The History of the Great Paraklesis (Supplication) Canon to the Theotokos


The Authorship and Origins of the Great Paraklesis Canon

Regarding the Great Supplication Service, we have sufficient testimony to its authorship. The poet was Theodore II Doukas Laskaris, Emperor of Nicaea. He was an emperor in exile who reigned from 1254 to 1258 AD following the fall of Constantinople to the Frankish Crusaders in 1204.

Theodore II received a scholarly education by Nicephorus Blemmydes and remained devoted to science and art throughout his life, and he was also very pious who had as his special patron St. Tryphon. He was also a suffering man, suffering from a severe form of paternal epilepsy and having to find the will as a scholar to defend his empire while in exile against such foes as the Bulgarians. It was another suffering soul in the person of Empress Theodora of Arta in Epiros who would eventually teach him an important lesson.

George Akropolites mentions how in 1249 Theodora travelled to Anatolia with her son Nikephoros for his betrothal ceremony to Maria, the daughter of Theodore II Laskaris. The marriage was delayed by the war between Nicaea and Epirus in 1251-52. The time finally came for the marriage to take place in 1256 when Theodora accompanied her son to Thessaloniki and Theodore accompanied his daughter Maria. Theodore and Theodora met and Theodore explained the price of union with the imperial family, which was the cessation to the Nicaean Empire of Dyrrachion and Servia (Theodora’s hometown). Though Theodora had hoped for peace with this union, eventually it was to result in another war between the Romans of Nicaea (East) and the Romans of Epirus (West).

Theodora was a godly and pious woman who had made an impression on Theodore. She also had a great devotion to the Theotokos. He learned that in moments of suffering, pain and deep anguish and confusion, that the Mother of God was a reliable helper and healer for those who call upon her with deep faith and compunction.

It was this lesson by Theodora, who eventually became one of the great Saints of the Orthodox Church whose incorrupt relics work many miracles till this day in Corfu and is celebrated on March 11, that inspired Emperor Theodore to compose with his great learning and piety the Great Paraklesis to the Theotokos.

It is recorded how soon before the death of Theodore he became a monk at Sosandron Monastery and took on the name Theodosios. He also requested to confess his sins. During his confession, he fell at the feet of Patriarch Arsenios and with abundant tears he repeated the words: “Christ I have forsaken you”.

This same spirit of anguish is reflected in the masterful poetry of the Great Paraklesis Canon. It is within this same spirit that the Church calls all the faithful to approach this service during the first fifteen days of August.

In 1258 Theodore II’s epileptic condition worsened, and the emperor died on August 18, three days after the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.

It is said that even during Theodore II’s lifetime, the Service he composed in honor of the Theotokos was chanted at Sosandron Monastery and the surrounding monasteries of the Empire of Nicaea. And as he lay sick dying during the Dormition Fast, the monks of Sosandron Monastery chanted the Service for the alleviation of his suffering. It was chanted every day until his death, and thus was established the tradition of chanting not only the Great but also the Small Paraklesis during the first fifteen days of August.

On 25 July 1261 General Alexios Strategopoulos recaptured the City of Constantinople from the Latins for Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Nicaea. This recapture was ascribed to the aid and intercessions of the Theotokos, the patroness of the City. From July 25 through August 15 many thanks were given to the Theotokos, including the chanting of the Great Supplication Service authored by Emperor Theodore II. On August 15, the day of the Dormition of the Theotokos, Emperor Michael entered the city in triumph and was crowned at the Hagia Sophia. This event also helped establish the Great Paraklesis to be chanted during the first fifteen days of August during the Dormition Fast.

However, there was a dilemma. There was a deep feud between Emperor Michael VIII and the dynasty of Theodore II as to who should have been the successor. For this reason Emperor Michael did not want to honor so much Emperor Theodore by having his Service chanted every day for the first fifteen days of August, so it was alternately replaced with the older Small Paraklesis to the Theotokos authored by Saint Theosteriktos. It was this latter Supplication Service that was more often used throughout the year “in every circumstance”, while the Great Supplication Canon of Theodore II was relegated only to the first fifteen days of August. We do not know exactly when or how this took place, but it probably was firmly established after the death of Emperor Michael to unite the dynasties of Doukas Laskaris and Palaiologos.

Characteristics of the Great Paraklesis

According to liturgical scholars Nicholas Tomadakis and John Fountoulis, the Great Canon has a more personal touch from the author and “specifically refers to the passions and the adverse circumstances of his life which tortured him as king, having suffered from incurable mental illness.” They are an expression of pain, sorrow and anguish towards the Theotokos, and reveals a great poet. It does not leave the reader with despair and hopelessness, but elevates faith and hope to embrace the Theotokos and seek her intercessions and the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ as the only sure hope, refuge and salvation. It acknowledges that only through them can we find the relief and help we need with whatever burdens us.

by John Sanidopoulos