The Saints — How Can They Hear a Multitude of People Praying to Them at One Time?

In my last two posts I’ve covered the Catholic understanding of what it means to pray to the saints and the Biblical evidence the saints are indeed aware of what is happening on earth in at least some sense.  Even if these things are true, one of the more common objections to the Catholic understanding of prayer to the saints is they cannot possibly hear millions of people at once and respond to our request to pray for us.  An example:

“The Bible gives absolutely no indication that Mary or the saints can hear our prayers.  Mary and the saints are not omniscient.  Even glorified in heaven, they are still finite beings with limitations.  How could they possibly hear the prayers of millions of people?”

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That is certainly a reasonable question and deserves a good answer.  I think the basic problem is sometimes our concept of heaven may be too “earth-bound.” 

For example, the angels are neither omniscient nor omnipresent.  Yet Scripture tells us “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).  Just prior to that Jesus says “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).  “Joy in heaven” would not just be limited to the angels, but also apply to the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23) who dwell there.  Christ certainly sets the stage for us to know that those in heaven can be aware of things happening all over the earth.  So we might ask the question, how can those in heaven be aware of every time a sinner repents if they’re not omnipresent or omniscient?  And Catholics would agree only God has those specific attributes. 

One thing we do need to remember is with few exceptions, people in heaven do not yet possess physical bodies, and so have no “ears.”  We might be tempted to ask how can they hear at all?  That would again be thinking of heaven in ways that are too “earth-bound.”  There is indeed such a thing as “spiritual hearing.”  We see that present in Sacred Scripture.  For example, Acts 16:9-10 records “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedo′nia was standing beseeching him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedo′nia and help us.’ And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedo′nia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”  Here we see two “earth-bound” humans communicating on a spiritual level that was not dependent on their physical bodies.  This is similar to times when we may experience that a certain person keeps coming to mind so we feel called to pray for them, and perhaps later learn they were going through a particular time of need. We are united in the same body of Christ, and can indeed communicate at times through the Holy Spirit without a dependency on our physical natures.

The Baltimore Catechism written for Catholic children and used primarily between 1885 to the late 1960s poses the question “How do we know that the saints hear us?”  And the answer – “We know that the saints hear us, because they are with God, who makes our prayers known to them.”  Simple enough.  We can understand the angels and saints also know when a sinner repents because God makes that known to them.  But that doesn’t necessarily answer the question about the limitations either the angels or the saints would have to be able to hear the prayers of millions of people possibly at one time.  At its core, this concern is one about time.  How could they hear possibly millions, or even hundreds, or even ten people who may be addressing them at one time?  We certainly couldn’t do that now, here on earth. 

CS Lewis addresses a similar concern about God being able to hear millions of requests at one time in his book “Mere Christianity,” in the chapter titled “Time and Beyond Time.”  He writes:

“In the last chapter I had to touch on the subject of prayer, and while that is still fresh in your mind and my own, I should like to deal with the difficulty that some people find about the whole idea of prayer.  A man put it to me by saying ‘I can believe God all right, but what I cannot swallow is the idea of Him attending to several hundred million human beings who are all addressing him at the same moment.’ And I have found that quite a lot of people feel this. 

Now, the first thing to notice is that the whole sting of it comes in the words at the same moment.  Most of us can imagine God attending to any number of applicants if only they came one by one and He had an endless time to do it in.  So what is really at the back of this difficulty is the idea of God having to fit too many things into one moment of time.

Well that is if course what happens to us.  Our life comes to us moment by moment.  One moment disappears before the next comes along: and there is room for very little in each.  That is what Time is like.  And of course you and I tend to take it for granted that this Time series – this arrangement of past, present and future – is not simply the way life comes to us but the way all things really exist.  We tend to assume that the whole universe and God Himself are always moving on from past to future just as we do.  But many learned men do not agree with that.  It was the Theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in Time at all: later the Philosophers took it over: and now some of the scientists are doing the same. 

Almost certainly God is not in Time.  His life does not consist of moments following one another.  If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty.  Ten-thirty – and every other moment from the beginning of the world is always the Present for Him.  If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.”

We certainly have to remember “time” is part of God’s creation, and He Himself is outside of time and not contained by it.  That was covered in this post.  God dwells in eternity.  As Lewis says, we tend to assume that the whole universe and God Himself are always moving on from past to future as we do, because that is our only known experience.  But the limitation of our experience does not apply to God, nor should it apply to those in heaven with Him.

So what of those saints and angels who are in heaven with Him?  Why should we place our same restrictions of time on them?  They are no longer governed by days measured by the earth’s rotation and annual trip around the sun.  No longer constrained by time but rather dwelling in eternity with God, it seems most unreasonable to assume they would have the same limitations of time we do.  As Lewis said above about God and receiving millions of prayers at the same moment – He has all eternity to listen to the prayers received in a split second.  And it most certainly seems the saints would as well.  When questions are posed that inquire how finite beings could be aware of all of our prayers, it seems the primary issue may be we can’t really fathom how big eternity actually is, and what it would be like to live there.  Even if millions of prayers are directed to a saint every moment of every day for a million years, and they addressed them one at a time with great care and attention, not a drop in the depth of eternity will have passed.  What is astounding here is not that the saints who are in eternity and live with God can attend to our multitude of prayers, but rather that eternity is an expanse we will never possibly be ever to fathom while we are “earth-bound.”  Beliefs that assume limitations of time placed on the saints in heaven fail to recognize that, and can then result in a rejection of one of the best gifts Christ has given us – his family in heaven to truly care for us and support us as members of the one body of Christ.  Glory to God in His saints!

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