There are two forms of the Paraklesis Canon to the Theotokos: the Small Paraklesis which was composed by Theosteriktos the Monk in the 9th century (or some say Theophanes), and the Great Paraklesis. During the majority of the year, only the Small Paraklesis to the Theotokos is chanted. However, during the Dormition Fast (August 1—14), the Typikon prescribes that the Small and Great Paraklesis be chanted on alternate evenings, according to the following regulations:
- If August 1st falls on a Monday through Friday, the cycle begins with the Small Paraklesis. If August 1st falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the cycle begins with the Great Paraklesis.
- On the eves of Sundays (i.e., Saturday nights) and on the eve of the Transfiguration (the night of August 5) the Paraklesis is omitted.
- On Sunday nights, the Great Paraklesis is always used unless it is the eve of Transfiguration.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, the equivalent of a Paraklesis is the Moleben, which is similar in structure, except that the canon is omitted, retaining only the refrains and Irmoi of the third, sixth and ninth odes. When the full service itself is performed, it is called the "Supplicatory Canon" (Molebnyj Kanon).
The reason these services are called "Paraklesis" (Supplication) is because the faithful gather to supplicate the Theotokos to intercede on their behalf to her Son and our God for our salvation and for the relief of anything that burdens and ails us. They are the prayers of suffering and hurting children addressed to their compassionate Mother, who is their only hope, protectress, and surety in time of need.
According to liturgical Professor John Fountoulis, even though the two Canons to the Theotokos are differentiated with the title "Small" and "Great", in fact they have the same number of Troparia, both having thirty-two with four in each Ode. However the Great Canon is more extensive, though this does not justify the epithet. The real reason seems to be that the Great Canon is chanted in a more festive tone during the Dormition Fast than the Small Canon, as shown in the Dismissal Hymns which begin: "O you Apostles from afar, being now gathered together here in the village of Gethsemane, lay my body in burial; and You, my Son and my God, receive my spirit."
Little research has been done on the historical circumstances that led to the poetry of the two Canons and the final morphology of the two Supplications.
The Small Supplication Service is older than the Great Supplication Service and its authorship is attributed by some to Theosteriktos the Monk, who lived in the ninth century. Others speculate it to be the work of Metropolitan Theophanes the Confessor of Nicaea who lived in the same century. Some even put forward St. John the Damascene as the composer. Regarding this history, see The History of the Small 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.