Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Sub Tuum Praesidium

We fly to thy protection,
O holy Mother of God;
despise not our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O glorious and blessed Virgin.

The Sub Tuum Praesidium is the oldest known prayer to Mary. It dates to A.D. 250. It may be older.

I have been praying the Sub Tuum more and more of late. I like the prayer. I pray it as I reach the beads on my Orthodox prayer rope when praying the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner).

At the moment, I prefer this kind of meditative prayer to the Rosary. Not because I like it better than the Rosary, but because it is simpler. The Rosary is a gorgeous meditation on the mysteries of Christ's life. But it does require a chunk of time (it usually takes me 20-30 minutes to pray through it. When I pray the Jesus prayer, however, it allows me to immediately begin praying, and I feel a greater freedom to tackle interruptions as they arise during it (stay-at-home dad, remember?).

Here's how I am praying it at the moment: (1) I cross myself. (2) I pray the Our Father. (3) I begin praying the Jesus Prayer as I move from knot to knot on my prayer rope. (4) My prayer rope is separated into decades so that I can also pray the Rosary on it. So after each decade of Jesus Prayers, I pray the Sub Tuum on each bead. (5) When I reach the end of the rope (return to the beginning?), I say the Sub Tuum followed again by the Our Father.

As I'm meditating on these words, I bring my intentions, or requests, before God.

I also try to pray the Liturgy of the Hours as much as possible, though children make such regularity difficult. And the Rosary also, though I would love to make it more of a regular habit, perhaps after the children go to bed. These formal prayers do not take away from my spontaneity in prayer. I still cry out to God in need or in thanks. But the formal prayers provide something that the spontaneous prayers cannot for me. First, they allow me to pray along with the Church. Especially praying the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) and the Rosary. Second, it allows me to pray what I need to pray, when I simply can't find the words. Third, which goes hand in hand with the second point, these formal prayers, specifically the Jesus Prayer, helps me to combat temptation in a way that spontaneous prayer simply never provided for me. In spontaneous prayer, I would become easily distracted by the temptation. In the formal prayer - in the recitation of the prayer - my focus is driven to the prayer. It's been a wonderful help for me in dealing with my many weaknesses.

But the meditation this week was the Sub Tuum, and I'm getting off track. It is a prayer to Mary. For those who read my blog regularly, I hope by now you know what that does and doesn't mean. Prayer does not equal worship for a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian. It is rather a request for intercession, for help, as I would request my wife to intercede, to mediate, for me before Christ. It does not mean I do not pray to Christ. Of course I do and must. But it is comforting to know that His mother and the saints also pray for me. Theirs is a powerful intercession.

And this idea of the communion of saints is a beautiful reality. Not only do I share in communion with those on earth who also believe, but also those throughout the centuries who are glorious alive, holy and righteous, in the presence of our Lord. In the communion of saints I have acquired brothers and sisters and a mother who teach me and pray for me.

This communion is a foreign idea to evangelical Protestants. But it is so rich and beautiful. And it becomes richer and more beautiful the further in I go. I hope that more of my friends and family begin to understand and explore and find comfort in these great riches made available to them by our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

And with such a prayer on my tongue, I want to briefly reiterate that this prayer has been found on a papyrus that dates to roughly A.D. 250. In other words, it may have been, and probably was, prayed much earlier. Such an ancient practice of Marian devotion is compelling to me. This practice was taking place nearly 150 years before the canon of the Scriptures was defined by the Church. It was being prayed 100 years before the Nicene Creed was written and the definition of such doctrines as the Trinity and the Incarnation. It is not a post-Constantinian "aberration," nor is it some strange medieval practice, but it is a prayer prayed even while the Church was being hunted and devoured within the Roman empire.

It is older than Augustine and Athanasius, older than Anthony of Egypt. Never once have such Marian prayers been condemned or criticized within the Church. Not until after the Reformation. The Church is ancient and, though people within her have acted intolerably and immorally, she has been and is and will be the Body of Christ. And the gates of hell have not and shall not prevail against her. So says our Lord.

And so we pray.


Paul said...

Scott, you always have such interesting things to express. This time is no different.

Of course, when discussing the topic in mixed theological crowds, the distinction must seemingly always be made between prayer to Mary & worship of Mary.

Not coming from the Catholic tradition, I am unfamiliar with Sub Tuum Praesidium, but elements and the flow of it sound like the Lord's Prayer. Do you know whether that's intentional?

Also, given my lack of Marian experience, I'm curious the expectation you have as to Mary's methods when you pray:

"but deliver us always
from all dangers"

How have you experienced Mary delivering you always from all dangers?

Thanks in advance for any light you can shed for me.

Scott Lyons said...

Paul, these are excellent questions. I am no expert in prayer. It is a mystery. I am, regrettably, opinionated and wordy.

