We continue the special section we launched last month, with essays and historical material about the eastern or Byzantine tradition of Christianity. The goal: that the Church “breathe with two lungs.” The focus in this issue: liturgy and prayer.
Groans Beyond All Utterance – By Robert Moynihan
The goal of this new section of our magazine is simple: to help readers to become more familiar with the eastern or Byzantine tradition of Christianity, and so to begin to understand better that tradition. In this way, we hope to help overcome the divisions between our Churches which date back to the schism of 1054 A.D.
Last issue, we spoke about our Urbi et Orbi Foundation, and about our first annual pilgrimage which took us to Moscow, Istanbul, Vienna and Rome, and into Vatican City (July 13-23).
We also spoke about the dinner we will be holding on December 10 in Washington, D.C. at the papal nunciature. We are holding the dinner in order to carry forward two projects: (1) support for scholarships for Orthodox and eastern-rite Catholic students from Eastern Europe and the Middle East who wish to study in Rome, and, (2) support for a clinic in eastern Ukraine, sponsored by Catholic and Orthodox believers, including Americans and Russians, in order to help the children harmed in Ukraine’s civil conflict, as a “sign” of our willingness to work together in Christ despite the many things that still separate us.
We invite all our readers to consider supporting these initiatives. We note that we are still looking for 58 “Founding Members” of the Foundation (Founding Members make a one-time donation of $2,500 to support the launch of the Foundation).
In this issue, we consider the motive force behind spiritual life in the conception of Eastern spirituality: self-sacrifice and self-denial, summarized in the word “asceticism.”
Abba Philemon (Late 500s-early 600s, Egyptian Monk) A short discourse on an ascetic practice
Abba Philemon also said this: “Thoughts about vain things are sicknesses of an idle and sluggish soul. We must, then, as Scripture enjoins, guard our intellect diligently (cf. Prov. 4:23), chanting undistractedly and with understanding, and praying with a pure intellect. God wants us to show our zeal for Him first by our outward asceticism, and then by our love and unceasing prayer; and He provides the path of salvation.
“The only path leading to heaven is that of complete stillness, the avoidance of all evil, the acquisition of blessings, perfect love towards God and communion with Him in holiness and righteousness. If a man has attained these things he will soon ascend to the divine realm. Yet the person who aspires to this realm must first mortify his earthly aspects (cf. Col. 3:5). For when our soul rejoices in the contemplation of true goodness, it does not return to any of the passions energized by sensual or bodily pleasure; on the contrary, it turns away from all such pleasure and receives the manifestation of God with a pure and undefiled mind.
“It is only after we have guarded ourselves rigorously, endured bodily suffering and purified the soul, that God comes to dwell in our hearts, making it possible for us to fulfill His commandments without going astray. He Himself will then teach us how to hold fast to His laws; sending forth His own energies, like rays of the sun, through the grace of the Spirit implanted in us. By way of trials and sufferings we must purify the divine image in us in accordance with which we possess intelligence and are able to receive understanding and the likeness to God; for it is by reforging our senses in the furnace of our trials that we free them from all defilement and assume our royal dignity.
“God created human nature a partaker of every divine blessing, able to contemplate spiritually the angelic choirs, the splendor of the dominions, the spiritual powers, principalities and authorities, the unapproachable light, and the refulgent glory.
“Should you achieve some virtue, do not regard yourself as superior to your brother, thinking that you have succeeded whereas he has been negligent; for this is the beginning of pride. Be extremely careful not to do anything simply in order to gain the esteem or goodwill of others. When you are struggling with some passion, do not flinch or become apathetic if the battle continues; but rise up and cast yourself before God, repeating with all your heart the prophet’s words, ‘O Lord, judge those who injure me (Ps. 35:1. LXX); for I cannot defeat them.’ And He, seeing your humility, will quickly send you His help. And when you are walking along the road with someone, do not indulge in idle talk, but keep your intellect employed in the spiritual work in which it was previously engaged, so that this work becomes habitual to it and makes it forget worldly pleasures, anchoring it in the harbor of dispassion.”
Icon of the Holy Abba Maximus Philemon, who said, “I fear to anger the Lord by keeping silent about what He commands us to confess. If, as the divine Apostle says, God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, then it is clear that the Lord speaks through them. All of the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the teachers of the Church, and the decisions of the Councils proclaim that Christ Jesus, our incarnate Lord and God, has power to will and act according to both His divinity and His humanity. He lacks no property pertaining to the godhead or to human nature, except sin. If He is perfect in both natures and deficient in nothing proper to them, then it is evident that the mystery of the Incarnation is utterly distorted by anyone who fails to confess Him to have all of each nature’s innate properties, by which and in which His natures are known.”
