Wednesday, September 27, 2017

“I Had a Hard Time Praying to the Theotokos”


In response to my blog entry called The Tongs, someone has asked me if, as a convert to Orthodoxy, I had a hard time at the beginning praying to the Theotokos. The answer is yes.

In my whole-life confession the week before I was received into the Holy Orthodox faith, I confessed to the priest that I had a hard time praying to the Theotokos. I told him that I had no problem with the theology related to the intercession of the Saints, nor with the special place of the Mother of God in the dispensation of salvation and as an intercessor. My problem was that I just couldn’t do it. I could say the words of the prayer–O Lady, Bride of God, spotless, immaculate Virgin…–but the words had no meaning for me. I felt no connection. The wise priest told me not to worry about it, She’d make the connection.

Because I converted with a community (there were 85 of us), I was ordained a deacon on the day of my chrismation. And so I served as a deacon for about three years before she “made the connection.” For the first three years, standing in front of the icon of the Mother of God during the first part of the Divine Liturgy, I basically felt a blank inside my heart. I even had a hard time venerating the icon, finding myself always kissing the foot of Christ in Her arms, and not Her. (I’d be too ashamed to confess it now, except that it magnifies the greatness of the Love and patience of the Mother of God for those who are being saved.) I said the prayers to the Mother of God faithfully, but with no feeling. I often found myself trying to figure out what the words “meant,” as though that would help me find a connection.

Then one day a miracle happened. I was going through a particularly stressful season of financial worry. The stress was crushing me. During the Divine Liturgy one Sunday, while standing before the icon of the Mother of God, I asked Her for help. I don’t remember what I prayed, but I remember what happened. I heard a voice in my head. The exact words are lost, but the gist was this: you won’t have to worry about money again. The words were accompanied by a very peaceful feeling, almost like an untying of knots inside me. The feeling stayed with me for several days.

Within a few days, there was a change in my circumstances that delivered me from the immediate cause of my financial worries. Since that time, whenever I am tempted to worry about money, I stand before the icon of the Mother of God and remind Her (remind myself really) of the words I believe She spoke to me. And the miracle is that I don’t worry. Financial ups and downs come and go, but the miracle is that She has freed me from worry.

Praying to the Mother of God, I have come to know in some small ways the Mother of God. She is our heavenly Mother. I know Protestants will freak out about that kind of language–I certainly would have–because they have no categories for divine-human synergy. But just as God distributes his gifts through the free will of his people on earth, so He also distributes His gifts through the intercessions of the Saints who are in heaven, especially the Mother of God.

When my daughter Hannah was 16, she wanted to work at Barbara Cheatley’s, an exclusive gift shop in a little high-end shopping area in Claremont, California. My daughter prayed fervently that she would get a chance to work there. Then she spoke to Barbara, but Barbara told her that there were no openings and she expected no openings: all of her “girls” had worked for her for fifteen years or more. Hannah was crushed when she told us the news. My wife, however, was not ready yet to give up so easily. Bonnie and the Barbara had been business associates for several years and had developed a friendship. Bonnie went to her and “interceded” on Hannah’s behalf. Eventually, after much intercession that may have sounded somewhat like nagging, Barbara agreed that if Hannah could learn to wrap packages well (and the gorgeous wrapping is one of the big reasons why people keep coming back to Barbara Cheatley’s), she could work in the back room for the two months leading up to Christmas. Hannah learned to wrap packages “Barbara’s way,” and she worked two exhausting months for minimum wage at Barbara Cheatley’s.

God answered Hannah’s prayers through the intercessions of her mother (and my wife ). God often pours out his Grace to us through others, by the intercessions of others. It should be no surprise then if, when we are in trouble, we find help in the intercessions of God’s Mother. The Grace is God’s, the intercession is His Mother’s, the help is from both. God works synergistically with and through His people.

Why Ask the Saints? Jesus Is the Sole Mediator Between Us and the Father

Photo: Archpriest Dionisy,

Most Protestant churches strongly reject all saintly intercession, citing passages such as 1 Timothy 2:1-5, which says that Jesus is the sole mediator between God and man, as well as Deuteronomy 18:10-11 which seems to forbid invoking departed souls. They also point to the fact that there are no examples in the Bible of living humans praying to dead humans — Jesus Christ being the lone exception, because He is alive and resurrected, and because He is both human and Divine.

Yet the Bible indeed directs us to invoke those in heaven and ask them to pray with us. In Psalms 103, we pray,

“Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will!” (Psalms 103:20-21). And in Psalms 148 we pray, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Psalms 148:1-2).

Not only do those in heaven pray with us, they also pray for us. In the book of Revelation, we read:

“[An] angel came and stood at the altar [in heaven] with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Rev. 8:3-4). And those in heaven who offer to God our prayers aren’t just angels, but humans as well. John sees that “the twenty-four elders [the leaders of the people of God in heaven] fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).

The simple fact is, as this passage shows: The saints in heaven offer to God the prayers of the saints on earth.

Yes, we have Christ as the only intercessor before the Throne, but that never stopped any of our Protestant brethren from asked fellow believers from praying for them. We ask the friends of God to pray for us all the time, when we ask for the prayers of our friends and fellow believers. Asking those who’ve gone on before us is possible because they are alive in Christ, and offer their prayers to Christ just as do we. We all, both those in heaven and those still upon this earth, pray before the same “sole mediator between God and man”, Jesus Christ. It is Christ through whom we approach the Throne of the Father.

Finally, why would we not want to ask for the prayers of those who have already won their place in Paradise, and are already standing before the Throne of God, worshiping the Holy Trinity?

Part of the problem for Protestants to accept the veneration of the saints stems from their reliance on an approach to doctrine and practice as being Bible only based. Proof texts is thus the norm for most protestant debate on the interpretation of any given passage. By the same token, the unity of worship and doctrine found within the Orthodox Church is the fact we’ve based both our way of worship AND our doctrinal teachings on Holy Tradition and Scripture. Since the Bible comes out of the living oral Tradition of the Church, the scriptures can only be properly interpreted from within the life of the Church. Our unity is based on what has always been taught.

The Orthodox Church proclaims as dogma that which has been taught everywhere and at all times. The Church is catholic because that which she teaches and the way she worships is not only from Apostolic times, but was everywhere taught and practiced in Apostolic times. She is catholic (universal) because she is the same now as she was from the earliest times in her history. Her Holy Tradition is relied upon when interpreting the Bible, because it is from her Tradition from which the Bible emerged.

Another point to think about is how we (from our Protestant upbringing) interpret the concept of Christ as the ‘sole mediator between God and man.’ The Protestant idea assumes that ‘mediator’ means ‘intercessor’. But, there is a more profound meaning, not merely an intercessor but the reconciliation of God and man in the reality of the hypostatic union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. That is, I think, the real meaning of ‘mediator’. Confer the meaning of the Latin source of the word, mediare: ‘place in the middle’, according to the Pocket OED. Doesn’t that make clear that the Protestant interpretation is missing the real point? Once we understand that, then the whole argument against the intercession of the saints has no reality.