Saturday, February 12, 2011

Asking Mary's Prayers - How Old?

The 'eminent papyrologist' Edward Lobel examined the scrap of papyrus and dated it to about AD 250 based on the handwriting style, making it from about the same time period as the fresco of Mary in the catacombs. But Colin Roberts, who edited a collection of papyri published in 1938 did not agree. He did not believe that a prayer so directly addressing Mary could have be written in the third century. In his opinion the prayer had to be dated at least one century later.

Roberts even made a guess at reconstructing the prayer. This, however, proved to be incorrect. It wasn't until 1994 that the prayer on the papyrus was correctly identified. James Shiel, a professor at the University of Sussex, was flipping through the old Roberts volume when he came across a reproduction of the papyrus. He recognized in it a phrase that that occurs in the Latin prayer Sub tuum praesidium. The phrase appears in the Memorare as well.

Sub tuum praesidium:

We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God: despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin!

May the divine assistance remain always with us! Amen

The Memorare:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought they intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To thee do we come; before thee we kneel, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not our petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer them. Amen

These two prayers had always been considered the products of the medieval The earliest known copies date back to the fourteenth century. However, with a little more investigation, Shiel discovered that the prayer was contained in the Greek Orthodox Book of Hours, the cycle of daily prayers. In fact, it is still in use in the concluding prayers of evening services. This prayer supplied the missing pieces of the third century prayer perfectly.

Some believer, 1,750 years ago heard this prayer and copied it down to be able to carry it with him. We know only when it was written down that first time, not when it came into being. Such is one of the problems with oral tradition. It's hard to track down just when it starts.

The prayer starts with Mary's compassion. It does not speak of taking refuge under her power or her merits, but instead speaks of a very human motivation: she loves us. A person who sees one they love in trouble cannot help but do all that they can to help.

The prayer pleads with Mary from the midst of life's tribulations. It asks, 'deliver us from danger', using the same verb for deliver that is used in the Lord's Prayer. "It is sobering to recall that this prayer was first used by Christians who lived while their faith was still a capital crime, and for them 'deliver us from danger' might have been an urgent appeal."

Some might question the addressing of Mary within the prayer as 'only pure, only blessed one'. After all, wasn't Jesus pure? And aren't we all blessed? Keep in mind that prayers are like poetry. Hyperbole and metaphor abound and are part of what make the prayers so touching to our hearts, and so beautiful to say.

There is a shift in attitude toward Mary in this prayer. In the earlier text, The Gospel of Mary, she is a child, a tender figure. Someone to protect. In this later text she has become a champion of prayer, someone we turn to for protection.

Two expectations are inherent in this prayer. One, that Mary is alive to hear it. The way the prayer is addressed is as though to someone who is right there. Not someone absent, or dead, who we cannot expect to hear us. But someone there with us. Given the beliefs that we hold on the afterlife, there is no disconnect between addressing Mary as though she were right there with us, even though she is in heaven at this moment. The second assumption is that Mary's prayers are effective. The ancient Christians, as well as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox of today have no problem with the idea that the saints may intercede for us. In the catacombs, around the place where the bones of St. Peter and St. Paul were placed in AD 250, requests for the saints to pray for people were scratched into the walls over a hundred times.


  1. Wow! As one who never considered saints hearing our prayers or even thought of praying for the saints to help us...this is all fascinating. VERY interesting post!!

  2. Very interesting!

    Question about the "only pure" part. I have no idea, but it seems like "only" is close enough to "unique" and I'm pretty sure I remember learning that sometimes they're used interchangeably in other languages. Do you know if "uniquely pure" is another possible translation? It doesn't really matter, like you say, it's hyperbole and it works. Just what came to my mind.

  3. Hi.
    To answer Sanil's question, the correct translation is not "uniquely pure" but "the only one who is pure".
    Of course that is a comparison between the Theotokos and the rest of the human beings, and not between her and Jesus Christ. There is a very wide theology concerning Mary in the orthodox Church. The fathers of the Church teach that Mary's purity is unique, as she never condescended to any kind of sin, she kept herself clean from all that was not in perfect harmony with God's will, and even during the times of her temptations (which were several:her virginity being doubted by Joseph,giving birth in the Cave, The flee to Egypt, the time when she "lost" her twelve-year-old Son at the Temple, the times when Jesus was doubted by his own family members as well as the time when her own morality was questioned by some -John 8:41-, His arrest, His Death)she did not separate herself from God's will. She did not even accept thoughts that were not in complete agreement with God. She constantly and permanently kept herself, her will, her inner forces, in perfect harmony with God. So that is a unique Virginity that is not merely of the flesh.It is of heart and mind as well. That Virginity, that complete dedication to God, her perfect and free and unbreakable attachment to his will, is what "enabled" the incarnation. Saint Nicholas Kavasilas writes that the Theotokos "attracted" God, she was in such harmony with Him that in a way "made" Him come and enter her womb as there was no distance between her will and His. She was a human being like anyone else. She "could" sin. It was a possibility. Christ could never commit anything sinful as sin can never be mixed with His divine Nature. But the Theotokos was human and sin was a possibility. It was her Virginity of body, mind and heart, her free will, her perfect and unshakeable obedience that prevented her from sin. That is why she is so honoured and that is where these "hyperboles" derive from. The truth is, these hyperboles are actually quite realistic. I hope you are not scandalized by this. Please forgive my inadequate english and maybe you can look into it yourself for more information and perhaps a bit more eloquent and detailed.

  4. Susanne,

    Glad you're learning things!


    I had no idea, but Athena answered your question. :)


    Your explanation made perfect sense. The 'hyperbole' angle was suggested by the author, perhaps in response to arguments about the fact that Christ was also human and perfect, so calling Mary the 'only pure' could not be strictly true. But as you say, she is the 'only pure' one among normal humanity. I have to say, the Orthodox theology that I know about Mary is one of the first things that made me question Roman Catholic theology. It makes so much more sense when you look at it from the Orthodox side.

    Thanks for what you added!

  5. "I have to say, the Orthodox theology that I know about Mary is one of the first things that made me question Roman Catholic theology. It makes so much more sense when you look at it from the Orthodox side."

    Amber, I'm curious how the two differ and what about the OC's stance on Mary made more sense to you compared to the RC's thoughts?

  6. I will do my best to make a post answering your question, my dear. :) My understanding is sort of kindergarten level, but I'll explain it as I understand it!


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