“Whether or not anyone has any affiliation or devotion to the mother of Jesus, I have come to believe that everyone can find their struggles and sadness hidden in the folds of Mary’s robe of sorrows. Whether Mary is approached as a historical or symbolic figure of compassion, the heartaches and sorrows of her life contain a message of strength and encouragement for those who hurt.” (1) In seeking to be living lives according to the compassion shown by Jesus we include Mary because of the way, from a few days after the Incarnation, she becomes aware of the cost of compassion: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34/35)
That prophesy, spoken to Mary by Simeon when she presented Her Child in the Temple, is the inspiration for the Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God, Softener of Evil Hearts, or sometimes Семистрельная meaning “Seven Arrows” or “Seven Swords”. They have always been understood to point to the intense grief she would experience seeing her only Son crucified. The Roman Catholic Church developed the “Seven Sorrows” of the Mother of God, referring to seven sorrowful events in her life which by the 15th century had evolved into a feast-day (Our Lady of Sorrows: September 15th) with devotional prayers for each of the “Sorrows”. Whilst the feast or devotion never gained official recognition by the Church of England, nonetheless Fr. William Sirr SDC, founder of Glasshampton Monastery, Worcestershire, UK (now occupied by brothers of the Society of St. Francis) placed the house under the patronage of ‘St. Mary at the Cross’ as did the founder of the Anglican Benedictine Abbey at Edgware. The Feast of our Lady at the Cross is also observed on September 15th.
The seven sorrows were also depicted in religious art, and, given the relatively late date of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” icon plus its origin in south-western Rus (on the frontier with Roman Catholic Europe), it is probable that the image was adopted by the Orthodox Church from the West.
However, in Christianity and ancient Judaism, the number seven signifies fullness or completeness. Thus the “Seven Swords” of this icon can be seen as representing the boundless sorrow experienced by the Mother of God as Simeon’s prophecy is realised, without having to list a particular number of sorrows.
Why ‘Softener of Evil Hearts’?
Just as Christ would be pierced with nails and a spear, so the soul of Mary would be pierced by sorrow and pain in the heart, when she saw her Son’s suffering. After that, the heretofore hidden thoughts of the people regarding the Messiah would be revealed, and they would face a choice: to be with Christ, or against Him. Thus, Simeon’s prophecy is completely fulfilled: “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
For those who cannot help but be moved by the sufferings of Christ for us, and the sufferings of Mary as His earthly mother, contemplation of the Lord’s Passion guides their prayers. Thinking on the Passion, they are unable to condemn their enemies in prayer; it’s impossible because the words of Our Lord on the Cross “forgive them…” resonate too strongly. The same is true when we contemplate the Mother of God’s sufferings, which are immeasurably deeper than any pain we receive from those who offend us. Indeed, very often the insults we receive are embarrassingly slight in comparison.
Icons provide a focus for these meditations, as our minds can easily produce images if none are present. And so, the “Softener of Evil Hearts” is the Icon that Orthodox Christians are recommended to pray in front of to dispel anger against our enemies. It is, therefore, of particular interest to those seeking to develop a Compassionate Heart. It is said that when Christians pray for their enemies before such icons, their feelings of enmity are softened, and that internecine strife and hatreds abate, giving way to kindness. When we pray for before such an icon we are not accusing our enemy of evil, but confessing the evil in our own hearts, and asking for help. (2)
(1) ‘Your Sorrow is My Sorrow’: Joyce Rupp OSM (Co-direcctor of the Institute of the Compassionate Presence)
(2) based on an article in ‘A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons’)