Liturgy and Prayer
Robert Taft, S.J., is an American Jesuit priest and archimandrite of the Eastern Catholic Church, who is an expert in Oriental liturgy and a former professor emeritus of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He now resides in Weston, Massachusetts, USA.
In Luke’s Gospel, in Chapter 11, verse 1, we read that the disciples, seeing Jesus praying, asked him: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Let us make the same prayer as we begin our retreat. For a retreat is nothing if not prayer, and to pray we need to know what prayer is.
The kinds of prayer are many. In this first reflection, I am talking about what is usually called “private prayer” – though of course no prayer is “private” in the sense of being done alone, since it wells up from the Spirit of God who dwells within us. St. Paul tells us, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
Furthermore, our prayer is always done in company with “the communion of saints” to which we belong by baptism.
I. Jesus Teaches Us How to Pray
As with everything in the spiritual life, Jesus is the model of our prayer. How did Jesus pray? He prayed liturgically, for the New Testament presents him participating in the Jewish festivals, in the cult of the Jerusalem Temple, and in the synagogue – i.e., in the Jewish liturgy of his day. More important for this opening reflection of our retreat, we also see Jesus praying privately, and therefore implicitly teaching us how to pray indirectly, by example. Jesus prays in solitude (Lk 6:12), especially when conflicted and distressed, as in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14: 32-42; Lk 22:40-46), praying for comfort and relief in his sorrow. He prays to the Father in blessing, adoration, praise, glorification, thanksgiving, petition and intercession (Mt 11:25-27; Lk 10:21-22; Jn 12:41-42). He prays the wonderful prayer of farewell to his disciples in Jn 17. He prays in anguish at the hour of his death on the cross (Mt 27:46; Mk 16:34; Lk 32:34, 43, 46; Jn 19:30).
When asked directly how to pray, Jesus teaches his disciples the Our Father as the ideal model (Mk 6:9-15; Lk 11:2-4). He also instructs them to pray without making a show of it, but quietly, humbly, and in the spirit; not with “long prayers in public” like the Pharisees (Mk 12:40; Lk 20:47), but in solitude, using few words (Mt 6:1, 5-8), humbly asking forgiveness like the publican (Lk 18:9-14). Jesus tells us to pray persistently, even obstinately, pestering God until he gives us what we want just to get rid of us (Mt 7:7-12; Lk 11:5-13, 18:1-8). And we see Jesus’ own example, praying in the morning (Mk 1:35), in the evening (Mt 14:34; Mk 6:46; Jn 6:15), keeping night vigils (Lk 6:12) and exhorting his disciples to do the same, telling them to “Watch and pray, for we know not the day nor the hour…” (cf. Mt 9:14-15, 25:1- 13; Mk 2:18-20, 13:33-37; Lk 5:33-35, 13:35-40; cf. 1 Thess. 5:2; Rev 3:3, 16:15, 19:9).
Jesus also teaches us “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Lk 18:1), to pray with faith and confidence (Mk 11:24), because he assures us our prayers will be answered (Mt 7:7-11; Lk 11:9-13; Jn 15:7, 17, 16:26; Jas 1:5-8) – though of course not necessarily in the way we want. For as we pray in the Prayer of the Third Antiphon: “Fulfill now the requests of your servants in all things good for us.”
So Jesus shows us that there is nothing for which we cannot pray except sin; he teaches us prayer of petition and thanks and sorrow and pardon and importunity and even complaint.
And this prayer is both Christian and Trinitarian. For one can pray to the Father in Jesus’ name (Jn 14:13, 16:24; Phil 3:17, Eph 5:20); one can pray to Jesus directly (Mt 1:40-41, 2:5, 5:28, 36, 7:29, 9:27; Mk 10:46-52; Lk 23:39-43); and one can pray in (1 Cor 12:13) and to the Holy Spirit, as in the Byzantine “Heavenly King, Consoler, Spirit of Truth,” or the Latin prayer “Come Holy Spirit.”
Christian prayer is also Marian prayer, for we imitate the “Fiat” (Lk 1:38) and “Magnificat” (Lk 1:46-55) of the Theotokos (“God-bearer”) and constantly invoke her intercession (Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2617-2619).
As to when we should pray, Jesus commands us to pray always, an injunction repeated several times in the New Testament (Lk 18:1, 21:36; Eph 5:20, 6:18; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17-18).
And from the start, beginning with the New Testament itself, we see the first Christians following Jesus’ example of prayer. From then on, the Fathers and Mothers of the Apostolic Churches of East and West right up to the spiritual fathers and mothers of today maintain this teaching and follow this example.
