book list at the beginning of this volume will show. There are also brief tracts to supply a certain sort of popular demand. My ambition has been to produce a book which should present the essentials of my subject, and at the same time so present them as to attract, not the clergy, but the laity. Such a book, I conceive, should be clear, brief, and not cumbered with technicalities. My humble position is that of a popularizer, attempting to reach a public which is not much given to theological reading. We of the clergy are apt to blame the laity because they do not do as much theological reading as we think they ought, and then we do not take pains to provide them with books which they can read with ease and profit. Here is an atéçempt in one department of theology ? whether success or failure time will show.


It has long been a growing conviction with me that one of our principal needs is a better understanding of the meaning of the Communion of Saints. We are, as Christians, hopelessly provincial, not to say suburban. Our spiritual activities run the petty round of our individual concerns. Prayer means largely petition for one's sell and for our immediate circle of interests; it does not mean spiritual interests in communion with the whole Body of Christ. I suppose that during the past eighteen months I have read between thirty and forty volumes on Prayer. With the aid of them I have been looking at Prayer from a Protestant and from an Anglican standpoint; and the greater part of what I have read has seemed quite unconscious that Prayer meant anything more than the prayer of petition! The hooks are concerned with Prayer as the risking for things, and with the attempts to solve the intellectual difficulties raised by rationalists against Prayer as the asking for things. One rises from the reading of such books with no consciousness of belonging to anyéçhing greater than a society of beggars, clamoring ceaselessly at the doors of heaven. The prayer of petition is, no doubt, an un?peakable privilege; but does it not lose much of its value if it be isolated from other experiences of the prayer life? Does it not tend to become inconceivable, as many to-day find it to be inconceivable, if it be nothing more than a subordinate feature of our prayer life? In other words, petitions are harmonious and intelligible as experiences of the one family of God seeking to realize the greatest possible fullness of life as mem?ers of the Body in union with all its other members. But our feeling that we can and ought to ask springs from a sense of our union with our Lord in His spiritual Body?a sense of union which we have attained through some, whether understood or not, use of the higher forms of prayer. FortuçXately many of us use prayer of meditation and union in some elementary way without being able to give them their technical name. It is chiefly through these higher forms of Prayer that we gain our consciousness of the true meaning of the Communion of Saints. Our spirit pushes its activities out beyond the material frontiers of life and enters into communion with other spirits, members of the same Body, and with the Body's Head. These prayers meet and touch at the Body's center and the members of the Body, whether on earth or in the midêsle state, or in heaven, respond to the appeals of one another upon their love and sympathy and prayers. The constant tragŸRdy is that so many of us pass through this universe of spiritual activities, as the diver passes unwetted through the water, clad in insulating indifference and ignorance, hold?ng out no hand for the help of our brethren and heedless of their silent appeal to our love. Oftentimes, no doubt, as we stand by graves, or go back in memory to our childhood, or come upon relics that we had laid away and long forgotten, there is the bitter ache of an unsatisfied affection, an affection which withers and dies for lack of expres?ion. If only we had learned the joy of an affection which never misses of expression because it is, where all our life is, hid with Christ in God.


It is strange that under the imperfect religious system in which you and I were brought up, we should have been taught so much more of the activities of the powers of evil than those of the powers of good. The typical ill-instructed child who is to make up the membership of our Church of the future will be found on questioning to have some elementary notion of the spiritual powers of evil which are active in this universe. To him the devil and his angels are realities. If he does not abandon his religion as he grows up this conviction will remain. To him "The devil as a roaring lion goeth about seeking whom he may devour." He has some sort of conception of "The world rulŸRrs of this darkness" against whom his batéçle lies. But when his life faces the other way, it looks out upon a universe which is for him empty?he looks across vast vacant spaces till his thought touches a far off heaven where God is enthroned, God between Whom and his soul there is nothing. To him, the Saints are characters in Church history, who are pictured in stained glass windows, wearing queer clothes and standing in strange attitudes; who carry about with them the instruments of their death, remind?ng him of how uncomfortable the world once was for Christians. If he has any thankfulness stirred in him by the pictures of the Saints it is, no doubt, that the world has now become as comfortable for him as for other men. For him the Dead are very dead and he does not care to speak of them as the thought of them makes him vaguely uneasy. That he, living as comfortably as he can in this world, has, or conceivably can have, any relation with the Saints or with his own personal dead never enters the wildest fancies of his dreams.