As a convert to Catholicism from evangelicalism, understanding and differentiating between prayer and worship is an important differentiation. It is the differentiation between righteousness and idolatry. It is, let me add, a differentiation the Church herself makes. The Church condemns worship of any being but God - even the Mother of God. And you're absolutely right, in "mixed" groups, it is a distinction that must always be made, especially since the Church's belief about worship and Mary is perhaps the greatest misconception that some Protestants hold.

The Sub Tuum Praesidium is a fairly new prayer for me as well, Paul. It's an interesting comparison you see between its organization and the tail end of the Our Father. I don't know whether it is intentional or that it is simply the case that in so many of our prayers we are asking for protection and aid. I suppose it is our situation in this life, to be always in need of the mercy of God. To come before God, is to come in need.

When I pray the lines, "deliver us always from all dangers," I am asking something more simple, perhaps, than it sounds. (Maybe more complex, depending on how you view it.) Let me give an example from the Orthodox tradition: The Orthodox pray the prayer, "Theotokos, save us!" (Theotokos means God-Bearer, or Mother of God.) The belief of the prayer is not that Mary can save us as only her Son uniquely can/has/will, but it is a plea for help. It is a plea for whatever intercession, whatever help is available to us through her.

Let me approach it from another angle, if you'll indulge me. Let's say someone within my faith community shares with our small group that they need help: She has lost her job and has no money for groceries or the mortgage. It is incumbent upon those of us with whom the intention is shared to not only pray, but to mediate God's grace, as it were, by giving as we are able to give. Such intercession, such mediation, is answered not only by my prayers, but by what I do to meet the need myself.

Certainly, if I pick up the mortgage until my sister begins working again, it is not me alone at work - it is all God's grace working mightily to meet the need, even if that need is met through the provision God has given me. It allows me to be Christ to my sister, sharing Christ's great love for her.

The same is true, I believe, when we approach Mary, the Apostles, the Angels, or the Saints for intercession. It is all God's grace, all His strength, but the Saints become mediators (not theMediator as Christ alone uniquely is - of our salvation) of His graces toward us through whatever ability or authority they possess along with, and perhaps only by, their own intercession before Christ. In Mary this is especially true, and singularly different. Our blessed Mother is able to benefit us in a unique way, through the infinite merits of Christ, in that she is the Theotokos. Christ is her son. (We must meditate upon that truth in order to gain a clearer understanding of her role in the life of the Church. That the Son of God is flesh of her flesh, was borne by and born of her, that she nourished Him at her breast and taught Him - these are profound truths. And certainly Christ fulfills the Law in honoring His mother, more perfectly than we honor our own. And if Christ honors her, should we not honor her as well? Some have said that Mary is the moon to Christ's sun. Her glory is derived solely from Christ's, and is a reflection of His glory.)

I suppose my expectation in praying a line such as "but deliver us always / from all dangers" is that I will be delivered from dangers - as God wills it. Cognitively, I am aware that I will not be delivered from all dangers, always, anymore than praying "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" will always deliver me from temptation. I certainly have not had 100% success rate with the Sub Tuum (oh, that it were so), though many in certain Catholic circles claim that certain prayers or devotions (novenas, for instance) to Mary will effect such success. To me that's ridiculously odd - but perhaps it is a personal expression of their faith that I am not understanding.

I have experienced specific and immediate answers to prayers when I have asked for Mary's help. But then, I have also brought the same requests to Christ himself. To me, whether it was because of our Blessed Mother's intercession is not important. Again, it is God's grace, His help. But in such a situation I say a prayer of thanks to those whose intercession I have requested - just as I would thank you for praying for me. So I do not pray because of a guaranteed outcome, but I pray because I believe that it is effectual. And it may not be effectual in the way I desire it to be. It may be, indeed probably is, effectual in a far greater manner than I can ever hope to understand.

Perhaps a better understanding of prayer to the Saints and to Mary - as well as a better understanding of why we ask for intercession within our communities on earth - is to realize such a request is the continual formation of that community and of Christ's intimacy within it. This is our family - and that is no metaphor. Yes, we require assistance, but the transparency of need also creates something stronger than a met fiscal need, though we certainly need such a thing from time to time.

Prayer is an act of faith, an act the height and depth and breadth of which reason alone is unable to discover. Prayer is a mystery.

Paul, I hope that longer-than-the-post-itself answer ties together some of the loose ends of the post for you. If you have any more questions, please feel comfortable in asking them. Hopefully, I can address them more succinctly. And if you want to ask a question privately, feel free to do so at sweptover [at] gmail [dot] com.

Peace be with you, brother.

Paul said...

Thank you, Scott - your reply does add clarity for me to both your post and the prayer itself.

What a mysterious and powerful and curious thing is prayer.

Considering your thoughtful & thorough reply, I'm sorry this is so short, alas, work awaits.

I appreciate your willingness to discuss further and may just take you up on that.

Warmest wishes to your growing family!