Marian Signals: A Protestant Encounters the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

The weekend of 11-13 October 2002 was my most recent, and almost certainly my last, retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. I first retreated at the monastery in July 1997, and have always been drawn to it as a place of prayer. My few retreats there have largely been unremarkable; definitely no Damascus road experiences. But this past autumn was different. I went wanting only to be open to what God had to show me, and not with an agenda, whether of vocational questions or prayer requests, or what have you. My first twenty-four hours plus were rather of a character as my other visits, but on Saturday late afternoon, I decided I would hunt up a version of the Akathist Hymn to Mary and pray it after Vespers during the meditation hour.

The Akathist Hymn is an ancient hymn (sixth century) written by St. Romanos, a noted Church hymnographer and poet. It is prayed while standing (thus “akathist” from the Greek, or literally “not-sitting”), usually before an icon of the Theotokos. Said prayerfully, the hymn may take the better part of a half hour to pray. So, no icon being handy, I prayed before the statue of Mary in a side chapel to the monastery church.

Now my steps from Protestant aversion to Mary to praying the Akathist hymn were not made swiftly. And indeed, given my bent, went unsurprisingly first through the arena of theology. I had become convinced of the necessity of calling Mary the Mother of God on the basis of the Scriptural and patristic understanding of the Incarnation. I also had become convinced of the communion of the saints, and thus of the legitimacy of asking the intercessions of those who now live in the presence of God beyond this mortal life. So it wasn’t a quick leap from mariolatry polemics to the akathist.

But understanding undergirded with theology notwithstanding, I wasn’t the most comfortable first-time pray-er. I plowed through, nonetheless, knowing that theology isn’t a matter of my comfort. Another conviction I had come to was the necessity of submitting my intellect and will to the Incarnate God through his Body the Church. The Akathist Hymn had been blessed by centuries of use in the Church. Who was I, a lone individual with all my presuppositions and prejudices, to set aside 1500 years of faithful teaching and practice? Indeed, for that matter, request for Marian prayers date from the earliest days of the Church. So I prayed.

Lo and behold, the next day, after the noon office and lunch, I returned to another chapel–this one with an icon of the flight to Egypt–and poured out my heart in extemporaneous requests for the intercessions of the Virgin. An overnight “convert”? Perhaps.

In the ensuing weeks, I grew to daily ask the intercessions of the Birthgiver of God, particularly on behalf of my wife, Anna. While I’ll not go into any of those details, suffice it to say, the growing evidence of our Lady’s effectiveness as intercessor began to mount. The first instance was in the conception of our child. This is not to say that I prayed specifically for Anna to get pregnant. (A couple of our friends know the humbling account of that human blunder! Though what a blessed result!) Rather, the conception of our child was the answer to related prayers that I had been praying; something confirmed by my spiritual father. After asking Mary’s intercsssions in November and December for my mother’s employment, I got word that Mom had gotten a job.

Of course, this is not magic. Some of the things for which I’ve asked Mary to pray have not come to pass in the way I had hoped and for which I had prayed myself.

More to the point, it’s a tricky thing for humans to claim divine activity in the realm of human events. Some discussion in the blog world has been going on about this very thing with regard to the war. There is ever a need for humility in discerning within human events the hand of God. That he is active, we ought have no doubt. In what way he is active is another matter.

Still, to a heart formed and shaped by the struggle of this Christian unseen warfare, there comes something of a fallible certainty about these things. For example, take yesterday. It was the feast of the Annunciation. I had intended to pray the rosary at some point during the day, in addition to my observance of the feast in my normal routine of prayer. But I didn’t. I had intended to pray the Akathist Hymn before bed last night. I had even set my prayerbook on my icon shelf as a reminder. But I didn’t pray the Akathist. However, what did happen, is that my wife brought home the book that I had ordered: The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God. In it is a translation of the Akathist Hymn. Hmmmm. Receiving a book about the Theotokos on her feast day. Intending to pray the Akathist, and later being given a translation of it in the book. Was this a signal of something?

Now, to a merely rational mind, it would seem reasonable to assume, that just because I ordered it last Thursday and it came yesterday, and that yesterday happened to be a Marian feast, was merely a contingent coincidence of events. Had I ordered it on any other Thursday, assuming appropriate stock levels and similar shipping effeciencies, it would have come on the following Tuesday. To which the spiritually rational mind says, “But it didn’t happen that way.”

It’s something of a proverb to assert, “With prayer there are no coincidences.” I don’t know if I’d press that proverb too literally. But I guess it’s like anything else: if one has the eyes to see, the trail markers are a clear demarcation of the path ahead. To anyone else, though, it is the coincidental meanderings through mountain trails.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee, O Virgin Theotokos:
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb
For thou hast born the Savior of our souls