It has been my intention for many years to install a Marian pro-life shrine in our chapel in Griswold, Connecticut. I wanted something very special that would be an exorcism against the culture of death, but would also be beautiful and positive—something truly representative of the Culture of Life. I spoke about this with an iconographer we have worked with over a number of years, Marek Czarneki, and he was very excited. He had thought about doing something along these lines also.
He told me about a devotional image used in the Orthodox Church by midwives, The Helper in Childbirth:
This particular image is not altogether liturgical, as Our Lady’ hair is uncovered, a feature which ordinarily has erotic connotations. This is why, Marek tells me, Eastern Christian tradition permitted unmarried women to uncover their heads as a sign of their availability, but not married women. In the case of this icon, I surmise the uncovered head indicates the Virgin’s recent delivery, which connects it to the labor of those who were blessed by this image during the experience of childbirth.
Parenthetically, I might note that the liturgical canons of iconography indicate a Theology of Clothing rather than one of nakedness. The nuptiality of the liturgy is not a carnalization of the sacred mysteries, contrary to the mythology of some.
So Marek went to work in order to make this wonderful prototype more fitting for public veneration in a liturgical context. Here is the result:
The following is Marek’s explanation of the Icon:
While there is only one Virgin Mary, scholars have catalogued more than 1,100 distinct icons of the Mother of God. Spread out in front of us, it is difficult to understand why there are so many. In their variety, we wonder if they all could possibly represent the same historical individual? Every icon represents a different part of Our Lady, emphasizing specific facets of her life, personality, and intercession. Despite the multiplicity of her icons, no single image has captured her fullness or proven adequate.
Some icons are named for shrines and places where miraculous events occurred, like the Virgin of Vladimir, a city in Russia. Some are titled with words of praise, like the icon called “Life-Giving Spring” or “All Creation Rejoices in Thee”. Other icons are titled after our own needs, and testify to Our Lady’s intercession. We know of icons called “The Mother of God, Confidence of Sinners”, or “She Who Soothes My Sorrows”, or the very beautiful and famous icon called “Perpetual Help”.
This icon of the Mother of God is called “The Helper in Childbirth“. The first prototypes of this icon appeared in Western Russia, in the early 19th century. It was made for a very practical and urgent need – the difficulties in conceiving and giving birth.
A variation of the ancient and famous icon of Our Lady of the Sign, this icon differs by showing the Mother of God folding her hands in prayer over her heart, instead of holding them outstretched to the sides. Under the protective arch of her hands, we can see the newly conceived Christ Child, emanating from inside her womb in an almond shaped-halo of light. To show He is the “Logos“, or Word of God incarnate, He holds a small white scroll. She is filled and radiant with light from inside.
Originally, in a time when too many women died in childbirth, midwives carried this icon to help alleviate the pains and dangers of this life-giving process. Because of the practical purpose of this icon, it belonged more to the life of lay people and popular piety than the public, liturgical life of the Church. It would have been unusual to find it venerated in a church, or depicted on a large panel, since it needed to be small enough to carry among the other urgent, portable tools of a midwife’s work.
This icon is a prayer, from one mother to another: “Mother of God, you know my anxiety. Help me in this time of danger and happiness”. It is an icon of remarkable empathy, from one Birth-Giver to another birth-giver. Yet an icon cannot be closed in its meaning and use; it must be open to everyone at all times, in all circumstances, as the Mother of God herself is open to us in all our needs. It is not an icon only for women in labor.
Every pregnancy is a miracle that fills us with joy, awe and dread at the same time. Surely the Mother of God will help us in this need.
We can pray for the difficulty in conceiving; she certainly understands miraculous conceptions, as did her own mother, St. Anne.
We can pray to her in the difficulty in carrying a child to term, and to safeguard us in the all the possible complications; imagine how she prayed, pregnant and riding on a donkey, only to give birth in a stable.
We can pray in front of it in joy and thanksgiving for her protection and guidance in helping us bear and raise children.
We can pray in front of it in the pain of the loss of a child, as the Mother of God herself knew the death of her only Child.
But what use is this icon of Divine Maternity to the single person, or the celibate? Despite her miraculous conceiving, she still remains a virgin; one Orthodox hymn calls her the “unwedded bride”.
We can all stand in front of her, and pray in thanksgiving for being born; all of us have experienced the mystery of our own conception and birth. We all have parents, and all are children.
Through her prayers, the Mother of God stands beside us as our midwife and model. In all ways, through our own human will and the grace of God, we all are expected to give birth to Christ into the world. St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, now we must be His hands, to bless and heal.
The icon will remain in the sanctuary of the chapel for forty days after which it will be installed in a special shrine at the side of the chapel. Our hope is that pilgrims will come to find strength in Her. It is an image of life through which mothers (and fathers) who have miscarried or who have had abortions might find healing; through which couples who wish to conceive may find a hearing, through which mothers who are carrying a child might find protection for a safe delivery. It is also an image through which pro-lifers of all stripes might appeal to the Mother and Son for a victory of the Culture of Life. We will also have a place for flowers near the image to be decorated at will by the Virgin’s clients.
The Queen of Courtesy will Conquer.