But if principalities and powers of darkness beset us, so do angels and saints defend us. We are come unto them, unto the angels in their innumerable multitude and to the constantly increasing number of the spirits of just men made perfect; and we need, for the vitality of our own spiritual experience, for the richness and fullness of the life of the Church here on earth, to real?ze the possibility of our spirit nail contacts. There is barrenness in the life which has not its frontiers of experience coterminous with the frontiers of the whole Church. The richness of the life of the Church is dependent upon its entering into its entire inheritance.


For consider how more than once the Church has Host tremendously through its failure to present to men the whole content of the Christian revelation. The beliefs and practices of Christianity are not a set of arbitrary enactments which conceivably might have been something quite different?the belief in and use of which have no signifié¥ance except as we show through our acé¥eptance of them the submission of our will to God. The revealed things are for the direction and development of our spiritual lives on their way to the vision of God. They are because humanity needs them; and when any part of the Church forgets any portion of its divine trust disaster follows.

One of the observable results of this disaster is that man who needed the thing God provided, being deprived of that thing and conscious of his need, seeks to supply it as best he may. Consider this great fact in one or two instances. The Western Church has allowed the Sacrament of Unction of the Sick to be perverted or to fall into disuse. Rome reduces it to a sacrament of the dying and practically denies its healing power. The Anglican Church, after providing a Service for the Unction of the Sick in the First Prayer Book of Edward VI, dropped it in all succeeding books, and the Churches which have sprung from the Church of England long followed her example. We in the American Church debate the restoration of Unction in successive General Conventions where an ill-informed laity determine the fate of the Sacraments. In the meantime, some few of our Bishops, exercising their rightful prerogatives, bless the Oil of Unction, and some few of the clergy, feeling the needs of their parishioners of more importance than questions of regularity, procure this blessed oil and anoint the sick?they can tell you with what results. In the meantime, masses of Christian people feel uneasily, as they read their New Testaments, that something is wrong; that there ought to be available for them means for the healing of physical ills ministered by the trustees of their religion. They are not looking for miracles to be performed but for a spiritual power to be exercised?a power that will meet and answer their faith, and, if it is the good will of God, will relieve them from their bodily pain. When the Church fails them it is not a matter of great wonder that they are prepared material for the formation of sects of various kinds which have for their chief ends ministry to the physical ills of men. Such fallings away from the Church then engender attempts within the Church at a like ministry to physical needs, but without recourse to the spiritual means that the Catholic religion provides in the Sacrament of Unction. The loss to the Church through the abandonment of its apèrointed means of healing is very great.

Take another and more disastrous instance. The Church is the Body of Christ and its members are members one of an?ther. The Church, understanding this from the first, entered upon its career with a distinct comprehension of its social mis?ion. The Church in any place was a band of brethren, responsible for one another and understanding that if one member suffered the other members necessarily suffered with him. This sense of cooperation and responsibility in great measure passed away. It was not the size of the Church which made brotherhood in any active sense impossible, but the growing worldliness of the Church. The social action of the Church in keeping society clean and honest fell to a low level. Members of the Church have constantly been conspicuous in the crass individualism which looks on its own things and not on the things of the brother. Scramble for individual aggrandizement and self-gratification rather than sense of responsibility for the brother has characterized the membership of the Church (I am speaking very genŸRrally), and the Church as an organization has not energetically acted socially. What has been the result? That the conception of brotherhood constantly has been driven to organize itself outside the Church. All through the Middle Ages social groups organized themselves in separation from and in opposition to the Church. To-day we see the great masses of the world's workers alienated from the Church, seeking to realize for themselves what they ought to have found in the Christian Body. The conseèuuent social danger is great. The spiritual disaster is greater.

