One of the beautiful characteristics of the Orthodox faith is the liturgical cycle of services. Worship in the Church is a rhythmic pattern of fast periods leading to a feast. The liturgical cycle allows time for preparation, reflection, and then . . . celebration!
On August 15th, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Dormition or Falling Asleep of the Theotokos. This feast honors the Virgin Mary, through whom the mystery of the Incarnation took place. The two weeks preceding the feast, August 1-14, represent a time of prayer and fasting. Liturgically, the Church offers a wonderful prayer service called the Paraklesis to the Theotokos.
For anyone who suffers from grief, depression, sorrow, or anxiety, the Paraklesis is a welcome salve to the soul. Although the gospel message of Jesus Christ is one of joy, the Paraklesis service recognizes that everyone, from time to time, experiences emotional and spiritual pain. Rather than isolating ourselves or feeling shame over our distress, the Paraklesis extends to us an invitation to share that pain with the Theotokos, asking for her prayers and comfort.
Listen to these verses from hymns chanted during the service:
I entreat you, O Virgin, disperse the storm of my grief, and my souls most inward confusion, scatter it far from me...
Heal me from the ills, which the passions bring, most pure one, make me worthy of your guiding care. And unto me grant health, through your intercessions and your prayer.
Whatever emotional or spiritual state we find ourselves in, the message throughout the Paraklesis service is that God accepts and affirms us. We are welcomed and consoled whether our suffering is from despair or hopelessness, fear or isolation, grief or rejection. It is important to note that not once does the Paraklesis attribute our suffering to a lack of faith. Instead, we are allowed to see things as they are and to give voice to our feelings. Being permitted to name things as they are and not as they “should” be or “must” be can be cathartic and transformative.
The Paraklesis service, however, does not leave us in our wounded state. We are invited to start where we are emotionally and spiritually, and to slowly ascend to enlightenment, peace, hope, and the knowledge that God is the Physician of our souls and bodies. Listen to these verses that illustrate this point:
Pure one fill my heart, with a merriment, a happiness; bestow on me your spotless joy...
With the brightness of your light, dispel the darkness of my sins, O bride of God who gave birth to the divine and eternal Light!
We seek to pass through our sorrows, not to revel in them. As much as we cannot hide from the experience of darkness, so too we can never become so accustomed to dwelling therein that we do not try to find the light. This service is a holy avenue toward that light.
So how can families benefit liturgically from the Dormition fast?
1) Attend as many of the Paraklesis services as you can. Offered on most weeknights, the child-friendly service is completed in less than one hour. By following along in the service book or chanting together with the congregation, the Paraklesis will offer hope and inner peace on daily basis. Many find the melodies so uplifting and infectious that they begin chanting portions of the service at home during their family prayer time.
2) Help your children write a list of names of those whom you would like to intercede for and submit it to your parish priest. The Paraklesis service not only seeks the intercessions of the Theotokos for ourselves, but we are called to intercede for others. Writing the names of friends and foes on a prayer list is a concrete expression of our love for others.
3) Either for yourself or with older children, write a list of concerns and pray about them during the service. Jesus wants us to share with him all of our thoughts, desires, and challenges in life. Writing a list of concerns and lifting them up to God is a sign of trust and openness. It welcomes God into the most intimate places of our soul.
Listen to the words of one of the final hymns of the Paraklesis service:
O Mother of God most high . . .
You are 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; you visit the sick. You are shelter to the weary; you are comfort to the crushed; you are heavenly assistance to the orphans.
Mother of our God, guard me with care within your sheltered arms.
With God’s grace, may we enter this Dormition fast period with a sense of purpose and expectation.
Fr Alexander Goussetis