Miracles – In the Liturgy, and Otherwise

What kinds of miracles occur during Liturgy? How does the Orthodox Church understand miracles? Do people expect miracles when they go to Church?

These are samples of the kinds of questions I have been wrestling with this summer, in preparing a paper for a conference at UCLA on the liturgy in Russian culture.

In November 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church received a visit from a venerable relic among Eastern Christians: Mary’s Belt, preserved by the Vatopedi monastery. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill seized the opportunity to invite Russian citizens to venerate Mary’s Belt. In his speeches, he gently but clearly offered the possibility of receiving a miracle: the healing of a disease, and especially the grace of conceiving children and reducing infertility.

In fact, this promise was consistently communicated as a sign of “divine grace,” an important term referring to the epiclesis in the Byzantine Eucharistic liturgy and also appearing in some ancient ordination rites. Kyrill even told the story of a woman who had promised Mary that she would request Baptism if Mary healed her; upon receiving healing, the woman was baptized the next day. Over three million Russians and pilgrims waited in very long lines in the November cold of Moscow to pray at Mary’s Belt. Most of them spent a disproportionate amount of time outside, and Kyrill interpreted their endurance as a sign of faith reviving in Russia.

As I read this account, I can’t help but to feel wary of hyperbole. My hesitance is partly attributable to my own history of questioning wonderworking relics.

To be sure, I have seen miraculous relics with my own eyes.

A myrrh-streaming (and quite fragrant!) icon of my patron saint Nicholas at a Russian Orthodox skete in Fridley; Jesus’ shroud (called an epitaphios or plashchanitsa in Byzantine-rite churches, adorning his tomb on Good Friday) emitting a fluid that appeared to be blood at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis in the early 1990’s; and a skull of an unnamed monk gushing fragrant oil at the Pecherska Lavra monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1993. As with Mary’s Belt in Russia last year, people lined up to receive anointing from the myrrh-streaming relics, in the hopes of being healed.

Perhaps some of them received healing, but how can one explain the multitudes of faithful Christians who honor Mary and the saints with pilgrimages and beg them for healing of diseases, yet remain sick and even die? How many of us have watched faithful men, women, and children endure grievous suffering, only to die? Where was their “divine grace”?

My paper compares the Russian Church’s description of the kind of miracle one could receive when venerating Mary’s Belt to the miracle that occurs at the Eucharistic assembly.

In Russia, sacramental participation in the Eucharist is generally tepid. People do not frequently receive communion because the prevailing teaching of the Synodal and Soviet periods, spanning over two-hundred years, encouraged communion from one to four times a year in a system called govenie. Govenie stresses intense preparation for each communion, including fasting, extra prayers, and sacramental confession. Its foundational theology is that infrequent communion spares the recipient from condemnation given the general difficulty people have in avoiding sin.

This teaching is obviously incoherent with the promise of divine grace when approaching communion, and contemporary Russian Church leaders have been laboring to invite people to receive more frequently. The difference is in what people might expect to gain from participation.

The pitch for Mary’s Belt was a miracle; a miracle is also promised at the Eucharist, but the gain or benefit is not healing, but transformation into bearers of Christ, which echoes Cyril of Jerusalem’s famous fourth-century teaching.

The miracle of the Eucharist cannot be verified by healings of diseases or an increase in fertility, though such instances warrant thanksgiving. The miracle of the Eucharist capacitates one to become like Christ. Participants are not spared from suffering or illnesses; their transformation will be manifest in lives expressing thanksgiving to God for everything, even when disease and suffering remain present until death.

Perhaps Russians will begin to respond to the invitation to frequent communion with the same enthusiasm they expressed towards the opportunity to venerate Mary’s Belt. Perhaps the promise of transformation pales in comparison to the possibility of receiving healing. Regardless of what happens, it is refreshing to see Church leaders describing the miracle of the Eucharist as transformation, because only transformed and transfigured people have the capacity to change the world.

Nicholas Denysenko is assistant professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.

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23 comments

  1. ” Govenie stresses intense preparation for each communion, including fasting, extra prayers, and sacramental confession. Its foundational theology is that infrequent communion spares the recipient from condemnation given the general difficulty people have in avoiding sin.”

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with this. It sounds like spirituality.

  2. Honestly, isn’t this obsession with getting everyone to receive all the time not really a fear of individuals setting the bar too high for thenselves, thereby setting the bar too high for us all?

    For a spiritual movement always critiquing mere ritualism, I would think a practice of introspection, prayer, discernment, confession and awareness of moral failings is exactly what we mean by participation.

