This is one of my favorite stories from The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos C. Markides, a wonderful book that I encourage every Orthodox Christian to read.
I asked Father Maximos whether he had any thoughts on what happens to those souls that have no one to pray for them. “What is their fate?”
Father Maximos placed his teacup on the table in front of him. He recognized the provocative insinuation of my question and with a grin on his face he began to explain that the Liturgy itself is for the benefit of the entire human race, the living and the dead of all the generations throughout time.
“Do you mean,” I asked, “that all the billions of people that have ever lived and are now living benefit spiritually from the prayers during the services?”
“But of course.”
I reminded him that the memorial service carried out that morning was conducted for specific persons whose relatives wished them to be commemorated during the Liturgy. “What happens,” I persisted, “to those anonymous others who have no one to pray for them, no one to remember them? In one hundred or two hundred years there will be nobody thinking of us just as we don’t think of those who died two or three hundred years ago. What then?”
Father Maximos reflected on my question for a few seconds and then he replied:
“Let me tell you a true story that just came to my mind. Perhaps this will shed some light on what happens when we pray for the departed. It took place in Russia, before the revolution. There was this priest who had a problem with alcohol. He would often go to church drunk, scandalizing the faithful. The parishioners sent a delegation to the local bishop, imploring him to intervene and do something about it. The bishop accepted their request and reprimanded the alcoholic priest. Unfortunately, the poor fellow had no control over his addiction. So the bishop finally told him, ‘Look, Father, since you are unable to quit drinking, then you can no longer be a priest. From this moment on you are no longer authorized to administer the sacraments.’ The bishop defrocked the alcoholic priest. Feeling guilty, the priest accepted the verdict and humbly walked out.
“During the night,” Father Maximos continued, "while the bishop was alone in his room in prayer, he had an extraordinary vision. He saw thousands of angry people in an open field threatening to harm him. When he returned to his normal state he was shocked and wondered what the significance of such a vision could be. Was it perhaps some kind of fantasy, a hallucination? He calmed down and then returned to his prayer. But he experienced the same vision again. In it he saw people screaming and demanding that he bring back the priest.
“The following day the bishop summoned the defrocked priest to his office. He asked him, ‘What’s going on with you? What did you do?’
‘What did I do, my bishop?’ the poor man muttered with confusion. ‘We just talked about it yesterday.’
‘But you must have done something else,’ the bishop insisted and asked him to report in minute detail how he spent his days as a priest.
‘Well, you see, Your Eminence,’ he said, ‘because of this problem with alcohol I felt great remorse and guilt. So, in order to compensate for my problem I made it a habit of going to the cemetery every single day to conduct memorial services for the dead. I prayed for their souls since I could do nothing for mine. That’s all I did.’
“The bishop realized,” Father Maximos went on to say, “that the people in his vision were the souls of the departed who demanded the return of that priest so that he may continue his prayers for them. That Russian priest knew none of the people buried there.”
“Was this perhaps some sort dream,” I asked.
“No, it was a vision. The bishop was not asleep,” Father Maximos replied. Then he continued, “In this story we see that God, who does not judge with human conceptions of justice, appreciated the greater good that the priest was performing for the departed souls, considering it more important in comparison to the minor sin of his personal addiction." http://www.amazon.com/The-Mountain-Silence-Orthodox-Spirituality/dp/0385500920