Tsironis Niki

A Frail Virgin and a Tower of Strength: The Mother of God in the thought and homilies of Anthony of Sourozh

A great figure of the Russian Diaspora, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh is one of the eminent personalities who have marked with their work Orthodox theology in the 20th century. His approach to Patristic theology has been very different from the one of the other theologians of his era, like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Chritos Yannaras, Fr Andrew Louth and others. Each one of these figures contributed a distinct understanding of Christianity that enriched Orthodox theology and its reception in modern times. Metropolitan Anthony was a medical doctor with a Ph.D. from France and no academic background to theology, though he was given four honorary doctorates, one from the University of Aberdeen for “preaching the Word of God and renewing the spiritual life of this country”, the second from the Moscow Theological Academy for “his theological, pastoral and preaching work”, the third from the University of Cambridge and the fourth from the Kiev Theological Academy. Remarkable, if one takes into consideration that he never wrote academic papers or books. His theology was expressed in his talks and sermons. He was an exquisite orator with a deep understanding of the Scriptures but also of the Fathers.

Admittedly, his greatest talent, virtue and quality was the way in which he related theology to issues preoccupying modern society. The structure of his talks and sermons, which has not been systematically studied yet, follows a pattern that presents great interest when compared to the typical structure of Byzantine and post-Byzantine homilies and discourses. I will leave this topic on the side for the moment and I will attempt to concentrate on the views Metropolitan Anthony expressed in his work regarding the Mother of God. What I argue in this paper is that Metropolitan Anthony offered us a distinctive understanding of the figure of the Mother of God and her contribution to soteriology. Moreover, Metropolitan Anthony’s Mariology is linked and reflects concerns of the 20th century, proving that –as always in Christian history- the Marian cult echoes questions, difficulties, worries and doubts people experience in theology and in real life. Metropolitan Anthony’s sermons and talks have been so uniquely popular precisely because they tackled issues of importance for theology in a way accessible to modern man, a way that was enriched by a personal understanding of the Scriptures and of everyday life.

Ever since the beginning of Christian history, the Mother of God has been linked to Christian devotion. We gradually come to realize how multifaceted and complex is the cult of the Virgin and how many distinct strands underlie its development in Byzantine and Post-Byzantine centuries. According to specific geographical areas, the Virgin has been used in order to promote trends, doctrines and virtues through their association with her person. Let me mention just few milestones: Mary’s first representations emphasize her connection to the female deities of the Eastern Mediterranean and especially Isis. Already in the second century, concerns related to the relationship between the Old and the New Testament and the typological reflection of persons and events of the Old Testament in the New, give rise to the Virgin as Second Eve. In the fourth century, the ideal of virginity associated with the growth of monasticism, is reflected in the additional emphasis laid on the sanctity and purity of Mary. In the fifth century,  the trend of allegorical interpretation propounded by the School of Alexandria is expressed in the debate over the use of the paradoxical title Theotokos which puts emphasis and summarizes the reality of the Incarnation of the Word. At the same time her cult in Constantinople spreads and numerous shrines are dedicated to the Virgin while during the same period her relics become a focal point of her veneration. Between the 5th and the 7th century, Mary is associated with the imperial city and possibly –as it has been argued- with female imperial authority. As defender of the City she appears walking on its walls forcing back its enemies. Doctrinal concerns of the Dark Ages pave the way of her association with the Passion. The Iconoclastic period witnesses an unmatched flourishing of Marian devotion. Mary as the gateway of Christ’s Incarnation is used in a metonymic fashion in Iconophile argumentation for the defense of matter and hence of icons and the relics of the saints. In the centuries that followed Marian devotion consolidated with her hymns being officially incorporated in the liturgical books of the Church. It is impressive that even after the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787, Mary remains a means of expression of Christian doctrine.

