Archive for March 29th, 2008

The Mother of God


Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27 NKJV)

The Church has long honored the Mother of God, and has taken this text as emblematic of Christ’s Mother being given to us as our Mother as well. Because she bore in her womb very God of very God, she is blessed and honored by faithful Christians. As Mother of the King of Kings, she is the antitype of the Old Testament Queen Mother, and is properly called the Queen of Heaven. Whereas Bathsheba bowed to her lord, King David, his son, the King Solomon bowed to Bathsheba, honoring her as queen mother. This type is fulfilled in Mary, the Mother of Christ. She is who and what she is by virtue of God’s grace on and in her. And in that grace, she becomes Mother to us all.

Those of us who have had loving earthly mothers, those of us who have felt the fierce advocacy of our mothers for us against all that and those which would harm us, those of us who’ve seen our mothers tears, have been given a glimpse into the sort of Mother Mary is for us. There is no mystery here how and why our Lady is called our only refuge, our champion leader, our fierce protectress. These are all qualities of our earthly mothers–can we not recall for whom we cried out in the night against our child terrors?–and therefore they are the qualities of our Lord’s Mother as well.

The icon of the Theotokos which adorns our parish’s iconstasis (which is not the icon depicted above) has become very dear and precious to me. I have lain flat on my face before it in tears. I have kissed it. I have poured out my prayers before it. I have prayed the supplicatory canon, the Rosary and my own prayers there in that spot. The gaze of our Lady which looks at me from that icon is so tender, so full of sorrow, it cannot be that she does not know my own trials and struggles. And yet, clinging to her is her Son, my Lord, and with the tilt of her head she draws me toward him, ever reminding me he is at the center of all things. She weeps with those of us who weep, and takes all our prayers and grief to her Lord and ours.

The Theotokos has always been a part of my coming to the Orthodox faith. Only a few months after I had made my resolve, while on retreat, I prayed the Akathist hymn for the first time. That prayer cemented my relationship with her, though the depth of that relationship would take some time to grow. I prayed the Rosary from time to time. I prayed the Akathist hymn now and again. And there have been several direct answers to prayer attributable to her intercessions, not the least of which is our daughter Sofie. What her intercessions are working of late is a mystery unfathomable to me now. But in these last several weeks, the depth of my relationship with our Lord’s Mother has grown considerably. She is present in very real ways to me, encouraging me in my prayers, strengthening me, assuring me of her protection of me and my daughters and us all.

I do not know if my experience is unique among us Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. Many of us, though not so much myself, come to the ancient Christian Faith with some considerable degree of “mariaphobia.” But there is no getting around the place of Mary in the worship, the faith and the life of the Church. I am so grateful I have come to understand and experience this so soon after my chrismation.

I’m sorry to speak in such directly personal terms, but I felt compelled to speak of the debt I owe to, and my growing love of, our Lord’s Mother. I would encourage my readers themselves to deepen their own relationships with the Blessed Virgin. In so doing we honor our Lord.


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The Mystery of Prayer: Consolation and Cross

Because in prayer we have to do with a Trinity of Persons, and not some cosmic divine process, there is a certain mystery to prayer, and in prayer, that continually confounds our best understandings. We know, by virtue of dominical revelation and authority, that our Father in heaven cares for us deeply and intimately. We need not be anxious about our needs. We need only place all our trust in the One who knows how to give good gifts to his children. But we also know that if God is our loving Father, we will receive from him the merciful correction that the best of earthly fathers give to their own children. So, on the one hand, we know we will receive that which we need, indeed, good gifts, but yet we also know that we will receive correction for our misdeeds and sins.

This truth is perhaps the most difficult to receive at the time one most needs it, which is to say, when one is in the midst of one’s own hurt and pain. What one wants most of all is not correction but healing. What one wants most of all is consolation not a cross. But what one finds is that even if one suffers injustice, even if the pain one endures is not directly of his making, still and all, it is for his correction.