These are but two illustrations of the general principle that when the Church is unfaithful to its mission in any respect there will be attempts outside the Church (clumsy and imperfect attempts, no doubt) to supply that which the Church fails to supply. This is strikingly so in the consequences which have followed the Church's failure to understand the Communion of Saints.

The growth of Spiritualism, to use a clumsy word, in all its forms, is one of the most marked phenomena of the day. As was to have been expected it has received an enormous impulse from the great war. It has been vastly fortified and rendered respectable by the adhesion of men whose names carry weight in the scientific world. The possibility of some sort of communication with the spirits of the departed is claimed by men on whose reputation no shade of suspicion of trickery or low motives can possibly be cast to be an established fact. Whether this be so or no, I do not see how any one who is familiar with the writings and experiences of the Saints, with all their accounts of supernatural communication narrated almost as commonplaces of their spiritual life, can be very skeptical about it. What I am concerned with is the underlying causes which send, not so much scientists to investigate, as plain people to seek, the means of communication with the departed. To so complex a set of phenomena there is, to be sure, no single cause to be assigned; but there seems to me no doubt at all that one influential cause is to be found in the failure of large parts of the Christian world to offer any intelligible account of the world beyond; in its treatment of death as a final settlement of the soul's affairs, through its designation to a final and unalterable state of reward or punishment. Protestantism brusquely swept aside the age-long convictions of the Christian Church with impatient talk about superstition and heathenism; then it buried its dead with the assertion that their souls were now in heaven or hell according as their deserts might be. Their state was fixed and unalterable; there was nothing that could be done for them nor that they could do for us. We might not so much as follow them in our prayers. We might possibly think of the Saints as praying for us, but it was without any comprehension of our individual needs. It not only denied, as was right, any future probation, but to all intents and purposes it left no place for future growth. It was compelled to think of the vast majority of humanity as lost. It was compelled to think that in the case of those saved who were yet imperfect some sort of spiritual miracle was operated in the article of death whereby they were fitted for the immediate enjoyment of the beatific vision.

This was not the doctrine of the formal documents of the Anglican Church; but it soon after the Reformation became the prevailing belief of its membership, including the greater part of the clergy. It is to-day in process of being displaced by a revised belief in a Middle State of purification and growth which we who are still in our pilgrimage can reach by our prayers and sacrifices. Protestantism, at length finding its own doctrines incredible, has turned its face to the still less credible doctrine of universalism; but still, so far as it is concerned, there are no recognized means of approach to the world beyond.

In the meantime the harm has been done; and souls hungry for some expression of their love for their dead turn in multitudes to any offered channel of communication, however unlikely. They not only seek along the sane ways of scientific investigation but, finding these slow in advance and tentative in their conclusions, rush to any impostor who offers for a moderate fee to put them in communication with their dead. 1 think this is the quite natural result of a wholly intelãœigible disappointment at the failure of the religion in which they have been brought up to give any credible account of the world beyond or to provide any way of approach to it.

Among those educated in the Catholic faith there will be those who have failed to make a success in its application to life and who will be drawn away to practices in the way of communication with the dead which are more thrilling and sensational than those which the Church has to offer. Hut, broadly speaking, the Catholic Christian does not feel the need of any form of Spiritualism because his religion gives him that which will satisfy his love. In the practice of Prayers for the Dead and of Prayers to the Dead he gains peace and experiences communion with other members of the Body of Christ. This is infinitely more than the work of the Medium at the best estimate of it has to offer. One would not care to accept a few broken phrases?"I am happy," "All is well,"?in exchange for the sense of dear presences that we find at the altar, the privilege of bringing names precious to us to the Heart of Jesus.


