My mother has been very ill – and still is – so the most natural thing to do is to badger God about it. So I do, and indeed I recruit as many people as I can to do it too. Some are better than others at it – though no one comes anywhere near the late Dominican friar Herbert McCabe for his success rate at petitionary prayer. He once rashly told me that his prayers tended to be answered, and after that I was often on his case, and usually – for he was a holy man despite some very human flaws – his prayers did indeed work. He is, alas, dead now, so I have to make do with less prodigious prayer-makers. Indeed, I am, as Herbert rather tartly recommended, thrown back on my own resources and have to ask God for things myself.
Except, in the great Catholic tradition, I don’t just ask God directly. I often do it through my pet intercessors. It’s a funny sort of dynamic, our relationship with the saints. Quite often, we use them for things we don’t like to bother God directly with because they’re not important enough.
So, if we can’t find our keys we ask St Anthony, possibly because we feel we don’t quite like to ask God for help with something trivial. Actually, I usually don’t mind approaching the Almighty for lightweight things, on the basis that Herbert recommended, that we should always ask God for what we really want, not what we think we should want. And, when it comes to finding things, St Anthony really works, so that relationship is beloved of many Catholics.
The principle behind saintly intercessors is perfectly sound, which is that the saints add more heft to our petitions. Jacobus de Voragine, the 13th-century Bishop of Genoa, observed in his sermon for All Saints in his book, The Golden Legend (as translated by William Caxton): “S. Jerome saith … If the apostles and martyrs, when they were yet in their bodies alive, might pray for others, and were therein diligent, how much more then ought they to do after their crowns, victory and triumphs? Of whom Moses, one only man, [got] pardon for six thousand men armed, and S. Stephen prayed for his enemies, and sith they be now with God should they do less?”
There is, moreover, a certain reciprocity in our relationship with the saints. Eamon Duffy tells in his book on pre-and post-Reformation England, The Stripping of the Altars, of a man who had a particular veneration for a certain holy image, but when it fell down on top of him, he sulkily declared that there should never be such a friendship between them after that. That rings true.
But perhaps the most human aspect of our relationship is that we quite often bargain with saints for what we want, or with God himself – as Abraham himself did. So when I was asking for help for my mother with my pet intercessor – of whom more later – I said that if I got my way, I should say a Hail Mary every day for the rest of my life, plus I would go to Mass on his feast day every year, and that I should try to go on a pilgrimage to his tomb. All rather traditional as these things go. But the underlying feeling here is that there is a quid pro quo, that I should offer something in return for an answered prayer.
My intercessor – well, my favourite – is not in fact a canonised saint at all, though he certainly would have been were it not for the Henrician Reformation. He is Henry VI, the saintly king whose reason was unhinged by dint of the brutality of the times he lived in. When there was a premium on aristocratic violence, he was notably peaceable; when his nobles lived for hunting, he was sorry for the poor deer. He was murdered in the Tower of London, thereby living up to one criterion of royal sanctity in the Middle Ages, that of being unjustly done to death. When I intimated to Jeremy Catto, an acerbic Oxford historian, that he was a saint he just snorted: “He was MAD.”
Well, insanity is probably the appropriate reaction of the really sane to horrid times. But there was emphatically a cult of Henry VI after his death and the stories of the miracles that were attributed to his intercession were legion, collected in the late 15th century to substantiate the case for his canonisation. It was reading them that made me realise what a prodigious miracle worker he was and at present, much under-used.
So it is to King Henry, among others, I am praying now for my mother. I should be glad of your prayers, too.
Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard
This article first appeared in the January 15 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here