II. What is Prayer?
How do these spiritual guides define or describe prayer? What, in their view, does it mean to pray?
St. John Damascene (ca. 650-749), “last of the Greek Fathers,” wrote in his classic treatise On the Orthodox Faith 3:24, that “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God, or the requesting of good things from God.”
More recently, St. Theresa of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” surely one of the most beloved saints of the 20th century, dear to Christians of both East and West, said more simply, in more direct feminine terms: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
So prayer is always a turning toward God in any one or all of the multiple ways it is given us to do that: in words or without, in thought, in love, in anguish or sorrow, in joy or depression, in thanks or complaint. There are no limits to it, and there is no definition that can exhaust its fullness, for its ways are myriad: Prayer is talking – but also listening; prayer is asking – but also receiving; for prayer is not our gift to God, but his to us, in the Spirit, the Paraclete or Comforter he has sent to be with us always (Jn 14:25).
For a more full and technical modern definition of prayer we find the following in the excellent Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§2564-2565):
§2564.Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and our-selves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man.
§2565. In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.
The grace of the Kingdom is “the union of the entire holy and royal Trinity…with the whole human spirit.” Thus, the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him.
This communion of life is always possible because through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ (cf. Rom 6:5). Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love (cf. Eph 3:18-21) (To be continued…)
The Catholic Church
From the office of the Most Reverend Gregory J. Mansour, S.T.L., Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn
“See how they love one another,” the early Church Father, Tertullian, heard it said of the first Christians. These Christians went forth from Jerusalem to the four corners of the world and encountered different traditions, cultures, customs and languages. The Church became a communion of Churches united with each other in love, looking to the See of Peter in Rome as the first among them all.
Jesus also prayed for unity, “that they all may be one” (John 17:21), which has not yet been fully realized. However, for Catholics united with the Pope in Rome, there is already an amazing unity even within the reality of cultural diversity. The Catholic Church, comprised of 21 Eastern Churches and 1 Western Church, is a communion of Churches, with the Pope as the visible head, “gathered in the one spirit, breathing as though with two lungs—of the east and of the west—and burning with the love of Christ in one heart—having two ventricles.” (Sacri Canones; Pope John Paul II)
EASTERN CATHOLIC CHURCHES
There are six major traditions of the Catholic Church:
Of the 22 churches of the Catholic Church, each one practices a common faith according to one of the six major traditions.
All Churches within the communion of Catholic Churches share the same:
Seven Mysteries (Sacraments)
Unity with the Pope of Rome
As Catholics, all believe the same truths of the faith, yet worship differently. One could say they share the same essence of faith, but a different expression. Each Church embraces its own culture and tradition to express Her faith in Jesus the Risen Lord.
Each of the Catholic Churches:
Encompasses a unique liturgy, theology, spirituality and discipline;
Is characterized by its own cultural and linguistic tradition;
Is guided by a Patriarch, Major Archbishop, Metropolitan or other Hierarch, who along with their Synod of Bishops are in full communion with the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter in Rome.
One of the Eastern Catholic Churches is the Maronite Church. She has her own hierarchy composed of a Patriarch who is her father and head, and more than 50 Bishops who shepherd the many Eparchies (Dioceses) in Lebanon, the Middle East and throughout the world. The Patriarch governs the Church in a synodal manner with his body of bishops as is customary in Eastern Churches.
THE MARONITE CHURCH
The Maronite Church dates back to the early Christians of Antioch where “they were called Christians for the first time” (Acts 11:26). She still uses as her liturgical language, Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus Himself spoke, and takes her name from the hermit-priest, Saint Maron, who died in 410 AD.
Within a few years after St. Maron’s death, more than 800 monks became known as Maronites. Later, the Muslim invasions (7th-10th Centuries), coupled with conflicts from within the Byzantine Empire, caused the Maronites to flee from the plains of Syria and their magnificent churches and monasteries, to the natural protection of the mountains of Lebanon where they first lived in caves and grottos, and then later built small churches and monasteries. By 687, Maronites, who were both missionaries and monks, organized themselves around St. John Maron, whom they elected Patriarch of the vacant See of Antioch, and thus developed as a distinct Church within the Catholic Church.
The Maronite Church has been enriched by three centers of learning and culture:
A city in West Syria (now Turkey) that served as a center of commerce and education and was known for its Greek and Syriac culture. Antioch gave the Maronite Church much of her unique liturgical life.
A prominent city in ancient Mesopotamia, which had a Semitic culture and influenced the prayers and hymns of the Maronite Church. It was also the home of Saint Ephrem, Doctor of the Church, who gave the Maronite Church much of her poetry and prayer.