A striking example is provided at the time of Hesychasm, in the 14th century where Mary is portrayed as the ideal Hesychast in the homily of Gregory Palamas on her Presentation to the Temple (Έλληνες Πατέρες της Εκκλησίας, Γρηγορίου Παλαμά έργα 11, Π. Χρήστου και Θ. Ζήσης εκδ., Θεσσαλονίκη 1986, 260-347). Therein, Palamas addresses his audience as a “sacred theatre” and calls the Virgin an animated statue (έμπνουν άγαλμα) and living icon of every virtue, the centre of of divine and human graces. She was the one, Palamas says, who made all humans inhabitants of heaven, proving them to be spirit rather than flesh (sic) and making them children of God. The Mother of God mediator, the Mother of God Queen of every creature of this and the other world; a universal Queen (παγκοσμίου βασιλίδος) without crown, without precious stones and colours and luxurious textiles. Her insignia are the virtues of the soul, the visit of the Holy Spirit that covered her.

The beauty of the Virgin serves as an agent linking the visible with the invisible world and directing people’s mind towards God (pp.272-281).  The Virgin is thus called the living throne (breathing / έμπνους) of God, adorned with virtues befitting to the King sitting on it (the throne). The Virgin is said to have made the whole earth heaven through the Incarnation uniting the nous with God, uniting God with the flesh making God the son of man and man the son of God (p.342-344). “You gave us  the possibility to perceive through the senses the one invisible in kind and our own in shape, to touch in matter the immaterial …” The Virgin is presented as the model of Hesychasm: “Setting aside the concerns of everyday life she turned towards herself and to the unceasing prayer.” (338) The whole divine plan of the Incarnation is understood as provoked by Mary as part of her mesiteia on behalf of mankind: “Out of pity for the human race and in an effort to find a remedy [against death and Hades] she took up the mission to urge towards us the one who cannot be urged and to draw Him towards us faster, in order that He pushes away the curse, to stop the course of flame that burns the souls, to weaken the enemies, to return the blessing, to make the unsetting light shine and curing the illness to unite the creature to himself.” (324)

“Αυτοχειροτόνητος” is the word that Gregory uses for the Virgin. The one who has taken upon herself the sacerdotal role of mediator on behalf of humanity, thus proving that the disposition of her soul urged her to become the one who would unite spirit and matter.

In Gregory Palamas, whom I have chosen to parallel with MA, the Virgin is the most holy, πάγκαλη, most beautiful and virtuous with qualities which reflect her inner life and disposition.  The point I would like to stress, is that Palamas’ Mariology reflects his theological preoccupations with monastic life, retreat from the world, (324) unceasing prayer but also the dialectic relationship between spirit and matter, that is the main issues that dominated his day.

Spirit and matter, what he has often called Christian materialism, prayer and vigilant attitude pertaining to spiritual life were also the main axis in MA’s thought as expressed in his talks and homilies and edited by people devoted to him throughout his life but also after his death in 2003. Offspring of a high rank family with a father who served Russia as diplomat in the years preceding the October Revolution, MA was among the people who experienced an abrupt change in their lives caused by the Revolution. This breach would not start to be healed before the 90’s when gradually the former Soviet Union started becoming once again Russia while at the same time it was losing parts of its former lands who were now seeking their independence from the central government of Moscow. With a rich spiritual tradition behind him, MA was a child of many cultures, moulded in the hardship of challenging times, a curse as the Chinese say but also a blessing if one considers how much the Russian Diaspora has offered to the West in the 20th century. His personality alone would be worth analyzing in monographs; this personality set against the backdrop of such challenging times is a fascinating topic worth looking into from the perspective of modern history but most importantly from the perspective of Orthodox theology and its reception in the 20th century. From the wealth of the material that is available in back issues of Sourozh and other publications as well as the Metropolitan Anthony Foundation archive  I wish to concentrate on MA’s Mariology and more specifically the way in which he treats the Virgin in his talks and homilies and the relationship of his Mariological views to his theology.

