A Mother of Consolation

We all need a friend in times of sorrow. Father Romanos offers us a Marian prayer of consolation.

by the Rev. Romanos V. Russo

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Tears welled up in her eyes and her voice faltered. I was silenced by the depth of her grief. More out of sadness than criticism she said to me, “Have you no word of consolation for me? Not even one?” The only audible sounds were her sobs. I stood before a sister in Christ who was seeking consolation and though I plumbed the depths of my soul all the cliches that etiquette appoints for such occasions echoed hollowly in my heart.

Suddenly I found myself saying, “I have no word of consolation for you, but I know someone who does. She will avail you of such comfort as only a mother can give to another.” I handed her a copy of the Paraclesis, the divine office of consolation in the Byzantine tradition.

“This is the service of prayer to the All-Holy Theotokos imploring her comfort. Whenever grief assails you stand before her holy icon, pray this office and she will assuage your sorrow. Though you may be beyond consolation, the woman who stood at the cross and embraced her son’s broken body will lighten the burden of your grief.”

She left and the Paraclesis became her constant companion. Whenever friends would ask how she was, she would say, “Al Adhra [the Virgin in Arabic] bears my burden with me. She is my consolation.” And she would show them the Paraclesis and advise them to pray it for themselves.

Soon a large circle of friends had taken the custom of reciting the beautiful words of its prayers as they trod their own way of the cross. Mindful of our Savior’s words, “…where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” they began to meet in each other’s homes to pray the office and to break bread as they shared their hopes and heartaches. In this way they also fulfilled the Gospel command to bear one another’s burdens.

Before long the icon corners in their homes could no longer accommodate the group. So they moved into a chapel in our Church of the Virgin Mary in Brooklyn. Every Tuesday they would gather for the Paraclesis. Afterward they would go to a neighborhood restaurant for an agape.

What is this prayer that has remade the face of our parish, a prayer that has transfigured the lives of so many?

Paraclesis is the Greek word for consolation and is related to the word “paraclete,” meaning advocate or consoler. Though usually addressed to the Holy Spirit, the Byzantine tradition also extends its use to Jesus Christ. And by extension the liturgy also attributes the ministry of consolation to the Mother of God.

The Paraclesis is officially known as the “Paracletic Canon to the All-Holy Theotokos.” Traditional Byzantine liturgical hooks count two canons. It is the “Little Canon of Supplication” that has been the channel of grace in our parish community. Another word of explanation: “canon” does not refer to the eucharistic prayer as in the Roman rite; rather it is a poetic composition consisting of nine odes, based on the nine biblical canticles, forming the cornerstone of Byzantine divine offices such as orthros or matins. The prayer takes the form of the Orthodox morning office and is part of the liturgy of the church; it is not a private devotion, even when prayed alone.

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