"Mary the Theotokos as Model for Christians" was the theme of the Dormition retreat of the Appalachian - Ohio Valley Deanery of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, held at St. George Orthodox Church in Charleston, West Virginia on 8-9 August 1997.
Father Olof Scott, dean and priest of St. George, led the Compline and Akathist that opened the retreat on Friday evening. Members of the Spiritual Enrichment Team of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, including Irene Ghiz, Becky and Terry Ofiesh, and Donna Risden provided leadership and logistical help throughout the retreat.
Dr. Nancy Holloway, Campus Minister at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky led the retreat. She addressed the topic in four lectures: "Mary as Person: Surrender into Freedom"; "Mary as Prayer: Communion as Life"; "Mary: Pattern for our Pain and Sign of Our Joy"; and "Mary as Church: 'Do Whatever He Tells You.'"
Key points in Dr. Holloway's presentation included the following: To look at Mary always leads us back to her Son, but in knowing who Mary is, we come to know her Son more deeply. Mary tells us who we are as persons. She is the human being who defines the perfect person. Christ, the God-man, images what we are to become. Mary, in her total surrender into the freedom of all she could become in God, models for us the means toward deification in Christ.
Mary is, in the most profound sense, the person of prayer. She defines prayer for us as archetype of the contemplative, as the primary and foremost intercessor for the Church and as the central member of a praying community at Pentecost.
Intercession for others results from our contemplative time with God. To be truly silent and listening, to be in communion with God to the best of our abilities, gives us the discernment to know how to pray, and for whom.
Several responses which we learn from Mary regarding suffering include prayer, not necessarily for relief or comfort but to align ourselves with God's will, to enable us to see that what is happening to us can be used for our redemption and to advance God's kingdom in some way. We pray for others in order to more fully empathize with them, being thankful for the healing God is bringing about.
The joy of Mary leads us to affirm that the ultimate word about the universe is joy. We celebrate life in all its aspects. "Everything is a grace" said St. Thérèse of Lisieux. We look at life as a tapestry. It takes the dark threads to allow the bright threads to really shine. Together they provide the richness which creates the complex and mysterious beauty of our lives.
Finally, Dr. Holloway addressed "Mary as Church" and pointed out the various ways in which Mary has been identified in the tradition with certain symbols and images which in scripture relate her to the Church such as "Temple," "Woman of the Apocalypse" and "spiritual mother." The contemporary Church, according to Alexander Schmemann, has become too masculinized. He points out that when the more feminine Spirit-filled Marian qualities of "life, freedom, growth, beauty, joy are overshadowed" due to a divorce between the "institutional" and "spiritual" aspects of the Church as reflected in the dominance of the authoritative, dogmatic and hierarchical structure. We forget the "mystery of Mary whom the Holy Spirit makes the personal force, icon and fulfillment of the Church."1
Other topics of discussion included ways in which many had addressed and responded to suffering in their own lives and personal experiences in prayer. Approximately fifty people attended the retreat at various times over the two-day period.