The main theological points he associates with the Virgin is the person of Mary as an ideal model of what we should be as Christians.  Interestingly enough MA portrays Mary as the image (an ideal image) in a way reminiscent of Gregory Palamas’ living image adorned with virtues. In MA, the idea of the Virgin as a prototype and model for humans couples with typological concerns which do not replicate though the Second Eve vocabulary (at least in the examples of homileis and talks I studied). The obedience of Mary, however, occupies a central place and MA on a number of instances quotes Charles Williams who “says that when the time was right, a maiden of Israel proved capable of pronouncing the name of God with all her mind and all her will and all her flesh, and the Word became flesh. It is a gift of self, and it is at the same time an unreserved and heroic acceptance: a gift of self in humility, and an heroic acceptance because of what it could have been, what is meant humanly speaking” (preached at the University Church of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, on 19 May 1985). Humility in MA is not understood as a meek or docile way of existence. Anthony of Sourozh reverts in etymology in order to emphasize the meaning of humility when applied with reference to the Virgin: “Humility is a condition of the earth, lying completely open and surrendered: the earth which is open to all actions, of mankind, of the rain, accepting the refuse and accepting the furrow and bringing fruit, surrendered, offered and given. This is the essence of humility and this is the kind of humility which we see in the Mother of God.” Mary’s humility is associated with her motherhood, the Incarnation, her spiritual and moral attitude towards God. Furthermore, it echoes an understanding of the relationship with God that is very often emphasized in MA’s words. It lies emphasis on the reciprocity of the relationship with God, the responsive nature of this relationship that is one of absolute and deep love.

In his always subtle and rich imagery he describes Mary’s attitude as one of great suppleness and flexibility using the image of the child’s hand led by the mother in the provess of learning how to write , the fragile surgeon’s glove that protects his patient but at the same time follows the movement of his hand allowing him to operate and lastly, the sail of the sailing ship that changes shape according to the wind thus serving its scope in the best possible way. The topic of obedience in MA’s writings is not uncommon. In his talk on «Discipleship, Obedience Freedom» (Chruch of St Mary, Oxford), he speaks of the way in which discipleship is achieved only on the basis of a relationship of deep trust. Listening plays an important role in his understanding of discipleship and this is the quality of the Virgin he mostly praises in his treatment of the Cana miracle: her ability to listen and by listening we are convinced that effectively he means her ability to perceive. Mary’s obedience for MA is not submissive. In another text in his Meditations on a Theme (15), MA speaks about silence as a virtue of the disciple saying: «Discipleship begins with silence and listening. When we listen to someone we think we are silent because we do not speak; But our minds continue to work, our emotions react, our will responds for or against what we hear, we may even go further than this, with thoughts and feelings buzzing in our heads that are quite unrelated to what is said. This is not silence as implied in discipleship. The real silence towards which we must aim as a starting point is a complete repose of mind and heart and will, the complete silence of all there is in us, including our body, so that we may be completely aware of the word we are receiving, completely alert and yes, in complete repose. The silence I am speaking of, is the the silence of the sentry on duty at a critical moment: alert, immobile, poised, and yet alive to every sound, every movement.» [Encounter 103- Meditations on a Theme 15]. This is precisely the way Anthony of Sourozh describes the attitude of the Virgin: alert, immobile, poised and yet alive to every sound and every movement.

He has the gift to speak about the Scriptures making the Gospels narrative jump out of the page and become a real event. He uses the narrative removing the stereotypical expressions that deprive it of its immediacy and makes it relevant to present day concerns. The fear of persecution and death, MA has experienced in his early years as a refugee in Paris as well as in the World War II period inform his description of the Annunciation. He stresses that the obedience of the Virgin is not a simple thing to do and say. It is a consent to an act that according to the Jewish Law could have resulted to her death, as a young unmarried woman pregnant was punished by lapidation.

The cruelty and reality of death, is also brought out in the parallel he draws between the consent of the Virgin at the Annunciation and the Sacrifice of Abraham, both showing unconditional trust to God. Recently, Constas/Fr Maximos of Simonopetra, analysed ingeniously the association of the Annunciation and Hypapante with the Crucifixion in the context of the fulfilment of the prophecy regarding the sword that would pierce the Virgin’s heart in his “And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Own Soul” (Lk 2:35): The Kenosis of Christ and the Mother of God (published in 2014 by the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church). In this wonderful article we find similarities with the theological approach  of Metropolitan Anthony. In one of his talks on Orthodoxy and the veneration of images, MA refers to an icon that has struck him: an icon of the Virgin portrayed alone, as a young peasant girl without veil, with her hair falling right and left of her face and her hands clasped in a gesture of agony. A curious icon, MA notes, until one realizes that at the background there is a Crucifixion painted in pale yellow. Contemplation of the Crucifixion is the reason Mary is portrayed in agony and distress.

