The Mother of Us All

 

A young friend recently lost his mother. It has been an occasion of reflection for me, thinking about the emptiness created by such a loss. Despite all of the confusion and conundrums in our contemporary culture surrounding gender issues – they only serve to underscore the fact that male-and-female, on the most fundamental level of the human psyche, are core realities – subject to debate, but not subject to dismissal. We are created male and female and, no matter how all of that may dysfunctionally appear in someone’s life, it frames our world and our place in it. It is noteworthy, however, that these fundamental realities have often been distorted. That same distortion tends to make a culture crazy.

When the Scriptures begin the story of human beings it is as though it were written in crayon. The characters are stark, with very little elaboration. The Man is first, taken from the earth. His very name, Adam, is related to the earth (Adamah). The Woman is taken from the Man. Adam calls her “Woman” (Ishah) because she was taken out of Man (Ish). This male and female reality is magnified even more in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of St. Paul.

St. Paul describes Christ as the “Second Adam,” and draws on the imagery of Genesis to describe Christ and the Church (His bride). Various elements of this imagery will enter into other Christian writings (Revelation is a case in point). All of the gospels make mention of Mary, with St. Luke and St. John having the most material, and the most important. It is also material that is easily overlooked and suppressed. Christ told us that the “pure in heart shall see God.” The distortions within our own hearts hide not only God, but His purpose in the Theotokos as well. The Scriptures remain.

Just as Christ is the Second Adam, so the Tradition sees Mary as the “Second Eve.” The first Eve was called the “Mother of all living.” This was true in a genealogical sense. However, Mary is the Mother of us all in a theological sense. On the Cross, Jesus says to St. John, “Behold your mother,” as he gives him the charge of caring for her. The Church has seen this verse as extending beyond St. John to us all. She is Mother of us all.

When I think of my experience as an Orthodox Christian, I cannot begin to exaggerate the importance of the Theotokos in my life. She is in my prayers, my theology, my understanding of God – but, beyond and above all that, she is in my mind and heart. To live in America from the mid-20th century forward, is to have lived through a deluge of gender wars. Definitions and re-definitions have been our constant fare. It’s not that human beings have ever been really great at such things – indeed, Genesis (from the beginning) talks about enmity between men and women. We love each other, and we prey on each other. From a certain point in my 20’s, the Theotokos entered into my theological and prayer life. Initially, what I knew was largely derivative of Catholic devotions. Not until my mid-40’s did I become Orthodox and start the assimilation of the Orthodox mindset. Nevertheless, throughout all of that, Mary has been part of a stability – a spiritual stability, that has been essential to understanding my place in the world and the world’s place in me.

A great emptiness in modern culture is the lack of models. You cannot construct the psyche of a culture out of thin air, much less from the constantly changing ephemera of academic and journalistic make-believe. Children need stable structures rather than ideologies and Tik-Tok wisdom. However, it is also true that transcendent models are difficult to come by (much less transcendent models that have truth and reality behind them).

I have written a handful of articles regarding the Theotokos over the years. They are always published with a certain sense of dread. The dread comes from the rather predictable complaints from various Christians for whom Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos is anathema (or close to it). The pain of the dread comes from the tenderness that accompanies her place within my heart. It also comes from the emptiness I feel when I contemplate her absence in the lives of so many.

Dostoevsky once contemplated what he called the contrast between the “Madonna and Sodom.” The first was and is profoundly embodied in the beauty and wonder of the Theotokos. The latter is perhaps best embodied in the annals of pornography. He marveled at how the two coexisted in the human heart. Of course, he was writing from within an Orthodox culture, and he had exposure to Catholic culture as well. What he had not seen, I suspect, was the emptiness of Protestant and later secular culture, where the “Madonna” has been completely eradicated. Modern woman has been made to compete with the profane images of Sodom in our rampant pornography, with often little more than a militarized feminism and mock-masculinity to offer any push-back. Indeed, feminists are just as likely to mock the Theotokos and blame that image for much of their oppression.

I cannot point to some ideal society of the past and say, “See! It worked there!” There are no ideal Orthodox cultures, only some in which Orthodoxy has had a prominent place. Nevertheless, we have many examples of individuals within various cultures who have found sanity and healing – some are named as saints.

It is significant, I think, that the Theotokos is Woman who is not sexualized. In that fashion, she is, indeed, mother of us all. In a healthy life, our mothers are exempt from sexualization. In a healthy world, the relationship between male and female is not burdened with constant sexualization. But many have little experience of such an existence. One of the deepest insights of Genesis is that male and female do not exist without one another – they complete and fulfill one another. As such, neither can be understood apart from the other.

What we have in God’s gift of the Theotokos (and our veneration of her) is a vision of wholeness, a fulfillment of the promises made in Genesis. It is, no doubt, a troubling thing for some to read that we cannot truly know Christ apart from the Theotokos – but we have no Christ who is not made known in the Incarnation which is inherently in and of the Theotokos. And the historical revelations we have in the gospel are not mere history – facts to be noted and filed away. What is made known to us is the gateway to what is true and real and good – now.