Lebanon The land that provided a safe haven to establish a stable monastic and parish life, as well as schools to educate the children of the close-knit and devout Maronite families. Maronites have been and continue to be a positive force for the good in the development of Lebanon as a country of peaceful coexistence for all people.
Maronites now live in many nations and among many cultures. Presently, the Mother Church is in Lebanon, and daughter communities exist throughout the world.
FIVE DISTINGUISHING MARKS OF THE MARONITE CHURCH
The Maronite Patriarchal Assembly (2003-2004), made up of over 500 Maronite participants — clergy, religious and laity — from throughout the world, described the identity of the Maronite Church by five distinguishing marks:
First and foremost, Maronites are Antiochene — where Christ’s followers “were called Christians for the first time” (Acts 11:26). Maronites share an historical, liturgical and spiritual heritage with all the other Catholic and Orthodox Antiochene Churches. Maronites are also heirs of Syriac cultural and religious heritage, whose language, poetry, and hymnody were the means used to express the mystery that God is beyond all descriptions yet has come close to us in Christ.
Second, Maronites are Chalcedonian, meaning they were staunch supporters of the Council of Chalcedon, convened in 451 A.D., which taught that Jesus was true God and true man. In this formula, Maronites found a balance, orthodoxy, and way of life that placed them forever in the communion of the universal Church.
Third, the Maronite Church is a Patriarchal and Monastic Church. St. Maron was a hermit-priest. The first Maronites were monks, priests and laity associated with the monasteries of St. Maron in the 5th to 8th centuries. Maronites have a cherished history known for an ascetical life of sacrifice and devotion.
Fourth, the Maronite Church is known for Her love and devotion to the See of Peter in Rome. This relationship has allowed Maronites to fully express the Catholic faith held from the beginning, and at the same time be part of the balance between East and West with all the blessings and difficulties encountered therein.
Fifth, the Maronite Church is tied to Lebanon, Her spiritual homeland and the land of Her Patriarch and people. Maronites take great pride in the joint accomplishment of the Muslim-Christian co-existence, which today we call Lebanon.
THE MARONITE CHURCH AT A GLANCE
The command of Jesus continues to find partial fulfillment in the missionary work of the Maronite Church: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mk 16:15) Today there are millions of Maronite Catholics throughout the world. The Patriarch, in communion with the Pope of Rome, resides in Bkerke, Lebanon, with a summer residence in Dimane.
Egypt and Sudan
Holy Land and Jordan
United States (2)
Seminaries: Ain Saade, Ghazir and Karm Sadde in Lebanon; Washington, DC in the United States; Maronite College in Rome for priests. Maronite religious orders and communities have houses of formation in Rome and in Lebanon.
The United States is home to two Maronite Eparchies with over 85 parishes and missions, along with a Seminary, Monastery, Convent and Shrine to Our Lady of Lebanon.
MONKS, RELIGIOUS AND CONSECRATED LIFE
Religious life, in all its forms, was and still is an important part of the Maronite Church. Hermetic and communal monastic life accompanied the birth of the Maronite Church from the beginning, thus linking the history of the Church to the monks of the Monastery of St. Maron.
Toward the end of the 17th century, religious life became more organized, new orders were founded and their mission expanded. Monks, nuns and religious priests and brothers serve in schools, universities, hospitals, parishes, missions, orphanages, and nursing homes in Lebanon, the Middle East, and many places throughout the world.
Today there are five religious orders and congregations for men and nine for women numbering hundreds of religious. Some are of Pontifical right, some Patriarchal and some are Eparchial, which means they are dependent upon the Pope, Patriarch or Eparchial Bishop respectively. Each order and congregation has its own rule of life and focuses on living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to the charisma of their founders.
THEOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY AND LITURGY
A monastic spirit permeates Maronite prayer and liturgical life making asceticism and sacrifice an important part of the relationship with God. The effects of this spirituality are seen in the Maronite family, the first school of love where each finds his or her own vocation to love God and serve others.
Prayer is a relationship with God, so to pray is to live and to live is to pray. Prayer enables us to become pure vessels for God’s purpose and temples for His divinity.
Since all language about God is limited by finite human nature, poetry, especially in liturgy, is the preferred means of expressing the proper awe and humble reverence due to God in worship.
In the Maronite Church, the celebration of the Eucharist is known by several names: Qurbono (Syriac), Quddas (Arabic), Sacrifice of the Mass, Divine Liturgy, and the Service of the Holy Mysteries.
