The history of the Port Arthur Icon is filled with a terrible story of neglect, procrastination and disobedience. When we stand before this icon, we cannot help but notice how humble and meek our Lady is, stricken with a strong gaze of sorrow.
She is not sorrowful so much because of men’s negligence towards her, but because of the harm that they cause themselves by rejecting God, her help, other people and holy things.
The Mother of God appeared to a pious sailor who was praying in Kiev. She told him to have an icon painted of her just as she appeared to him. She also said that this icon should be sent to Port Arthur on behalf of her troops; and that if the icon was there, Russia would prevail in a war which was soon coming.
The icon was painted—in Kiev. And it was entrusted to several military leaders. But they neglected the command of the Mother of God, even with frequent reprimands from the bishops. The first military leader treated the icon like a simple piece of art. The next completely forgot all about the icon and his mission to deliver it.
All and all, the icon never made it to Port Arthur before the Russo-Japanese war broke out, and Port Arthur was seized by Japan, and Russia’s troops were defeated there.
It would be too complicated to get into all the details of this war and its devastating effects for Russia. But a few points should be mentioned, so that we can appreciate more this most holy icon.
St. John of Kronstadt said that Russia failed because of negligence to her holy things, including the Port Arthur Icon. But if you read the history of the Russo-Japanese war, almost 100% of the accounts make absolutely no mention of this icon.
Why did St. John say this? Historians state that the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war opened the way to the first major wave of strong slander and defamation of St. Nicholas the Tsar-Martyr. This war was lost in 1905, and Russia suffered a revolution in that same year, just a little more than 15 years prior to the outbreak of the Great Revolution.
Therefore, we can understand how important this icon is, and its place in history. Negligence towards it brought about great strife and bloodshed for Russia. However, we cannot limit the cause of anything in history to one event alone. Nonetheless, each event plays a unique part in the development of human history.
The Lord allowed Russia to suffer such a terrible persecution, that St. Lawrence of Chernigov prophesied that when Antichrist comes, Russia will be spared from his tyranny because of what they suffered during the Communist yoke!
We cannot speculate whether or not Russia would have suffered such a grand-scale persecution if she had not lost the Russo-Japanese war. Likewise, we cannot figure out the exact time when the Lord decided to give Russia over for her purification. What we can say is that the Lord allowed it, and that “all things work together for good to those that love God!”
This mystery—of human impenitence and God’s long-suffering, of man’s need for a jolting awakening and God’s allowance of suffering—no matter what specific time, nation, place or person it unfolds within, can only be understood properly in light of the first and greatest tragedy of human history: the fall of man.
Adam was created in communion with God; but, neglecting one commandment, and turning away from God, God allowed him to fall into a painful existence, toiling and weeping for 930 years. Then he died and his soul came to dwell in dark hades, in despair and agony. For how long? About 5500 years—an incomprehensible amount of time! We know what it is to experience a bad day, a passionate week, a hard month or even a year, and some know what it is to suffer constantly the whole time of their earthly life.
But can we comprehend those 930 years of Adam, who dwelt in Paradise, and then was cast out, and was still able to see it from afar, pierced with strong regret all the time and ever conscious of his great sin? Even more than this, can we comprehend 5500 years in spiritual death and darkness in the prison of hades?
I myself cannot. But, even so, all of us know how painful it is to fall away from the grace of peace. All of us know that strong shame, regret, and painful guilt when we go astray from the embrace of the All-Good God. He establishes us in peace, light and joy; but then, seeing some glittering thing, or turning a cold shoulder to a fellow man, we feel ourselves turned over to darkness and we feel the grace of God leave us.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast says that when we dwell in grace, we should know that soon it will depart; maybe not today, maybe not for a while, but surely, it will depart. But he grants us comfort, and says that even if we feel the loss of grace at the moment of a particular sin, we should not despair that we lost grace, because, it would have eventually left us anyway in order to instruct us. And Elder Anatoly of Optina tells us that even the afflictions which are a direct cause of some certain sin of ours can be for our profit.