Orthodox worship utterly focuses on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but it is sung in the “key” of the Theotokos. We do not tell the human story (even as heavenly worship) that is not also a story of male and female, the fullness of our existence in the wonder of our creation. We need everything God has given us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



Posted

in

, ,

by

Comments

66 responses to “The Mother of Us All”

  1. Grant Avatar
    Grant

    Just a thought: as the first Eve came from the flesh of the first man, Adam, so the second Man, Christ, came from the flesh of the second Eve, Mary. A piece of symmetry, for what it’s worth.

  2. Chase Avatar
    Chase

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. You mention your initial devotions that were derivative of Catholic practices. I’m curious, what are the primary differences (from an Orthodox view) between Catholic and Orthodox Mariology? Blessings from “just up the road” in Bristol, TN!

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Chase,
    It’s a very good question – and difficult at the same time. My experience of Catholic-derived devotions largely consisted of praying the rosary. My Anglican experience (High Church) had no difficulty with that, but didn’t extend particularly beyond that.

    Orthodox devotion to Mary is, I think, more “organic,” as in, not separated from everything else, but permeating everything else. For example, there is not an Orthodox equivalent of the Marian Rosary prayers (or meditation on the “mysteries”). There is a common practice, when praying the Jesus Prayer with a prayer rope, to substitute, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” for some of the Jesus Prayers. No fixed rule on that – just a common practice that I’ve seen.

    But, for example, in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy (and all other services), there is a much greater reference to the Theotokos, and more common invocation of her prayers for us, than in a Catholic service. That’s what I mean by “organic,” it’s literally everywhere in Orthodox services. There is, of course, the Akathist hymn to the Theotokos that is widely used, both as a devotional service in the Church as well as private usage.

    To a certain extent – Orthodox devotions to the Theotokos are more “theological” – as in – deeply inbedded in reference to the Incarnation and thoughts surrounding that.

    Catholic piety, it seems to me, has been greatly influenced by various apparitions (appearances) of Mary and prophetic promises. This is largely absent in Orthodox thought. There’s also a very strong flavor of Medieval Catholic piety in which the promises can get sort of quantified: Do this, get this. That is pretty much absent in Orthodox practice.

    There are interesting cultural differences in Orthodoxy, many of which I’m sure I know little of. But, for example, Greeks frequently refer to the Theotokos as “Panagia” (the “All Holy”) – like a nick-name that is an expression of endearment. I’ve not seen an equivalent in Russian or Romanian usage – but I might be mistaken. I’ve searched (mostly in vain) for a history of such endearments in English. “Our Lady,” is the closest I’ve come up with, but I might be missing something. It is interesting to me, that strict Russian practice would forbid naming a child for the Theotokos (one of the other Mary’s is fine – but not for her). However, the Greeks are quite the opposite in that practice. My oldest daughter is named for the Theotokos. When she lived in Russia for a year, back in 2000, her Church there was scandalized when they found that she was named for the Theotokos. The priest had to intervene, saying, “I’ve heard that the Americans do this and so do the Greeks.” It was a scandalous as naming a child “Jesus,” common for Spanish culture, unknown in English culture. These practices, of course, are purely cultural and not written in any Church rules.

    In Orthodoxy, the great dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils really permeate all the prayers. Saturday and Sunday in Church is sometimes like a doctoral seminar in the theology of the Councils – but in a devotional form. And the Theotokos is interwoven in all of that. This is unique to Orthodoxy, I think.

    So, one result of all that, I think, is that, slowly, over time, it becomes impossible in Orthodoxy to think of Christ without thinking of His mother as well. We simply always have them together devotionally. Again, I think that there is a devotion to Mary in Catholicism, but not quite as integrated always, everywhere, and all the time.

    Those are, more or less, some impressions I have from my experience (limited as it is).

  4. Vera Avatar
    Vera

    Father,
    My husband struggles with the language in the paraklesis about the Theotokos. For him, using phrases that also refer to God is very hard to swallow. We were both raised protestant so we lacked that devotion to the Theotokos at all, though we both have been Orthodox for over 10 years now (closer to 15 for me). The Theotokos showed me miracles do still exist and happen so I have a much easier time with it than he does. Anything I can stay to him to help him? She is such a wonderful intercesser. I want him to know and love her too.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Vera,
    I think I had struggles like that in my early years. My own approach was to spend time reading and thinking about what was actually being said and why. There can be a “head” vs. “heart” thing. Culturally, men are often less aware of “heart” issues (not that they don’t have them aplenty). So, a man might benefit from “thinking” more about it. You can help him by praying that God soften his heart.

    It is interesting. You mention the Paraklesis. It is a very popular Greek (and Antiochian) devotion, but largely unknown in Slavic practice. The Akathist is more universal across Orthodoxy.

