What do you notice in this picture? Try to identify subtle messages before you read on.
This picture was a product of craft time in our home. Julie distributed several coloring sheets printed from the internet, and Emma and I were taking daughter-daddy time sitting at the dinner table applying color to white spaces. Emma’s work, seen on the margins of the picture, was added during a previous session, while daddy can limit the usefulness of this togetherness by getting caught up in the artwork. In any case, I hope you like it.
While Emma and Hannah’s artwork gets hung on the wall, my occasional contributions usually just linger around. There is no need to add it to their gallery, but there is something that says you just can’t toss creativity into the garbage. Since our table has more space than the four of us need for meals, the picture sat quietly at the other end, always within my eyeshot.
One day I noticed something interesting that may never have dawned on me if not for time in the Orthodox Church. Icons hang from all corners of the sanctuary; pictures are painted in almost all available spaces, even the ceiling. One dominant image is of the theotokos, Mary, the mother of God.
She is a majestic, towering figure, holding the baby Jesus in her bosom. Like Mary, Jesus is upright; though an infant he is ruling the world from his mother’s lap. Despite her prominence, the theotokos is still a secondary image. The central icon behind the altar is of a risen Jesus, the pantocrator, the ruler of all.
Mary maintains her high place, however, in the esteem of the Orthodox Church. One of the central prayers during mass has the congregation in chant with the priest:
Through the intercession of the Mother of God, Saint Mary,
O Lord grant us the forgiveness of our sins.
We worship You, O Christ,
With Your good Father and the Holy Spirit,
For You have come and saved us.
The mercy of peace, the sacrifice of praise.
Such devotion of Mary is of common knowledge to Western audiences through the Catholic Church as well. Protestant reaction is also familiar to most. Believing that an individual has direct access to God through Jesus, the Protestant wonders why such intercession is necessary. As such, the role and prominence of Mary is significantly decreased. Consider, therefore, the message of the picture.
Imagining, though not knowing, this internet coloring picture was designed by Protestants, notice first the folded hands of Mary. This was the image which first captured my attention. Her hands are folded in prayer to the baby Jesus. In stark contrast to the proud figure of Mary carrying the divine child, this humble figure emphasizes her subjection. In addition, she is drawn in equal proportion to Joseph, again marginalizing her importance. Furthermore, though both are kneeling, Joseph’s hands are not folded. It is the prayers of Mary that are emphasized. The message is subtle, but pictures communicate. The artist is directly imbuing the coloring child with Protestant theology.
I have sought to write this post so far without a coloring theology of my own. Of Protestant heritage, I maintain the question for Orthodox audiences: Why are these intercessions necessary? I understand and appreciate the overarching idea of the communion of the saints. The Orthodox challenge their Protestant brothers with irrefutable logic: If you ask your living sister to pray to God for whatever issue you are facing, why would you refrain from asking your ever-living sister, Mary, in heaven?
The theology of prayer is difficult in any case, intercessions or not. Why does God sometimes answer prayer, and sometimes seemingly ignore the pure petitions of his faithful? Answers are numerous, and I will not go into them here. Yet whatever answer is given to address one part of the equation always seems to violate a different scriptural precept. Prayer, if analyzed, can be very frustrating.
This, though, is where the Protestant undoes the Orthodox rebuttal. Perhaps this is a mark of American Protestantism, but most people I know who ask others to join them in prayer are not requesting intercession as much as they are asking for them to share in their suffering. The thought is not that if you also pray for me then perhaps God will now grant my request, as if it were a matter of addition. It is the natural human inclination to seek out support in time of need. Of course, since we do not know the mind of God, the prayers offered could not hurt. Depending on how great the need, perhaps the supplicant is indeed keeping count. God, answer me.
Prayer is one of the deepest expressions of human existence. The disciplined, regular prayers that we conduct with our children before meals and bedtime are pale comparisons. So also are our efforts to teach them to pray to God in their time of need, most recently expressed during occasional nightmares.
