Praying for the Non-Orthodox
The Orthodox Church, in accordance with the love for man which characterizes her,
permits prayer for those who have cut themselves off from her, i.e. for heretics and
schismatics. But prayers in what regard? Prayers that they convert to the Orthodox Faith
before the end of their lives.
Thus in the Prayers of Intercession we pray: "Illumine with the light of grace all
apostates from the Orthodox Faith, and those blinded by pernicious heresies, and draw them
to Thyself, and unite them to Thy Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church." From this it is
clear that the Orthodox Church permits prayer for those who have departed from the holy
faithprayer for their conversion. But what can one say about those who have departed
from this life? Does the Church pray for such persons in her divine services? In the
services of the Orthodox Church there is no prayer for persons who have died in heresy.
Quite the opposite, on the First Sunday of Great Lent, in the Service of Orthodoxy, our
holy Church pronounces anathema, i.e., excommunication on all heretics and apostates from
Orthodoxy. How is it then, we ask, that the Church at one and the same time anathematizes
and prays for apostates? "The non-Orthodox by their very non-Orthodoxy have
excommunicated themselves from the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Philaret
of Moscow stated that not commemorating them during the Liturgy and removing their names
from the diptychs (the Synodikon, or lists of names to be commemorated; i.e., the lists of
those with whom the Orthodox are in communion) is in full accord with and flows logically
from their excommunication. We might note here that removal from the diptychs reminds us
that the names of the non-Orthodox should not be commemorated at any Orthodox Service. It
may be objected that this is certainly very strict, but what can we do? We cannot force
the Lord to mercy with prayer! For our God is a jealous God (Ex. 20:5); The Lord
is righteous and loves righteousness (Ps. 10:7). There have been cases when He Himself
forbade prayer for certain persons: He said to His prophet Jeremiah about His people: do
not pray for these people, and do not ask that they be shown mercy, and do not pray, do
not approach Me concerning them, for I shall not hear you (Jer. 7:16). Now this
command of the Lord refers to persons who are still alive, and who consequently still have
the chance to repent. And the Prophet did not dare to disobey the word of the Lord by
justifying his prayer for them as love for mankind.
It is to be noted that here we have in view prayer for the non-Orthodox offered by the
Church. To permit such prayer in the Orthodox Church during a divine service would cause
scandal, at least for those with a weak conscience. If such persons were to hear petitions
in an Orthodox Church for the health or repose of Roman Catholics or Protestants, they
could come to the conclusion that it really does not matter what you believe. And through
this there would be ever more and more frequent apostasy from the Orthodox Church, if not
formally, then at least in spirit. And this would be the greatest woe, for then,
imperceptibly, the person thus led astray becomes Orthodox in name only, and in actual
fact one who does not believe correctly or even does not believe at all. In the same way,
persons of other confessions, seeing that the Orthodox Church prays for them, will come to
the same conclusion about the equality of all confessions of faith. And this can distract
those non-Orthodox who desire to be united with the Orthodox Church, for they will say the
Orthodox pray for them anyway.
However, in speaking about the strictness of the Orthodox Church concerning the
commemoration of the non-Orthodox, we do not mean to say that our Holy Orthodox Church
commands us, her children, not to pray for them at all. She only forbids us to pray
according to our own whims, to pray in whatever manner might come into our heads. Our
Mother the Orthodox Church teaches us that everything we do, including prayer itself, must
be done decently and in a proper manner (I Cor. 14:40). We pray at all the divine
services for all the various nations and races and for the whole world, more often than
not without us knowing or understanding this. We pray just as our Lord Jesus Christ taught
His Apostles to pray in the prayer He taught them: Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven! This all-embracing petition gathers within itself all the
needs of ourselves and of all our brothers in the faith and even those of the
non-Orthodox. Here we beg the All-good Lord even for the souls of the deceased
non-Orthodox, that He might accomplish with them that which is well-pleasing to His holy
will. For the Lord knows immeasurably better than we to whom to show what mercy.
And so, O Orthodox Christian, whoever you may be, either a laymen or a priest of God,
if during some service of the Church there comes upon you the zeal to pray for some
non-Orthodox close to you, then during the reading or chanting of the Lord's Prayer, sigh
for him before the Lord and say: "Thy holy will be done in him, O Lord!" and
limit yourself to this prayer. For thus you are taught to pray by the Lord Himself. Thus,
to pray for the non-Orthodox in the Public prayers of the Church on an equal basis with
Orthodox Christian, i.e. to commemorate their names in churches just as the names of
Orthodox Christians are commemorated, is not in accord the traditions of our One Holy,
Catholic and Apostolic Church. Thus do we speak and so do we act. And this is in no wise
out of hatred for the non-Orthodox or because we do not wish them well, but because our
willful prayer for them will not be pleasing to God, will be without benefit for their
souls and will become a sin for those who pray thus.