    A story: There was a former Pentecostal woman whom I knew who told me that she once had a very difficult time with prayers to Mary and such. I would have had a long theological discussion with her. As it was, she was a member of a Greek parish. Her very Greek priest, when asked about this, gave her this answer: Go into the Church and sit for an hour before the icon of the Theotokos. That’s all. Just sit there. She did it. She said that when she finished the hour of sitting, all her problems were gone. I would have never thought of such an approach. Her priest was wiser than I am.

  6. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father,
    The contrasts you draw between RC and Orthodox devotion to Mary underline some of the richest aspects of Orthodox worship for me. Especially concerning Mary as “organic” within the frame of our mindset. I’m reminded of the patristic description of Mary as the virginal soil from which Christ the Vine grew up. And the New Jerusalem! From within her walls…. What a glorious vision of theosis. May Christ be revealed in us all, always.

  7. Pete Avatar
    Pete

    Father,

    I thought that was an excellent parsing of the difference between Orthodox and Catholic devotion of the Theotokos. The Catholic veneration being more separate from the theology of the Church and reliant on the apparitions, sets Mary apart in not only an unnecessary way, but in creating that separation, elevates her to a status of not so much, as someone to emulate, but is seen as a life separate from ours and is a life that is essentially unattainable.

    The lines have become blurred and well, theology matters and the preservation of what is Holy enlivens and makes whole. I am no Catholic basher that is for sure, but consistently the Church’s maintenance of what is correct never ceases to penetrate and leads to a unique expression of a life lived out in its proper order.

    Through her prayers, as Panagia, as Mother and colaborer with Christ, we become pure. The unity in the theology of the Church is actually startlingly. I see an integrated wholeness to all of it.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    Indeed – everything about the Theotokos in Orthodoxy is about the Incarnation (in one manner or another). But, it’s an interesting lens because she is not an idea but a person. This also points to something deeply important in Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy, in its root meaning, is “right worship.” We do not come to know the truth by thinking about it so much as by worship and veneration. It’s one thing to “think” about the Incarnation – lots of Christians give it a bit of thought. In Orthodoxy, we venerate Christ’s Incarnation in a variety of ways. The same is true of the Cross, of the Resurrection, etc.

    This, in a nutshell, is another way of saying that only love truly knows anything.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Pete,
    See my response to Owen…it is to the same point you make.

  10. Susan Hancock Avatar

    I love this. Your words manage to iron out the the wrinkles of confused thoughts floating around in our culture every which-way. What remains is a the beautiful, simple, profound truth inherent in the “Mind of Christ.” Thank you!

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Susan,
    Thank you for the encouraging words. My heart is so full when I think of all of this that I struggled for words (and only wrote a fraction of it).

  12. Joshua Avatar
    Joshua

    You say that only Greeks have a name of endearment for Mary, but what is the Slavic Bogorodica then?

    And the Finnish/Estonian Jumalansynnyttäjä/Jumalasünnitaja? I know it is a direct translation of Theotokos, but because it uses all native words and sounds so natural in the language, it feels incredibly personal. Both Slavic and Finnic versions of Theotokos would sound unnatural in English, because it’s saying God’s Birther, possessive case, present tense, and yet it’s one word.

    Maybe it’s not the same as Panagia.

    I only know Jumalasünnitaja from personal experience, I’m just assuming that Bogorodica feels similar in Slavic languages, and in Finnish and Estonian culture it’s a minority who use this title anyway. But I do find it incredibly powerful… it’s hard to deny the reality of birth if it’s so blatantly there in the name.

  13. Pete Avatar
    Pete

    Father,

    Yes, finding the Theotokos in her proper setting and that is theology, i.e., truth revealed in its proper setting, is one of those “oh strange wonders” we find in the Church. What have we found here? Who has possessed us? From the inside out.

  14. Pete Avatar
    Pete

    Father,

    Yes, finding the Theotokos in her proper setting, and that is theology i.e., truth in it proper setting, is one of those “Oh, strange wonders” we find in the Church. What have we found here? Who has possessed us? From the inside out… truth is revealed as it is lived.

  15. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    Thank you for this reflection. Having been in the Church for over a decade now, I’ve long since resolved my intellectual difficulties with the role of the Theotokos, having come from a Protestant/Evangelical background. However, I find my attempts to venerate her and entreat her intercession to often be…stiff, formal…lacking something. What advice would you give for someone to help them strengthen their bond and love for her?

  16. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    Thank you Suzan for your words addressed to P.Stephen, you really express what I feel and could not write….
    Glory to God !

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I will never forget my first time in an Orthodox Parish (just went). Her icon with the Baby Jesus on her lap dominated everything else. In a half dome. Despite leaving St. Mary’s parish, Her presence in that icon remains, by Grace.
    Full sized Altar, relatively small otherwise including no Narthex. Mary’s icon was relatively massive in size.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Andrew,
    As prosaic as it might sound – talk to her – not just reading prayers and such. If there is something that is particularly on your heart – share what is in your heart with her – out loud. Also, give it time. Be patient. Lastly, ask her to tell you about her Son. He’s her favorite subject (rather than herself).

