The Cloud of Witnessses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.…

I’m going to talk about a big one today. I could be all Kumbaya about this, but then we would never get to the issues that truly divide Catholics from Protestants. I need to start by saying that I’ve never had a big problem with the whole saint thing, so maybe that disqualifies me from talking about why I don’t find it hard to embrace them now. From where I stood as a Protestant, I thought it was pretty neat that Catholics were able to look back through time and have people to hold up as examples of virtue. I lamented the fact that we, as Baptists, did not have the same thing. Yes, I know we have Biblical figures, but, 1, that number is comparatively small and 2, the span of time between the close of the Bible and the present is growing, making that setting more distant and less relatable. It did not appear, at least in my experience, that it was a priority to provide more contemporary examples of strong faith.

I suppose this thought is what moved me, a few years ago, to pick a book of saints off the shelf of the local library to bring home to our son, Charlie, then in third grade. Charlie is an amazing little person: well, maybe not so little since he’s now twelve, so I’ll call him an amazing medium person. Charlie loves history and is great at being able to place things within their historical context, which is one of the reasons I think he immediately took to the saints. He devoured that book and then requested more books on the saints. We thought this was quite interesting and let him read further. This fascination eventually led him to produce an enormous book, in which he compiled over eighty pages of his own illustrated guide to his favorite saints. Wow, we really managed to freak out our friends with that one. What got us, though, was that Charlie seemed to have an innate sense that the people he was reading about were really not that far away from us; that the line that divides us is very thin and that they are still active players in God’s kingdom, just like we are.

Well, that was fine with me, but I didn’t start to consider that, myself, until I got deeper into my journey into the Church. Here is the question that continued to persist, as I knew I’d have to embrace or reject the veneration of saints: how do we know what happens to people when they die? The Bible is somewhat nebulous regarding the destination of righteous souls immediately following death. From what I gathered, based on what I heard in church throughout my life, a believer, when he dies, perhaps goes into a sleep-like state, rendering him oblivious as to what is happening on earth. This is based on the passages in the Bible, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:14, that refer to those who have died as “asleep in Jesus.” Of course, when someone we knew actually died then we would chuck that all out the window and say that so-and-so is in heaven having a great time and isn’t it wonderful that they’re with Jesus and don’t have to suffer anymore? The other response to death I observed was to admit that we don’t really know what happened to so-and-so, and so we would just say it was nice to know them, give them a good Christian send-off and then pretend like they never existed. I always found these reactions to be completely inconsistent with each other and with what was taught as the party line.

There were particular passages in the Bible, though, that always puzzled me. Remember when the witch at Endor summoned the spirit of Samuel and he appeared and gave Saul a dressing-down (1 Samuel 28:3-25)? Why, I wondered, would Samuel appear if he was supposed to be asleep? What about the transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appear beside Jesus? If all these departed people are supposed to be basically unconscious, why were they suddenly acting very “alive”? Did God somehow reanimate them (a la “Pushing Daisies”) for that particular appearance and then un-animate them? That didn’t make much sense to me. Furthermore, the passages in Revelation 5 and 8 that speak of the prayers of the saints do not say, “the living saints on earth, not the dead, sleeping ones.”

This is what I concluded when it came down to it: if there is a reasonable chance that those who have died are aware of what is happening on earth (as the Church teaches), then you’d better believe that they are praying for us.[1] What else would they be doing? Playing golf? I love how people speculate on what their departed loved one may be doing since they’ve passed on. “Oh, I bet Bob is really getting in a good round of golf with Peter and Paul now. The greens must be amazing.”  How utterly contrary to the Bible is it to treat Heaven as nothing more than a cosmic playground, and yet some people have a problem when Catholics suggest that a righteous soul in Heaven may actually be praying for the good of the Church?!

If the saints can pray for things happening in the temporal, why wouldn’t I ask them to? How many times have you said you would pray for someone and then you promptly forgot? Maybe you haven’t done that but I’ll admit I have. I sincerely doubt, though, that if you ask St. Francis to intercede on your behalf that he is going to get
caught up in a game of Angry Birds and blow you off. What we have here is an audience that is captivated by love for God and love for us- a happily captive audience, to be sure. Talk about your perfect prayer warriors.

There is one objection I’d like to address[2]: Let’s be clear that Catholic teaching does not encourage saint worship. Saints are to be venerated and imitated because they have lived lives of heroic virtue. To do anything more than venerate them is simply wrong. Conversely, it also seems wrong to me that we would forget or ignore those who have come before us, who have lived Christ-oriented lives, many to the point of martyrdom. We love to tell our children stories of our ancestors, and we Americans have no problem elevating figures from American history to saint-like status. Why then, would we wish to ignore heroes of the faith? Hebrews chapter 11 doesn’t. Over and over, the author recounts the deeds the ancients did “by faith.” It is with this understanding that I can imagine the cloud of witnesses to be cheering me on; big brothers and sisters, encouraging me, through their holy example and their prayers, to keep my eyes fixed on the prize, who is Jesus.


[1] In presenting these thoughts, I realize that Church authority, the nature of God, the resurrection of the body, and about a million other complicated issues come into the picture. I don’t want to oversimplify, but I also don’t want to get off track, as fun as that would be.

[2] Again, as with pretty much any subject in Catholic theology, I realize there are many angles at which we can approach the topic of the saints: purgatory, canonization, relics, and so on. I hope to touch on those at some point too, but for now wanted cover this at a high level. If you want to do further reading on this subject then I
suggest this article.

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11 Responses to The Cloud of Witnessses

  1. Excellent perspective. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Thomas says:

    When an evangelical says the Nicene creed, what do they take “the communion of saints” to mean?

    • Nikki says:

      I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an evangelical who would assent to saying the Nicene creed, so I’m not sure… It’s that whole anti-credal thing. From my experience the focus was on the people here, that we could see with our eyes.

      • Thomas says:

        interesting..I agree about their taking the ‘communion’ to be folks here and now. But i’ve assumed ‘evangelical’ included a significant percentage who would assent to not just saying the creed but claiming to believe it, in some sense. Evangelical Anglicans, for example..perhaps I’m not up-to-date on how ‘Evangelical’ is used in the culture nowdays.

    • ive heard a luthern explain it as “they communion w one another” ..not us w them.

  3. Nikki says:

    No, you’re right about Anglicans. Evangelical is a term with a lot of wiggle room and some groups don’t particularly like having that label applied to them. I should have been more careful with the term, as I was thinking mostly of how Baptists feel about creeds (and I should be careful in saying that, too, because *some* Baptists wouldn’t be anti-credal), even if they would assent to most of what is in them.

  4. Andrea Bakke says:

    Nikki, I’m enjoying reading about your faith journey into Catholicism. And I love Charlie’s enthusiasm on learning the lives of the saints. What a great kid! On the topic of evangelicals and the communion of saints, you might be interested in this statement on it by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/the-communion-of-saints-17

    • Nikki says:

      Thanks, Andrea! I’m looking forward to reading the article you linked to. I’ve been reading through their statement on Mary but didn’t know they had one on the communion of saints. So much reading to do, so little time!

    • Thomas says:

      Section IV of that document is, I think, especially relevant.

  5. a light bulb went off for me, when a good catholic friend said he didnt consider “praying” to a saint, worship. he equated praying simple as conversing.

    where myself as an evangelical has always been taught praying is a form of worship.

    its seems most of the disagreement lies in semantics.

    • Nikki says:

      I agree that some of it is a matter of semantics. For Catholics, asking for the intercession of a Saint is similar to asking your friend or neighbor to pray for you.

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