Last week a friend of mine, who converted from Christianity (Lutheran) to Islam, asked me directly if I pray to Mary. I looked him straight in the eye and said "Yes, absolutely." He looked shocked by the content of my answer, yet somewhat refreshed by my clear and concise confidence in the appropriateness of such supplications. He knew that my answer to his question was sincere and thoughtful. I didn't mince words. But I also was not interested in explaining what I meant by what I said, any more than he was interested in explaining what he meant by what he asked. He asked a simple question and I offered a simple answer.
Praying to Mary means a lot of things to lots of different people. To me, it means something very specific, and very practical, because I believe Mary has been raised from death to eternal life, bodily. Mary may be an idol to one person, a imaginary goddess to another, or a celestial vending machine of favors to someone else. But she is not any of those to me. Moreover, I do not obsess over her willingness or ability to intercede for me. Nevertheless, awareness of her intercessions has become profoundly sensible to me.
Her existence as both fully alive and fully human this very moment, I am persuaded that her eternal share in the Divine Life with our risen Lord changes everything. Being one whose continuous free will and faithful fiat provided for the definitive salvation of mankind, to be raised up to God for eternity, to rule and reign and intercede with God, it is not difficult to wonder at the great change God has brought to the world through her intercessions. (I also consider the many great Christians whom I know have been raised with Christ; but those are not the point of this post, so I will only focus on Mary for now.) Those who do not meditate on the reality of Mary, her virgin birth, her motherhood of one who now remains both fully human and God for eternity, her death, resurrection, and ascension, often do not appreciate prayers to Mary. Many cannot even imagine what prayer to Mary could or should look like, any more than they can imagine what death, resurrection, and ascension to eternal life really looks like right now. There are far too many cartoonish, futuristic, eschatological imaginations of intermediate existence interfering with interpretations of Holy Scriptures and their surrounding histories.
In this post, I want to sample one illustration from the life and liturgy of the Byzantine Church, to challenge contemporary cartoonish fears about prayers to the saints who are ruling and reigning with God. Below is a poem of Theodore the Studite, translated by Maximos Constas, and found in Mother of the Light: Prayers to the Theotokos. In this translation, three things are worthy of notice:
1) There are three people with free will who are invested in this sinner's prayer, and those who are raised with Christ have also become aids to those who are not yet raised, and are still working out their salvation with fear and trembling.
2) The pattern of prayer is one of ascent and return: the child of God petitions Mary, who in turn Petitions her Son, Who in turn advises and delegates to his mother, who in turn advises and directs the child of God. The pattern of each ode is also laid out as a chiasm: A, B, B', A'
3) The salvation of the sinner depends upon the participation of the Theotokos in the life of God. Without Jesus's ascension to the right hand of the Father, Mary can do nothing. Jesus could theoretically do all without Mary, but He chooses not to, because he has raised up his mother to his side, to rule and reign with him among the Divine Council.2 The sinner could go directly to Jesus, and even should go directly to Jesus. But the mortal sinner of this poem is also free to express his faith in a Savior who has been raised up from the dead-ones in Hades, and has also raised up fallen Adam all the righteous saints with him, who were formerly held captive in Hades. He is therefore free to petition the risen, glorified saints --like Mary-- to intercede with Jesus that He grant this sinner great mercy. This is what I imagine occurs when supplications and petitions of the like (for mercy, forgiveness, favor, etc.) are offered to God and received through the intercessions of those whom He has already raised from the dead.
Below is a poem expressing the possibilities surrounding such truths. My purpose in sharing this is simple: I hope this helps others recognize that prayer to (or with) Mary, the "God-Birther" (i.e. Theotokos), are not how Protestants imagine them to be. Protestants still might not be comfortable with this, but I am still confident that not many of them imagine prayer to (or with) Mary to be like the poem below.
O Container of the Uncontainable, entreat Christ to deliver me from the dreaded fire devoid of light, and show me forth as a sharer of His kingdom.
Receive my entreaty, O Son and Word, and deliver from punishment your servant, who is crying out to me from the depth of his soul, and make him worthy of your kingdom.
You, Mother, know that I am a font of mercies, for even at this very moment I am showing mercy to sinners who transgress my commandments. But this man severely provokes me by his shameful and evil deeds.
By many disgraceful and shameful misdeeds you have provoked my Son. Thus, being greatly vexed by you, His compassion has been turned to wrath.
Truly I have squandered my whole life in evil deeds, and therefore I cry out to you: O pure Virgin, entreat your Son to call me back from sin and save me, just as He called back and saved the prodigal.
O Lord of all, who was ineffably born from my womb, take pity on your servant as on the prodigal long ago, and place him, O All-Good One, at your right hand on the Day of Judgment.
