When discussing prayer to saints, one thing I hear is that we are not asking the saints to do anything for us, we are just asking them to pray for us. In other words we are praying to God through them, not praying to the saints themselves and asking them to do anything. However, Orthodox and Catholic liturgies do not bear this out. Take this example from the Coptic Orthodox Compline:
O pure Virgin, draw the veil of thy speedy protection upon thy servant. Remove from me the billows of evil thoughts and raise my sick soul to pray and watch, because it has long lain in deep sleep; for thou art able, merciful, helpful and the birth-giver of the spring of life, my King and my God, Jesus Christ, my hope (Marsh 61).
The Virgin Mary is being asked for protection in this prayer. She is not being asked to in turn ask God for protection. And here is a Syrian prayer for the intercession of the Mother of God:
O Virgin Mother! Shield us from all menaces that confront us and keep far from us the stormy winds and tides of this world (Marsh 108).
Again, Mary is being asked for protection. One might press the issue and say that Mary would only protect us via her prayers, but that is not what is said in these prayers. Consider the Salve Regina from the Benedictine Daily Prayer:
Haily, holy Queen, mother of mercy, Our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us and after this exile show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
Loving Mother of the Redeemer gate of heaven, star of the sea, assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again. To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator, yet remained a virgin after as before. You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting, have pity on us poor sinners (Johnson 933).
I think it stretches belief to think that all that is being asked in prayers like this are for the saint to pray for us. The saint is indeed being invoked. Indeed, Hildegard von Bingen says:
You the redeemer’s kindly mother,
you who are still the open gate of heaven
and the star of the sea:
help a falling people
that strives to rise.
You gave birth, as Nature looked on in wonder,
to your own holy maker;
O virgin before and after,
receiving that holy Ave from Gabriel’s lips:
have mercy on us sinners (Sequentia 12).
Who is being asked to help and have mercy on sinners in this case? Mary is. These prayers are not limited to Mary; in the following example St. Benedict is invoked:
Admirable Saint and Doctor of Humility, you practiced what you taught, assiduously praying for God’s glory and lovingly fulfilling all work for God and the benefit of all human beings. You know the many physical dangers that surround us today often caused or occasioned by human inventions. Guard us against poisoning of the body as well as of mind and soul, and thus be truly a “Blessed” one for us. Amen. [link]
It seems clear to me that praying to the saints involves much more than just asking them to pray for us – which in itself is presumptuous, Scripturally unwarranted, or as the Anglican formularies say “…repugnant to the Word of God” [Articles of Religion XXII].
Johnson, Maxwell ed. Benedictine Daily Prayer, A Short Breviary. Collegville, Mn: Liturgical Press, 2005.
Marsh, Richard ed. Prayers from the East. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.
Sequentia. Canticles of Ecstasy. BMG, 1994.