We can see a clear example of this in Saul, king of Israel. He had to all appearances
done a good deed when, before the opening of hostilities with the Philistines, he turned
to God with prayer and offerings of sacrifices. But since he acted in this case in his own
way, without awaiting the prophet of God, Samuel, as he had been told, he not only did not
attract God's good will and blessing upon himself, but earned instead God's anger and
And now a few words about private prayer. There is scarcely more than one example in
the Orthodox Church of how the personal prayer of a saint of God aided he souls of the
deceased non-Orthodox, even of pagans. St. Macarius of Egypt tells the following of
himself: "Once, while travelling across the desert, I found the skull of a certain
dead person lying on the ground. When I struck the skull with a palm branch, it spoke to
me and I asked it: 'Who are you?' The skull replied: 'I was the chief priest of the idols
and pagans who were in this place; and you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. When you,
taking pity on those who suffer in torment, pray for us, we sense a certain relief.'"
The elder asked him: "What is the relief and what the torment?" And the skull
said to him: "As far as heaven is above the earth, so much is there fire beneath us,
and we ourselves stand from head to foot in the midst of the fire. None of us can see
another's face, for the face of each of us sees the back of someone else. But when you
pray for us, then each of us sees in part the face of another... This is our relief!"
The elder began to weep and said: "Unhappy the day on which this man was born!"
The elder further inquired: "is there not some other, more terrible torment?"
The skull answered: "Beneath us there is a torment still more terrible." The
elder asked: "And who is to be found there?" And the skull replied: "As we
did not know God, we are shown a measure of mercy, but those who knew God and turned away
from Him (of course with false wisdom in matters of faith and with a careless
life)they are beneath us." After this, the elder took the skull and buried it
in the earth.
From this story of the blessed father we see first of all that his prayer for the
pagans suffering in the fire was not public prayer in church, but private prayer. This was
the prayer of the solitary desert-dweller, praying in the secret chamber of his heart.
Moreover, this prayer can serve in part as a reason for us Orthodox Christians to pray for
the living and deceased non-Orthodox in our private prayers. The saint did not inform us
how he prayed for the pagans, but being a great saint of God, he undoubtedly attained
great boldness in his prayers to the Lord. St. Macarius prayed for the pagans not in a
prayer of his own fancy, but as he was taught by the Spirit of God dwelling in his pure
heart, the Spirit Which taught him to pray for the whole world, for all peoples, living
and dead, as this is a regular characteristic of the loving hearts of all the saints of
God. As the Holy Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Our heart is enlarged; ye are
not straitened in us (2 Cor. 6:11).
Thus can we now agree that Orthodox Christians may indeed pray for the non-Orthodox,
both living and deadin private prayer at home; but here we repeat again and again,
not in prayers according to one's own designs, not in such as might come into one's
head, but according to the direction of persons experienced in spiritual life.
In this instance the direction of such people is as follows. There was an occasion
during the life of the Optina Elder Leonid (Lev in the Great Schema), who died in 1841.
The father of one of his disciples, Paul Tambovtsev, had died an unhappy and violent death
by suicide. The loving son was deeply grieved by this and poured out his sorrow before the
elder thus: "The hapless end of my father is a heavy cross for me. I am now upon a
cross whose pain will accompany me to the grave. While imagining the terrible eternity of
sinners, where there is no more repentance, I am tortured by the image of the eternal
torments that await my father who died without repentance. Tell me, father, how I can
console myself in this present grief?" The elder answered, "Entrust both
yourself and your father's fate to the will of the Lord, which is all-wise, all powerful.
Do not tempt the miracles of the All-high, but strive through humility to strengthen
yourself within the bounds of tempered sorrow. Pray to the All-good Creator, thus
fulfilling the duty of the love and obligation of a son." Question: "But how is
one to pray for such persons?" Answer: "In the spirit of the virtuous and wise,
thus: 'Seek out, O Lord, the perishing soul of my father: if it is possible, have mercy!
Unfathomable are Thy judgements. Do not account my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be
done!' Pray simply, without inquiring, entrusting your heart to the right hand of the
All-high. Of course, so grievous a death for your father was not the will of God, but now
it rests completely in the will of Him Who is able to hurl both soul and body into the
fiery furnace, of Him Who both humbles and lifts up, puts to death and brings to life,
takes down to Hell and leads up therefrom. And He is so compassionate, almighty and filled
with love that before His highest goodness the good qualities of all those born on earth
are nothing. You say, 'I love my father, therefore I grieve inconsolably.' That is right.
But God loved and loves him incomparably more than you. And so, it remains for you to
entrust the eternal lot of your father to the goodness and compassion of God, and if it is
His good will to show mercy, who can oppose Him?"
This private prayer for use in one's own room at home, given to this disciple by the
Elder Leonid who was experienced in the spiritual life, can serve Orthodox Christians as
an example or paradigm of prayer for some non-Orthodox persons close to us. One can pray
in the following manner: "Have mercy, O Lord, if it is possible, on the soul of Thy
servant (Name), departed this life in separation from Thy Holy Orthodox Church!
Unfathomable are Thy judgments. Do not account this prayer of mine as sin. But may Thy
holy will be done!"
We do not know (and to no one of us has it been revealed) what or how much benefit such
a prayer can bring to the non-Orthodox. But from experience it has been learned that
surely it eases the burning sorrow of the person praying for the soul of one close to him
who died outside the Orthodox Church. For according to the word of the Psalmist: a broken
and contrite heart God will not despise (Ps. 50:19). The more humble and self-abasing the
prayer, the more hopeful and beneficial.
From Orthodox Life, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1976), pp. 27-31.