    Interestingly, it’s not unlike the Holy Spirit (whom Christ says will saying “nothing of Himself.” She is as utterly humble now as she was in her life on earth. She points to Christ. She glorifies Christ. She wants us to lose ourselves in Him.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father! Andrew, that is what I did (talk to Her). Great.

  20. Mary Avatar
    Mary

    Thank you Father,
    The endearing name we use for the Theotokos is أم النور The mother of light, when you hear it from an elderly grandma from upper Egypt, you can’t help but feel that she is a real life long friend whom she had numerous encounters with.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary,
    Is it “Al Nour?” I was using my google tools to read it to me. I had no doubt that something like this would be the case – terms of endearment are such expressions of the heart. The absence of such in English (for Mary), is evidence of 500 years of protestantism. I’m still curious about possible terms in English that pre-date the Reformation. Of course, the use of Latin in the pre-Reformation English Church might have prevented such a devotion term from developing. Unintended consequences…

  22. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Fr Stephen,

    (Now, during the Dormition Fast)… I am finding that my [new] relationship with The Theotokos is, like with Christ, more on a personal level… i.e. as a person… than I have encountered before. Even in the Catholic circles I have dabbled in Mary is treated in a quite sterile or formulaic way. Mary and Jesus are kept at arms length. Rather, in Orthodoxy, Mary, again like Jesus, is a person to whom I can go and ask for help or prayer or conversation. Your comment about her being our Mother is most apropos. We approach her as our Mother (dare I say Mom?) and she will care for us in that same way.

    I did not get that anywhere else, not for Jesus, not for Mary.

  23. Ron Reagan Avatar
    Ron Reagan

    As a Catholic and great follower of Pope St. John Paul II, I can only share my thoughts on those consistently and devotedly given prayers he gave to Mary, Mother of The Church.
    Throughout his papacy he spoke toward all the means of knowledge, of mutual respect, of love, of shared collaboration in various faiths, may we be able to rediscover gradually the divine plan for the unity into which we should enter and bring everybody in order that the one fold of Christ may recognize and live its unity on earth. He always spoke to our Mother of unity to teach us constantly the ways that lead to our goal asking: “Mother of Good Counsel, show us always how we are truly called to together.”

  24. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you so much for this Father. I can’t even put into words how essential the Panagia (as I like to call her)/Theotokos is and has been for me. I think she has been with me as protector since I was very, very young — I knew this beautiful idea and was intrigued by her icon. But she was with me, I believe, long before I understood it.

    I like to pray the following prayer frequently and I consider it the Orthodox version of the Marian rosary prayer (it’s a very slight variation): “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, for you have born the Savior of our souls.”

    It remains a key for me especially in coping with very difficult situations, and with emotional pain. I do use it with a rosary at times as it is a beautiful reminder to pray, but I do not use the mysteries. It is more like the Jesus Prayer practice for me

  25. Mary Avatar
    Mary

    It’s “Om ElNour”, أم Om :mother, النور Elnour: the light.
    and light here is much deeper than the physical light which has a totally different name: ضوء. It’s like the difference between sky and heaven 🙂

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary,
    Thank you for this name. Mother of the Light.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ron,
    I’m sorry for any pain in the discussions viz. Orthodox and Catholic experiences. I am very grateful for the devotions I learned from Catholics. Indeed, it was a friend’s conversion to Catholicism that first drew me back from a place of confusion and towards what would eventually become my journey to Orthodoxy. May God preserve us all and may His Holy Mother pray for us all.

  28. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    You mentioned Dostoevsky’s Madonna and Sodom. In some circles the term Virgin Mary is often used as a name for Theotokos. In our hypersexualized culture, I find the name itself often elicits emotional negative responses that block further contemplation on Her role in the faith.

  29. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    Thank you, Marie, for this beautiful evocation !
    In the monastery I attend, in France, during the Matins service, before the hymn to the Mother of God, the priest says in a loud voice : “Let us celebrate with our hymns the Mother of God, Mother of Light, Mother of Life !”
    And the kondakion of the Feast of the Protection of the All-Holy One ends with “Rejoice, Protection all of Light!”
    How it opens the heart !

  30. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    The Prayer Rule of the Theotokos; prayed by St. Seraphim of Sarov.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ook,
    It is a very sad commentary on our times that “Virgin” is a “trigger word” for some. The so-called “sexual revolution” of the late 50’s and 60’s was imagined to be something that simply made sex more common, etc. The roots of this movement were varied – but often rather nefarious (French intellectuals, for example (Foucault, Derrida), were among many signing a petition arguing for the legalization of pedophilia. The destruction of norms and mores, often made possible by the various technological interventions of the time, unleashed a fire-storm of change that has yet to cease. Having pastored throughout the decades following, I have seen the unrelenting psychic and spiritual damage in its wake. I admit, I did not imagine that it would reach the present day’s fever pitch. We are now insane.

    There is a huge problem of ever getting the “genie back in the bottle.” It would take a spiritual revolution rarely seen in human history to accomplish such a thing. I do believe that the natural consequences (disasters) that accompany the present insanity will temper things somewhat. But there is an emotional and philosophical healing that is required that will take a very long time.