    Releasing myself from the cultural obligation to receive the Eucharist with the herd was actually a significant spiritual step for me, even liberating.

  3. Allow me a few more words about govenie. Govenie assumes that one will receive communion about four times a year (total). In practice, those who observed govenie (and observe it today) receive one time a year, on a Sunday of Lent. In my own experience, having learned govenie as a child, very infrequent communion is encouraged to avoid imminent condemnation if one sins in between their confession and receiving communion. Govenie gave birth to an interesting practice very much alive in Orthodoxy: offering congratulations to one who has received communion on a non-Lenten Sunday, since this person has clearly fulfilled the requirements of govenie.

  4. As I read this account, I can’t help but to feel wary of hyperbole.

    E.g.

    This teaching is obviously incoherent with the promise of divine grace when approaching communion, and contemporary Russian Church leaders have been laboring to invite people to receive more frequently.

    If it was obviously incoherent then they wouldn’t hold it.

    This article doesn’t really grapple with the spiritual questions involved at anything more than a superficial level. The immediate solution is to throw out a venerable practice (intense preparation for Holy Communion) rather than to reform it or even examine it’s purpose and internal logic.

    In many ways it’s the equivalent of articles that condemn the practice of frequent Communion found today in the Latin Church on the basis that people are so often obviously unprepared. Well the answer isn’t for them to go to Communion less frequently, but to be prepared more often.

    St. Theophan the Recluse can advocate frequent Communion too:

    This is the grace-filled Source for preserving and strengthening our spiritual life! That is why from the very beginning of Christianity, true zealots of piety considered frequent Communion to be the chief blessing. In the Acts it appears everywhere — Christians all abided in prayer and the breaking of bread, that is, Communion. St. Basil the Great in his epistle to Ceasar said that it is salvific to partake of the Body and Blood every day, and said of his own life: “We receive Communion four times a week.” This is also the opinion common to all the saints, that there is no salvation without Communion, and no progress in life without frequent Communion.

    This is the goal of the practice! St. Theophan writes, “Govenie is done at a certain time, but the spirit of preparation should eventually become a constant state.”

  5. Thank you, Samuel J. Howard. Very insightful. Jordan DeJonge, isn’t “this obsession with getting everyone to receive all the time” really an obsession with obeying the Lord’s command to take and eat, take and drink? And not just as individuals, but as a community? Without eating and drinking of the eucharist, we don’t have life within us, as the gospel these past weeks has been telling us. And “the herd”? Are you referring to the holy people of God, individuals made in the image and likeness of God, remade by baptism, confirmation and eucharist in the image and likeness of Christ–other Christs!–congregated by the Holy Spirit into one body with Christ its head, its heart, to offer the perfect and acceptable sacrifice to the Living God? And is not that sacrifice fulfilled in the communal eating and drinking of the eucharist in procession, singing?

  6. Regarding miracles, and the “what about everyone else” issue.

    It’s notable that while Jesus was alive, he healed many people, but not everyone. He performed many miracles, but not as many as he might have.

    This is because the point of miracles is not their physical outcome. He did not heal the blind man because physical blindness is a condition which God desires no one to suffer, or because restoring physical sight was a part of his mission. While God cares about our suffering, the Divine Will does not seem to value physical comfort, well-being, and safety very highly.

    The point of a miracle is to give glory to God, to make people look for the hidden mystery. Miracle workers are not doctors, nor are miraculous objects a therapy.

    Underneath questions like “why wasn’t so-and-so healed when other people were” or “what about the other people who didn’t get what they want” is a human-centric drive which leads ultimately to either to (unjustified) anger with God or unbelief. It is simply a more nuanced version of the immature atheist’s question, “Why would a good God let bad things happen to good people?”

  7. Nice point, Adam. In that sense, miracles are another side of the same transformation and transfiguration characteristic of the Eucharist – not only for the one who is healed, but for the witnesses who give thanks and praise to God.

  8. Good point, Samuel. And your reference to St. Theophan the Recluse is correct; he advocates frequent communion and praises those who approach with less frequency.

    Two prominent Russians, namely Patriarch Kyrill and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, are advocating frequent communion without requiring the observation of govenie. To be sure, the spiritual directors in select Russian and Ukrainian monasteries still require sacramental confession before communion. In a recent public lecture on the Eucharist, Hilarion encouraged Russians to receive much more frequently by defining Eucharistic participation as the vehicle to becoming the Body of Christ and bearing Christ to the world. He emphasized that no one can ever be worthy of receiving communion, no matter how many spiritual practices one engages. Is this a dismissal of govenie? Perhaps not overtly, but he did state that some sacramental practices of the Synodal period in Russian history, of which govenie was a staple, do not apply to the Russian Church today. I was particularly taken by his obvious reading of Nicholas Afanasiev, one of the earliest pioneers of “eucharistic ecclesiology,” who was also critical of govenie.