This is the way we should understand the history of man, both in individual lives and as a whole. We should not be too overtaken by the past. But, looking at the mercy of God towards Adam and all mankind, we should expect the same in every other case for those who are broken by suffering and given to repentance.
Adam dwelt in Paradise; but he fell into a painful existence, and then dwelt for ages in dark hades. But what happened after all those years? God finally came as a Man, descended into hades and greeted Adam with joy. He took him by the hand and brought him—not just to lost Paradise again, but—to His very own throne, incomprehensibly much higher than Paradise and all the angels, where He and His Father are always seated.
Likewise, we can see that the Russian nation fell under communism. Many before that fell into sorcery, debauchery, heresy and complete apostasy; and God allowed a great purification to happen in the form of the Communist yoke. However, we now see Russia shining much more brilliantly than before those years preceding the great persecution. Churches have been restored, Optina shines again, monasteries are being filled, the youth are being reborn in holy Baptism, and religious truths direct her government. What a transformation!
And us: we may sin. We may come to the depths of wickedness. One day we are strong in love, our hearts are filled with sobriety, piety, prayer and joy. We feel transported to heaven, we sense God everywhere, we come to understand the mysteries of His providence and His eternal plan for all creation a little more. We comfort our neighbors with joy and ease; no one is a burden to us. We are freed from judgment and anger, and our hearts easily melt in over-flowing prayer, desiring to uphold our brethren and neighbors, and to anoint with spiritual ointment their sufferings and sins.
But what happens to us? The demons sneak a tempting thought in, and it is repeatedly inserted into our mind; an angry impulse divorced from reason takes over our hearts; a remembered wrong, an impure fantasy, an old habit, something sneaks in. We give it power, and we allow it to enter because of inattention and negligence. And sooner or later, we palpably feel ourselves deprived of grace, lost in darkness, and we may even come to a horrible state of gnashing our teeth against everything and everyone.
But grace can come again. And often it does! And when it comes again, it happens just like it did for Adam. We may be given over to much pain of body and soul, made the tool of the demons, tossed here and there by our passions, and our sins keep multiplying, we are humbled before God and men—but, coming to understand our negligence, and blaming ourselves for our own miserable fall, God graces our hearts once again and we are established in Him even more than we were before we fell.
This is the reason Abba Isaac tells us not to call God just; for, regarding His actions towards us, we cannot see justice, but superabundant mercy, forgiveness and love. We reject His grace, but He teaches us to pine for it. He establishes us again, but then again we depart from His protection and life; but again, He establishes us—adding yet more spiritual gifts to us, strengthening us even more in virtue and knowledge, love and humility.
In the history of the Port Arthur Icon we can behold how a little negligence and procrastination can go a long way. The first military leader treated this miraculous treasure as a simple piece of art, providing visual pleasure for curious gawkers—a seemingly harmless action, aside from complete disobedience to the will of God; but maybe he did not perceive the gravity of the situation.
Nonetheless, through this small procrastination and neglect, and that of others, a whole army was killed, a war was lost, and a whole nation was gripped by revolution. This teaches us to be sober about every small thought, word and action; making us fear that our seemingly small misdeeds can lead to total catastrophe, not just for ourselves or those around us, but for the whole world.
But, the Mother of God, the most merciful Queen, is filled with so much compassion and love for us; she suffers so much when she sees us going astray. She fervently longed to have her icon delivered to Port Arthur so that her troops would not be defeated, and so that the Orthodox Faith would prevail over paganism. And, even though she was neglected, she does not take away her help. But now, through her miraculous icon, she not only extends material aid to a few soldiers, but she receives everyone who comes to her through it, seeking relief from spiritual warfare, where the eternal life of the soul is at stake.
