28 August 2008

Prayer to the Theotokos, II: Post-communion prayer

I have begun a series of posts on prayers to the Theotokos, in an effort to explain to non-Orthodox what the Church prays when it calls on her. I do not propose to re-establish the things I've already shown, to the best of my ability, such as why we ask the intercessions of the saints in general, or what the Church means by terms like salvation. Not everyone will be convinced; but being convinced is not simply an intellectual exercise. It requires a modicum of good will as well. Even the rich man in hell was unconvinced by Abraham's words, notwithstanding his own misery.

After the Eucharist, among many other prayers we pray, we offer this request to the Theotokos:

"O most holy Lady, Theotokos, light of my darkened soul, my hope, protection, refuge, consolation, my joy; I thank thee that thou hast vouchsafed me, who am unworthy, to be a partaker of the most pure Body and precious Blood of thy Son. O thou who gavest birth to the True Light, do thou enlighten the spiritual eyes of my heart; thou who gavest birth to the Source of Immortality, revive me who am dead in sin; thou who art the lovingly-compassionate Mother of the merciful God, have mercy on me and grant me compunction and contrition in my heart, and humility in my thoughts, and the recall of my thoughts from captivity. And vouchsafe me until my last breath to receive without condemnation the sanctification of the most pure Mysteries for the healing of soul and body; and grant me tears of repentance and confession, that I may hymn and glorify thee all the days of my life, for blessed and most glorified art thou unto the ages. Amen."

The first thing to notice is that this prayer does not stand on its own. It is one in a series of prayers; indeed, it stands last in that series. Perhaps this is a key to open the prayer as a whole. (I do not speak dogmatically here, but phenomenologically--that is, as someone who has watched Orthodox services with attention for some time.)

Consider the series of prayers and meditations that occur each Saturday night at Vespers. Nearly always, the last one is addressed to the Theotokos. Consider also the second great censing of the Temple during Matins: it begins with the priest saying, "The Theotokos and Mother of Light, Thee do we honor and magnify with song." These prayers of the Church mean to teach us that all Christ is by nature in the second Article of the Creed, he wills us to become by grace in the third Article. To acknowledge the Theotokos is to confess that God has acted and is acting in the lives of his people; for she is "full of grace," full of the favor of God.

The second thing to notice is the tone of the petitions. Is it the tone of the whole, rather than individual parts, which raises objections? In an earlier post I noted that when we pray to the saints, the chief role they play is that of intercessor for us to the Lord. But it is also true that God shows his glory in them by allowing them to act for him and toward us. The angels are given such tasks, as Hebrews 1:14 tells us, and we see an example in Luke 1:19, "And the angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings." The sun is the source of nearly all light on earth, even that of the moon; but only a sophist would say, of the moonlight, "It's not moonlight at all; it's only sunlight." According to Acts, handkerchiefs and even the shadows of the apostles brought cures to those who were ill. Why, then, should it seem strange that God would work through his holy ones, who share his divine energies by grace, in order to work in the lives of his people?

In my next post, I'll set forth the structure of this prayer.


Dixie said...

The sun is the source of nearly all light on earth, even that of the moon...

I always find your analogies to be so strong and obvious...this one, the one you wrote a long time ago elsewhere regarding "Most Holy Theotokos save us" and the friend calling for an ambulance, the changes in the Church as compared to photographs of a child compared to their adult photos. They help explain the understanding clearly and quickly...are these your own analogies aor do you lift them from various sources? If so...at least you know which ones to lift!

Why, then, should it seem strange that God would work through his holy ones, who share his divine energies by grace, in order to work in the lives of his people?

Indeed. In the end it is obvious but it isn't always so easy to get from there (Protestantism) to here (Orthodoxy) in one step. Intercession sometimes comes as one step, understanding the work of the Saints beyond intercessory prayer sometimes comes later...at least this has been my experience when comparing notes with other converts in my parish. We eventually get there and wonder why were were so dense for so long!

Great explanation, Father. Thank you for it.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Dixie, you're very kind. I don't know quite where the analogies come from...they start out of my mouth before I know what's happening.

I know it takes time for people to think through the issues. In my own experience, most of them seem to turn on rather simple and low-level choices that have profound impact. Elsewhere I speak of them as "bridges."

In other news, I've transcribed about 11 pages' worth of Zernikav, and just began doing a painfully slow translation. I'm in touch with one of my profs from IU, who's a great help.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...
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