    I spoke at an evangelical conference several years back on the topic of marriage and family. I was asked to give the Orthodox position(s) on the topic. I began the talk focused primarily on the Theotokos and the Monastic life. I was pretty roundly ridiculed. The sexual pleasure ethic was deeply embedded within that community.

    We will not find healing, I think, without the intercessions of the Theotokos, nor without the healing reality of her veneration. That is a slow work that only heaven can accomplish in our world. But, those are my thoughts. So, I pray for her help.

    I will add, as an additional note of encouragement: I believe that every individual act of obedience and resistance to sexual temptations is of wide-ranging benefit in the world. These single acts of grace are multiplied by the power of God far beyond our imagining. If we want to “do” something to be of help in all of this – then faithfulness, abstinence, virginity, self-control, (and all the virtues that surround chastity and purity) – are the proper path. May God give us grace in such a struggle. We war not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness, principalities and powers, in the heavenly places…

  32. Svetlana Avatar
    Svetlana

    I have heard seekers refer to her as Mother Mary, which is a nice English term to me.

    I also like to repeat the prayer “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice. Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, for thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.”

  33. Svetlana Avatar
    Svetlana

    Interestingly, I once heard a young Protestant friend critique the doctrine of Mary’s ever-virginity because it devalued ordinary marriage and childbearing — as if my friend considered Mary’s life to be normative for Christians.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Svetlana,
    There’s so much confusion out there about such things – largely, people speaking about what they don’t understand. It’s sad in many ways.

  35. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, re the sexual revolution, you may have heard of Moira Greyland Nelson. She is the daughter of a well-known science fiction author and her husband (prominentin his own field as an author), famous proponents of the sexual revolution (and pagan) way back when. Her father eventually went to prison for abuse of minors. But she, Moira, is a very devout Catholic, and very outspoken about the calamitous effects of the sexual revolution and her own and others’ trauma as a result. I believe she’s written a book also

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    I’ll look into her work. It has been the source of great distortion and pain. It’s not like we lived in paradise prior to that “revolution.” There were many things that needed tending to. But, as answers go, it was a poison pill. Of course, sadly, it’s failures are repeatedly blamed on the “problems” it claimed to be fixing. So much gaslighting – it’s probably the source of climate change.

  37. Anna Avatar
    Anna

    Father: I love your writing and your sense of humor, “so much gaslighting – it’s probably the source of climate change.” LOL

    Thank you for this article on Theotokos as I am still having trouble embracing her whole-heartedly due to my protestant background.

    Just this morning I heard a protestant pastor say that if your church adds anything not in the Bible then it’s not the true Christian church(I have a long drive and that station came in the best).
    Those kind of statements just confuse me, and I’m embarrassed to admit that but it’s true.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Anna,
    I’m wondering where in the Bible they find justification for mega-churches, etc. Years ago, when I was doing graduate studies at Duke, I did a research paper on the history of devotion to the Theotokos. I read pretty much everything on the topic available at the time (pre-internet). One of the largest examples of devotion to her was easy to overlook: the New Testament. The New Testament itself magnifies her. It contains information regarding her that magnify her role. Indeed, in Luke 1:48, her God-inspired words says, “All generations will call me blessed.” Well, in fact, many Protestants don’t call her anything and complete tend to overlook her. In Orthodoxy, we call her blessed, and remember her in our devotions – which is the clear implication of her words.

    In the OT, in a similar vein, God tells Abraham (after his obedience on Mt. Moriah):

    (Gen. 22) “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— 17 blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

    “All nations of the earth shall be blessed…” has something of a parallel to Mary’s declaration. And, the Jews afterwards blessed themselves in Abraham, such that when they prayed, they called on “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Their devotions remembered those great patriarchs – in so doing, they venerated them. In a similar manner, we venerate she who is mother of us all, by whose humility and obedience God took flesh (from her) and became man – for our salvation. She is surely greater than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!

    But, there are some who refuse such reasoning and hide their sin by arguing that they do not see it anywhere in the Scriptures. It’s everywhere in the Scriptures – and ALL Christians saw that fact until the Reformation. Indeed, both Luther and Calvin had a veneration for the Theotokos, both of them defending the doctrine of her perpetual virginity (rejected later by their followers). It’s the novel doctrines and modern inventions of Protestantism that are not supported by the Scriptures.

    All of that is to say – “let not your heart be troubled.”

  39. Anna Avatar
    Anna

    Thank you very much Father. Is your research paper on Theotokos available to read somewhere? If not, maybe it could be a book someday. That sounds like it might be very helpful to a person like me.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I am with Anna. Beautiful testimony.

  41. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    I was raised Catholic but gave up devotion to the saints when I became an Evangelical Protestant in the late ’70s. Funnily enough, when I started looking seriously into what the Christians of the first eight centuries or so believed, particularly in Ireland and Britain, it was pondering the lives of the saints that helped me consider returning to the ancient Church, but this time Orthodoxy was on my radar screen after 30 years.

