[I]n speaking of the strictness of our Orthodox Church concerning the commemoration of Christians who believe incorrectly, we do not mean to say that our Holy Church commands us, her children, not to pray for them in any way at all. She only prohibits us to pray in a self-willed fashion, that is, praying as we wish and in whatever manner might come into our heads. Our Mother the Orthodox Church teaches us that everything we do, even prayer itself, should be done “properly and according to order” (1 Cor 14.40).
And we do pray in all our church services for all nations of diverse peoples and for the whole world, more often than not without our knowing and understanding this. We pray exactly as our Lord Jesus Christ taught His Apostles to pray in the prayer He taught them, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven!” This all-embracing petition gathers within itself all our needs and the needs of all our brothers, even though they be non-Orthodox. In it we entreat the All-good Lord even for the souls of the departed non-Orthodox Christians, that He may accomplish with them that which is pleasing to His holy will. For the Lord knows immeasurably better than we to whom to show mercy and what mercy to show.
And thus, Orthodox Christian, whoever you may be, layman or priest of God, if during some church service there comes upon you the zeal to pray for some Carl or Edward who is close to you, then during the Lord’s Prayer, sigh to the Lord on his behalf and say, “May Thy holy will be done in him, O Lord!” and limit yourself to this prayer. For thus you have been taught to pray by the Lord Himself. And believe that this prayer of your made in such a way will be a thousand times more pleasing to the Lord and more profitable to your soul than all your self-willed commemorations in church.
There was a case in the life of the Optina Elder Leonid (in the schema Lev) who reposed in 1841. The father of Paul Tambovtsev, one of his disciples, had an unfortunate and violent death—by suicide. The loving son was deeply grieved by this news and poured out his sorrow before the Elder.
“The unhappy end of my father is a diffucult cross for me, and I now am on a cross whose pains will go with me to the grave. Imagining to myself the terrible eternity of sinners, in which there is no repentance, I am tormented by the picture of the eternal torments which await my father, who died without repentance. Tell me, Father, how may I comfort myself in this present grief?”
The Elder replied, “Entrust both yourself and the lot of your father to the all-wise, omnipotent will of the Lord. Do not seek miracles of the Most High. Strive by humble-mindedness to strengthen yourself within the bounds of tempered sorrow. Pray to the Most-good Creator, thus fulfilling the duty of love and the obligation of a son.”
Question: “But in what manner can one pray for such people?”
Answer: “In the spirit of virtuous and wise men, pray thus: ‘Seek out, O Lord, the lost soul of my father; if it is possible, have mercy! Unsearchable are Thy judgments. Account not my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!’ Pray simply, without questioning, entrusting your heart to the right hand of the Most High. Of course, it was not the will of God that your father have so grievous an end, but now it is completely in the will of Him Who is able to cast both soul and body into the fiery furnace, of Him Who both humbles and exalts, puts to death and brings to life, leads down to Hades and leads up therefrom. And He is so compassionate, almighty, and filled with love that the good qualities of all those born of earth are nothing before His supreme goodness. Therefore you ought not to sorrow beyond measure. You say, ‘I love my father, and so I grieve inconsolably.’ That is right. But God loved and loves him incomparably more than you. And so, it remains for you to entrust the eternal lot of your father to the goodness and compassion of God, Who, if He is well-pleased to show mercy, then who can oppose Him?
This private prayer set forth here, for use at home or in one’s cell, and taught to his disciple for the Elder Leonid, who was experienced in the spiritual life, is able to serve for an Orthodox Christian as an example or model of prayer for some non-Orthodox person who is close to him. One can pray in the following manner, for example, “Have mercy, O Lord, if it is possible, on the soul of Thy servant (name), departed to eternal life in separation from Thy Holy Orthodox Church! Unsearchable are Thy judgments. Account not this my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!”
We do not know, and it has not been revealed to anyone, how much profit such a prayer brings the soul of the deceased non-Orthodox Christian. But experience has shown that it tempers the burning sorrow of the heart felt by the one praying for the soul of the person close to him, even though he died outside of Orthodoxy.
In conclusion, we shall say: Let not our hearts be troubled, and let us not frea the austerity of the rules of our Holy Orthodox Church! Rather, let us all the more “take courage; take courage, O ye people of God!” Let this not lead us to despair of our salvation. On the contrary, let it arouse our souls to contrite, humble repentance of our sins before the Lord, while the doors of His compassion are not yet shut upon us. For, according to the word of the Psalmist, “a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise” (Ps 50.17). And the more humble, the more self-abasing our prayer, the more hopeful and successful it will be.
Elder Joseph of Optina. From “May Orthodox Christians Pray for Non-Orthodox Christians, And If So, How May They Pray For Them?”, Appendix B in The Elder Joseph of Optina, translated from the Russian by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Brookline, Massachusetts), pages 288-289, 292-295.