In pressing our rights to the enjoyment of all the privileges of the Communion of Saints, it was to be expected that there should be roused to activity all the forces of unbelief and half-belief. In particular we could be sure that the usual cry of Anglican obscurantism would be set up?the cry of danger. One gets rather bored by the con?tant treatment of religion as being a danæ«erous affair. If we were to read over all the addresses of Anglican bishops for the last century (which God forbid) we should probably find two words of great frequency of occurrence?danger and crisis. We are constantly passing through dangerous crises. To the typical Anglican mind, I gather, the most dangerous of all practices is that of saying one's prayers?we must not pray for the dead, we must not pray to the Saints, we must not pray to our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament, else dire results may follow!

Now it was not a Christian that bade us "live dangerously"; but it is a very Chriséçian piece of advice. It is much more Chriséçian than the Episcopal view of life that we should live smugly and avoid all spiritual risks. I do not myself see that the members of the Churches of the Anglican communion are endangering their souls' salvation by saying too many prayers?by saying the wrong sort of prayers. I think their true danger is the danger of prayerlessness. After all, what is the danger of asking for the prayers of Blessed Mary, or of asking one's father or mother to continue in the state where they are to bear one's name beáßore God? There is danger of forgetting our Lord's mediatorial office, we are told. But is there? How does it any more conáßlict with our Lord's mediatorial office to ask St. Mary to pray for me, now that she is in heaven, than it would if she were here on earth and I proffered the same request? The Invocation of the Dead is nothing more than the application of the principles of inéçercessory prayer to the whole Church, in heaven and in the middle state as well as on earth. If we think it profitable to ask other people to pray for us, why should we draw a line at the place where, one would think, they would be able to pray the most effectê‚ally?

But what certainty have we that the Saints hear us? I should answer that we have the guarantee of the constant belief and practice of the Catholic Church throughout the ages. That is the guarantee I have for most of the things I believe. I have no demonstration of even the existence of God except the demonstration of faith. It is quite contrary to the religion that I hold to wait for demonstration before I believe: rather, I believe to get the demonstration?and when I get it, it is not the demonstration of the intellect but the demonstration of experience. The experience of the Catholic Church is a sufficient ground for my adoption of the practice of Invocation. How Saints know I do not expect to be told and I confess to not being very much interested.

Naturally, theologians have speculated on this subject from the time of the Fathers on; but they were speculating on the basis of an existing practice. While the theologians speculated, the Church prayed. "The plain fact is that people did as they were accustomed to do without concerning themselves with any intellectual justification, and the Church accepted it, and left the theologians to justify it at their leisure. The view ulti?ately accepted was what we may call the theory of a divine camera obscura. The Saints see in the mirror of the Divine Word which they contemplate, all that it concerns them to know, and aid us through their prayers and through their prayers alone." [Goudge, p. 24]

This is a quite possible explanation. Toêsay, it may be, we should be inclined to think along other lines. We are coming to see how largely mind is independent upon bodily limitations, how mind can reach and influŸRnce mind outside our usual modes of communication. The thought appears to find its object at an indefinite distance. Perhaps it is along the lines of an activity of the spirit transcending material limitations that we shall think to the solution of our problem. Let those speculate who care to: in the meantime the experience of the Church knows.