In this celebration, Christ is offered to the Father as our salvation and we also offer ourselves, with Him, as a spiritual sacrifice. By the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and the actions and words of the priest, bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, the sacrifice at the altar is made holy, and so are we.
Before the Holy Mysteries are celebrated, the priest and people prepare themselves. The priest, deacon or subdeacon prepares the bread and wine on a side altar. The Service of the Holy Mysteries begins, first with the Service of the Word, then the Service of the Eucharist (Anaphora).
Service of the Word
The Service of the Word stems from the ancient Jewish Synagogue service.Hymns, psalms, the burning of incense, Scripture readings and a homily comprise this service.
A unique feature in the Service of the Word in the Maronite Church is the Hoosoyo or Prayer of Forgiveness. During this time the priest or deacon incenses the altar as a prayer is recited or chanted, recalling God’s mercy to sinful man in times past, and asking His mercy again for today. The Trisagion (Qadishat) is then chanted in Syriac, followed by three verses of psalms and poetry referring to the feast. Then a passage from the New Testament is read and the Gospel is proclaimed.
The structure of the Service of the Word remains the same for every Divine Liturgy but the prayers themselves change to reflect the feast. These prayers serve as great catechetical texts. The entire purpose of the Service of the Word is to lead up to and reflect on the Gospel of the day.
Service of the Eucharist
After the Profession of Faith, the Eucharistic prayer or Anaphora begins. The bread and wine are processed to the main altar where the priest prepares to offer the sacrifice. He prays for God’s pardon for himself and those with him. He offers the gifts, prays for the needs of the people and then extends to them a sign of peace from the altar. Peace is exchanged from the altar without words by a simple gesture of hands open to receive and then to give. It takes place before the sacrifice is offered in keeping with Jesus’ warning recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)
Then, a prayer of praise to the Holy Trinity is offered and the Eucharistic narrative of the Last Supper is chanted in Syriac. During this time, by the word of the priest and the invocation of the Holy Spirit which follows, the bread and wine are transformed into Sacred Mysteries: the Body and Blood of Christ. The people sing Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy), and the consecratory part of the Anaphora is complete.
The intercessions for the intentions of the Church and world are then offered. This is followed by the Breaking of the Bread and the Elevation as the people stand.
The “Our Father” is prayed with hands extended. A prayer of forgiveness follows as people bow before the Sacred Mysteries. They are then invited to Communion with the words: “Holy gifts for the holy.” The Sacred Mysteries are then offered to the faithful who receive the Body and Blood of Christ on the tongue by intinction.
Prayers of thanksgiving are followed by the last blessing. The final prayer of the Anaphora is one of farewell to the altar. The priest prays silently, “Remain in Peace Holy Altar of God, I hope to return to you in peace… I know not whether I will return to you again to offer sacrifice…” By this special prayer the priest is reminded of his own mortality and just how sacred divine communion actually is.
The Liturgical Year
During the year, the different seasons celebrate the moments of the saving plan of Christ, following every aspect of His life and ministry. The Liturgical Year begins the first Sunday of November with a consecration and rededication of the Church.
The Seasons are:
The faithful are invited during each liturgical celebration to conform their lives to that of Christ and His Church.
MUSIC AND ART The core of the present day Divine Liturgy dates back to before the 5th century. The monastic spirit of asceticism and simplicity penetrates the entire Divine Liturgy—its prayers, gestures, music, art and architecture.
The purpose of Maronite art, music and ritual is worship and repentance from a life of self-centeredness to a life centered on God. In the words of the 10th century Syriac monk Rabban Isho, when told of the beautiful ceremonies and music of other churches, he said: “Unless it brings one to repentance, what good is it?”
Music animates the words of the prayers and serves as a teaching tool and memory aid. St. Ephrem, James of Serugh and others greatly influenced the ancient simple chant traditions still used today.
Syriac art, the oldest source being the Rabbula Gospel Book (560 AD), portrays human figures, and manifests them with divine mystery. The great churches of ancient Syria were beautifully adorned. Today, however, they are in ruins. The small chapels and monasteries of the mountains of Lebanon, with their arches, ceilings, walls of hand-cut stone, and their modest wall paintings, became the heirs of this artistic tradition.
RITUALS Earthly things take on a spiritual significance during special feasts and rituals of the liturgical year. Water, for instance, is blessed in various ways to give it a spiritual meaning.
At Epiphany water is blessed with a lighted coal to signify the fire of the Spirit Who entered the Jordan River at Christ’s baptism.
At Pentecost water is blessed with the priest’s breath to signify the Divine Breath over the waters at creation and at the first Pentecost.
At the Holy Cross water is blessed with a hand cross to signify the divine power that flows from the saving cross.