After all, who can tell the chain of cause and effect back to this or that sin, or these several sins, that set in motion, however indirectly, the choices and actions which have brought one unwillingly to the present moments of the soul’s pressing? There is no private sin, there is no sin that does not have its effect on our brothers and sisters in Christ, indeed all our fellow men. Who is to say that that moment in which one lost one’s temper at the customer service counter was not just then the skandalon, the stumbling block that set in motion a long series of choices on the part of our brother or sister that drew them further away from Christ.

Do not misunderstand. We all bear our responsibilities for every careless word and for all our actions, for we all are creatures of freedom and if we are in slavery it is because we have freely chosen such a bondage. But there is a mystery here that I am unable to exegete. And its crossroads runs through the center of our individual hearts.

I wonder–which is to say, I wonder because I do not know–if that is why the Church, in her wisdom, when giving us the prayers of supplication to Our Lady, also gives us in those prayers the confessions of our sins. For though the prayers have, as part of their beginning, the following:

Never, O Theotokos, will we cease to speak of they powers, unworthy as we are. For if thou didst not intercede in prayer, who would have delivered us from so many dangers? Who would have kept us free until now? Let us never forsake thee, O Lady, for thou dost ever save thy servants from all perils.

. . . they actually start with these words:

To the Theotokos let us now run most earnestly, we sinners all and wretched ones, and fall down, in repentance calling from the depths of our souls: O Lady, come unto our aid, have compassion upon us; hasten thou, for we are lost in a throng of transgressions. Turn not thy servants away with empty hands, for thee alone do we have as our only hope.

And to underscore this point, the rubrics tell us to pray this twice.

As I say, I wonder at this. This is not the therapy we worldlings have come to understand. All we know is the surcease of pain, and grade such therapies in terms of how completely we either can be cured of such pain or narcotized against its presence. But the God who was transfixed on a piece of wood gives us another therapy, one in which, if I am not mistaken, for the good of our soul pain is to be embraced, for it speaks to us of the truth of things. It tells us of the complex interlocking realities of our human relationships, of how both our healings and our woundings of one another extend far beyond the limits of our perceptions and knowledge. It is, to use another metaphor, the flip of a butterfly’s wing which sets in motion the tsunami of grace or of desolation.

The locus of this divine therapy is, I think, prayer. If for no other reason than that we could not endure some of the pain our fellow human beings unleash on us apart from the efficacy of the divine encounter in prayer, this alone would be reason enough. But, unless I am wrong, it also seems to me that the pain we endure is not as effectively redeemed if we do not grab hold of it, bleeding, and drag it into the prayer closet with us. It is intolerable. It is utterly distracting. Its psychic noise drowns out for us the voice of God, so that all we hear is the awful silence of divine mercy. But we may stand there with it, holding it as it sears us, and we may cry out in our union with Christ, my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?

If we do this, as horrible as such a task is, I think we can be saved. Quite frankly, I just do not know how otherwise we will be saved. Surely we want justice, but justice alone will not satisfy us. Surely we want victory over the enemy, but victory alone will not satisfy us. Surely we want healing and restoration and reconciliation, the reunion of our human covenants, but such things of themselves will not heal us. We do not know what it is to suffer. That is to say, I do not know of such things. But what we do want and need is the Holy Trinity present in our hearts. Failing that, we have nothing. Having only that, we have everything.

I know absolutely nothing of how God can console us as we bear our crosses, indeed, perhaps how he consoles us with our crosses. These crosses, even these crosses of injustice, purge us of that which is not God, giving us the paradoxical “more” of the infinite Trinity. Because I am not the sort of Christian I should be, I do not welcome this present cross. I am not, God help me, thankful for the present trials. But I know I should be. I know that there is a mystery here I cannot fathom. I know, that is to say, I cling desperately to the fragile belief that, this is somehow in some way for the good of my own soul, the souls of my daughters, my wife, all those I know and love. But I just don’t know how to bring together cross and consolation. Even in prayer.

Lord help me. Lady pray for me.

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