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 sons 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 Saviors 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 others 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 anothers 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.
When said in church, it is customary to place an icon of the Mother of God on an analogion, or pedestal, near the iconostasis. After a few prayers the people begin to sing the odes of the canon. Each ode consists of an hirmos, or anchor, which acts as a rhythmic model for the troparia, or prayer-hymns, that follow. Between each troparion the refrain Most Holy Theotokos, save us is sung. Here are the troparia of the fifth ode:
Give me your pure joy, Virgin all pure and immaculate, you who gave birth to the cause of happiness and fill my heart with the gladness of your son our God.
Save us from distress, 0 spotless Theotokos, you who gave birth to salvation without end, the divine peace that surpasses human understanding.
Dissipate the gloom and darkness of my sinful deeds and with your radiance fill our souls with joy, O Bride of God, who gave birth to the eternal light.
Heal the misery of my passions, 0 spotless one, and make me worthy of your gracious care, and grant me health through your constant and unfailing prayer.
After the sixth ode and a short litany of supplication, the kontakion is sung. It is one of the most frequently used anthems beseeching the protection of the Mother of God. Latin Catholics will notice a similarity to the Memorare:
O never failing protectress of Christians and their ever-present intercessor before the Creator, despise not the petitions of us sinners, but in your goodness extend your help to those who call upon you with confidence. Hasten, 0 Mother of God, to intercede for us, for you always protect those who honor you!
At this point the Gospel describing the Visitation is sung and concludes with the Magnificat.
During the ninth ode, the priest or deacon incenses the holy table and the icons as the faithful sing:
Let us sing the praise of the Virgin more lofty than heaven and more pure than the shining stars: Let us praise, O faithful, the Queen of all creation who has delivered us from our ancient curse.
My whole body ails and my soul is sick because of my evil deeds and the multitude of my sins. To you I come for shelter O Mary full of grace. O hope of the hopeless, help me and save me.
O lady and mother of the Savior, receive now the humble prayers of your poor unworthy servants
By this point the faithful have poured out the chalice of their concerns and entrusted them to the care of the mother of all. In gratitude they move forward to press a holy kiss on the icon of the Hodegitria, She who shows us the way. And having received the consolation they sought, they take leave of the Virgin and each other by singing:
Gracious Virgin, who protects those who in faith flee under your powerful arm, we have none to plead for us before God but you; in time of adversity and tribulation, we sinners stoop down under the weight of our sins. Mother of God most high, we bend our knees to you and beseech you: Deliver your servants from trouble.
You are a joy to the distressed.
You are strength to the oppressed.
You are food to those who sink into despair.
You console strangers. You support the blind and you visit the sick.
You are shelter to the weary.
You are comfort to the crushed.
You are assistance to the orphaned.
You are the Mother of God most high and so we pray to you. Hasten, 0 immaculate one, and save your faithful servants. All my hope is in you, 0 Mother of God: Place me under the wings of your protection.
Father Romanos Russo is a priest of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church.