Prayers of the funeral liturgy (Ginnaz) take place in the home or the funeral parlor, the church and finally the cemetery. These prayers are chanted in Syriac, Arabic and English to enable the faithful, the deceased and all in the “communion of saints” to enter into a dialogue with God. The departed are remembered as they make their way home.
Death, the end of our earthly pilgrimage, is the beginning of a passage from life in this world to life in the next. The Mother of God, our Patroness, in both worlds, is beseeched to offer safe passage for the departed as they begin their journey home.
The Maronite Church has always been a Marian Church. From the beginning, Maronites have claimed a special devotion to the Mother of God. In the small villages, homes, mountains, hills and streets of Lebanon are found shrines of all types to Our Lady. Hymns, feast days and the liturgical life of the Maronite Church clearly express this great devotion to the Mother of Our Lord.
The common weekday Divine Liturgy for Wednesday honors Mary:
“O radiant Lily and fragrant Rose, The aroma of your holiness fills the whole universe. Pray for us, O Mother of God, that we may be the sweet perfume of Christ,
Reaching throughout the whole world….”
Our Lady of Lebanon, pray for us, and enable your Maronite Church to be an everlasting gift for the universal Church and for the world.
The History Of The Icon “The Vladimir Mother Of God”
O Mistress, Empress and Lady, Defend all who are in danger and misfortune Or weak from many sins, And who stand before your holy Icon Praying with tears, humility, repentance, and invincible hope. Free them from all evil, Give them the grace they need. And save us all, O Virgin Mother of God, For you are the divine refuge of those who follow you!
The city of Vladimir (from which the icon takes its name) is located on the Klyazma [two syllables] River, about 100 miles east of Moscow. It’s one of Russia’s most ancient cities. (“Vladi” means “he who possesses/owns”; “mir” [in this instance] means “the world.” Hence: Owner/King/Ruler of The World.) Vladimir is also the name of the first Grand Prince of Kiev, who embraced Christianity in the 10th century. Christianity spread to the other areas of what would eventually become The Russias “from” Kiev—at that time, however, everything outside Kiev’s scope within the Slavic world was nothing but a backwater.
About 1250 or so, Southern Russia, now known as Ukraine (note the absence of “the” — Ukrainians “despise” the usage “The Ukraine”), was invaded by what the West termed “The Golden Horde,” but which was, in fact, nothing more than a “reconnaissance in force” by some major elements of Genghis Khan’s army, under the direction and generalship of Subodai, perhaps the greatest military mind in recorded history, though rarely accorded anything approaching that status. He accomplished what more famous generals like Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon and the like did not.
This “Golden Horde” was, of course, the Tatar race. (Be aware that there is a difference between “Tatar” and “Tartar.”) The Tatars seized and burnt Kiev in 1240, and after that the city of Vladimir became for some time one of the main cultural centers of Russia, along with Novgorod, another of those ancient cities. In fact, it was the destruction of Ukraine by Subodai that made it “possible” for Russia to rise, else she would surely have been absorbed into the Ukrainian Grand Duchy.
The icon itself is Greek in origin, beyond any doubt whatever. A pious popular belief in Russia has attributed it to the brush of St. Luke the Evangelist, but it was in fact most probably “written” (one “writes” an icon, one does not “paint” it!) at the beginning of the 12th century, patterned on a very traditional type of Marian iconography. The pattern itself is considered by historians to have derived from an icon tradition claims was painted by Luke. Luke was Paul’s personal physician, and so he had ample opportunity to spend time with Mary when Paul visited with John in Ephesus, from whence Mary was assumed.
The name of the artist who “wrote” the Icon of Vladimir isn’t known. The icon was offered as a gift to the Russian Prince George Dolgoruky in 1155 by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Luke Chrysoberges; it was placed by the prince in the convent of Vyshgorod, near Kiev.
The Mother of God conceded many extraordinary favors to those of the faithful who came before her to pray at this icon, and it soon became an object of very intense devotion. From then on, the icon became so intimately connected with the life of the Russian people that the chronicles faithfully recorded every time it was moved from one place to another. In fact, there is no single great event in the history of Russia from the 12th to the 17th century in which the icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir did not play its vital part.
The icon was bequeathed by Prince George to his son, Andrew Bogoliubsky (Andrew, the God-Lover). Andrew carried it to Vladimir, and in 1160 placed it in the Cathedral of the Assumption which he had had built for that purpose. From then on this icon would be called “The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God.” In 1164 the same Prince Andrew carried it at the head of his armies when he marched against the Bulgari (Bulgarians) on the Volga (they were just then moving into Europe, ahead of the Tatars) while his soldiers sang “He who places his hope in you, Mother of God, will never perish.” He also gave the icon its covering of gold, silver and precious stones.
