The Communion of Saints


610xWe are told in the book of Hebrews that our struggle here is “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” the saints who have gone before us. This Divine reality is probably not what many modern Christians would expect. 


I recall the question being put to me some years ago, by a young widow (not Orthodox). I was serving as a Hospice Chaplain. When her young husband died, her question was, “Will he be aware of me when he goes to heaven?”


To a degree, her question and her anxiety were driven by a two-storey vision of the universe. Her departed husband was going to live “up there.” Would he know what is happening in my life “down here?”


The perceived gap (a theological construction) places her husband somewhere that potentially is unaware of our life. The Scriptures, however, teach us something quite different. The “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) is, in fact, the great company of heaven – the departed who are in the “hands of God.” Their concerns are not separated from us, for they are not separated from the Body of Christ.


If you read the Revelation of St. John, it becomes clear that the primary concern of the inhabitants of heaven, within the great saint’s vision, is with the battle here on earth. There is a battle here and there is a war there. The “place of verdure, a place of rest, etc.” found in the Church’s prayers (particularly for the departed) are, in holy Scriptures, a place with a great deal of turmoil. I suspect that the place described in our prayers for the departed are “eschatological” visions of what will be when the battle is over and the strife is past.


But it is quite clear that Scripture has no notion of a two-storey world in which part of us are struggling for the salvation of our souls, while the rest can wipe their brows and say, “I’m glad that’s over.”


The Body of Christ is one Body. There is only One Church – not divided by those who have fallen asleep in Christ and those of us who remain behind. Whether we are here or in the hand of God, the struggle is the struggle of the whole Church. My success or failure in my spiritual life is not my private business, but the concern of a great cloud of witnesses. Neither are they watching only as interested bystanders. Like all witnesses they urge us on and support us with their prayers. Were they to watch us without participating at the same time in our struggles – the watching would be like torture. As it is, their watching is prayer and participation of the deepest sort.


It is for this reason (among many) that many Orthodox services contain the phrase, “Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers have mercy on us and save us.” It is a humility of sorts, demurring to the prayers of greater Christians – but it is also calling on a reality that abides. We are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses stands with me and in me in prayer.


Every prayer we ourselves offer is itself always a participation in the life of the world. We have a participation in the great cloud of witnesses – but we also have a participation in everyone who is. The prayer of a righteous few has an amazing salvific impact on the life of the world. But a few more men and Sodom and Gomorrah would still be standing. To this day we do not know how many or how few in their righteous prayers preserve us before God.


I can recall a conversation with one of my brothers some years back. He wondered about the hermits in the desert. He had an admiration for the asceticism of their lifestyle. His question however was, “But what is the value when no one knows they are there.” The truth is that God knows they are there. The devil knows they are there and he trembles. And we all know they are there whether it is a conscious knowing or not. For their prayers permeate us and our prayers and join with them as they rise before God. 


Before God and the witness of heaven there are no secret places. Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





14 responses to “The Communion of Saints”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  2. Barbara Avatar

    I never thought about how it would be torture for those with God to watch us in our struggle without being able to somehow participate and help us! Thank you for continually opening my eyes with your insights.

  3. Lana Avatar

    …..”As it is, their watching is prayer and participation of the deepest sort.”
    Thank you! This is so beautiful and comforting!

  4. Philippa Avatar

    How much I wish I had known this when my husband died 26 years ago. It brings me great comfort to know this now. I am grateful Father Stephen, for the comfort these blessed words give me. Thanks be to God.

  5. […] read, both have a perspective on eternity in their recent posts that I respect deeply.  They are Glory to God for All Things by Fr. Stephen Freeman and Occasional Musings written by my Uncle […]

  6. WPatrick Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, would it be alright for me to email you a question I have regarding this subject? I’d prefer to not ask in the comments. Thanks!

  7. Lucian Avatar

    But a few more men and Sodom and Gomorrah would still be standing.

    Oh, but they still are.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Then the prayers of the righteous are sustaining them – an act of love and kindness.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. email hidden; JavaScript is required

  10. nichole3 Avatar

    I find myself drifting in a 2 story world many times. I have to fight against the 2 story thinking. So this is a very comforting post to read. I have sensed my reposed mother with me many times. I don’t want to make too much of situations with my mother. However, I have had the unusual experience this spring of being called to substitute teach many, many times at the school my mother taught at. Now she taught there during the “Great Depression” ( her first teaching job after college)–so her name would not be known there today. It seems to me that my mother’s prayers might be involved. Yet, I don’t want to make too much of it. It is just an interesting observation.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would trust in your mother’s love and assume the reality of her prayers and presence. It’s sort of the 2 storey mantra that runs through our head that tells us to ignore such things. We don’t make a big deal out of it – we simply allow it to become part of our world. May God bless your mother and hear her prayers for your salvation.

  12. Tony Avatar

    “My success or failure in my spiritual life is not my private business, but the concern of a great cloud of witnesses. Neither are they watching only as interested bystanders. Like all witnesses they urge us on and support us with their prayers.”

    I’ve been reading about the communion of the saints, and this is the first time someone has drawn out the pastoral and practical application of it. Fantastic article!

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I realized I needed to look more deeply into the meanings of the word forgive. One I found that hit me is “to give up desire or power to punish”. I find that definition helpful.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It also seems to carry the corollary meaning of giving up the fear of being punished–even judged. The combination is at the heart of community and communion with one another I think.

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