Last May, I received a phone call from my nine-year-old son, Elijah, but I couldn’t understand him due to his intermittent sobbing between just about every other sentence, “I’m in trouble,” he was whispering (at least I think that’s what he said), “but I’m not sure why.”
I am forever on a quest to make the abstract more accessible, particularly in areas of faith where miracles lose their significance, their capacity to wow and woo, over time. But maybe that’s just me, which is all the more reason to spend my years fighting, praying for the discipline to understand and absorb what is holy but hidden from the loud, the extravagant, the rational. In giving birth you preserved your virginity, in falling asleep you did not forsake the world O Theotokos, we were singing as a family a couple of weeks ago in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition, when the Orthodox Church commemorates the bodily ascent of Mary into heaven at the end of a fruitful yet often excruciating life. I chanted the Troparian slowly, so my children could make out clearly the words, which, as usual, I believed in but had a difficult time making penetrate my present circumstances.
Mary, Theotokos: there is so much I simply cannot comprehend about her multi-faceted identity as the Mother of God.
Elijah’s teacher got on the phone, “Mrs. Sabourin, we’ve had an incident.”
My chest tightened, my heart rate quickened, “What’s going on?”
After Columbine and Virginia Tech - in the aftermath of too many horrific occurrences involving senseless brutality and young people in our public schools, strict rules were set in place and uniformly followed through on. “I really don’t think that your son meant any harm,” purred Mrs. H, “but unfortunately, we didn’t have a choice. It is school policy that if any student makes a threat of any kind, that threat will be taken seriously and the student evaluated by a counselor. “Its just protocol,” was the underlying message I was receiving, as in, “Your fears about the darkening of your son’s reputation sound awfully paranoid for the situation at hand.” I was assured that the episode had been investigated and deemed innocuous. But Elijah, still raw with inexperience, was only beginning to come to terms with the shame and confusion accompanying those accusations, accusations of a type of violence he’d never previously been exposed to in either thought or word or deed. “If only you knew him like I did,” I’d briefly contemplated mentioning but just as quickly decided against it lest such a sentiment be interpreted as biased, overly meddlesome, or spitefully ignorant.
“Can you believe he stayed with her?” they probably asked amongst themselves, maybe whispered in her presence.
The moment she willingly accepted would mark the dawn of her public demise. From that day forth, her morality, convictions, and pious character would be called into question. She would have been isolated enough, both raising and being raised by God, without the added stigma of having her selflessness couched within nearly impossible to defy innuendos suggesting Mary was but a slave to her own base desires. “Let it be to me,” she said, ”according to your word,” and the bar was set for all of us who’d dare to swallow the Fire, the passions-searing inferno that is Christ.
“Would you mind if I shared your story?” I asked Elijah, “Because when I think about it, when I remember how agitated I felt as your mother when you were so grossly misunderstood, I can relate just a sliver to the sadness felt most certainly by the Theotokos as she observed helplessly the abuse of her own Son at the hands (and slanderous tongues) of His creation.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “But first let me tell you exactly what happened,” and I listened with rapt attention as before, he’d felt uncomfortable opening up to me. “At recess we’d play tag, boys against girls,” Elijah began. “This one kid, Stephanie (I will call her in this piece for the sake of anonymity) is a really fast runner and we would tease each other about whose team was better, hers or mine. I like Stephanie, she is funny – she is my friend. I should have been paying attention in music class but I got bored and so, to be silly, I doodled on a handout, Destroy Stephanie, and showed it to the person next to me who laughed and then passed it down the row. Stephanie giggled too but then my teacher grabbed the paper and then ran and got another teacher and then they both took me out into the hallway and had me sit in a desk for like an hour waiting to talk to a lady about my threatening behavior. I was so confused, mom. I felt yucky and really embarrassed. I cried, but I don’t think the other kids saw me.”
“Is this Mrs. P?” I asked, all anxious-like and edgy, “I am Molly Sabourin, Elijah’s mom.” And I was ready to defend with a vengeance my tender, squirmy, and verbally precocious child until the counselor cut me off with just a hint of irritation in her otherwise calming demeanor:
“Oh my goodness, Mrs. Sabourin, this whole situation is just nothing but ridiculous. I have three boys of my own and they are forever destroying each other and their fictitious enemies. Yes, we have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to threats against the school, but in this case it was obvious that your son had no intentions of hurting anyone. He was horrified, quite frankly, and I did my best to help him realize that the entire affair was just a huge misunderstanding. I’d advise you not to question Elijah unless he brings it up himself. I promised him that it was over and not worth fretting about.”
