Paraklesis and Finding Refuge in the Theotokos
In preparation for the Dormition, a supplication to the Theotokos called the Paraklesis is often chanted. (A longer title is “The Paraklesis Service with the Little Supplicatory Canon to the Theotokos.”) Father Thomas Hopko tells us paraklesis means comfort and encouragement. This beautiful service implores the Mother of God to intercede with her Son to deliver us from all troubles. During every Divine Liturgy we implore, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us.” The Paraklesis is an “extended version” of this prayer.
The hot summer months in Byzantium were a time when plague and disease tended to reoccur, and the tradition of offering prayer, fasting, and singing praises in the weeks preceding Dormition arose. The words of the hymns make frequent reference to illness. Ode 6 laments, “bedridden I lie supine with sickness now…” while the Hymns after the Third Ode ask the Theotokos to look upon “my body’s grievous infirmity.”
The hymnographer considers himself living “in a place of sickness” (Ode 9). Modern medicine has largely wiped out plagues in the industrialized world, but in previous eras, horror and helplessness accompanied outbreaks of disease. A bubonic plague pandemic visited Constantinople in 541-542 A.D., while medieval Europe was likewise decimated by the Black Death. Even the 20th Century has known the great influenza (the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918), which killed millions. Outside of a horror movie, it’s hard for us to imagine such large-scale epidemics. The tradition of praying the Paraklesis every evening during the Dormition Fast became widespread.
In the depth of this service—the depth of Orthodoxy—both body and soul are addressed. The Mother of God is praised because she intercedes for healing for “all the diseases that plague my soul” and “the sufferings of the flesh” (Ode 8). Orthodoxy knew about the connection between body and soul long before modern medicine and psychiatry began to diagnose psychosomatic symptoms. The hymnographer states clearly—and if we’re honest, we can, too—”diseased is my body and my soul” (Ode 1).
More: sin makes us sick; sin ultimately brings death. This connection between sin and illness is made explicit in the hymns: “Heal me, O Pure one, of the sickness which the passions bring” (Ode 5). Not that all illness is a result of sin; in the Gospel of John, Christ heals the man born blind so “the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3). On the other hand, psychiatry and medicine are just starting to plumb the ways stress, guilt, and other passions can make us sick. I know that’s true in my own life.
I have a great love for this service. During the summer when I was a catechumen, I experienced job distress, family estrangement, and a recurrent sinus infection. It didn’t matter how sick I was; I went to every Paraklesis service I could. The words seemed to be written for me: “I beseech thee, O Virgin, do thou dispel far from me all of the distress of despair and turbulence in my soul.”
I needed our Mother’s “inexhaustible treasure of unfailing healing” (Ode 3).
All of the Orthodox hymns are beautiful; so many of the texts are pure poetry. The dismissal hymn addressed to the Theotokos is a great example:
“You are a tower adorned with gold, a city surrounded by twelve walls,
A shining throne touched by the sun,
A royal seat for the King,
O unexplainable wonder,
How do you nurse the Master?”
The Mother of God is a refuge greater than even the mighty walled city of Constantinople; we flee to Her to find aid and comfort for both our bodies and souls.
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