What is the rule of the Theotokos? How and when to use it? Do I need to take a priest’s blessing to read these prayers? Why are they repeated 150 times? I often hear these questions from parishioners.
This article answers the most common of them and explains how this rite was formed, how the name of Christ is invisibly present in a prayer to the Holy Virgin, and how to follow this seemingly complex scheme of prayer petitions.
A Prayer Based on Gospel
Among the morning prayers, which we read daily at home there is a heartfelt Song to the Most Holy Theotokos: “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, for thou hast borne the Saviour of our souls.” Undoubtedly, all Orthodox Christians know and love this prayer.
It sounds in homes and in churches (for example, on Saturday evening, when the choir sings it three times during the consecration of the loaves at the all-night vigil).
The practice of repeating this prayer not once or thrice, but one hundred and fifty times is called the Rule of the Theotokos. It is clear that completing such a number of repetitions without pauses or interruptions would be difficult. This is why the Rule is divided in fifteen decades, interspersed with other prayers. It is convenient to use a prayer rope for keeping track of the prayers.
The basis of this prayerful exaltation to the Mother of God is formed by three quotations from Luke’s Gospel.
The first part is the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel at the time of the Annunciation: “And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 01:28)
The second part is the glorification of the Virgin Mary by the righteous Elizabeth: “…and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she exclaimed in a loud voice and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (Luke 1:41-42)
The third part is the answer of the Mother of God Herself, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, My Savior!” (Luke 1:46-47)
According to church historians, it was likely St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the Church Fathers of the fifth century, who combined the Gospel fragments into a single prayer appeal. In the Latin rite, an almost identical invocation has been known since the eleventh century as “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary).
Star of Light, a manuscript about miracles
In Russia, the practice of repeating, “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice” during monastic or private prayers began to spread around the late 17th century. Such a spiritual effort was made by those who wished to pray to the Mother of God in a special way, receiving from Her comfort and protection, or thanking the Holy Virgin for Her intercession.
The Rule of the Theotokos was formed under the influence of the then popular handwritten compilation titled The Star of Light, with descriptions of miracles associated with the prayer “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice”, collected in fifteen chapters.
Among others, it included a story of a certain monk who laughed at this prayer and was deprived of his sanity. After finding the strength to turn to the Mother of God, he was pardoned. Another story tells of a bishop, who did not recognize this prayer, after which he saw himself drowning in a dream. After he repented, the dream repeated, but this time the Mother of God appeared in it and saved the bishop from drowning. Such stories were easy to memorise and served for spiritual education of the people.
Prayer Blessed by Saints
In 1825, the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov described having a vision of the Mother of God, commanding him to establish a women’s monastic community (the present-day Diveyevo Convent). The path, along which the Mother of God walked around the future monastery, was called the Canal (Kanavka) of the Theotokos. Following the will of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the sisters of the Diveyevo community began to walk along this canal every day, reading the “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice” 150 times.
Other elders also spoke about the benefits of reading the Rule of the Theotokos. Venerable Parthenios of Kiev (early 19th century) said this prayer 300 times every day. Hieroschemamonk Heliodorus of Glin1sk Hermitage (late 19th century) also blessed his spiritual children to read this prayer.
The 20th century saw the formation of the Rule of the Theotokos in its modern form thanks to Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvezdinsky). While in exile, Bishop Seraphim observed this prayer rule every day. He recommended expanding it by commemorating various events from the life of the Holy Virgin and adding private petitions to it, praying for oneself and for the whole world.
“Guard yourselves more often and more diligently, my dear children, with this invincible wall. With this prayer, we shall never perish. We shall neither burn in the fire nor sink in the sea,” Vladyka Seraphim wrote to his spiritual children from exile. “And if Satan, our adversary, should make us stumble on our way and knock us down, we shall sing the angelic salutation, and our sick souls, polluted by sin, shall be healed and made clean.”
Reading the Rule of the Theotokos
The Rule of the Theotokos is not included in the Typikon, and the ways of reading it may vary. Let us consider the one introduced by Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvezdinsky).
At the beginning of the Rule, we read “Our Father” and the prayer “The door of compassion open unto us O blessed Theotokos, for hoping in thee, let us not perish; through thee may we be delivered from adversities, for thou art the salvation of the Christian race.”
Then carefully and slowly, we repeat ten times, “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, for thou hast borne the Saviour of our souls.”
After the first decade, we remember the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. We pray for mothers, fathers and children.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, save and keep Your servants (names of parents and relatives), and give rest with the saints in Your eternal glory to those who have passed away.”