    I prayed for help to work through the two major hang-ups that remained for me, one being Mary’s place in everything. Attending the service of the Vigil of the Dormition and listening to what Orthodoxy says about her, including the Scripture selections, pretty much cleared away my confusion. But in the interim, an Orthodox friend who was also raised Catholic encouraged me to pray either the Memorare (“Remember”) or Hail, Holy Queen (the final prayer of the Rosary). I still knew the latter by heart, and so I followed my friend’s advice, also asking Mary to help me truly know her. Of course, doing so “worked” in that I eventually ended up at that Vigil service and the Lord opened my eyes. The prayer remains a favorite, and to me is very much in keeping with Orthodox veneration of her – as is the Memorare, which I keep in my prayer book at the beginning of the Paraclesis.

    Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy – our life, our sweetness and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed Fruit of thy womb. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary – pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

    Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help and sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.

    Dana

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Anna,
    It was years ago, pre-internet. So not available.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dana,
    Beautiful prayer. It has elements of the “Beneath Thy Compassion, We take Refuge…” Which is the oldest known prayer to the Theotokos. There is a papyrus scrap with that prayer written on it, discovered in Egypt, that dates to the early 200’s A.D., which means the prayer probably dates to the 2nd century A.D.

    Beneath your compassion,
    We take refuge,
    O Virgin, Theotokos,
    Despise not our prayer,
    In our necessity,
    But deliver us from harm,
    O only, pure, only blessed, One.
    Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

  44. Cherie Wojciechowski Avatar
    Cherie Wojciechowski

    https://acpeds.org/press/acpeds-calls-on-organizations-to-scrap-current-transgender-protocols-based-on-newly-published-critique

    Fr Stephen. I thought you might find this interesting and hopeful!

    God bless on you trip!

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Most Holy Theotokos intervene for the salvation of our souls and those of our children because you are our Champion.

    Cherie, thank you!

  46. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    Father, your response to my comment above has helped me gain a second wind. This blog and its community is a real treasure. Thank you.

  47. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father thank you for the prayer.
    Cherie thank you for the article

  48. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Fr Stephen

    The grace of the Mother of God is perhaps best described in the letter of St Dionysius Areopagite to St Paul, following his journey to Jerusalem. Do you know if this is an authentic letter and when it was written ?

    I did not believe—I confess it before the Lord, O our wonderful guide and shepherd—that apart from the most high God it was possible for there to be any person who was full of divine power and divine grace. But no man can imagine what I saw and understood not only with eyes of my soul but also with my physical eyes. I saw, therefore, with my eyes the most divine and holiest of all heavenly spirits, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    It was a gift of the grace of God, the condescension of the leading apostle (John), as well as the infinite goodness, mercy and favor of the Virgin herself. I confess again and again before almighty God, before the all-good Savior and before His glorious and holy Mother, how, when he led me to that, the divine and all-holy Virgin, John, the head of the evangelists and prophets, who, while he lives in flesh, he shines like the sun in the sky, I was enveloped in a divine radiance, radiance vivid and undiminished, illuminating me not only externally but also internally, as well as an otherworldly, wonderful fragrance with constant changes.
    Neither my spirit nor my feeble body could endure so many such wonders, which constituted a foretaste of eternal bliss and glory. My heart failed and my spirit was almost extinguished by her divine glory and grace.

    I testify before God that, if I had not kept in my heart and in my newly enlightened mind His divinely inspired teachings and pledges, I would have considered the Virgin as a god and would have worshiped her as we worship the only true God.

    For no mind can imagine for a man glorified by God a glory superior to that which I, the unworthy, deserved to see, nor a greater blessedness than the blessedness which I deserved to taste. I thank my supreme and all-good God, the Virgin Mary, the leading Apostle John, as well as you, the highest and most illustrious head of the Church, who tenderly showed me such a favour.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have read the main post twice and the comments. I think I need to go through it again. Too simple.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    It is a beautiful writing. As far as I know, the common scholarly opinion is that this is not an authentic letter of the first century. But, I’m sure that there are pious people who think otherwise. The language of the letter contains a number of phrases that are otherwise unknown to that period of the Church, but well known several centuries later. But that’s pretty much everything I know on that topic. Thanks for sharing it!

  51. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this reflection. The Theotokos is very dear to me in Orthodoxy, as our little church was blessed to come into being named for her Holy Dormition, and our priest himself died as the Dormition Eve (Old Calendar August 27) begins.
    When I’ve been in my native land, New Zealand, I’ve wondered that the feast is there as spring begins, at Easter time; and I’ve heard the Russians call it ‘little Easter’. I would then think the feast is bringing Easter to the entire world, top and bottom, in line with the seasons. There is a little church of the Holy Dormition at the South Pole – the Russians carried the wood for it all the way down there, as there are no trees.

