For Protestants Uneasy with St. Mary

Here’s an email I sent to someone who is exploring Orthodoxy, but having trouble with our devotion to St. Mary.

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I know what you mean about Mary. She is probably the greatest struggle Protestants have with Orthodoxy. But I think it helps to realize how much the excesses of Western medieval devotion (like viewing her as co-mediatrix with her Son) have made it hard for Protestants to think of her with biblical simplicity. There’s so much reaction against the medieval excess that it’s hard to see her in a normal way.

For example, think of how we feel natural respect and appreciation for St Paul. If it wasn’t for the excesses, we’d find it natural to feel a similar respect and appreciation for Mary.

And where is she now? Hebrews 12:1 says that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the community of all who loved Christ in their earthly life. They now are all alive in his presence, continually worshiping him, continually in prayer. Mary would be among them of course; she loved her Son very much. Maybe she is standing next to St Paul.

That, I think, is the simplest way to look at it; the next step is that Mary is of course not St Paul, but a unique person in her own right—a very unique person with experiences no one on earth can claim. She was closer in her relationship to Jesus than anyone else who ever lived. She fed him, when he was a baby; she taught him how to walk and talk. Why would we not love her as much as we do St. Paul?

Surely, Jesus would have felt for her a very strong, natural, instinctive love. He would certainly want us to regard her with respect, as any man wants people to treat his mother with respect.

Orthodox often say that we don’t preach Mary, we preach Jesus; Mary is for after you come inside the community. Like, if you had a friend you particularly liked and enjoyed spending time with, sometime you might be at his house and meet his mother. You might find out you liked her a lot too. That’s what it’s like. Mary doesn’t take away from our love for Christ; she enhances it, like a flower placed beside his throne.

Since she is among that “great cloud,” we ask her to pray for us. That’s all we do, when we pray to the saints, we just ask them to pray for us, just like we ask friends on earth to pray for us. We don’t expect to get into conversations with the saints; it would be dangerous to seek those sorts of experiences, because the evil one can fake them so easily. We just ask them to pray for us, as if we sent them a message by text or email. There are stories, sure, about various saints (including Mary) appearing to believers or becoming invisibly present, and giving them guidance and hope. But we don’t seek out such things, because we’re so readily susceptible to deception. We just ask them to pray for us.

It’s no different from asking other Christians to pray. If we were supposed to only go directly to Jesus, then I shouldn’t ask you to pray for me. You shouldn’t ask anyone else to pray for your needs. We should all just keep it between us and the Lord, and never ask anyone else’s prayers.

But that’s not the case—people can’t help branching out and soliciting the prayers of others. Logically, how can that help? Are more prayers going to change God’s mind? No, his will is already going to be done. It “does no good” logically to ask anyone else’s prayers. And yet we know we are supposed to pray for other people—we can’t help it, our hearts yearn to pray for them. And we can’t stop ourselves from seeking others to pray for us. We just do this instinctively, out of some sense of living community, of being the whole Body of Christ, whether it’s “logical” or not.

When talking to the saints and asking their prayers, Orthodox feel that sometimes we kind of sense their presence, and get a sense of their personalities. It’s hard to put into words (and of course it’s wise to be on guard against deception). But people who have sensed the presence of any particular saint, all down the centuries, tend to report the same characteristics. With Mary, the sense is particularly of strength and compassion. We feel a great deal of admiration for her. St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ (10th century) said that he “went to heaven” in a vision, for a two-week period in the course of one earthly night. His angel guided him all around, but when he asked to see Mary, the angel said she wasn’t there; she spends all her time on earth, helping those who suffer. That’s in line with the strength of the compassion people have sensed when they ask her prayers.

UPDATE: had a thought about *why* we pray to saints. But rather than start with theology, let’s just start with what people instinctively *do*. 

Imagine you had a friend who was going through his last illness, who had always been a faithful intercessor, pra
ying tirelessly for others. At his bedside you might say, “When you get to heaven, please say a prayer for me. Don’t stop praying for me.” 

