Lessons From A Monastery: Learning to Love Mary

Learning to Love Mary

“… O all-pure Mother of God, cease not seeking your children who are lost; that we may treasure Christ in our hearts, and find eternally our Father’s House.”
-From the tropar for the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost

Occasionally, Roman Catholics who are not familiar with Eastern Catholic/Orthodox traditions will ask us why we don’t pray the rosary and will wonder about our devotion to Mary, whom we most often refer to as the Theotokos (Mother of God).  There are times when these inquiries are more of an accusation than a sincere question; in the minds of some, devotion to Mary equals a devotion to the rosary and nothing else will do!

Though I do not fault Roman Catholics for their love of the Rosary, nor is it completely uncommon for Eastern Christians to pray a version of the Rosary on their prayer ropes, the Eastern Churches have their own devotions and traditions. We also have great respect and great love for the Theotokos, so much so that I can only share a small glimpse from my own experience with you here.

First a bit of background: Growing up Protestant, I thought devotion to Mary was worship. Both sets of my grandparents had rosaries and statues around their homes, and when I went to Mass with them I knew they were giving Mary worship she didn’t deserve! Long story short, as a young adult I realized the truth and came back to the Catholic faith I was only baptized in as a baby. Two of my favorite memories of my grandfather are of him being my sponsor at confirmation, and praying the rosary with him (when we finished he made sure to tell me all the ways that I led it wrong!).

Coming into the Church as a young adult, the issues I had about  the Theotokos took me the longest to overcome—growing up thinking Catholics worship Mary takes some time to get over. I came into the Church finally understanding that worship wasn’t being given to Mary but honor, and knew it made complete sense to ask her to pray for us, and I was fine with that. However, once I discovered the Eastern Catholic Church and began attending services at the monastery, I wasn’t able to keep my relationship with the Theotokos at arm’s length or for only times of petition. If you attend an Eastern Liturgy there is no ignoring the Theotokos. Her icon is always directly at the left of the Holy doors.  She is commemorated, petitioned to for intercession, and mentioned at least twelve times during Divine Liturgy (Mass).  Add to that, this little band of monks who had an obvious love for this woman whom they couldn’t stop singing or talking about! The monks even hold an annual pilgrimage in honor of Mary. A whole weekend devoted to her on top of all of the other services I came to encounter throughout the Church year.

As I said, the Theotokos is mentioned numerous times during Divine Liturgy. After the consecration, the liturgy is offered for those fallen asleep in the faith and “especially for our most holy, pure, most blessed, glorious Lady and Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary.” Then we sing, “It is truly fitting that we bless thee, Bearer of God, who art forever blessed and most innocent and the Mother of our God. Thou who art more honored than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond comparison that the Seraphim, thou who undefiled, gavest birth to God the Word: thee, the true Mother of God, thee the true Mother of God, Mother of God , do we praise.”

The Theotokion is another beautiful prayer said during Divine Liturgy:

“Thou faithful help of Christians, unswerving mediatrix in the presence of the Creator, do not over look the prayerful voices of sinners, but hasten in thy goodness, to our aid, who trustingly cry to thee: Make haste in prayer, and be diligent for our salvation, O Mother of God, ever protecting those who honor thee.”

Oh I can remember how those songs used to make me cringe! Like I said, growing up thinking Catholics worshipped Mary took some time to get over even after I understood things intellectually. So how did I get over all this mention of the Theotokos making me wince and pray “Lord please I hope I am not doing anything wrong by saying these words?!”  Mostly I would say it took time. As time went on and I grew in my faith I came to have a greater understanding of Jesus’ humanity, which helped me to understand why His mother would mean so much to Him, and why wherever He is she is as well. Everything the Church teaches about the Theotokos is meant to teach us something about Christ. She always points to Him, and reveals so very much to us, as only a Mother can about her child. The example of not only the monks but other church members helped too—Christians with an obvious love for Christ and also His mother.  Their love for her never took anything away from Him, it only increased their love for Christ, and this spoke volumes to me.

Theology is first taught through the liturgical services and prayers of the Church. Through the many services I experienced, I came to love the Theotokos as my own mother. She is with us all throughout the Church year. Holy Week and Pascha we walk so close to her, at the same time feeling sorry for causing her such pain and also clinging to her to help us through the sadness. Then, on Pascha (Easter) we rejoice with her over the resurrection of her son.

She has many titles and images in the Church. As for myself, I think of her as the Searcher for the Lost. Under this name she is the patroness of the Monastery. This title is given to her because of her searching for Jesus when he was twelve years old and lost in the temple. Every night after Compline is said and before the monks retire to their cells they each follow the abbot’s lead up to the icon of the Searcher for the Lost and each in turn kneel before her, kiss her icon, and together sing the tropar:

“Within the Temple, O Temple of Life, you found Him whom the universe cannot contain, silencing the teachers by the word of God which is above the wisdom of the wise. O all-pure Mother of God, cease not seeking your children who are lost; that we may treasure Christ in our hearts, and find eternally our Father’s House.”

I always find this point of Compline to be so touching—this group of grown men, kneeling down before their mother in love and devotion before they retire and receive their blessing from Abbot Nicholas for the night.

I know many people who have asked for Mary’s help under the name Searcher for the Lost in returning fallen away friends and relatives to the Church (myself included) and she has not let her children down. And as Fr. Nicholas has reminded people, we must remember we are all lost and in need of finding our Father’s house and making it to our homeland. We must pray to the Mother of God, Searcher for the Lost for ourselves too.

The following are links to some of the beautiful prayer services and a few of the names Mary is known by in the Eastern Churches:

The Akathist to the Theotokos is one of my favorite prayers, very poetic and moving.

Moleben to the Most Holy Theotokos

Panagia (All Holy)

The Burning Bush

Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow

Multiplier of Wheat

Protecting Veil of the Theotokos

The Inexhaustible Cup

I have to chuckle sometimes, remembering what I used to think and how I felt about devotion to Mary. Not only have I learned to love Mary, but I have taught my children too as well. What joy it always brings to me to hear my children sing to the Theotokos. Often enough, one of them will be going about their chores and will suddenly start singing out loud, “Hail Mary Virgin, Full of Grace, Mother of God, the Lord is with you,” and their siblings will join in wherever they happen to be attending to their own tasks, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have given birth to the savior of our souls.”

This article was originally published at Catholic Exchange.

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