But what if she hadn’t, hadn’t promised him or appeased me? What if someday Elijah, or his siblings, or even Troy and I are pegged as a threat to peace and democracy - not for a foolish mistake, for crossing a line inadvertently, but rather for purposefully adhering to our Orthodox Christian beliefs at the expense of evolving American values keeping time with dangerous whims born of self-enlightenment. I worry for my kids; this world is changing rapidly, growing increasingly hostile towards Truth. There will come a day when opportunities are lost, freedoms restricted, reputations tainted by a refusal to compromise or espouse what was once viewed as sin but has now been gussied up and repackaged as open mindedness. It is highly possible that when such a day arrives, justice will elude our “bigoted” family. So, what then?
Imagine. Can you imagine being a witness to the torturing and the murder of both your son and supposed savior? The despair would be immeasurable, unfathomable, unbearable. After all she’d already surrendered to play a part in the restoration of man’s communion with the living God, her burning hope, which had kept her focused on the bigger picture, was inexplicably snuffed out with Jesus’ final declaration of “It is finished.”
“So, what now?’ she must have wondered in misery.
Not too long ago, I’d felt justified keeping Mary in her place as but a shell whose flesh was pre-ordained to house temporarily the incarnate God-man who alone was worthy of all my praise and reverence. As far as I knew, there were only two options: either ignore Mary or commit heresy by exalting her to the same level as Jesus and by doing so, deflect from His salvific work on the Cross. Knowing what I know presently, however, what I’ve been privileged to discover through Orthodoxy concerning a third choice, (one so sound and logical and compelling that every other alternative now seems to me to be lacking in fullness and substance when viewed in light of it) it makes perfect theological sense that the continual remembrance of Mary’s faithfulness to her Lord, throughout trials more straining and demanding then any other human being has ever encountered, is absolutely necessary for a complete experience of the Faith as was originally lived out by the apostles. Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas and the South wrote the following concerning the veneration of Mary:
The Orthodox Church honors and venerates the Virgin Mary as "more honourable than the Cherubim and more glorious without compare than the Seraphim.........." Her name is mentioned in every service, and her intercession before the throne of God is asked. She is given the title of "Theotokos" (Greek for "Birth-giver-of-God), as well as "Mother of God". She has a definite role in Orthodox Christianity, and can in no way be considered an instrument which, once used, was laid aside and forgotten. … The Virgin Mary in the Orthodox view is not regarded as a mediatrix or co-redemptress. She is an intercessor for us, and the content of prayer addressed to her is a request for her intercession. The Orthodox concept of the Church is the basic reason for the invocation of the Theotokos and all the saints. The Militant Church on earth and the Victorious Church in heaven are intimately bound together in love. If it is proper for one sinner to ask another sinner to pray for him, how much more fitting it must be to ask the saints already glorified and near the throne of God to pray for us. Surely, they know something of what goes on here, for else how could there be rejoicing in heaven over the conversion of one sinner? (Luke 15:10) The saints in heaven are equals of the angels (Luke 20:36), who are used by God in the accomplishment of His purpose (Acts 12:7).
There are many lovely hymns in the Orthodox Church; my favorite is sung to Mary during the Paschal Divine Liturgy. For three days she mourned, for the whole of her life she remained obedient in the midst of ridicule, prejudice, and persecution. I get chills when the time comes to travel with the angels to our grieving Theotokos, to share with her the glorious news of our triumph over death through Her Son’s Resurrection:
The Angel cried to the Lady full of grace
Rejoice! Rejoice! O pure Virgin!
Again, I say rejoice!
Thy son is risen from His three days in the tomb!
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice, rejoice, O ye people!
Shine! Shine! Shine, O new Jerusalem!
The glory of the Lord has shown on thee.
Exult now, exult and be glad, O Zion.
Be radiant, O pure Theotokos,
In the Resurrection, the Resurrection of thy Son
I am forever on a quest to replace fear with courage, doubt with assuredness, my own agendas, for both myself and for my children, with the exact same pliability and submissiveness the Virgin Mary displayed when stepping up to embrace a role that would open for everyone one of us the door to redemption, eternal life, and freedom from the hell of our own transgressions. I am determined, but awfully impressionable, dependent upon a community of believers both in heaven and on earth to stay the course. As a woman, I am thankful for my newly acquired intimacy with femininity in its purest form, with an example of sacred nobility that in every possible way outshines the dullness inherent in vanity, insecurity, and self-gratification - with the righteous, victorious, and most honorable Mother of Christ Jesus.
O Holy Theotokos, pray to God for us!