Even afterwards, when you had an urgent prayer need come up he might still come to mind. You might blurt out, “Bill, pray for Kathy”—even if you had no theological explanation for it, even if you had idea how such a thing could work. It would come bursting out of your heart, whether it made sense or not. 

Every capital-s Saint started out as an ordinary person, like Bill. But as they prayed and grew in Christ, the Christians living around them realized that there was something different about them. While the people nearest us are the ones most aware of our bad moods and sneaky actions, in this case the reverse happened, and those who knew them best kept seeing more of the light of Christ shining out. 

When those holy people died, those who knew them were likely to say, “Theodosia, pray for me!” or “Ephraim, pray for me!,” even before there was a “St” in front of their name. But the people who loved and remembered them also talked about them, and word spread; eventually those “ordinary people” became known everywhere as capital-S Saints. Then they belonged to the whole world. Everyone could know them and ask their prayers, no matter how many years roll by. 

This doesn’t answer “why” by giving an intellectual justification, but by just making an observation: people just *do* this. When a holy person dies, his Christian friends ask his prayers. They do this whether they understand the mechanics of it or not. In the Orthodox Church, we have gained a lot of friends over the course of 2000 years who are now in the presence of Jesus. As you start getting to know them, you’ll find some who seem like natural friends. Their whole existence now is prayer, and they are ready to pray for you too.

People may not be asking for Bill’s prayers for a couple of hundred years, much less thousands. The thing that makes people keep going back to the beloved saints of Orthodox history is that they discover “It works!” That these saints are still alive in Christ, they are listening, and their prayers have effect. That will sound strange if you are not used to being in a Christian tradition that still includes the supernatural. Orthodoxy is all about supernatural interaction—though that familiar way of picturing it is exactly backward, its rather that we discover the powerful spiritual world saturates our own ordinary lives, and we gradually learn how to be in the midst of it, wisely choosing to be continually filled further with the presence of Christ.


About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post; I don't think I'd heard it explained that simply before. I understand that the Orthodox and RC conceptions of Mary's role also are different. Do you find that Protestants tend to assume that they are the same when they are exploring Orthodoxy? (Asking as an Anglican!)

    FMG: Yes, and worse than that, they tend to assume that all honoring of Mary is unbalanced and unbiblical. They approach her with such suspicion, which is such a shame, not least because our Lord must want us to love her. It's just so hard for them to think through a way of doing that appropriately, and unfortunately treat her coldly instead.

  2. Interesting thoughts Frederica. I've moved from being Catholic to Evangelical and I am currently waiting on the Lord to see if I am to follow an inclination I have to join the Orthodox Church. You are quite right to point out the excesses in Marian devotion which are spiritually dangerous, and the root of many deceits that have led people astray. Marian devotion concerns me greatly. Most pronouncements about her among Catholic and to some degree Orthodox Christians go way beyond anything we read about her, or her relationship with Jesus in the New Testament. There's nothing in the Scriptures to indicate or suggest that Jesus encouraged devotion to her. Quite the opposite. There are a number of occasions in the gospels in which Jesus had to be firm with Mary when she sought to compel him to act in particular circumstances (John 2), or respond to her calls for attention ("Your mother wants to speak to you," Matt 12:46-50). On each occasion Jesus rebuffed Mary ("My time has not yet come," "Who is my Mother..?" etc). I think it pertinent that there is nothing in Scripture about asking, praying, or petitioning believers who have died and gone to be with the Lord. As an erstwhile staunch Marian I found it increasingly difficult to accommodate Mary in my prayer life once I came to true faith in Jesus. I felt the Holy Spirit led me away from Marian devotion because it had become a distraction. Far from Marian devotion pointing to Jesus I began to realise that it was obscuring him, and in some extreme cases was idolatrous. It still shocks me to walk into a church where a massive statue of Mary occupies the place above the altar. This is surely bad theology–the worst kind. This is born out by the fact that a recent survey suggests most Catholics are more comfortable praying to Mary than to Jesus. How did this happen? It is amongst other things a failure to grasp the significance of the the incarnation, to say nothing of the fact that the biblical Mary was the one who spoke as a sinner when she said, "And I rejoice in God my Saviour" (Luke 1). So Frederica, is there any place for me in the Orthodox Church? Will my reservations be respected, especially given that I find Christ in the beauty of Orthodox liturgy?