On April 13, 1185, a raging fire destroyed the cathedral, but the icon remained miraculously intact. When they occupied Vladimir, the Tatars stole the precious covering from the icon, but left the icon itself intact and unharmed.
In 1395, the Tatar chief, Tamerlane, who had already destroyed several towns in Southern Russia, was approaching Moscow with his forces. In a deep spirit of faith, the Grand Duke Basil I had the icon transferred from Vladimir to Moscow on the Feast of the Assumption and placed in the Cathedral in the Kremlin built in honor of that feast. Tamerlane halted his armies, and Moscow was saved. Since that time the miraculous icon has been kept in Moscow, the new capital of Russia.
On three other occasions, in 1451, 1459 and 1480, the Tatars again menaced Moscow. But the citizenry besought the intercession of their Blessed Mother, venerating her miraculous image. The city was preserved. As a sign of gratitude for their deliverance on three occasions, a feast in honor of the Vladimir Mother of God was designated to be celebrated on the days of May 21, June 23 and August 26. On these days the icon was carried in procession to the Convent of the Presentation in Moscow.
During the processions the good and devout Christians of Moscow sang the following “troparion” (a series of verses printed as a single prose sentence, but divided into rhythmic clauses): “Today the glorious city of Moscow brightly shines because it receives, like the dawn of the sun, O Lady, your miraculous icon. And we, now coming before it in prayer, implore you, O wonderful Lady, Mother of God: pray Christ Our God, who through you became Man, to keep this city, every city and all Christian lands safe from the attacks of their enemies, and to save our souls, for He is merciful.”
During the succeeding centuries, each time the city was menaced by foreign armies the Muscovites again had recourse to their faithful Protectress.
On September 2, 1812, on the eve of the occupation of Moscow by Napoleon’s troops, the icon was temporarily carried back to Vladimir. On October 20, it was returned to Moscow to its customary place at the left side (facing it) of the iconostasis (Greek. Lit. — “Icon Stand,” “Icon Holder”) in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. So prominent was the Vladimir icon in the religious lives of the Russian people that little by little it became customary for the Russian tsars to be crowned before the icon. And in the centuries when the Russian Church was ruled by a Metropolitan or a Patriarch (since 1453, the Fall of Constantinople, from which time dates the Russian doctrine of “The Third Rome,” upgrading its Metropolitanate to a Patriarchate — pretty unilaterally, in fact; a condition which has been maintained since) — each time a new prelate was about to be elected the names of the candidates were inserted inside the frame within which the icon was kept.
The original size of the icon was 30-3/4 inches high by 21-1/2 inches wide. In the course of time, however, by adding new wood to the margins on all four sides, the icon was enlarged by 10 inches in height and by 5-1/2 inches in width. At various times in its history it was altered also by the addition of fresh gesso and paint; this was done to protect against the elements (the icon was often carried in processions outside the church). Several Russian rulers engaged the services of the leading painters of their day to perform this delicate task. However, it is interesting to note that when, in 1919, Professor G.O. Chirikov scraped off the different layers which had been added to refresh the original, he found that only one small area had remained quite untouched. The faces of Our Lady and the Holy Child, the greater part of his left hand and part of the right arm, almost entirely covered by the garment, were the only parts which were discovered to have reached us in almost perfect condition from the ancient Byzantine original.
During the many restorations, this part of the icon was never touched with new gesso, and had been only refreshed with new paint, laid lightly and immediately over the surface of the old olive oil, and fixed again with a fresh oiling. It is wonderful to think that while every century from the 13th to the 20th has left its traces on this icon, the most sacred part and the center of the composition have been preserved from the original work of a devout but unknown Byzantine painter; the tender, loving expressions of the Mother and Child.
One substantial reason for “retouching” this icon was that through the centuries it was periodically overlaid with pure gold and precious stones. More than once the metal and stones were ripped off by plundering soldiers. Since the faces and the hands were never covered with metal, they were not exposed to the same rough treatment.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the value of the icon’s decorative cover of pure gold and precious gems was estimated to be about $50,000.
In 1917 came the Revolution. In 1919 the Communists then in control of the government stole the precious covering, took the icon from the Cathedral of the Assumption and hung it in the Tretiakov Gallery, a museum of Russian painting, which is located quite close to the Kremlin. Shortly thereafter the Cathedral was closed; later it was itself turned into a museum.
