It's high-time I make good on a promise I made, some time ago. When I talked about grief (and the difference between the world's grief and the grief of one who has Faith), I promised to write a bit about praying for our loved ones (and others) who have preceded us in death. I'm keenly aware that there are Christians of many traditions, who read this blog (as well as a sprinkling of other faiths, and even those of no faith)... and I'll try not to tread harshly on anyone's sensibilities. But at very least, walk with me as I explore this idea, and see what you think...
First, I'd offer the idea that all of us, when we suffer grief at the death of a loved one (or even hear about the tragic death of someone we don't know), part of the pain comes from the idea that we feel helpless; after all, what can you do for someone who's died already? We can comfort those who're left behind (and that's very good, and necessary!), but that's only part of our experience. It's a parallel to our reaction to pain: not only does it hurt us by its "active" effects on us, but it hurts when it's apparently pointless, or without meaning. (I'd direct anyone wondering about the possible meaning behind suffering to Colossians 1:24, and pray hard over it, for some time. Maybe, later, I'll need to write about the idea of redemptive suffering... if anyone's interested?) If day-to-day suffering, in general, has been given purpose and meaning by God, is it such a stretch that such meaning--such purpose which transcends earthly things--might encompass death itself?
Christians (by that, I mean those who can pray/say the Apostles' Creed without lying) believe in the Communion of Saints--which, for 2000 years, has referred to the fact that all who are united in Christ, through God's Grace and through Faith, are connected one to another by bonds that only damnation can break; distance, time, and even earthly death shall not separate us from one another in Christ Jesus (cf. Romans 8:35-39, Luke 20:38, etc.).
For those who accept the 73-book canon of Scripture, look at II Macabees 12:36-46, with special attention to verse 46:
"It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins."
If you accept this as Scripture, then the matter is settled. If not, then may I tease your mind with what a friend of mine calls the "Eternity Loophole"? Here's how it goes:
If you've slogged through my interminable attempt at a proof of God's existence, you may remember the description of how God is eternal--not just "living lots of years", but eternal: that is, completely outside of (and independent of) time (and space). Try to wrap your brain around that idea, for a moment; God doesn't "wait" for anything. Whereas we need to wait for the year 2010, He's already there, eternally present to it, and embracing the whole of it. And whereas we can only remember last year (or read about someone else's memories, committed to paper or computer or what-have-you), God is there, eternally present to it, and embracing the whole of it. I could say, with only some inaccuracy, that God is "watching" the Crucifixion of Christ as we speak, and as we speak, He's listening to the prayers of (and strengthening with His grace) faithful Jews and Christians who are walking into the Auschwitz gas chambers in 1943. He's also there, as we speak, at our own deathbed (or wherever we're to die), holding us, on whatever future day that might be. God waits for nothing; He's already there. God remembers nothing; He's already there.
So: is it possible for us to pray for those who have died, and have it do any good for them? Well... any Christian who believes in the Communion of Saints (or even in the Mercy of God at all, for that matter!) believes that our prayers for other living people are beneficial; if you ask me to pray for you (and Scripture has examples too numerous to count of people asking others for prayer), and I pray for God to heal/help/strengthen/etc. you, we believe that God always responds proactively to every such prayer. He may respond in ways that we don't expect (e.g. if we're asking for something which would ultimately harm us, or which would ultimately interfere with a good that God plans for us), but He never fails to intervene in such cases.
Now, think of prayers for someone who has died. They died in the past, so it can seem (to us) as though it's as impossible to pray for them and have it help them as it would be to write a letter to them and have them read it! And that's true... for all of us who live inside of time. But do you remember that God is eternally and actively present to all times, no matter how remote in the past or future? God is with that person, right now, as they're being conceived, as they're being born, as they're first learning to walk, and at the moment their soul is leaving their body in death. Even if you're of the view that "only the physically living can benefit from our prayers"--what are we to make of praying to God, Who's eternally present to that person as they're living and breathing, right now (in whatever "past" time that might be)? If God can bless those among the (to us) "presently" living for whom we pray, God can bless those among the (to us) "previously" living for whom we pray... since God is there with them, as they live, move, and have their being.
There is no barrier, whatsoever, which could possibly keep our prayers and their benefits from our beloved dead. None.
If you've never done this before, it can be anything from awkward to agonizing; if you've never before believed that your prayers could benefit those whom you love, and who've died (no matter what the circumstances--even death while rebelling from God, or even suicide), even imagining the attempt can bring a flood of spiritual grief and agony that can knock you emotionally blind... especially if someone you love died in grievous circumstances (e.g. not right with God, or by suicide, etc.), and if you'd felt it necessary to block the episode from your mind, just to keep your sanity and emotional stability. But please believe me: this is true.
Pray for them. Offer sacrifices to God (e.g. fasting, almsgiving to the poor, etc.) on their behalf, and ask Him to unite your sacrifices (which have no eternal worth by themselves) to Christ's ultimate sacrifice on Calvary (which has infinite worth, and which can enrich our offerings with incredible grace and merit, as St. Paul promises us in Colossians 1:24). Pray with gratitude, especially that God is Who He Is--Who is not limited by what limits us--and Who loves our beloved dead far more than we ever could.
More on this later, if anyone wishes. But pray about this... and when you're ready, try it. God bless your attempts; I'll be praying for you!