    FMG: I hope that time in the Orthodox Church will heal your past use and expectations of Mary, and yet draw you toward an understanding of her that our Lord would encourage. You will of course find ardent love of Mary in the Orthodox Church, but not the use of her that developed after the Great Schism, when she rose to being almost an alternative to Jesus. I think at a minimum he would want us to treat her with respect (think about how a CEO of a big company would want people to treat his mother), but he does invite us to a closer relationship than that when he said "Behold your mother." It's like making a new friend and visiting at his house, and meeting his mother, and discovering you like her too. It's a difference that may seem quite subtle, coming from where you are, but it will be clear in time, I think.

    The big thing though is addressing the saints and asking them to pray for us (not asking them to *do* things for us). We ask them just as we ask any friend to pray. But this does mean we assume they are awake in God's presence and praying continuously, and that our message can be delivered to them. So that will take longer for you to work through. I can recommend my own book "Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts."

  3. Thank you so much for this. I have been a Protestant for 34 years and converting to Orthodoxy. This is a great explanation and one I know I can share with my Protestant friends that may help guide them toward a better understanding.

  4. Thanks, I was very glad to find this post. I have been reading about the excesses of Mariology and wondering what to do with all this.

    After my recent break from Protestantism (a veteran of around 30 years), I am researching Orthodoxy (my second visit to a different Orthodox church is this upcoming Sunday, and I’m looking forward to it), and there seems to be much dialogue on Mary.

    I have begun praying some of the prayers from a ‘Daily Readings’ app, and the prayers to the saints, including Mary, are sort of ‘breaking my brain’, but in a good way. I was sensing something along these lines, like what you were talking about: if we ask people we love who we CAN see to pray for us, then why can’t we ask the invisible ones, too?

    Thank you for your blog, I am really enjoying it.

    FMG: Glad to hear it!

  5. Thank you for this. I am a lifelong Protestant, though not very observant for most of my 40+ years. I recently returned to Christ, and after praying for days in great spiritual suffering over where to turn (as far as a church body to join myself to) a series of strange circumstances and a powerful spiritual experience of the Lord pointed me to Orthodoxy, which I knew next to nothing about.
    While I do feel that I am definitely supposed to go this way, I too am bothered by the extent of devotion to the Theotokos. I resolved some of these feelings early on (all of two weeks ago lol) by reading online, and educating myself as to the ideas behind asking departed saints to pray for us.

    However, just this evening I picked up my new prayer book (Jordanville) and found the “Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ,” of which, truth be told, I was in sore need. As soon as I began to pray, I felt a pure, heavy repentance fall on my heart and mind. It was indeed wonderful. Until I came to the Theotokion: “O most pure Mother of God… Deliver me from the snares of the devil…” Very concerning- how does Mary deliver us? I know only one Deliverer. A couple of pages later, I find the 3rd Theotokion of this canon refers to her as “my salvation”. Indeed, this has caused me no small amount of distress and confusion.
    I have so far found a depth of beauty and spiritual truth in Orthodoxy that I did not expect, and as I said I feel certain, due to the circumstances surrounding my encountering Orthodoxy, and the fullness of Christ which I have felt in my heart, mind, and soul since. I earnestly desire to set aside my reliance on “personal interpretation” and stubborness and be a member of what appears to me to be the remnant of the true faith of the Apostles. But as I said, some of these references seem to go over the top into outright adoration, especially when the titles and roles of Jesus Christ are applied instead to His mother.

    1. God bless you! What an exciting new start in the Lord. You don’t have to be repelled by these phrases. In Orthodoxy, the only Savior is Christ the Lord. Mary does not take part in gaining forgiveness for our sins, and our righteousness before God, except by praying for us. She prays for us like any of our earthly friends and neighbors do. That’s the key to all the prayers to the saints; we only ask them to pray for us just as we’d ask our earthly friends. Asking her to deliver us from the devil is not to ask her to protect us from going to hell. It’s a prayer for her to defend us, by her prayers, from the snares, temptations of the devil that we experience every day. To pray for us to have strength and wisdom to escape those snares.

