PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD
The subject of death and the condition of the soul after death, especially if the soul is hell bound, bring the most confusion and distress to Christians when it is the topic of discussion. Indeed, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations are at odds with each other with the former teaching three states, heaven, hell or purgatory and the latter teaching heaven or hell. The Roman Catholic belief is that there is hope for those lost (minor sin) by their passing through the purifying fire (purgatory) while the Protestant belief holds that purgatory does not exist, only heaven and hell exist.
Does Orthodox theology agree with either the Roman (Latin) or Protestant views? Orthodoxy does not believe in a state called purgatory but neither does it totally agree with the Protestant view of heaven or hell with no chance of forgiveness and mercy from God for those who have sinned moderately. The Council of Ferrara-Florence, held between 1438 - 1445 AD, and attended by Hierarchs from both the Latin and Greek Churches, sought to discuss the differences in their respective teachings in the hope of putting aside the enmity that had existed since the Great Schism. One of the subjects of discussion was the purifying fire. Both Churches, being Holy Catholic and Apostolic Churches believed in the purifying fire based on Scripture and Sacred Tradition but differed in the essence of what exactly what the purifying fire was.
It is noteworthy that the Orthodox Council of 1722 in Constantinople, in an encyclical to the Orthodox of Antioch, referred, among other things, to the subject of the purifying fire. It was a synodal text, which was a very important and valuable affirmation of St. Mark Eugenicus' (Metropolitan of Ephesus) defense of Orthodox belief at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. The text stated:
"While the Latins affirm that there are three places to which the souls of the dead go, "we the godly, following the truth and turning away from such innovations, confess and accept two places (see Note 1) for the souls of the dead, paradise and hell, for the righteous and sinners, as the holy Scripture teaches us. We do not accept a third place, a purgatory, by any means, since neither Scripture nor the holy Fathers have taught us any such thing. However, we believe that these two places have many abodes... None of the teachers of the Church have handed down or taught such a purgatory, but they all speak of one single place of punishment, hades, just as they teach about one luminous and bright place, paradise. But both places also have different abodes as we said; and since the souls of the holy and righteous go indisputably to paradise and those of the sinners go to hell, of whom the profane and those who have sinned unforgivably are punished forever and those who have offended forgivably and moderately hope to gain freedom through the unspeakable mercy of God. For on behalf of such souls, that is of the moderately and forgivably sinful, there are in the Church prayers, supplications, liturgies, as well as memorial services and almsgiving, that those souls may receive favor and comfort". Thus when the Church prays for the souls of those who are lying asleep, we hope that there will be comfort for them from God, but not through fire and purgatory, but through divine love for mankind, whereby the infinite goodness of God is seen". (Excerpt from the notations of the Council of Florence Ferrara Conference courtesy of www.pelagia.org).
The Orthodox Church believes that "those who have offended forgivably and moderately hope to gain freedom through the unspeakable mercy of God". And how do they obtain that mercy, "through Church prayers, supplications, liturgies, as well as memorial services and almsgiving.
There is a vision recorded in the Russian Orthodox tradition that speaks of the very prayers, supplications and most especially, the Divine Liturgy. How important commemoration at the Divine Liturgy is, may be seen in the following occurrence: Before the uncovering of the relics of St. Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), the priest-monk Starets Alexis of Goloseyevsky Hermitage, of the Kiev Caves, Lavra, was conducting the re-vesting of the relics. Becoming weary while sitting by the relics, he dozed off and saw before him St. Theodosius who told him: "I thank you for laboring for me. I beg you also, when you will serve the Liturgy, to commemorate my parents" - and he gave their names (Priest Nikita and Maria).
Starets Alexis replied, "How can you O Saint ask my prayers, when you yourself stand at the Heavenly Throne and grant to people God's mercy" the priest-monk asked. "Yes that is true", replied St. Theodosius, " but the offering at the Divine Liturgy is more powerful than my prayer"
Therefore prayers in the home and Church for the dead are beneficial, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church but especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. In the Divine Liturgy, there is a supplication to God that says, "Also remember, O Lord, those whom each of us calls prayerfully to mind, and all your people (St. Gregory the Theologian Church Divine Liturgy Hymnal, page 58)".
Interestingly, the first Czar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, attempted to prevent Russian Orthodox Priests from conducting services or saying prayers for those he had killed. Even after their deaths, Ivan, in his madness, sought to extend his vengeance against his enemies, perceived and real. The Priests, for the most part, ignored Ivan's edict.
In the Orthodox Church, prayers are ever offered for the repose of the dead and on the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the kneeling prayers at Vespers, there is even a special petition for those in Hell.
A wonderful opportunity exists for Orthodox faithful to beseech God to grant mercy to those who may "have offended forgivably and moderately" by their prayers and supplications. Further, the Orthodox Church presents an additional opportunity for the faithful to offer prayers for the departed at the Saturday of Souls services held at the end of the Divine Liturgy, four times a year. Additionally, the faithful may ask their parish priest to conduct Memorial (see Note 2) and Trisagion services. In the Vesper Service for Pentecost a beautiful prayer by the Priest says in part. "Will You, then, Master, accept our prayers and entreaties, and give rest to everyone's fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and children, or of the same family or people, and all the souls that have gone before to their rest in the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life. And place their spirits and their names in the book of life, the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the land of the living, in the kingdom of the heavens, in the bliss of Paradise, Your angels of light leading all into Your holy mansions. And on the day You have ordained, raise up our bodies as well according to Your unfailing promises. In departing our bodies to dwell in You our God, there is no death for Your servants Lord, but rather a change from the more sorrowful to the better and more pleasing, to rest, to joy.
And if we have in any way sinned against You, be merciful to them and to us; for no man is free of stain in Your sight though he live but a day. Only You, Who came sinless to earth, our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we all hope to find mercy and remission of sins.
Thus as good and loving God, remit and forgive them and us our failings, whether witting or unwitting, committed in knowledge or ignorance, intentionally or unaware, in deed or in thought, in word, in all goings about. Both to those who have gone before and to us who await, give release and repose, granting us and all Your people a good and peaceful end, opening up to us Your heart of love and mercy at Your terrible and awesome Coming and judging us worthy of Your kingdom".
An Orthodox believer praying for mercy and forgiveness for those loved ones who have died, cannot know the condition of their loved ones, that is in the realm of God. But they can have the assurance and hope that their prayers may gain their loved ones freedom through the "unspeakable mercy of God".
(Note 1) Orthodox believers should understand that "places" is better translated as the condition or the state the soul is in. All souls will see God in the after-life and are in the same location, some experiencing the joy of the light (glory) of God while others will experience the caustic energy of that light.
(Note 2) Memorial Service and Trisagion