The doctrine of the Communion of Saints is rather simple. It’s that Christians don’t leave the Church when they die. The work they began in this life doesn’t end when they enter the next.
We have a perspective problem in this life. In fact, it’s very like being in high school (our education system has very few good qualities, but it’s useful as an analogy). We find ourselves in a confined environment subject to many seemingly arbitrary rules, with little or no sense of the larger world that would put them into context. Everything in that little world seems all-important: winning that football game. Getting that grade. Going out with that girl. Some people excel in the system, others struggle, and those who excel often make it all the harder for those who don’t.
All the while we’re told that this isn’t the real world, that it’s only a passing phase and things will get better. If we have sensible parents they’ll remind us that the skills necessary to succeed in high school are not always the ones necessary to succeed in life. But it’s hard to believe that in the moment. The ‘real world’ seems like shadow: something that will be, while high school is what is.
As the poet Brad Paisley put it, “At 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night.”
But our parents are right. High school is four short years, compared to potentially seventy or more of adult life. How many people ‘peak’ in high school? How many of those who were popular, who were the kings of campus went on to be failures at life itself? But equally comforting, how many made a success of both? The point is that life is the important thing; high school only matters insofar as it prepares us for life. No matter how much ‘success’ we had in school, it won’t matter a bit if it doesn’t translate into adult life.
Also, adult life is where we have access to a level of agency, to the power to act upon the world in a way that we scarcely dreamed of in high school. The adult world is immeasurably larger than the high school world.
We in this world are in high school. The saints are the adults. They’ve grown up, matured, set aside childish things and live and operate in a world infinitely larger than ours, with a scope and agency that we can hardly imagine. But like adults, they aren’t ‘other’ than us; they’ve been in the same position we are now and they are invested in our success (far more than adults in our world often are, to be honest).
This is something Professor Tolkien pointed out in On Fairy Stories: we have a bad habit of talking of children as if they were a distinct class of people. We talk of children the way we might talk of, say, Japanese or Jews or women: as if there are some who are children and some who are adults, and they simply exist side by side. But a child is just a person at a particular stage of development. Everyone either is a child or has been a child.
It is the same with Saints. They are simply people who have reached the final stage. They are complete people, standing to us in almost exactly the same relationship as adults stand to children. So of course we honor them, of course we seek their help and intercession. That is what is proper to people like us, just as it is proper for children to seek the aid and support of grown ups. It’s akin to Ray Harryhausen seeking advice from Willis O’Brien, or a young baseball player asking for support from one of his sports idols. The followers of Christ in all walks of life are now pursuing their vocations in Heaven, the true vocations of which their actions in this life were but shadows, and they’re eager to help us follow in their footsteps.
Because they too are in the Church. We worship and work and praise alongside of a great cloud of witnesses, of heroes who have triumphed before us and urge us on to “be imitators of them as they are of Christ.”