      Since they are in heaven, and do nothing except pray and worship, we expect their prayers are especially powerful. I know that the prayers of some of my friends are especially powerful. So when I have a great need, I go to them first. It’s the same with Mary.

      The other point is that words of worship are poetic. You’ll find in Orthodoxy a tendency to hyperbole, in worship. For example the prayer addressed to an apostle on his feast day might say that he is the greatest of the apostles, and if you asked an Orthodox person walking out of church if that particular saint was superior to the other apostles, he’d say Of course not. It’s the kind of grandiose language children use when trying to convey how much they love their mother. And Mary is our mother.

      One person said to me, Well why can’t we say what we really mean in worship? Why have such hyperbole? I think that indicates a difference in the experience of the Eastern and Western Churches. In the West, the Reformation led to an exhausting amount of hard debate on theology. Theological terms got defined very precisely. With that history, it is wise to use the most exact terms for everything.

      In the East the Church did not divide, but rather invaders came from the outside and attacked and conquered Orthodox people. That led them to cling to each other more closely, and to express their love of Mary and the saints more elaborately and extremely. The need to be very precise in worship would not occur to Orthodox.

      Almost always, references to Mary in Orthodox worship are about her pregnancy, about her being the human connection in bringing God into the world in the flesh. So in that sense she “saves” us, because of that indispensable role. It doesn’t mean the same thing “saves” means when talking about the Cross.

      I hope this helps. Orthodoxy has such a different mindset from the West, and it takes some getting used to. Experience and time to absorb it in worship is the best treatment. If you can go to an Orthodox service once a week for a year–even just six months–it will begin to dawn on you how it all fits together. But there is definitely a belief in the Cross as the sole means of our salvation, not requiring the work of any human saint (except expressing respect and awe regarding Mary’s pregnancy).

      My son, an Orthodox pastor, says that once a man came to him who wanted to learn more about Orthodoxy, and the one thing he kept having trouble with was the role of Mary. Then he had a dream. He was in a wide meadow on a mountaintop, and he could see, across from him, Mary standing in the air, above the ground. She spoke to him and said, “Here I am. I am your Mother. ASK ME.”

      My son says that, if you just go ahead and try it, it all falls into place. There are things you can’t figure out intellectually, that make sense when you begin to practice it.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Yes ma’am, it indeed has helped greatly, and I can’t properly express the depth of my gratitude!
        In fact, I had forgotten to confirm my subscription to these comments- I had only noticed the email for confirming my subscription to your blog. So I only just finished reading your post from today, concerning the story from your son (of whom you must be very proud!)
        I hadn’t realized just how much my upbringing had implanted an almost legalistic mindset in me, concerning the things of God. It’s very odd, since, although I was interested in religion and spirituality from an early age , I never bothered with theology– preferring, in fact, to experience, to feel! Although I do tend to overanalyze many things, I’m a musician and artist, and am also known for being rather dramatic and emotional at times. So it’s very odd to have to confront my own rigidity in the face of spiritual things, where I’ve always been so much the opposite. Life is funny that way, sometimes, I suppose, and it’s just another example of how the Lord has been leading me lately into challenging myself and growing in ways I never thought possible.

        Thank you so very much for your kind and wise response. After praying last night and this morning, and reading your response and blog post from today, I do feel a great weight lifted, and cannot wait for the next step in this journey the Holy Spirit is leading me on.
        I will certainly move forward with more DOING, and a little less analysis. A close friend who’d begun his own journey into Orthodoxy almost a year ago has invited me to accompany him to church next week, and I intend to take him up on it.
        Thank you again, and may God bless you and yours.