    The difference from the Catholic observance to me comes in the name of the feast – ‘Assumption’ for the Catholics, but ‘Dormition’ for Orthodox – ‘Falling Asleep’. You can see the emphasis in the icon of the Dormition I think – her body and all the disciples gathered, her Son gathering to Himself her little soul. And His response to those who praise her human-ness: ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of the Lord and do it.’ Much as you counsel us to ‘Do the next good thing.’

  52. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Nikolaos,
    I haven’t read or heard of this letter before. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
    So beautiful!

  53. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Dee

    The emphasis on the Mother of God is very noticeable in Mount Athos where the fathers constantly make reference to Her and direct the pilgrims to Her. This I think is much more so, in contrast to other monasteries outside Athos (perhaps Fr Stephen can confirm if this is so from his visits to various places).

    In almost 20 years that I was with my late spiritual father, Abbot Grigorios of Docheiariou (2018+), for all my problems and concerns he asked me to direct them to the Mother of God. Only once he said to me that “for this we will pray to Christ directly”.

    I visit the Essex Monastery too, as I live in the UK. The fathers and mothers there constantly refer to Christ, as opposed to the Mother of God.

  54. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Nikolaos,
    I always enjoy your stories of the saints and descriptions of your personal experiences in the faith. It is curious (if true for monasteries outside Athos) that there is less reference and encouragement to pray to the Theotokos for her intercessions in daily affairs. Lately I’ve been asking for prayers from my spiritual father, and he too directs prayers to the Theotokos. Perhaps his spirituality, too, may be highly influenced from his visits to Athos. Or perhaps it was because of her influence that brought him into the Orthodox Church. (Dear Father Stephen, I speak of you!)

    I can speak for myself as well, her influence gave me courage to enter an Orthodox Church. (I had read several books on Orthodox theology including descriptions of her veneration before I stepped into an Orthodox Church). My home culture was matrilineal and matrilocal.

    I switched from Antiochian to a Greek parish (in the US) some years back. When I first entered the Nave of the Greek parish, I noticed a large icon in the Altar of the Theotokos and Christ Child on the back wall. This significance of her icon distinguished the Greek parish from the former. There were more icons of her around the Nave as well. Her presence seemed to be that more noticed in my Greek parish. And I’m so grateful for it.

    In the US and perhaps in the West at large, there seems to be uncomfortable feelings with her veneration. It is sad and I believe there is loss in such feelings. I’m indeed grateful for my spiritual father’s encouragement to pray for her help.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, Nikolaos,
    I’m not sure it’s possible to make generalizations about national/ethnic cultures and the veneration of the Theotokos, though there are likely some that are true (as I noted with various terms of endearment). I should note, Dee, that the Platytera Icon (“More Spacious than the Heavens”) in the Apse above the altar is quite common in many Orthodox Churches across jurisdictions. Often the difference has to do with who can afford what in iconography.

    Needless to say, various devotions (such as the Akathist) are pretty universal. The popularity of St. Nectarios’ hymn, “Rejoice, Bride Unwedded” (in a variety of translations) is pretty universal as well. I do not have any experience of the Russian monastic experience, other than some American monasteries of Russian background. I cannot compare them to Athonite practice (which I have also visited).

    She is simply Mother of us all, though her veneration might take various forms and emphases.

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, not to pick a nit,, but Antiochian is all that is available where I am (except for a xenophobic tiny Greek enclave with no icon of the Theotokos). When I first entered the sanctuary of the parish that received me in1986, the icon of the Theotokos above the altar blew me away. Still does in the Cathedral Parish where I am now.

    My brother is priest emeritus at a Bulgarian parish in Indianapolis where Mary is definitely an integral part of the community reverence.

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Michael and Father,
    Thank you both for your responses. I haven’t been to that many different parishes. I was speaking of my own limited experience, and I appreciate you sharing yours.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, the experience of seeing the icon of the Theotokos literally took my breath away and the rememberance of it almost 37 years ago still lifts my heart when I am down. Her arms outstretched, her Son sitting on her lap. It is like she is saying “Come and worship!”

  59. M E Avatar
    M E

    I was a student in Edinburgh We had compulsory Fine Art classes include the degree.
    Ikons were what the head of department taught.
    So what I recall about ikons of the Theotokos is that they were created to show that God became Man by birth from a human female There had been various heresies which denied this ,basically, in different ways .So when I see the ikon on one side of the altar space I think of the Incarnation. Ikons ,we were taught ,gave us information and were not portraits or pictures .
    The destruction of Icons in Byzantium went on for so many years under different Imperial regimes because there was a real worship of these representations by those uneducated in theology. For myself I can honour the Theotokos but only ask for her intercessions as in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom . Through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all the saints ,is the phrase I mean. Otherwise The Lords Prayer says we approach God as Father..

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    M E,
    Classically, there are/were two main ways of understanding what icons do. One (which seems to be of a piece with your description) is to see the icon as information – a doctrine of sorts in picture form.

    The second, is to see the icon in a more sacramental manner. St. Theodore the Studite, one of the primary defenders of icons against the iconoclasts, taught that (following St. Basil the Great) “an icon makes present that which it represents”. He then has much to say regarding the nature of that representation and the nature of veneration.

