Friday, May 25, 2012

Prayer Rule of the Theotokos V: Rosary? Rule of the Theotokos? Jesus Prayer?

As I mentioned in my first post about the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos, most Eastern Catholics and Orthodox are unaware that this Rule not only exists, but that it is actually a very ancient tradition of the East. It is believed that the Mother of God gave this Rule to the Church some time in the 8th Century. I've heard speculation that the Dominican rosary is actually a Western adaptation of the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos, however this seems highly unlikely. At one point in time it seems that this Rule enjoyed an almost universal popularity. One spiritual son of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Fr. Zosima, claimed that at one time all Christians prayed this Rule daily. Eventually, however, it fell into disuse, and in our own day it has almost been restricted to the Holy Mountain, Mt. Athos, although there are some Eastern Catholics and even some Orthodox who pray the Dominican rosary.

Today most Orthodox and Eastern Catholics will say something along the lines of, "The closest thing we have to the rosary is the Akathist to the Mother of God (Theotokos). Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also implies as much in paragraph 2678, and in his wonderful book Theotokos: Mother of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Archbishop Joseph Raya also makes this same mistaken assertion. What is interesting to note the paragraph from the Catechism, however, is that it makes a direct liturgical connection between the Dominican rosary, the Akathist, and the Office of Paraklesis (another Byzantine hymn to the Mother of God). In the West, the rosary developed as a suitable substitute for the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly for those who were unable to attend the public celebration of the Liturgy of Hours for various reasons. It has, therefore, established itself within the weekly liturgical rhythm of the Roman Church, and it is recommended that one meditate on certain mysteries from the life of Christ and His Mother on certain days of the week.

In its explicitly liturgical connection as a suitable replacement for the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary in many ways bears more similarities to the use of the Jesus Prayer in the East than it does to the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos. The Churches of the Byzantine tradition have recommended that one replace the Liturgy of the Hours with a certain number of Jesus Prayer repetitions when it is impossible or impractical to attend the public celebration of the Hours. Following the Greek usage, the Melkite Publican's Prayer Book recommends the follow: "It (the Jesus Prayer) may be used in place of the Horologion (Liturgy of the Hours), with the Jesus Prayer prescribed as follows: 300 for Matins, 150 for Vespers, 100 for Compline, and 50 for each Little Hour" (see page 52 of the Publican's Prayer Book). If memory serves me correctly, the Russians prescribe even more than that.

But as a private devotion the rosary and the Rule of the Theotokos are practically indistinguishable, except for the prescribe mysteries upon which to meditate. But since in the East there is such a large variation on this Rule, it would be perfectly acceptable to adopt the mysteries as recommended for the Dominican rosary. In fact, during the Baroque period it was not uncommon for the Orthodox in Kiev as well as in Greece to pray the Dominican rosary simply as another variation of the Rule of the Theotokos.

Before laying to rest the notion that the Akathist is the closest equivalent in the Byzantine East to the rosary, I would like to mention one more thing. In the West the rosary has been given a particular emphasis, especially since the visions at Fatima where the Blessed Virgin urged the people of the Church to pray the rosary daily, particularly for the conversion of the world. Many Easterners scoff at this saying, "That was a private revelation to the Roman Church and does not apply to us." I know because before learning about the Rule of the Theotokos I too held that same attitude. But according to the Encyclopedia of Orthodoxy (the translation again thanks to Dr. Alexander Roman), the Mother of God herself also recommended that the Rule of the Theotokos be kept among Easterners: "In accordance with a revelation of the Mother of God, the fulfillment of the Rule is more important than Akathists and those who fulfill it (the Rule) live under the special protection of the Queen of Heaven." Sound familiar? Saints such as Seraphim of Sarov also highly encouraged their spiritual children to devote themselves daily to this Rule.

So what do we do if we do not have the time, energy, and/or focus to pray the entire 150 "Hail, O Virgin Theotokos..." Prayer Rule? St. Seraphim of Sarov again recommends that one simply pray 50 at a time according to one's strength. Again, this bears a remarkable resemblance to the practice of the Roman West, where the rosary is now more associated with 50 "Hail Marys" than the entire 150 repetitions. St. Seraphim, however, does not recommend praying specific mysteries on specific days. In keeping with the weekly liturgical cycle of the Byzantine East, I recommend the following:

Monday - mysteries 1 - 5
Tuesday and Thursday - mysteries 4 - 8
Wednesday and Friday - mysteries 6 - 10
Saturday and Sunday - mysteries 11 - 15

I realize there's a great deal of overlap there, but when one understands the weekly rhythm of the Byzantine liturgical cycle, I think the overlap will come to make sense.

May the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary spread her mantle over us and protect us from all danger, both physical and spiritual.


  1. On the Resurrection Chanters Blog, we are just completing a series of short posts on the weekly cycle of Byzantine worship, highlighting the common commemorations appropriate for weekday DLs when no simple, solemn or great feast is celebrated.

    Your recommended division of the mysteries by weekday certainly correlates well IMHO.

    Thanks for this and related posts. We are going to encourage the faithful yet informal "Rosary Society" of our parish to recite the Rule of the Theotokos in the near future!

    1. Joe,

      Is Fr. Jack going to encourage the Rosary Society to adopt the Rule of the Theotokos? I certainly hope the Society is open to the adoption. :)

    2. We are working with them to "Easternize" their prayer, first by using the Byzantine form of Angelic Salutation in the Rosary. We are also chanting liturgical hymns to the Theotokos at the conclusion of the Rosary. Eventually, we'll introduce the Rule of the Theotokos (I may take a stab at leading the effort).

    3. That would be a huge step forward, Joe. And it sounds like you're already taking the right steps to gradually "Easternize" the Rosary Society in your parish. It's better to do it in small steps with appropriate explanations than all at once with one lengthy (and rather unmemorable) explanation. I'll have to send you an email with an attachment of a booklet that a Ukrainian deacon friend of mine made. It might be a good next step as it is very Eastern, but still uses the Latin mysteries.

  2. How is it known that St. Seraphim of Sarov prayed a form of this prayer? Do you have a historical source for this information? I am interested in the history of this prayer.

    1. I've not yet come across a written source, other than sources stating that St. Seraphim gave the nuns of the Divyevo (I'm sure I spelled that wrong) monastery a form of this rule to pray as a group while they walked around the monastery grounds. It's been so long since I've read that that I'm not sure where I found it. But it's there. Also, I've heard from a knowledgeable Ukrainian friend of mine that St. Dmitri Rostov also prayed a more Western form of the the Rule of the Theotokos.

  3. I really love this question just because outside of Russia it is so unknown that Orthodox monasteries outside Russia assume it's a fraud (at least the four or Five dif ones that I spoke with). My understanding from an orthodox christian who traveled to Russia is that the prayer rule is very popular there. It seems like such an important academic research to travel to Diveyevo Monastery and see if it can be traced at least back to St Seraphim and maybe even further back. Where in the 8th Century did it began? Is there a specific person? An apparition? What writings might the monastery have contemporaneous with St Seraphim's time to show any kind of reference to it. To show that it's been a tradition every since to practice the prayer rule. The research to reveal it's full history seems to be just so important.

  4. It is, or it appears to me, like a variant of rule of St. Dmitry of Rostov, the dedication to the 5 sorrows...but this is just based on my memory of that rule and quick glance at this one

  5. It is, or it appears to me, like a variant of rule of St. Dmitry of Rostov, the dedication to the 5 sorrows...but this is just based on my memory of that rule and quick glance at this one