On the Efficacy of Prayers for the Dead

St. John the Almsgiver of Alexandria died ca. 616

When the plague was at one time raging in the city, the just man used to go and watch the funerals for he said that this and the contemplation of graves were very edifying. Often too he would sit at the bedside of persons in their death anguish, and would close their eyes with his own hands, wishing thereby to keep the thought of his own death in continual remembrance. He also enjoined prayers for the dying to be celebrated diligently and perpetually, and in support of this he told the following story: ‘A short time ago,’ he said, ‘a man was captured by the Persians, and when taken to Persia was confined in the dungeon called Lethe. Some other prisoners who escaped and reached Cyprus were asked by his parents whether they had seen him by any chance; to which they replied: “We buried him with our own hands.” But that was not really the man about whom they were questioned, but another exactly like him. They also told the parents the month and the day of his death, and so the latter had prayers said three times a year for him whom they presumed to be dead.

‘Four years later he escaped from the Persians and returned to Cyprus. Then his relatives said, “We heard for certain, brother, that you were dead and therefore we have held memorial services for you three times a year”.

‘On hearing that they did this for him three times a year he asked on what month and day the services were held and they replied: “At Epiphany, at Easter, and on Whit-Sunday.”

‘Thereupon he said: “On those three feasts in the year a man in white raiment, like the sun, used to come and free me invisibly from my chains and from my cell and a]l that day I walked about and nobody recognized me. Yet on the morrow there I was in chains again!” ‘

The holy Patriarch used to say: ‘We learn from this story that those who have fallen asleep obtain comfort from the prayers we make on their behalf.’ (Leontius of Neapolis, Life of St. John the Almsgiver, 25)