Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Eastern Marian Apparitions, “Orthodoxy”, and the West

(The Angelus, March/April, 2019.)

Marian devotion is a hallmark of Eastern Christianity, as anyone who has entered into one of its churches and seen the central role played therein by the holy icons of the Theotokos can testify. It is, therefore, no surprise that believers who pray before these images on a regular basis would turn to them for miraculous aid in times of danger. Perhaps the most famous of such calls for help took place in 622, when Patriarch Sergius, serving as regent in the absence of the Emperor and the imperial army, processed around the walls of Constantinople with a beloved Marian icon to save the city from a deadly Avar invasion.

Eastern apparitions of the Mother of God are also not unknown. Russians believe that Mary visited both Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392) as well as the man whom he blessed to lead the fight against the Tatars, Dmitri Donskoy (1350-1389), the Grand Prince of Moscow. But here, too, her most renowned appearance was in Constantinople, in 911. This is reputed to have taken place during another threatening invasion, at the Church of Blachernae, where Mary’s robe, veil, and part of her belt, transported from Palestine in the fifth century, had long been venerated. The following description of what gave birth to the Feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, celebrated by Eastern Christians annually on October 1st, comes from the website of the Orthodox Church in America:

On Sunday, October 1, during the All Night Vigil, when the church was overflowing with those at prayer, the Fool-for-Christ Saint Andrew (October 2), at the fourth hour, lifted up his eyes towards the heavens and beheld our most Holy Lady Theotokos coming through the air, resplendent with heavenly light and surrounded by an assembly of the Saints. Saint John the Baptist and the holy Apostle John the Theologian accompanied the Queen of Heaven. On bended knees the Most Holy Virgin tearfully prayed for Christians for a long time. Then, coming near the Bishop’s Throne, she continued her prayer.

After completing her prayer she took her veil and spread it over the people praying in church, protecting them from enemies both visible and invisible. The Most Holy Lady Theotokos was resplendent with heavenly glory, and the protecting veil in her hands gleamed “more than the rays of the sun.” Saint Andrew gazed trembling at the miraculous vision and he asked his disciple, the blessed Epiphanius standing beside him, ‘Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” Epiphanius answered, ‘I do see, holy Father, and I am in awe.’

The Ever-Blessed Mother of God implored the Lord Jesus Christ to accept the prayers of all the people calling on His Most Holy Name, and to respond speedily to her intercession, ‘O Heavenly King, accept all those who pray to You and call on my name for help. Do not let them go away from my icon unheard’.

Given such serious recognition of the reality of Marian apparitions in the East, what can we say about the reaction of easterners to those claimed to have occurred in western, Roman Catholic lands? The answer to this question depends upon what one means by oriental Christians. There are, of course, many of these in union with Rome who not only honor the Feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, but also publically accept what the Latin Church approves with respect to Marian apparitions in the West. But then we have to consider the “Eastern Orthodox”, who, except for rare, brief, and brittle intervals, have officially been at odds with the Holy See since 1053. And here a basic existential problem emerges.

The difficulty lies in the fact that there are numerous “Eastern Orthodoxies”, both historically and in contemporary life, with considerable differences among their members, particularly with respect to judgments regarding developments in the Latin Church and how to respond to them. Where Mary is concerned, it is certainly the case that there is a general “Eastern Orthodox” rejection of the two modern Roman pronouncements concerning the Mother of God--- the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption---although often on the basis of arguments that “reach” for grounds for an opposition that might otherwise not have been offered if the Pope had not been centrally involved in proclaiming them.

On the other hand, there are, historically, a considerable number of important Orthodox thinkers who are much more in agreement with the Latin Church on a variety of theological questions than with what is today presented as dogmatic by the most vociferous defenders of “Eastern Orthodoxy”. One can see this by examining everything from the debates at the fifteenth century Council of Florence over apparent points of disagreement to centuries-long discussions of the reception or rejection of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. Most importantly, the reality of eastern division is apparent with respect to the writings of the “neptic” or “watchful fathers”, transmitted in the eighteenth century by the collection of texts called the Philokalia, and associated with the quietist and anti-intellectual practices of hesychasm, as most vigorously promoted by Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359). Readers interested in learning more about these writings, the spiritual connected with it, and its consequences can look back to a previous article that I wrote on this subject in The Angelus.

The most clearly formulated hostility to things western, at least in my own experience, can be found in the “orthodox” arguments coming from Russian, post-revolutionary Russian expatriate, and Russian-influenced western convert communities and activists. But who, in the “Eastern Orthodox” world can decide whether they or some of their more western-friendly co-religionists are correct? That community possesses no universally accepted machinery for settling disputes about such matters, with some easterners even still insisting that there can be no ecumenical council to resolve disputes without an emperor to preside over it.