    As for the two types of miracles under discussion here, I appreciate the clear connections offered by Adam and Kim. I’m much less certain that Church leaders make the same connections, especially when three million people line up to venerate a relic but are largely absent from the regular Eucharistic assembly.

    In full disclosure: my topic was inspired by a question posed by a Russian Orthodox priest last November, when Mary’s Belt was available for veneration: “why will millions line up for the Belt when the Church is half-empty during the Eucharistic liturgy?”

  9. Like the throngs of people that came to Jesus for his ‘magic’?People want less suffering. You’re not more spiritually enlightened just because you show up to consciously play the people of God. They’re no less God’s people trying to gleam grace from a belt.

  10. Miracles and the Paranormal

    In the Baylor Surveys of Religion which are the basis of his book, What American’s Really Believe Rodney Stark included an index of belief in the “paranormal” including dreams, ancient civilizations, haunted places, communicating with the dead, astrology, fortune telling, Bigfoot, UFO’s. (Who believes in Bigfoot? pp.125-131)

    Church attendance had a powerful, negative effect on this variable: only 8 percent of those who attended weekly scored high on the paranormal scale; 31% who never attended church scored high.

    Denomination mattered: only 15% of Mormons scored high, followed by 18% of Conservative Protestants, 31% of Liberal Protestants, and 32% of Catholics. Episcopalians (41%) and Unitarians (48%) were particularly high.

    Traditional Christian Religion greatly decreases credulity as measured by beliefs in the occult and paranormal. In contrast education hardly has any effect.

    While many people experience healing, even unusual “miraculous” healing, through prayer, I think well publicized events, e.g. healings associated with apparitions of Mary, famous icons and relics, and well known “faith healers” attract those with an interest in the paranormal.

    So I suspect many in the crowds to see the Belt are people who would score high on the paranormal scale, and low on various indicators of church participation.

    Of course there would be another group of people who would score low on the paranormal scale, and high on various indicators of church participation. The Belt would be simply a special occasion among many other religious occasions for them.

  11. Miracles and the “supernatural”

    The local Orthodox pastor made a very interesting statement that the Church Fathers regarded many things which the Saints did that we might think of as “supernatural” as being a restoration of our own nature powers. Sorry I cannot be more specific; he wasn’t very specific.

    Do you know what he was talking about? Could it be related to transfiguration and transformation?

    As a social scientist there are many positive religious events that I could easily understand as a coming together and heightening of our social and cognitive abilities, rather than something completely removed from them such as the paranormal.

    For example the research that was behind the recent book American Grace showed that the well known positive effects of worship attendance (such as better health, greater happiness, greater willingness to give of one’s time, talents, and treasure to others) came only to those who had religious social networks (consisting of family that talked about religion, close friends in the congregation or belonged to religious small groups).

    The interesting thing about the religious social networks was that their effects were substantially larger than nonreligious social networks. Is this a restoration of our true natural sociality? Also it seems that worship attendance is necessary, mere prayer in the social networks was not sufficient, so the worship seems to have to transcend the particular groups.

    Moreover church attendance without the religious social networks did not have any positive effects. In other words it is not like magic; that going to church makes things better automatically. It seems to have to transform our social relationships first.

  12. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but say the word and I shall be healed.” I have often encouraged parishioners to approach Communion with the desire, even expectation, to be made whole in body, mind, & spirit. I receive each day with that same sentiment. I believe that those who seek this kind of wholeness experience the saving power of God in big and small ways. You can ask any priest, deacon, or CM, who regularly bring communion to the sick in hospitals and they will tell you that a large majority of the infirm who have identified themselves as Catholics are not in communion with the church for a variety of reasons. Looks to me like regular communion is good for the body as well as the soul.

