Prayer and Communion

Having posted on the topic of prayer – I thought that reposting this earlier piece on the mystery of prayer as communion would be helpful. In particular it should be helpful for understanding the larger life of prayer – which includes our communion with the saints.


Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when He prayed all night? Have you ever tried to pray all night? If your conception of prayer is a monologue of needs, information and requests, then your experience of prayer is either that it is very short or very repetitive.

Years ago, in my years between high school and college, I lived in a religious commune (yes, it was the early ’70’s). From time to time in our efforts to live a life based in Scripture, we “kept watch,” though we had no guidance from tradition to explain the meaning of the phrase. Our practice was first to stay awake all night. Second, we tried to pray. The monologue model made no dent in the hours of the night. We quickly learned that in order to pray all night something else had to serve as prayer. We learned to pray the Psalms. Accidentally, we had begun to practice one of the ancient forms of “keeping watch.”

Fittingly, it was one of the simplest forms of keeping watch – but the experience was instructive. We began to learn the value of simply being present to God (who is Himself everywhere present) and attentive to the words of prayer itself.

It seems to me that Christ would have had no need to hold conversation through the night with the Father. There was no information to be conveyed – no requests not already known. The need to pray in such an intense manner is simply the expression of true communion – such as exists eternally in the Godhead. For human beings, that communion is most frequently expressed as prayer. It is a need greater than food:

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.


When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

More valuable than food – such communion is greater than sleep as well. Thus Christ prayed through the night on occasion. The practice has continued in the ascetic life of the Church through the centuries.

It is prayer as communion with God that concerns me in this post. Such an understanding is not simply a description of so-called “contemplative” prayer, but is properly the understanding for all prayer. Prayer is communion, expressed in words, in songs, in a presence that sometimes transcends words. Prayer is stepping consciously into the life that has been given us in Christ – and remaining there for a period of time (unceasingly is the Scriptural goal).

Participation in the life of God (communion) is the heart of intercessory prayer.

But [Christ], because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Our salvation is participation in the life of Christ. It is our healing, our forgiveness, our resurrection and our peace. Prayer is the sound of salvation – even in a wordless state.

Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil. It is the hardness of our heart that avoids participation in the heart of God. But it is also His mercy that continues to call us to the life of prayer despite our selfish rebuff.

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46).


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





16 responses to “Prayer and Communion”

  1. Bill Avatar

    Thank you, father. I have understood the intercession of the saints for the first time reading this. God bless you.

  2. Serafim Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  3. Nonna Avatar

    It is this prayer that I wish to know… that I’m trying to grow in… true prayer… this communion is what our hearts long for… but it isn’t “easy”…

  4. JGraves Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen, I’m confused. Isaiah 53:12 and Heb 7:25 tell us that Jesus makes intercession for us. But I do not see the saints or martyrs in prayer or intercession for us anywhere in the bible. In the previous post on prayer, when you referred to the saints in prayer in Revelation, was it Rev 7:14-17 you were referring to? If so, I do not see them praying for us, so much as serving before the throne of God, and what their actions are exactly is not explained. Thanks for your clarification.

  5. Merry Avatar

    Thank you – once again – Fr. Stephan. I have learned so much from your postings. You open up questions that we have wondered about, and explain them so well we go forth nourished in the spirit by what you have shared.
    God knows us, and knows what we need to be “fed” sometimes. It has been amazing how He has used you to help so many people with your postings. We do appreciate it.
    My family still thinks I have somehow joined a “cult” because they have no idea of the wonderful and enriching experience being Orthodox is.
    I will let prayers, and time, work on that. Meanwhile, as we struggle with the problems of daily life, and in the face of life threatening illness in our family – I am ever so grateful for the intercession of the Saints, and the Theotokos. It is like having a big, wonderful family all praying for you. What power that must generate! I am going to turn my sleepless nights lately because of coughing with bronchitis – into moments to pray.

  6. The Pilgrim Avatar

    “Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil…”

    This paragraph pierced my heart. It is truth beyond truth and thank you for opening my eyes today.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course Christ makes intercession for us – and His intercession is far more than prayer – He indeed is our prayer and our only prayer before the Father. Chrtist is the intercession we offer to the Father, and He is the intercession that the saints, “the general assembly of the Church of the firstborn.” The Church is one, and its prayer is one, and Christ is that prayer (the “Spirit prays within us, ‘Abba, Father’) – this is the voice of the Son, which is the voice of the Assembly of the Firstborn.

    Orthodox dogma teaches that it is “Christ who offers and who is offered.” The saints offer no merits (merits is not part of the language or understanding of the Eastern Church). We can only offer Christ. The interpretation of Scripture is sometimes difficult – I do not think it possible to do so correctly without reference to the mind of the Church as manifested in the writings and liturgies of the early fathers.