What this all means, when translated into an investigation into the “Eastern Orthodox” attitude towards Marian apparitions in the life of the Roman Catholic Church, is that one has to be careful in distinguishing the sources consulted. Are they based upon the Christian spirit of ordinary pious men and women? Are they steeped primarily in the teachings of the first Ecumenical Councils and in the writings of the Fathers of the Church recognized by all easterners? Are they expressions of opinions chiefly shaped by irritation with papal involvement in approving and interpreting the apparitions in question? Or are the judgments that are made the product of the anti-intellectual, quietist spirituality of the Philokalia, hesychasm, and the nineteenth century Russian mystical tradition that emerged from them and has now won for itself a western-wide clientele?

Having put the reader on warning about these difficulties, let me now note that the answer to the question “what do the ‘Eastern Orthodox’ think?” about western Marian apparitions is “everything imaginable”. Articles regarding such apparitions from official and popular sources that are readily available on the Internet show that many of our “orthodox” separated brethren share the same concerns that we do regarding the potential for deluded or manipulative claims of visitations by the Mother of God---with Medjugorje as the current prime example of that critique---but are often greatly attracted to the western pilgrimage sites at Lourdes and Fatima. Bernadette and the children in Portugal are frequently appreciated for their innocence, which is taken as a sign of the truth of what they saw, and the spirit of repentance evoked by the Fatima message wins it approval in circles that admit that “something” of divine origin did indeed happen there. In fact, there are even attempts to give to these apparitions an eastern twist, as, for example, in a rather friendly article by an English convert to Orthodoxy, who says that “when Bernadette was asked about the exact outward appearance of the Mother of God and was shown a catalogue of images, she innocently but truthfully at once chose not the resemblance of a Roman Catholic statue, but that of an Orthodox icon”. (See “Lourdes and Fatima: True or False?”, at www.events.orthodoxengland.org.uk/2013/08/17).

Objections arise regarding whatever ties them with “unacceptable” Roman teachings and papal politics. Hence, the association of Lourdes with the recently proclaimed dogma of the Immaculate Conception is interpreted by those friendly to the apparition as a distortion of the original vision and by the more hostile as discrediting it entirely. Fatima, with its call for the consecration and conversion of a Russia which is now viewed by fervent “orthodox” as herself the only hope for the salvation of an atheistic and libertine West, arouses still more criticism, chastised as self-condemned for Russophobia or lamented as a victim of kidnapping by the Papacy to support its never-ending hunt for Roman hegemony.

Just how vociferous the critique can be, especially from Russian-influenced sources, is illustrated by a widely read and extensively commented upon article of a convert from Anglicanism by the name of Miriam Lambouras entitled: “The Marian Apparitions: Divine Intervention or Delusion?” (orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/marian_apparitions.aspx) Here, amidst totally legitimate questions regarding the validity and politicization of certain visions---once again, especially that of Medjugorje---one encounters what can often be found elsewhere in “orthodox” arguments: a seeming blindness to the incredibly political and national parochialism prevalent in much of the eastern world, and a “reaching” for arguments to show how western spirituality perversely differs from eastern beliefs and practices that a more friendly eye might think to be similar. Worst of all is the author’s willingness to call up classical naturalist Enlightenment arguments to try to equate Marian devotion in the West to ancient, pagan “Mother Goddess” worship or psychological disturbances that can all too readily be turned to crush Russian “Orthodoxy” as well.

Western converts from Roman Catholicism influenced by Russian “Orthodoxy” are very much in the public religious eye in our time, Rod Dreher chief among them. Given the ever-wider knowledge of contemporary scandals in the Latin Church, the danger of their attracting other Catholics to join them is great. It is this that makes it necessary to put the faithful on warning regarding what may or may not lie behind the arguments put forward by them. The “gut feeling” of many Eastern Orthodox believers is that the western Marian apparitions are true, and that “temptation” is a major and open reason why articles seeking to discredit them are written. The “gut feeling” comes from a reflection of the brilliant Eastern Christian tradition that the Universal Church as a whole must appreciate. The critique, many legitimate and generally discussed issues aside, leads, ultimately to a different kind of “orthodoxy” than that of the Eastern Church Fathers we all share in common; one that denigrates speculative theology as a purely Latin corruption, leading men and women into a quietist, spiritual “black hole”. And going that pathway truly might lead people to delusion by a Mother Goddess rather than enlightenment by the Virgin.

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