  13. Irina Papkova’s study on the Orthodox Church and Russian politics (published by Oxford) demonstrated that Russia has had historically low marks for Church attendance and the reception of communion. I think there is general interest in the Church. I see it on particular occasions, especially Orthodox Pascha (Easter), when the Church is overflowing with visitors who want to have their baskets of food blessed. This creates an interesting pastoral dilemma as priests throughout the country end up scheduling some kind of Holy Saturday afternoon service with a basket blessing to accomodate the crowds. This last Pascha, I distributed communion to numerous Russian-speaking visitors who clearly had no knowledge of the usual ritual protocols Orthodox practice when approaching the cup. This seems to happen every year now, whether I serve Paschal liturgy in Los Angeles, St. Paul, or Columbia, MD. As an amateur Mariologist, I’m really fascinated by the intense devotion even the most distant seeker seems to have in Mary and her well-established reputation as Russia’s Protectress and Patron. I also think that there is a permanent historical connection between sanctoral relics and the Eucharist in all our churches. Any attentive pastor would appeal to Mary’s power in inviting people to the Church. I fear that the organic connection between Mary and Christ in the Eucharist becomes blurred when leaders emphasize the potential blessings imparted by venerating relics or blessing baskets of food at the expense of partaking of the Eucharist. Many Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic!) priests lose sleep over the multitudes who come for the special occasion but never return. Perhaps they shouldn’t – God will take care of them – but I sympathize with those who would like to see more balance in emphasis.

  14. I wonder just what it is that people believe who are impressed with purported relics such as Mary’s belt. What sort of language usage is it that says, “This is a belt of Mary the Mother of Jesus and it can help me to heal”. Is it meant literally? How does the believer’s mind accept this object as one connected to Mary? I suspect that it isn’t accepted as something she *actually wore”. I just don’t think people are that dumb. I suspect that it is accepted as a powerful *symbol* of a real person, Mary. But what is the power of a symbol? Therein lies the mystery of symbols — they are some sort of connection to what is real, however tenuous the connection. If I accept the symbol, so the belief goes, perhaps the signified (Mary) will have mercy on me.

    No, it isn’t a belief in magic (unreal power). It is a belief that symbols sometimes do somehow make real connections, even when they don’t “work”.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #16:

      Ann: I wonder just what it is that people believe who are impressed with purported relics such as Mary’s belt. What sort of language usage is it that says, “This is a belt of Mary the Mother of Jesus and it can help me to heal”. Is it meant literally? How does the believer’s mind accept this object as one connected to Mary?

      As a very strong INTP (“reason is law”), I have little comprehension of devotee spirituality. I also wonder why people would find “Mary’s belt”, weeping icons, or the baths of Lourdes relevant to belief. For some persons, belief must be able to be touched and physically experienced rather than merely rolled about the mind. For others, like myself, belief must be constantly questioned at every second. Faith, then, is a balance between experiential knowledge and trust beyond logical consistency. Some persons lean towards devotionalism, others towards intellectualism. An exaggerated dependence on one or the other perhaps is spiritual deficiency.

      I would contend that every culture contains devotional practices. Devotionalism is not only personal but also the “glue” which cements social relationships and national identities. A (hypothetical) belief system which is entirely intellectualized is also highly individualized. This individualization is not always conducive to the formation of a cultural identity.

    2. @Ann Olivier – comment #16:
      Ann, there is a rich narrative history of Mary’s protecting the peoples of Rus’. Rus’ inherited this narrative from Byzantium, and adapted it. The narrative branched in Rus’ and developed on its own, especially in monastic communities. One such story involves the renowned Pochaiv monastery in Western Ukraine. The story has become legendary in a folk song so influential it became a sophisticated choral piece frequently performed in public. The song states that the Pochaiv monastery was under attack (by Tartars and Turks); Mary appeared and protected the monastery by wiping out the invaders. I see this story, immortalized in song, as a representation of a narrative that branches, each branch grounded by the same basic theme: maternal protection of the people. When Patriarch Kyrill arranged for the visit of Mary’s Belt to Russia, he drew upon two pillars of the narrative: the traditional monastic love for Mary (the Vatopedi monastery of Mount Athos keeps the relic and brought it to Russia), and the promise that Mary will take care of those under her protection, through healing. The narrative story might have been dormant during the painful years of Soviet atheism, but it did not take long to stimulate the kind of response traditionally associated with the narrative. Perhaps one result of this story is that people will again embrace Mary as their mother.

  15. @Jack Feehily – comment #13:

    Agreeing with this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    1394 As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins.(228) By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him:

    Since Christ died for us out of love, when we celebrate the memorial of his death at the moment of sacrifice we ask that love may be granted to us by the coming of the Holy Spirit. We humbly pray that in the strength of this love by which Christ willed to die for us, we, by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, may be able to consider the world as crucified for us, and to be ourselves as crucified to the world…. Having received the gift of love, let us die to sin and live for God.(229)

    1395 By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. the more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin. the Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. the Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church.

  16. Does “(new calendar)” mean this will not be celebrated in Russia until another 12 days have passed? I get confused about how the new and old calendars interact…

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #22:
      Yes, except one would add 13 days. The Byzantine calendar has numerous instances of such commemorations, which vary among the Local Orthodox Churches.

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