  8. JGraves Avatar

    Thanks Fr Stephen. Certain groups of people believe they are unworthy to pray directly to God, so they pray to specific saints or saints in general, even though Jesus tells us to pray directly and to pray in his name. So it was this notion of “merit” I was hoping to avoid, and you have. Although the 24 elders of Rev 5:8 offer bowls of incense or prayers, there is a sacramental sense of that passage (versus intercessory), like what you were referring to as “Christ who offers and who is offered,” because it is a time of high worship and praise, a sort of answer to John’s great sorrow (Rev 5:4) followed by the New Song, with all of heaven and earth singing (v13), and culminating in the great Amen. It might be that since scripture is ultimately silent on this point, we should find rest in that ourselves, but knowing our communion with God can increase in intimacy and depth (Ps 139:1-10, 17-18). [Thanks for your quick reply] Blessings, Joel

  9. anon Avatar

    “It might be that since scripture is ultimately silent on this point…”

    I would venture to say that this is not true, but more importantly, the Orthodox standard for what is “right” is that which is revealed in the person of the God-man Jesus Christ (to whom the Scriptures bear witness). It seems to me that is the gist of Father Stephen’s post about prayer and the Communion of the Saints: they only find their meaning in the mystery of Christ. If we went only by what is spelled out specifically in Scripture, we’d have to abandon most Christian doctrine, starting with the doctrine of the Trinity.

  10. mike Avatar

    …i admit that the idea of the ‘Communion of the Saints’ is difficult for me..its ‘new’ to me and not something i grew up hearing in my childhood religous training..i like what anon said:”If we went only by what is spelled out specifically in Scripture, we’d have to abandon most Christian doctrine, starting with the doctrine of the Trinity”..that IS true..and in my understanding thus far Orthodoxy and Catholicism pre-dates all other sources of reference for Christian ‘right’ beliefs….

  11. JGraves Avatar

    While it is not clear in scripture that the saints in heaven are intercessors for believers on earth, the living Body of Christ includes them, nonetheless. When speaking of faith, the author of Hebrews refers to them as “a great cloud of witnesses” because “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” And it reminds me of what Jesus told the Sadducees (referring to Ex 3:6), I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB’ – He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matt 22:32).

  12. Ibn Battenti Avatar
    Ibn Battenti

    JGraves, if I just might:

    To use the metaphor in Father Stephen’s post Treasure in a Box, the “problem” is that while we may know with absolute certainty that there is treasure in some box, we’ll never agree on the contents until the lid is opened. And even then, it is the treasure that reveals us, rather than the other way round…

    While history can, to a certain extent, be rewritten, man’s true and only existence is found by participation in the life of God. And God is indivisible, unchanging and glorious…

  13. Anon Avatar

    Mike, I can only share how I have come to understand things, but the way I have come to understand Christianity is that we are called to live and breathe Christ as the meaning, foundation and revelation of everything. Some of these ‘hard’ topics suddenly become clear in that light.

  14. tiffaniv Avatar

    To those who find praying to the Saints impossible to explain:

    Last night was the Feast of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. My son, also Nicholas, waits in great expectation of this day every year (the presents are an obvious reason:), but he loves his Saint nonetheless. He has an icon of his Saint above his bed. My Nicholas is only six.

    Just before he went to bed on the 5th of December, he said to me, “Mommy! We talked (in his CCD class) about how Saint Nicholas is part of the cloud of witnesses! I know that when I am asking my saint to pray for me, he is praying with me, all the saints – even the ones I don’t know about. And we all pray in one voice the name of Jesus.”

    To those who find praying to Saints to be strange or even sinful:

    It does not have to be understood by a human brain to be the Truth. Most often, it is the learned who cry “foolishness” when faith is needed most. And be careful that you do not beat the Truth right out of yourself with your own version of the Bible. Remember that it was the Church who put it together and handed it to you in the first place, and you can’t rightly discern what is intended inside those pages without the prism of the Church guiding you. You’ll be like a blind man driving a car. At the very least, you are going to end up in a very strange location. At the worst, your spiritual life could be a disaster. So when you are getting ready to demand that praying to the Saints is not “Biblical”, you might want to stop, take the blind fold off, and look again:

    Even as early as Psalms 103, we pray, “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will!” (Ps. 103:20-21). And in Psalms 148 we pray, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Ps. 148:1-2).

    The Pslamist is talking to the hosts of heaven and to the angels and envoking them, “Pray with us!”

    See? It’s there. Don’t worry:)

    Just saying…

  15. Cheryl/Miriam Avatar

    “Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil…”


    The trouble is, that it’s no communion with God that makes me recoil from prayer–but fear of only sensing absence, not His presence. There have been times when God has felt near, but more often times that He does not. I’ve searched and prayed if there’s some sin that is keeping me from His presence, but I can’t perceive it if there is one. I pray for forgiveness anyways, because I know my sins are many.

    I’m not trying to make excuses for laziness, for they are abundant as well…but in the deepest honesty I can muster, I really think that this sense of emptiness in prayer is my deepest struggle–not making time or a fear of God’s correction.

    Psalm 42 (in the non-LXX, I don’t know what the LXX number is) comes to mind.

    How do I have communion with God if I can’t sense Him in any way? Not emotions, I mean, but…when I pray I feel emptied instead of filled. I would rather have His correction and a harsh rebuke than emptiness.


  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your local priest might be of help. My own sense would be to say, don’t fear the absence – God is present even there. It is sometimes the case that our internal sense is quite clouded. An icon of Christ can be helpful as well. According to the fathers, an icon participates in what it portrays. May God bless your prayers.

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