When Emma truly wakes with a nightmare it is obvious. She cries out and needs immediate consolation. Whoever put her to bed that night will go in and comfort, and then pray with her. Emma has learned this lesson, though, and will sometimes call out just fifteen minutes after going to bed, that she “had a bad dream about a rabbit.” Or, a bear, or cat, or sharks, etc. Our patience wears thin, and we will call from the door, “Did you pray to God about it?”
Clearly, our concern is more for our quiet than her relationship with God. Though the concept is good, we make a mockery of prayer, using it as a tool to wean her dependence off us, not for her spiritual development, but for our few moments of quiet at the end of the day.
What is most interesting is her usual response. “Daddy, I want you to pray to God for me.” Granted, she has heard far more prayers than she has been encouraged to utter, but the question is there: Is the desire for intercession wired into the human soul? If it is, is this positive or negative, a quality to encourage or one from which to mature? The answer may depend partially on the denomination.
Yet even in the Protestant understanding, why should one not seek to share one’s suffering with Mary, or with any other saint? Of course the Protestant cannot conjure this, any more than can be done with a stranger on the street, or perhaps more fittingly, a character from a story. The Biblical figures and the spiritual giants from bygone eras have past from living conscious into the tales of history and the register of heaven. In neither do they impact the Protestant’s daily life, nor enter the circle of relationships. Such a one should not be pressed to do so, for every relationship takes time. Does the lack of feeling toward this cloud of witnesses, however, betray a missing hue of Protestant theology?
On the other hand, if the Protestant has a warm relationship with Jesus, of whom the Bible states specifically intercedes for people before the Father, for what cause is appealing to Mary necessary? Once an Arab Catholic friend remarked, “If you can’t get what you want from someone, who better to go to than his mother!” This is interesting cultural insight as to the strong and continuous relationship an Arab man has with his mother, but contained therein is a point worthy to ask the Catholic/Orthodox: Your theology agrees with the superiority of Jesus and the access of every believer to him; do you indeed have such a relationship, or are you afraid of approaching the throne of grace? If the answer is yes there is no shame; every Protestant trembles as well that a supplication will be rejected. To ask is to risk; it is better to stay silent than to face the possibility of disappointment.
Of course, few of our prayers carry risk. Offers of thanksgiving and requests for well-being are well within our own power to accomplish; asking God’s help is good form, and cements the importance of humility, however feigned in actuality. A true supplication, however, empties the soul. Or, rather, it emerges from a soul which has been emptied. If God is the only answer left, how terrifying it is if he also fails.
This is no different than in any relationship; approaching anyone in weakness strikes at the core of our independence and self-satisfaction. Yet while we loathe our abasement, suffering is stronger in calling out for consolation. Be it for help, or for company, this is the truest of prayers. Jesus promised, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven,” and the Hebrew prophet before him, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” The prayer, it seems, is given a promise.
Ah, but what if it proves untrue? Is this an explanation of the practical side of Catholic/Orthodox appeal to saintly intercession? Is God held innocent if I only ask of Mary? I cannot answer this question, having no inherited reality of this world. If true, however unconscious, it is only parallel to the Protestant gymnastics which explain God’s inaction toward our cries for help. More likely, we fail to answer this question since we have never truly cried; our soul is not yet empty. The gymnastics are a tool to avoid the contrite and lowly spirit necessary to know God’s comfort.
I ask the Catholic/Orthodox for patience, since I am yet unable to enter this world. We both ask patience from the skeptic and secular, who scoffs at this whole conversation. It is hard to understand that which you do not know, and it is hard to know without entering in. Yet the hands of Mary, folded in the picture, illustrate both the dilemma and its solution. Hands clasped together can hold on to nothing else. This is prayer in its truest form. Though each person kneels alone before God, how much more comforting if we are joined by others. May we each so offer ourselves to those around us; may it be we also profit from those who have gone before?