All Orthodox Christians are called to be spiritual warriors, but especially the monks—who at their tonsure are mystically clothed with the full armor of God. Therefore, it is no surprise that the copy of this holy icon, which was specifically painted for the North American people, has been given by the Virgin-Mother to us here, the largest English-speaking monastery in the world. This should make us think a little, and move us to humility.
The Port Arthur Icon was painted in Kiev—modern day Ukraine; made its way all across Russian; it was found in Jerusalem in the Holy Land; and through the copy we have here, she has visited all over North America. With such a history and relation to these lands so filled today with much strife, this icon bears a very mysterious and very important significance in the history of the world today. And being guardians of it, a certain important intercessory role has been placed upon us on behalf of the whole world!
She is here to awaken us, to comfort us, to help us, if only we would turn to her continuously—frequently venerating her icon with heartfelt prayers, asking for help in everything; and continuously invoking her most pure name as a refuge, armor and weapon against the enemy.
The young man in the book about the gurus and Elder Paisios, came to the saint and told him that he felt like there was a mental block or something when he tried to say the Jesus Prayer, and that he couldn’t get it going. The Elder told him to say for a while the “O Most Holy Theotokos, save us”.
The young man did this; and through the intercession of the saint, the Mother of God visited the little Church that they were in—only the Elder saw her, but the young man sensed her in a mystical way. This happened so that he would not only turn to Christ, but also to His most pure Mother, and recognize what a great refuge and consolation she is for all who pray to her.
St. Seraphim of Sarov says that she does not neglect even the greatest of sinners, and for this reason she is called “the Scourge of demons!” And there is also a story about a spiritual child of St. Seraphim of Vyritsa. He told her to start praying to the Mother of God for help. So, as a little girl, she first asked for small things, nice new shoes and such, and the Mother of God granted her every request. Then she started asking for more serious things, and was likewise answered.
The Mother of God is no stranger to earthly cares and the simple facets of everyday life and struggle. Although her first years were spent in the Holy of Holies and she led a more than angelic life, afterwards, when she was taken into the house of the righteous Joseph, and after she gave birth to Christ, she was given over to humble cares: cooking, sewing and house-keeping.
Yet, through her God was made a Man, and men were made God. Through her the Birthless Divinity had a beginning in time. She made earth into heaven and men higher than angels. She is called the portal of heaven. She gave birth to God, so nothing is impossible for her. We are told in the akathists—especially the one for her Protection—that it has been granted unto her, and her alone, to be heard unfailingly by her Son.
This is a great mystery. She is so closely knit together with God, and she is so reverenced by her Son, Who is God, that He is humbly obedient to her as only the most perfect Son can be. When she asks Him something, He grants it.
Even more than this, St. Dmitri of Rostov, commenting on the passage of Isaiah which tells us to hide for a while until the wrath of the Lord passes by, says that she is the very place that we hide. And St. John of Karpathos teaches us that, by wrath the Scriptures mean the experience of the removal of God’s grace, and our being afflicted by demons and passions for our amendment and humility.
With the same desire that the Mother of God had to visit and save her troops in Port Arthur, and even with a much greater desire, she desires to come to us whenever we are lost in spiritual warfare and near unto spiritual death. Don’t take my word for it, but try yourself to devote a whole day to saying unceasingly “O Most Holy Theotokos, save us”, just as you would the Jesus Prayer. Or, continuously turn your thoughts and desires to her, opening your whole heart to her and speaking with her, the greatest Mother.
If we are told by Christ that the kingdom of heaven is within us, then we can be certain that, in a mysterious way, when we call upon the grace of the Mother of God, she reveals herself within our hearts. And we can embrace her with love therein and speak to her about everything, just as a child to its mother.
And if we are spiritually worn out, or the Prayer is going poorly; or if we have some unresolved and complex inner struggle, or a heavy sin weighing upon us, no matter what it is, when we turn to her, we will soon feel the relief and grace of her who is full of grace entering within us, and giving birth anew to your soul, setting us on the pathways of eternal joy and life to the eternal glory her Son, Jesus Christ, together with His Father and the All-Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages. Amen.