We have heard at every stage of the Catholic revival in the Anglican communion the cry that there was being brought back to the Church, purified by the Reformation, all the Mediaeval superstitions from which it had so happily escaped. This assertion is made with special violence when it is a question of the recovery of some intelligible use of the Communion of Saints. I fancy, my dear Mr. Marshall, that you and I are not much distressed by fear of the inroads of "Mediaeval superstitions"? there are so many worse things to worry about! Indeed, superstition for superstition, I am inclined to prefer those of the Middle ages to those of the modern mind. I myself should preáßer the superstitions of Paganism to the latéçer. Paganism was at least a religion, with some notion of God and of the worship of God, and not a merely speculative system whose supreme deity is limited by the human intellect. I had rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn than the type of Chriséçian student who asserts that we cannot believe miracles which are contrary to the order of nature?the order of nature necessarily meaning the conclusions of the human mind about nature, up to date, which are actually imposed as the limits of conceivable Divine action. I had rather be a Mediaeval peasant, kissing the feet of a winking Madonna, than a rationalistic bishop announcing his disbelief in the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of the Lord Who died for him. This world is filled with superstitions, and the simple superstitions of the ignorant to me, at least, are much to be preferred to the superstitions of culture.

But in reality there is small ground for fearing the inroads of Mediaeval superstitions. We shall be quite able to practice the cultus of the Saints without in any way conáßusing that cultus with the worship of Almighty GOD. Is it a fact of observation that the worship of God has been obscured in those parts of Christendom where the cultus of the Saints prevails? Avoiding irritating allusions to the state of religion in countries where the Churches of the Papal obedience hold sway,?has anything that we have ever read about the Church in Russia, for example, suggested a loss of the meaning of Divine worship or a forget fulness of the majesty of Almighty GOD or of the infinite love and pity of our Redeemer? Might it not, perhaps, be not unreasonably suggested that forgetfulness of the obligations of Divine worship is rather observable in those parts of Christendom where the sacrifice of the Mass is denied, where the Holy Communion is offered to God's children at rare intervals, where churches are closed and locked save for a few hours once a week, and where the chief reason for Christian people coming together is to hear an address which oftentimes has nothing to do with the faith of Christ? "I go to St. James' Church," a business man was heard to say; "I like Mr. ??'s sermons. He is not all the time bothering you about religion." We hear it constantly asserted in that part of the world where we live that the members of the Church are impatient of dogmatic teaching. I am not sure but that an inoculation with the virus of Medievalism would be an advantageous method of treatment for many parishes of the Anglican communion.


The attitude toward the Saints which appears to me to be the true attitude of Catholic Christians, appears to others to "belong to a luxuriant and highly imaginative religion rather than to a religion of sobriety and restraint which ... is the mark of the English Church to-day." [Stewart, Doctrina Romanensium, etc. p. 87] I am quite free to confess that a "luxuriant and highly imaginative religion" appeals to me much more than a religion of "sobriety and restraint." The high-water mark of the latter was, I should suppose, reached in the 18th century in England. The English Church, on the one hand, treated with contempt as a mere department of the State, and on the other, brow-beaten by the pseudo-intellectualism of the Deistic writers, nearly perished. The leaders of the Church before all things else abhorred "enthusiasm": and the Church was rescued from a dishonored death only by the efforts of enthusiasts who threw sobriety and restraint to the winds. It was the Methodists and the Evangelicals who saved the day by bringing about a spiritual awakening. So far as the Churches of the Anglican communion have got back to ideals of "sobriety and restraint" as the highest they can think of in the way of spiritual expression they will be the better for an inroad of "luxuri?nt and highly imaginative" Medievalism.


The Anglican sobriety easily lends itself to a spirit of compromise. It seeks, not for ideal expression, but for working adjustments. When disagreements arise in the Church men of this temperament do not give themselves to the patient investigation of truth, feeling that it is all important that they should know the truth and be made free by it; but they eagerly set about what they regard as the practical treatment of the situaéçion?the building of a platform so cleverly fitted together that all parties can stand on it and each assert that it means what he means.

