“Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sin which shall be spoken against. Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
– St Simeon’s Prophecy
February 2 is the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple. This celebrates the event when the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple according to Jewish law, and was received by the Elder Simeon and the Prophetess Anna (Luke 2:22-38).
St Simeon prophesied about Jesus being the salvation of the world, and also had a prophecy for His mother, Mary. It is this prophecy which is the inspiration for the Icon of the Mother of God, “Softener of Evil Hearts”, also celebrated today.
The Seven Swords
The origins of the icon are unclear, though it appears to come from South-Western Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russian name for the icon is «Умягчение злых сердец», meaning “Softener of Evil Hearts”, or sometimes Семистрельная, meaning “Seven Arrows” or “Seven Swords”.
Simeon’s prophecy to the Mother of God: “…a sword will pierce your soul also…” has always been understood to refer to the intense grief she would experience seeing her only Son crucified. In Western Europe, 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 with devotional prayers for each of the “Sorrows”. These 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. Therefore, in Orthodoxy, 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 are wont to produce images if none are present. And so, the “Softener of Evil Hearts” is the Icon the wisdom of the Church recommends we pray in front of to dispel anger against our enemies. It is discovered 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.
Soften our evil hearts, O Mother of God,
And quench the attacks of those who hate us
And loose all straitness of our soul.
For looking on thy holy icon
We are filled with compunction by thy suffering and loving-kindness for us
And we kiss thy wounds;
We are filled with horror for the darts with which we wound thee.
Let us not, O Mother of Compassion,
According to the cruelty of our hearts, perish from the cruelty of heart of those near us,
For thou art in truth the Softener of Evil Hearts.
Above Prayer taken from the Akathist to the Mother of God, Softener of Evil Hearts
Article on the Softener of Evil Hearts Icon, including some stories.