    The problem with the first explanation is that it reduces doctrine to information. It is information of a sort, but that is inadequate in the end. The 7th Council did not just defend the making of icons, but their veneration as well. In my experience, Protestants tend to have the least trouble if icons are explained as information (which seems to have been what you teacher in Edinburgh was doing). However, the Orthodox Church teaches and defends the veneration of icons as well which many Protestants would confuse with idolatry or worship (it is not).

    Also, you seem to be defending the destruction of the icons by certain emperors on the grounds that they were being misused. If that were a legitimate reason for destroying them, then the destruction of everything around us would be called for, since we seem to have a penchant for misusing anything and everything (that’s just the nature of sin). In point of fact, it seems much more the case that the Emperors were mimicking the false teachings of Islam at the time out of fear of losing battles and such. They were heretics who not only destroyed icons but murdered (martyred) many faithful believers and thousands of monks.

    The iconoclasts of more modern times destroyed many churches and monasteries across Britain (for example), pretty much for the sole reason of fattening their own coffers by stealing property under the pretense of religious reform.

    Orthodoxy makes a clear distinction between veneration (saints, relics, etc.) and worship (due to God alone). My article suggests nothing more than that.

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dear M E .
    Icons, of course, are not to be worshipped, but neither are they about information. They are revelatory of God, the Son, Incarnate. AND the persons(s) who cooperates with a certain aspect of the Incarnational mystery.
    For instance when I venerate the life sized icon of St. Raphael of Brooklyn in my parish(his first), both his presence through the icon and all of the life of my parish is revealed, as well as my place in that and my need to repent, by the Mercy and Grace of Jesus Christ.
    When I ask for his intercessions, it is a relational interaction.
    Think of the word iconodule.

    The small copy of his icon I have in my home, connects me to him too.
    Thinking in terms of “information” tends to assume I am in control. No repentance is required. When I am face to face with an icon, the last thing I want to be is “in control”.

    My best moments have occured when asking St Raphael for his intercessions for others I know whom are struggling.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, M E, et al
    Veneration is an interesting matter – more subtle than people may realize. I think that everybody practices some form of veneration whether they acknowledge it or not. The simple question: what do you hold in great value and honor? puts the matter at its starkest point. Everyone values something, and give honor to various people/things/practices, etc. What we probably overlook is how our valuing and honoring shape our inner landscape – and thus our take on the world and our place in it.

    In the modern world, for example, many people have a very high regard for pleasure – it has a place of “veneration” in our lives. Much can be said in a similar vein for money, moral self-justification, etc. What we honor and hold in veneration has a way of molding and shaping our lives in ways of which we’re often not aware.

    I think that part of the purpose of veneration in the Orthodox Church is summed up by St. Paul, “Give honor to whom honor is due.” Those “honorable” things are an important part of our spiritual formation. In my experience, if we fail to rightly honor that which is honorable, we will come to honor that which is not honorable. That is a road to destruction and death.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. thank you for the refresher. I am blessed because my parish has four hand painted icons of saints on the west wall of the nave each life size. St. Raphael is one.
    When I attend Divine Liturgy I venerate each one. St. Raphael is special for me…a real person.
    Who’s love of God and me is palpable: some days even when my greeting and veneration begin in a perfunctory manner.

  64. Petr Cabak Avatar
    Petr Cabak

    Father,

    Thank you for your article. I am part of a protestant church, but for many years my thinking and faith has been more and more influenced by catholic authors and some orthodox theology as well. It of course created some tension inside of me as the protestants tend to be more black and white in their understanding, and in that sense I have completely left protestantism. However, the “topic” of Theotokos I always preferred to avoid completely. It was just too difficult to comprehend due to many biases I have had. Now, I have returned home from a family holiday. We decided to explore a new country that was always considered by us to be dangerous and unattractive. But the holiday was the best we have ever had. More importantly I felt during the time there the urgency to open my heart and mind to Theotokos. It seems like God is inviting me to explore another “dangerous” territory 🙂

    Father, please where would you recommend to start the journey towards better understanding of Theotokos. I am not only interested in theological stuff, but also about how to start the relationship with Theotokos.

    Thank you.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Petr,
    Two books come to mind (as a place to start). Fr. Lawrence Farley’s book, Rediscovering Mary, has lots of information that you might find helpful. On the level of the “heart,” the small book, A Long Walk with Mary, is a good read. There are many others, but these are decent places to start.

    Go slow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!


Latest Comments

  1. To me, this is fundamental to the difference between Orthodoxy and the Evangelical world in which many of us in…

  2. This is a beautiful piece of writing and enlightening. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Father, I’m glad it’s useful (please let me know when not and feel free to delete). At the risk of…

  4. Bonnie, for me the description of the warehouse reminds me of the original emptiness of my heart and the work…

  5. Father Freeman, Your description of renting a space could be a metaphor reflecting the task facing Christians who seek ways…


Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast



Categories


Archives