In this matter of the cultus of the Saints such a platform has been sought in what is called comprecation. It is admitted on all sides that the Saints in heaven (we must except, of course, those who do not believe that there are any Saints as yet in heaven) pray for us. The early Christian writers did not employ a single mode of address when they desired to profit by the prayers of the Saints. Sometimes they said simply, "Pray for me." Sometimes they asked God that He would hear the prayers of the Saints on their behalf. This latter?this asking that God will accept the prayers of the Saints for us?is called comprecation. The early writers seem not to have made much of the distinction. In view of the inscriptions in the Catacombs I do not believe that it can be successfully maintained that comprecation is the earlier practice which later, by abuse, passed into invocation or prayer addressed directly to the Saint rather than to God. The early writers seem to me, on the whole, quite indifferent to such a distinction. They asked the Saint for his prayers, or they asked God to hear the prayers of the Saint, as seemed to them good at the time. Comprecation, one would imagine, would be a formal or liturgical prayer rather than the type of more informal and private devotion, lint some modern writers have seized upon the distinction as affording a splendid basis for compromise. As the Saints undoubtedly pray for us, why not agree to ask God to hear their prayers, and also agree to abstain from any direct address to the Saints? So shall we avoid all danger of superstition.

But there are always those who decline to ascend the platform of compromise, however cleverly constructed. The late Bishop John Wordsworth was one of these. Speaking for others besides himself he says: "They have regretted it (comprecation) because they knew that this was the first step historically, and likely again to be the first step, toward the practice of direct invocation. They have felt that such an indirect method of obtaining the prayers of individual intercessors was most unlikely to satisfy for any length of time, those who desired such help. They felt also that it was an unreasonable thing in itself to ask our heavenly Father to move some one else to move Him to do what we desired."

We may not agree with Bp. Wordsworth as to the objectionability of comprecation; but I think we shall agree with him that when any one who has gotten so far in spiritual experience as really to value the prayers of the Saints is not at all likely to stop at the line that compromisers would draw. Comprecation is, as I said, a formal and liturgical mode of address, and lacks the warmth and glow which love inspires. If our devotion is kindled by love, whether love of God in Himself, or of God as manifested in His Saints, it will seek direct personal expression: the utterances of love are apt to pass beyond sobriety and restraint and run to imaginative and luxuriant modes of address. Unless the Saints are very real persons to us, we shall not want to speak to them at all. Unless our own faithful departed are conceived as truly living in Christ with a love that yearns backward to us, we shall prefer to forget them. We may be silent or we may speak; the one thing we are not likely to do is to be careful to be sober and restrained.

This is a very long letter, my clear Mr. Marshall, but it seems to me that the time has come for some one to speak out in these matters. If it turns out that the speaking meets no sympathetic answer, one will not be overmuch surprised. But I am convinced that many in the Church are thinking about these high matters and are wanting to know what others think; and especially are wanting some guide to the thought of the Church. I have done my best to be a guide; but perhaps my best will have been the point?ng to the existence of other and more competent guides than myself.


These matters must be discussed, as all Christian teaching must be discussed, as a preliminary to the coming attempts at Church Unity. You and I are, as I suppose all thinking Churchmen must be, tremendously interested in the subject of Unity. We are convinced, I think, that any attempts to attain Unity which are conditioned upon silence as to our deepest convictions, which are advanced by the facile process of shuffling out of sight the vital matters on which we differ from one another, and the production of a compromise platform, are futile. There can be no Church Unity with those who neither understand what the Church is nor what Unity is; who are anxious to achieve some sort of union only because of the intolerable pressure of the problems created by the divisions of Christendom. A unity so founded would certainly fail of any wide acceptance or long continuance. Unity that is more than compromise must be founded in obedience to the Catholic Faith as received and transmitted by the Catholic Episcopate. The unity that we must aim at is the unity that Christ prayed for: His prayer was not simply, as it is usually quoted by the advocates of Church union, that His followers might be one, leaving them apparently to decide what one means; but that "they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." Such union is not accomplished by agreement and compromise, it is the corporate union of those who are in Christ, and therefore in one another, and who find the highest realization of this union in the Communion of Saints.

I trust, my dear Mr. Marshall, I shall have your sympathetic interest and I beg you to believe me
Ever sincerely yours in our blessed Lord,

Project Canterbury