Hear me, O Mother, as I discerningly respond to you. The one who long ago spent his life in prodigality, returned in ardent repentance and cried: "I have sinned." But this man, even though he now cries out to you like this, will subsequently prove to be a liar.
I told my Son the things you said, entreating Him to make you worthy of His kingdom. But He opposed me saying: He has not drawn near to me with ardent faith, and therefore I shall send him out from before my face."
Understanding your strength, O Virgin, I cry out to you in my hour of need, even if my repentance is not completely ardent. But by your supplications to the Master, grant me the complete amendment of my life.
O Master, who by nature is God that loves mankind, hearken to your Mother who earnestly cries out to you, and deliver your servant from condemnation. And if he does not possess perfect faith, I beg you, as God, to give it to him.
O Mother, I have given him every opportunity to be saved, but he does not cease sinning and now draws near to death. And this is why no man can be saved unless he passes through the fire.
I now know you to be, as my Son said, the cause of your own perdition, because you have completely surrendered to sin, and have entirely given yourself over to slothfulness. Who shall now raise you from the place to which you have fallen?
O Virgin, I long to walk always on the path of repentance leading me to eternal life, but immediately the grim ranks of demons drag me down and seek to cast me headlong into an abyss of sin, and into the harrowing pit of perdition.
O Savior, you first put death to death, and then freed Adam from his bonds. Therefore, I implore you, my Son: pluck this man from the hands of the demons who afflict him, because they have never let him repent.
O Mother who is praised by all, I too cry aloud to you: It is by prayer and fasting that the multitude of wicked demons will be driven out of him. But he has not cleansed his body by abstinence, prayer, and chastity, and thus, alas, has become a cave of devils.
Listen well to the words of my Son, and understand what needs to be done. When the disciples had not the strength to drive out the evil spirits, He cried to them saying: "This kind of devil is driven out by prayer and fasting."
I am not rich with words, and am poor in virtues. I love neither to pray nor undertake fasts, O Bride of God. Therefore I seek refuge in you.
Attend to me, my compassionate Son, for it is your Mother who implores you. The man running to me is devoid of good works and cries out to me: "I have no other hope but you, O Lady."
O Mother, who pleads so ardently, cease speaking on behalf of this man! For while he says that I am compassionate, he continues to defile himself, failing to see my wrath.
On your behalf, I entreated my Son and God that you might obtain mercy. But he cried out to me to cease interceding for you to be saved.
All my hope I place in you, O Lady, cast me not, the wretched one, into the pit of perdition. But return to your Son and cry out to Him: "Do not destroy the work of your hands."
O Master, since you are a sea of mercies without measure, I implore you to receive me yet again, for you alone are quick to reconcile, and so take pity on the work of your hands, O You who of old took pity on the woman of Canaan.
I show mercy and save everyone who comes to me filled with longing, and I never want any of my creations to be destroyed. Indeed I was born from you in order to save them. But this man is very far from my works.
My Son, eternal pre-existing as the Wisdom of the Most High God, became perfect man through me, in order to save those who, with ardent faith, preserve their divine baptism. But in this you have utterly failed.
Taking courage I approach you, O Virgin, for I have seen your Son saving the harlot and the thief. They had done no good works under the law, and performed no good deeds in life, yet they both obtained forgiveness.
Look down from the heights and hearken to your Mother, for I entreat you to deliver your servant from the fire, just as you formerly delivered the harlot, and on your Cross redeemed the thief.
The thief who long ago hung upon the Cross cried out in faith: "Remember me." And, again, the harlot poured forth streams of tears. But this man is not like them.
Christ saved the weeping harlot, likewise the thief on the Cross, who showed faith in Him. If you desire to attain the Bread of Life, then run to the Lord with tears and faith.
O Maiden, I have shown myself a greater sinner than all other men, therefore I am ashamed to approach your Son. But I beg you to implore Him to take pity on me, and to receive me drawing near to Him with ardent faith and longing.
O Word, deliver your servant, who draws near to you, from punishment. I implore you: Remember not his transgressions. For though he sinned, O Savior, he turned to me for refuge and I entreat you. Through me receive this man, for you fulfill the petitions of all.
O Mother, he is not worthy to take refuge in your mercy, for no man has provoked my wrath as much as he. But by your precious prayers, I will not punish him on the Day of Judgment if he brings me fruits of repentance.
Though you were in the depth of Hades, through my prayer and intercessions you have been raised up to the heights to my Son. See that you do not fall back into your former grievous sins. Depart, and stay on the path of repentance, lest you be cast down into gehenna.
1. There is no second ode in this canon.
2. For those interested in learning more about the Biblical view of the Divine Council, see this post.