  6. This is really interesting. Hi Frederica! I am Protestant and thinking through these things. I wouldn’t say I’m on the verge of converting, but I really want to understand Orthodox views clearly. I love and respect you, and I mean that genuinely. So none of what follows is meant to be combative, only to share my views and current understanding of these issues, and I would LOVE to have your thoughts on them!
    I have been listening to friendly discussions between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox believers for several months now and have found it very edifying. If I ever did convert to something else, I believe it would have to be Orthodoxy. I love the spirituality of Orthodoxy over and beyond Catholicism and I find it is a little less problematic for how I understand the bible. But here is the issue, Mary is the issue, and praying to the Saints.
    I’ve heard this same analogy with Catholics, that asking a saint to pray for you is just the same as asking a friend to pray for you, but I just have not been able to swallow it. Surely there is a difference between asking a living human in bodily form, whom you have everyday experiences with, to pray for you, and asking someone who has died in this life to pray for you? I think it’s a difference again in the Western and Eastern mind that makes this seem downright spooky, and a prayer in itself. My conception of talking to a spirit, and not another embodied human being, IS prayer. So even asking a saint to pray for me, feels like praying to THEM. I know this is not the Orthodox or Catholic view on prayer, but I’m just trying to explain why it feels so strange, and even kind of spooky to a Protestant. Even making the claim that they are more alive than us because they are with the Lord in heaven, doesn’t really put me at ease. I haven’t known any experience of talking to any other spirit, than God Himself, and to start talking to other spirits just feels like spiritism to me, even if I don’t worship them.
    As someone else said earlier, I just cannot find a solid doctrine of this in the Bible. I know there’s the big difference of understanding God’s will for us, through the Bible alone, or through the Bible and Church tradition. My question is, how do we discern what the church fathers said except if we compare it to the Bible? I don’t think it is enough to merely say that as long as it doesn’t conflict with the bible than it’s okay. Additions can still be distractions, even if they aren’t outright sinful. But I also believe these kinds of things do contradict the Bible.
    Honestly, I can respect and honour the saints. I don’t disrespect Mary. I am so blessed by her witness. She’s incredible! But I don’t understand the insistence on talking to them, even to ask for help. Isn’t Jesus the only mediator between God and man? Isn’t HE making intercession for us? And yet doesn’t he say that we can ask the Father himself, because He loves us?
    Would it be required to venerate Mary or saints or ask them to pray for you, to be Orthodox? Would you be required to say prayers that venerate Mary? That’s what I have difficulty with. If I am unsaved because I am not Orthodox, but to become Orthodox (or remain in the Orthodox church) I would have to accept a bunch of practices which go against my conscience, including devotion to Mary, isn’t that still a backhanded way of saying I am saved through Mary?
    I’m just not understanding the insistence on something so void in Scripture. And it’s a major stumbling block.
    If I only want to pray to our Lord, why should that be challenged? At the risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t really feel that I need the prayers of the saints, because I believe Jesus own intercession for me is sufficient. If the saints want to pray for me, I’m definitely not against it, but I don’t see any reason I should ask for it. When I ask a person in front of me to pray for me, I believe it draws believers together on earth. It also reminds us of other peoples needs and so helps in our transformation and learning to be less self-centered. When a friend asks me to pray for them I am reminded that they have needs and not just me, and it checks my spirit and turns my own prayers into a more humbling experience.
    But the believers in heaven are already unified and already made holy. I suppose the response would be that we become more unified with them as we grow this type of relationship, perhaps? But I don’t really believe that can happen until we who are left behind, die too. To be unified with any spirit but God’s while we are in this fallen world seems very strange to me, and I don’t see a reason to think that way based on Scripture.
    Anyway, I am sure you have heard all this before, and I hope it didn’t seem aggressive, because that was not my intention. If you made it all the way to end of this, thank you, God bless you, and I would love to hear what you think about all this!

    1. God bless you, Natasha. What a good, meaty comment.

      I think your hesitation is the single biggest thing that holds Protestants back. It is the biggest objection I hear. So of course I don’t take offense, and I recognize how deep and principled your objection is. (The great Orthodox evangelist Fr Peter Gillquist used to say the three biggest roadblocks for Protestants were Mary, Mary, and Mary.)

      When I read this line I went Oh! because there’s a simple answer for that (though without resolving your further concerns.)