The shadow of death and the sacrificial dimension of the narratives are accentuated in MA’s words:

“This is something that very few of us will ever have to face in life, or at least I hope so; but it happens all the time in various parts of the world, and it has happened throughout history when one person has allowed another to give his or her life for a cause, for God or for men. Without a word of protest, sharing in the heroic offering.” The understanding of Mary’s consent as a heroic offering certainly appealed to his audience in the West but imagine how relevant it sounded to the Russian people who received his sermons in tapes and translations. The traumatized 20th century knew only too well the meaning of sacrifice for God or for men. It knew too well the weight and the smell of death; knew only too well the imagery MA was laconically insinuating in his sermons.  The suffering he experienced during the early years of his life, together with the feelings fired by the circumstances of the Diaspora influenced to a great extent his understanding of Christianity, persecution, sacrifice but also the relationship with God. His distinct way to approach the Scriptures not as narrative but as a reality that could be identified with people’s experience is echoed in his treatment of Good Friday, the Crucifixion and the death of Christ on the Cross as a sharing of the tragedy of human condition (Encounter 182). He lays emphasis on the ways Christ experienced human feelings: loneliness, humiliation, betrayal, hatred. And he extends this even further saying that Christ’s death was a proof of his solidarity to mankind. He takes the hymn of Thursday in Holy Week “O Life eternal how can you die; O light, how can you be quenched?” and he asserts that here we are not dealing with rhetoric. “It is not an allegory or a metaphor… He [Christ] died on the Cross, and the operative words are the most tragic words of history. He, who is the Son of God, because he had accepted total, final, unreserved and unlimited solidarity with men in all their conditions, without participation in evil but accepting all its consequences; he, nailed on the cross, cries out the cry of forlorn humanity, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

It has been occasionally argued that MA had no theology. I would like to argue that indeed, he was not a theologian and this becomes evident in the way he resents systematic theology. As a true oral composer he draws freely from Patristic literature, hymnography and his wider reading and constructs his homilies with building blocks that remind us of the theory of orality and performance as formulated by Lord and Parry in the 1930s and further developed into a performance theory by Gregory Nagy in more recent years in his Poetry as Performance. Epistemological tools of research were irrelevant to his way of transmitting the message of the Gospel as a real experience. Instead of analyzing words and images, methods and techniques, MA proceeds to a reading of the Gospel that is reminiscent to that of the Church Fathers. Worth noting, is the great fascination and pleasure he takes in reverting to etymology in order to discover deep mystical sense in the words, as for example his etymological approach to the word God whose Gothic root means “one before whom one prostrates in adoration” [Encounter 59]. In a talk included in his book “God and Man” he speaks about the last words of Christ on the Cross resenting their typological understanding, or rather going beyond that level of meaning. “People who are keen on exegesis”, he says, “ explain to us that at that point [when Christ utters the words My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me] he was rehearsing a verse of a prophetic song.” The manner in which he refers to typological exegesis is rather pejorative. He ironically asks his audience whether anyone has seen someone dying rehearsing a prayer he had been taught as a boy. And he continues: “Besides, it is an error of vision – for it is a prophecy that is turned towards its fulfillment, not fulfillment that is supposed to recite words of prophecy. No, it was something real”. Already the vibrant emphasis on the reality of the events shakes and alerts his audience, seizes it and transports it to the place where the events were actually taking place. “God is not someone about whom one can have notions, God is someone whom one encounters”. I quote from the same Good Friday text: “When Christ said ‘My God, my God why hast Thou forsaken me?’  –and the repetition of the very words is certainly not accidental- He was crying out, shouting out the words of a humanity that had lost God, and he was participating in that very thing which is the only real tragedy of humanity – all the rest is a consequence. The loss of God is death, is forlornness, is hunger, is separation. All the tragedy of man is in one word, ‘Godlessness’.” Christ’s Descent to Hell is thus described precisely in these terms: as a descent to a place where God is not, a place of final dereliction. Hell is destroyed because the man who descended therein is both man and God. There is no longer a place where God is not. The destruction of Hell is a proof of Christ’s solidarity to mankind. In his conclusion, the point I made above, regarding the way MA links his theology to concerns of his times, is spelled out in a most original way : “This is the measure of Christ’s solidarity with us, of his readiness to identify himself, not only with our misery but with our godlessness. If you think of that, you will realize that that there is not one atheist on earth who has ever plunged into the depths of godlessness as the Son of God, become the Son of Man, has done. He is the only one to know what it means to be without God and to die of it.” (God and Man, 54 – Encounter 184).

