I’ve taught faith formation classes to people of all ages, from preschoolers to pensioners, and by far the best questions come from elementary school students. They pose those head-scratchers that make you realize just how much you’d assumed, taken for granted, and worst of all, simply never thought to ask. It’s the little tikes that make me go from chuckling at their simplicity to digging through the old books looking for answers. It’s both humbling and enlightening.
One of my favorite examples was this question: “How do the saints hear us when we pray to them? They don’t have ears to hear us. Can they read our minds? Do we get superpowers when we get to heaven?”
After quieting down the excited speculation about just what powers we might have in the hereafter, I calmly explained that … I didn’t know and would have to look it up.
Just how do the saints hear our prayers? I’d never thought of it before. When I’m about to start out on a long drive and say a prayer to St. Nicholas or St. Raphael the Archangel for a safe journey, how do they know I’m asking for their intercession? Like the youngster said, St. Nicholas doesn’t presently have use of his ears, and St. Raphael never had any, to begin with. Just how does this work?
When in doubt, I go to St. Thomas Aquinas—not only in prayer but to his writings. In his “Summa Theologiae” St. Thomas tackled every theological topic under the sun, and lo and behold, he had addressed just this question.
St. Thomas gives a surprisingly mystical and deeply beautiful answer. Since God is the source of all being and all truth, God can know all things just by looking at himself; the angels and saints behold God in heaven, too, but they cannot fully comprehend him since they are only creatures. What they are able to know by perceiving God are those things that relate to them, to their own perfection and beatitude and glorification.
Beholding the Beatific Vision (the “blessed sight” of seeing God face-to-face), they are perfectly happy and fulfilled, and perfect happiness and fulfillment are found by participating in the love of God. Of course, it’s only right and fitting that they participate in that part of the active love of God that relates to them—namely, hearing the prayers made to them and interceding for others to God. So, the angels and saints can hear our prayers because it’s their way of continuing to live out the love of God.
So, can angels and saints read our minds, then? Is that how it works? St. Thomas answers this question simply: “God alone of Himself knows the thoughts of the heart: yet others know them, in so far as these are revealed to them, either by their vision of the Word or by any other means.” The saints don’t hear our prayers directly, as though via some cosmic text message. They hear them because of their union with God. It’s a prime illustration of what is meant by that mysterious phrase “the communion of saints.”
Understanding this also helps us to respond to a common objection. Protestants will often ask, “Why do you pray to the saints? Why not go straight to God?” St. Thomas helps us to see that praying to the saints is not an end-run around the Almighty; rather, God is the Divine Postmaster who delivers these messages. It is a classically Catholic both/and answer to an either/or question.
So, the next time you’re asking St. Anthony to help you find your keys or asking St. Gerard to protect your unborn child, keep in mind that your prayer doesn’t go past God, but through him. You and God and the saint are all involved—God seems to favor threes.