This removal of the venerated icon announced the religious persecution which was to follow: profanation of churches; violence against the clergy; prohibition of any public expression of faith or manifestation of piety, especially teaching of religion to anyone under 18 years of age. This transfer of Russia’s most beloved icon from a church to a museum symbolizes the total secularization of public life and the atheistic propaganda which Russia was to know for more than 70 years.
The Icon Of Loving Kindness
One of the reasons why the Vladimir Mother of God became so popular is, of course, its exceptional beauty. It belongs to that class of icons called “loving-kindness” because it depicts the mutual loving-kindness of the Mother and her Child. In contrast to other icons in which the divinity of the Child-God and the majesty of the Mother are primarily emphasized, this icon is a particularly moving expression of human tenderness and feeling.
The Virgin has her head covered with a veil in the manner of Oriental women. This veil, dark in color (to signify her humility), by its contrasting hue, brings out the brightness of the Child’s garment.
On her forehead is an exquisite star (suggesting nobility of thought), and that same star is shown again over her heart.
The black veil which is drawn down to her eyebrows covers her entire head, even her forehead. With its gold-edged border falling symmetrically on either side, it forms a kind of halo and, by contrast, brings out all the delicate features of her face.
The raised eyebrows, together with the curve of the nose and the motionless gaze of the dark eyes directed into space, lend to the face of Our Lady an expression of sorrowful concentration. It seems as if the corners of the mouth were slightly lowered, intensifying he impression of sorrow, whereas the shadow thrown by the lashes onto the eyes renders the pupils still darker and more misty, making them fall back into a depth inaccessible to direct contemplation.
Her hands scarcely touch the infant. They seem also to have been immobilized by the thought which absorbs her so completely, adding still more to the effect of intense concentration and sorrow.
The Divine Child, on the contrary, is represented with a lively, tender movement; in pressing His face against His Mother’s cheek, He appears to be offering her solace, knowing, as He does, her hidden sorrow. His face is brighter than hers, showing that He wants to give her hope. But she, apparently paying little heed to her Child’s caress, stares into the distance with deep human feeling. Her gaze is inwardly turned, not to the human child, but to the Maker of the World, born of her. She bends towards the Infant, seeking within Him mercy for those who come to Him.
There is no weakness in the figure of the Child but only the strength, the dignity and the majesty of the God-Made-Man. The upper part of His body is portrayed more slenderly than the lower, which may have been enlarged when the extra boards were added for extra width. (The same is true of the veil. While the face of Mary on this icon is certainly the original, the veil (or “maphori”), seems to be a little too large for the face; in the 13th century the veil was enlarged to fit in with a slight enlargement of the whole icon.)
The Holy Child, His left hand slipped behind His Mother’s head, clasps her neck and presses His left cheek to her right cheek; nearing His lips to hers, He stretches His right hand to her left shoulder in order to embrace and to kiss His Mother. His right hand shows a certain strength and power. The purple and gold-colored garment of the Child indicates His Majesty and Royalty. The artistry of the shadows and the hatching (the inlaying with fine lines) all give the garment something very akin to a sheen.
It is impossible to discover all the richness of this icon at its first glance; one needs to contemplate it….long and “often.” It possesses the characteristic of all true and beautiful icons….one never tires of it, so rich is the painting, so harmonious and delicate, so uplifting to the soul.
One must understand what kind of “image” an icon of the Byzantine Tradition is, even in the context of being an aid to devotion; for the icon is not a representation of people, places or things designed to aid the imagination or simply to bring to mind certain holy ideas, as required by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Yes, the icon is helpful for prayer, but not as a means to put the imagination into motion.
If you stand before the Redeemer’s icon or that of the Mother of God, stand as if you were before the Lord Jesus Christ Himself or before the Blessed Virgin Mary. Keep your intelligence without any representation, for there is a great difference between standing before the Lord in His very presence and representing Him to the imagination. In the latter case, attention is not given to prayer directly, but is held by traditional impressions which only skim the surface of our consciousness.
The icon, therefore, is not a picture. The icon is not a painted representation meant to teach. The icon is a grace and a life. It is a life that penetrates and purifies and elevates.
From the icon emanates a virtue that inspires the faithful with hope and gives consolation. St. John of Damascus calls it a “channel of divine grace,” seeming to bestow on the icon an almost sacramental character. In another sense, one can say the icon’s relationship to the faithful is similar, though certainly not equal to, that of Holy Scripture. It may be for this reason that, in the vocabulary of the Byzantine Tradition, an icon is not “painted” but “written.” The icon, then, is not only an aesthetical entity. It is the result of the faith and prayer of the Church. It is the life of the Church lived in Christ.
A saving truth is not communicated by the word alone but by the fact of awakening vital forces of life, through the presentation of beauty.