MA relates his talks and sermons on the Virgin to the  Crucifixion. He views the two topics in absolute interdependence as it becomes evident in some of the examples we saw above. In one of his sermon on Good Friday, MA describes the pain of the Virgin at the Crucifixion entirely stripped of its ritual context. The Virgin, he says, does not lament as other women do, she does not faint and does not weep; her grief is expressed as a silent lamentation, deep and mute; it makes her turn inwards and apprehend the events that are taking place in front of her eyes in a way that is in accordance with the sobriety she showed at the Annunciation and the Presentation to the Temple.

Pivotal instants of human lives such as birth, puberty, marriage, death, encountered in all religions throughout centuries,  today gradually disappear. Probably related to the desacralization of society which has a tendency to share the celebration of a pleasant event but to keep private events related to death and bereavement. We may suggest that the non-ritual description of Mary at the Foot of the Cross is linked to the non-ritual context of France and England, where he lived and for the people of which he composed his homilies.

In a homily on Palm Sunday [April 1993, Encounter 175] the Virgin is portrayed as the ideal disciple, standing at the foot of the Cross in silence, accompanied by John the Beloved disciple. She is said to be offering his death for the salvation of mankind, silent and dying with him hour after hour. The disciple was standing by in horror, seeing his Master die and the Mother in agony. Mary’s philanthropy is brought to the fore in Anthony’s “Courage to Pray” (61), where he encourages us to pray to the Mother of God identifying ourselves with the crucifiers, trusting she will mediate for our salvation to her Son and God. Mary, the maiden of Israel who made possible the Incarnation of the Word not as an instrument but as an accomplished human being, conscious of her role in history and salvation is praised here for the openness of her heart, her personal surrender. In his talks and homilies on the Creation, MA clearly speaks of woman as the alter ego of man created through God’s philanthropy for the cure of his aloneness (sic) [Encounter 87]. Anthony coins this word to transmit the discovery of the ultimate loneliness of Adam at the time he gives names to all creatures who are presented to him in couples, male and female. The person God creates is not a helper but a full human being that came out of Adam who contained within him “too much and yet enough. God calls out of this complex human chaos of pure, innocent, and yet incomplete potentialities a companion.

As I said above, MA approaches God as an encounter and not as a notion. in this very same way he describes his vision of the Virgin Mary : not as a submissive female but as a person with deep consciousness, an accomplished human being whose greatest virtue was her ability to be silent, perceiving deeply in her heart the whisper of God. Metropolitan Anthony used to say that often humans, we expect God to reveal himself in awe and thunder. But in fact God reveals himself in frailty, in weakness and this weakness MA associates with the Virgin while at the same time he stresses the fullness of her humanity and her role in the Incarnation and death of Christ.

Summarizing the points I made, I wish to stress the way in which the Mother of God from the first Christian centuries to the present day served as means for the expression of theological currents and trends. Just like Gregory Palamas employs Mary as the ideal Hesychast, similarly MA, one of the most important and acclaimed preachers of the 20th century employed Mary in order to express his own world view and the concerns that preoccupied him at the time of his service at the Russian Cathedral in London in the post-WW II years

in London. His teaching focused on the personal understanding of Christianity and the personal relationship to God, stripped of rituals and diversions. It was a relationship that answered the needs of broken people faced with the threat of a Godless world. His answer to that was given through his sermons and writings. Therein the Mother of God is portrayed as the ideal disciple of Christ, the one who made Incarnation possible through her conscious and full acceptance of God in virtue and sacrificial love.  Her fullness of being points to an ethos that makes her unique in the creation. In a way that is reminiscent of Palamas , Mary somehow takes the initiative to pave the way for the Incarnation of the Word. I believe it was Palamas who referred to the Virgin as the door keeper of the kingdom. But, contrary to what doorkeepers normally do, Mary does not prevent people from entering but urges them to enter and share the kingdom of God.