      <>

      We need to look at the word “pray.” It is an old English word that means to ask a favor. So you would say to someone at dinner, “I pray thee, pass me the broccoli”. Or to a friend, “I pray thee, pray for me.” That is the difference between “pray” and “Worship.” Worship is offered only to God, but we may “pray” (ask a favor from) a friend. We might do that when we see them, or send them and email, or call on the phone. Those would all be ways of “praying to” your friend, if we were still using old English language.

      About the role of the saints in prayer–to take an OT View, imagine God in the center of a circle, and all of the then-living faithful spread out before him in a half-circle, all facing him and worshiping him. There’s a brick wall at the half-way point on each side, and behind it are the dead from all ages, languishing in the realm of Death.

      Now we know that they are not insensible or sleeping, because of Samuel arising when Saul sought him. And Jesus described Lazarus with Abraham in Paradise and the rich man in Hades. At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah spoke with him. So they’re not sleeping or “dead to the world,” but alive and aware in the next life—even though, before the Resurrection, that was still a land of shadows (and for the evil, torment).

      When Christ rose from the dead, he shattered that brick wall. All of the righteous, the lovers of God, were now able to be in the light, in God’s presence (Paradise). (The evil remaining in Hades, a realm of darkness and cold). Christ has defeated the evil one, broken the bars of Death, and set the righteous free.

      All the 2000 years since then, the righteous die and go into that company of believers of all ages. There they await the Final Judgement, when all will be made right and all believers will be united.

      Because the wall has been knocked down, there’s now just a thin separation, like a gauze curtain. Christians are strictly forbidden to try to make contact with someone on the other side, to try to see them or draw them into conversation, or anything like that. Sometimes people from that side take the initiative and communicate with someone here; they’re allowed to do that. But we can’t. All we can do is send a request; we can “pray” them to pray to God for us. We drop a postcard in a mailbox and that’s it. No poking around behind the curtain.

      I think you see that we are not worshiping them, we’re just asking for their prayers. But you can still ask, Why would we need to do that? Why don’t we just take all our prayers directly to Jesus?

      But we *don’t* take our prayers only to Jesus. We ask other people to pray for us. We can’t resist asking others to pray for us. If you try to think it through, you quickly see that it can’t be that we *need* them to pray for us; praying only to God must be enough. Sometimes God acts even when no one prays. But there is something inside that urges us to ask for others’ prayers. It makes us want to pray for them too! When you hear of a friend’s need, your heart cries out. There’s something that happens among believers, in intercessory prayer. You couldn’t say to yourself, “Don’t pray for him, he’s praying for himself and that’s all that should be done.” You want to pray for others.

      I think that’s a secondary level of mystery about prayer, why we feel that inner urging to seek others’ prayers. It must have to do with love. It is wonderful to know that God loves us, but that somehow impels us to reach out in love to others. We may not be very good at it, but it’s an impulse that is so natural. It makes them want to love us too.

      It can only be God’s love coming to us and then through us and seeking out others to love. Like we are all meant to be linked together in a net-work of love, with so many knots tying us to each other and them to us, and onward and outward forever. In the next life, it truly will be forever.

      In Hebrews 12:1, after St Paul has cited a long list of pre-eminent Old Testament leaders, he says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” and exhorts his hearers to fight steadfastly against sin. That “great cloud of witnesses” is the community of the saved on the other side of the gauze curtain. They are awake and aware, and also constantly in God’s presence, constantly in prayer. So we can drop them an email, and not expect a response. It’s enough to send the word. Of course we keep praying to God as well. It doesn’t take anything away from God when we ask our friends – on earth or in Paradise—to pray for us.

      Hope this helps! It is one of the things that makes more sense as time goes by and you get used to being around Orthodox people. You see what they mean by “praying” to the saints. You see them doing it, and exactly how much and no-more respect they give to the saints. You see that their attitude to God is of a completely different character than their relationship to the saints. Once you see what they mean by it, how they do it, the concerns are allayed. If you just watch how Orthodox do it for awhile, I hope it will make more sense.

      in Christ, F

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