Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mother of God, Gerontissa



The Gerontissa icon dates to the time of the Byzantine Empire and is lovingly housed in the Pantocrator Monastery on Mount Athos (pictured above) in the Greek archipelago. Gerontissa is a delicate title which translates "Abbess". An abbot is the male head of a monastery of monks; an abbess is the female head of a monastery of nuns.


In this icon the Virgin Mary is seen full-bodied and turned slightly to the right though she maintains a full-faced communion with the viewer. Her hands are open and empty in a gesture of intercession. Mother's intercede or pray for others. Mothers speak on our behalf to our fathers. Mothers pray in particular for their children. I remember my own mother standing at the front door as I left for school, promising to pray for me, even at the hour when she knew I would be taking  a test. Of course, Jesus is the definitive intercessor before the Father, but He shares everything that is his.

At the bottom of the icon there is an overflowing oil jar, commemorating the miracle of the monastery's empty store room wondrously replenished, as the starved monks prepared to dissolve their common life in search of food.

The pamphlet which tells the story of the wonder-working image ends with these thoughts:

"The Mother of God 'Gerontissa' performs many miracles, that is why the sick turn their hopes to Her with faith. To infertile women She offers children. To cancer patients She restores health. To students She grants illumination, and to those with various needs, She is Prompt-Hearer, offering immediate solutions. She guides the faithful and becomes the advisor of their lives. Gerontissa offers special grace and blessings for the increase and fulfillment of any kind of work. Numerous devout pilgrims testify that after seeing the icon of the Gerontissa their work progressed.

Her image is sweet, pleasant and full of mercy, leaving every pilgrim a feeling of joy, elation, jubilation, hope, consolation and mercy, providing for the needs of Her children."
Carl Jung was instrumental in helping the founders of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) formulate their thought and method. AA is the basis of dozens of other twelve step programs. There's probably a Twelve Step program for each of us today, afflicted as we are in a toxic culture of discontent. To a man who was hopelessly addicted to alcohol Jung wrote:

"Ordinary religious faith isn't enough. What I"m talking about is a transforming experience, a conversion experience, if you like. I can only recommend that you place yourself in the religious atmosphere of your own choice, that you recognize your own helplessness, and that you cast yourself upon whatever God you think there is. The lightening of the transforming experience may then strike you. This you must try. It is your only way out."
Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and some Anglican and even Lutheran Christians understand that the Virgin Mary creates an atmosphere around the person of Her Son, Jesus. It is an atmosphere of faith, joy, trust in God's wonders and mercies, willingness, receptivity and solidarity with Christ. That so many people object to Mary having a celebrated place in Christianity may not be about dogmas at all but about Mary's being this environment of high joy around her Son, Jesus.

There is a scene in Muriel Spark's novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which  Miss Brodie is having tea in the faculty room with Mr. Teddy Lloyd, the art master. As they discuss life at their proper girl's academy, Marcia Blaine, Miss Brodie says of her Christian colleagues, "We have colleagues here who would postpone the Second Coming if they detected a note of joy or the sound of harps."

Standing before the Gerontissa icon I am invited to step into that Marian atmosphere of joy and love. From the place of my own helplessness, the place of my own empty storeroom, I can place my desire for wellness and growth into her opened hands. I can ask for the transforming overflow which we each can identify, symbolized by the jar at her feet.

A THOUGHT ABOUT THE PRESENCE OF IMAGES. The prohibition against the use of images in religion is God's law for ancient Jews who were  prone to take up with the false gods of the nations God conquered for them. But God has come into our world in the Incarnation. In other words, in Jesus Christ, God has become picturable. I've never met a Catholic or Orthodox believer who worshipped a statue or icon. These things invite us to the warming of hearts for heavenly realities. They invite us to the intimacy of prayer to God who faces us in Christ. It seems to me that the images - the gods of metal -  we really ought to be concerned about are the metal arsenals of war that we worship (tanks, submarines, bombs, landmines, jets, ships, rockets) that we trust utterly to save us and make us victors.

"You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal." Exodus 34:17 (ESV)

"Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the LORD your God." Leviticus 19:4 (NIV)

This is the real idolatry.

5 comments:

  1. Father,
    I have enjoyed and benefited from your thoughts and prayers on your blog. I am curious, if you were the same age as you are now in 1939, on the day Hitler invaded Poland, knowing what you know know about WWII what advise would you have given President Roosevelt ? Likewise, if you were a Polish Jew at that time what would you ask the Allies to do? Just curious. What prompted my question was a comment George Will once said many years ago: "Saying that 'war is not the answer' really depends on what is the question at hand."

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  2. This is an old post - going back almost to the start of the blog. The Catholic Church isn't a peace Church - the Quakers are. But the Catholic Church is coming around to new thinking since the 60's. Inching along. I"m not a pacifist - though I detest our war preparations, marketing of war, selling of war, inability to stay out of war. That our infrastructure is rapidly becoming third world but we always seem to be able to come up with the money for another war. What would I tell President Roosevelt? Who could dialogue with Hitler? Who can dialogue with ISIS? It's impossible. Having said that - the Catholic Church seems to be realizing that wars don't bring about peace. Indeed, my brother just retired from teaching American History for 33 years and he said recently that the First and Second World Wars were really one big war with a gap in between. And the Civil War - my goodness - that agenda is still very alive in our country, isn't it? But we're not good at dialogue - we don't know how to really talk with each other. We have our talking points and we drive them home and if we're not convincing the folks on the other side of the table we think we'll win by cursing, repeating ourselves or yelling. We never really try to understand what concerns the other person(s). The Israelis say about us: "You Americans never ask why?" I understand.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is an old post - going back almost to the start of the blog. The Catholic Church isn't a peace Church - the Quakers are. But the Catholic Church is coming around to new thinking since the 60's. Inching along. I"m not a pacifist - though I detest our war preparations, marketing of war, selling of war, inability to stay out of war. That our infrastructure is rapidly becoming third world but we always seem to be able to come up with the money for another war. What would I tell President Roosevelt? Who could dialogue with Hitler? Who can dialogue with ISIS? It's impossible. Having said that - the Catholic Church seems to be realizing that wars don't bring about peace. Indeed, my brother just retired from teaching American History for 33 years and he said recently that the First and Second World Wars were really one big war with a gap in between. And the Civil War - my goodness - that agenda is still very alive in our country, isn't it? But we're not good at dialogue - we don't know how to really talk with each other. We have our talking points and we drive them home and if we're not convincing the folks on the other side of the table we think we'll win by cursing, repeating ourselves or yelling. We never really try to understand what concerns the other person(s). The Israelis say about us: "You Americans never ask why?" I understand.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am an iconographer, and Gerontissa lifted my burdens and problems. As it said in the article, Gerontissa often helps with one's work. She already helped by inspiring me to try an icon of her of this type. I hope you also have a transformative experience in God's Light. Vital to all of us in these dark times. Wounded By Love, by Elder Porphyrios of Athens, might inspire you.

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