Second decade. We recall the Presentation of the Holy Theotokos. We pray for those who have gone astray and fallen away from the Church.
“O Blessed Lady Mother of God, save and protect Your lost and wayward servants (names) and join them to the Holy Orthodox Church.”
Third decade. We remember the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and pray for the quenching of sorrows and the consolation of those who mourn.
“O Most Holy Lady, Mother of God, quench our sorrows and send consolation to Your sick and grieving servants (names).”
Fourth decade. We remember the visitation of the Most Holy Theotokos to the righteous Elisabeth. We pray for the reunion of the separated, and for those whose relatives or children are missing.
“O Most Holy Mother of God, unite Your separated servants (names).”
Fifth decade. We remember the Nativity of Christ and pray for the rebirth of our souls and a new life in Christ.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, grant me, who has been baptized into Christ, to clothe myself with Christ.”
Sixth decade. We recall the Meeting of the Lord and the prophecy of St. Simeon, “…and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (See Luke 2:35) We pray that the Mother of God will meet our souls in the hour of our death, counting them worthy of receiving the Holy Communion, and guiding them through the aerial toll houses.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, vouchsafe me in the hour of my last breath to partake of the Holy Mysteries and lead my soul through the terrible trials.”
Seventh decade. We remember the flight into Egypt and pray that the Queen of Heaven would help us to avoid temptations in this life and deliver us from misfortunes.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, do not lead me into temptation in this life and deliver me from all misfortunes.”
Eighth decade. We recall the disappearance of the twelve-year-old child Jesus in Jerusalem and the sorrow of the Mother of God over the loss of Her Child. We pray, asking the Mother of God for an unceasing prayer to Her Son.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, Most Pure Virgin Mary, grant me an unceasing Jesus Prayer.”
Ninth decade. We recall the miracle at Cana of Galilee, when the Lord turned water into wine, hearing the words of His Mother, saying, “They have no wine.” We ask the Mother of God for help in our affairs and for deliverance from need.
O Most Holy Mother of God, help me in all things, and deliver me from all need and sorrow.
Tenth decade. We recall the Mother of God standing at the Lord’s Cross, when sorrow pierced Her soul like a weapon. We ask the Mother of God to increase our spiritual strength and to drive away our despondency.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, Blessed Virgin Mary, strengthen me spiritually and drive away my despondency.”
Eleventh decade. We remember the Resurrection of Christ and ask the Mother of God in prayer to resurrect our souls and give us vigour for new deeds of faith.
“O Most Holy Mother of God, resurrect my soul and grant me a constant readiness for new acts of faith.”
Twelfth decade. We remember the Ascension of Christ, at which the Mother of God was present. We pray and ask the Queen of Heaven to elevate our souls from earthly vain amusements and direct them towards the aspiration to the heavenly kingdom.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, deliver me from vain thoughts and grant me a mind and a heart striving for the salvation of the soul.”
Thirteenth decade. We remember the Zion Upper Room and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the Mother of God. We pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.”
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, send down and strengthen the grace of the Holy Spirit in my heart.”
Fourteenth decade. We remember the Assumption of the Most Holy Theotokos and ask Her for a peaceful and serene repose.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, grant me a peaceful death.”
Fifteenth decade. We remember the glory of the Mother of God, with which She is crowned by the Lord after Her departure from earth to Heaven, and we pray to Her not to abandon the faithful on earth, protecting them from every evil.
“O Most Holy Lady Theotokos, save me from all evil and protect me with Your omophorion.”
At the end, we read “The door of compassion open unto us…” once again.
Praising the Son and the Mother
The above scheme is difficult to remember by heart; in order to observe it, one needs to constantly look at the text of the petitions. However, it may not always be at hand. Due to this, there is another version of the Theotokos Rule. After repeating the “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice” ten times, we read “Our Father” and then begin to read the following decade of prayers.
Other options are also possible. It is advisable to consult with your spiritual mentor in order to choose the most appropriate way of reading this prayer.
Many of the righteous attached great importance to the Rule of the Most Holy Theotokos. At first glance, it neither contains any direct petitions to the Mother of God, nor mentions Jesus Christ. At the same time, when we read, “O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice”, we become like angels glorifying the Mother of God, and when we say “Lord”, “fruit of Thy womb”, or “the Saviour”, we mean Jesus Christ. To this end, by observing the Rule of the Theotokos, we praise the Son of God and His Most Pure Mother, entering into prayerful communion with Them and coming under Their heavenly protection.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds