Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete - For the First Time

For the first time in my brief Orthodox life, I am able to attend most of the Lenten services which began with this past Sunday’s Forgiveness Vespers.  This means walking through the powerfully humbling cycle of St. Andrew of Crete’s Canon during the weekday evening services as we trudge the hard path behind Jesus on his way to the cross.  I have read the Canon several times as a Lenten devotional, helped by Frederica Matthewes-Green’s First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day JourneyThrough the Canon of St. Andrew.  The Greek tradition which informs my Kenyan Orthodox experience makes use of the Canon during its Holy Week services, which is where I have experienced it before.  But though the Canon also informs the core of the weekday services during Lent itself, this is the first time I've been able to attend these services.  And if the Canon itself wasn't enough, included with it from ancient times is the account of St. Mary of Egypt, inserted at the end of the Canon as an example of what repentance meant for this former notorious sex addict.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what happened last night at my parish Church of St. Nicholas.  There we sung and chanted the first quarter of the Canon, making the sign of the cross and a full prostration after almost every exhortation to repentance.  We Orthodox engage our body in worship along a full spectrum of motions.  We of course make the sign of the cross at the mention of the Holy Trinity, our fingers positions so that they remind us both of the two natures of Christ and the Three Persons of the Trinity.  Then there are bows of the head or of the waist to reverence an icon, bow before Christ or receive a blessing.  There is what we call a metanoia, a deep bow at the waist, touching the floor if one can.  And then there is the full prostration, where we fall to the floor in our knees and touch the floor with our forehead.  Lent in general, and the Canon of St. Andrew in particular, calls for a generous use of these full prostrations.

Here is the text of the first Ode or song that we walked through last night:

Eirmos: He is my Helper and Protector, and has become
my salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him My
father's God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously has
He been glorified. (Exodus 15:2, 1; Psalm 117:14)

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have willfully incurred the guilt of Cain's murder, since by
invigorating my flesh I am the murderer of my soul's
awareness, and have warred against it by my evil deeds.
(Genesis 4:8)

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have not resembled Abel's righteousness, O Jesus. I have
never offered Thee acceptable gifts, nor divine actions, nor a
pure sacrifice, nor an unblemished life. (Genesis 4:4)

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Like Cain, we too, O wretched soul, have likewise offered to
the Creator of all foul deeds, defective sacrifice and a
useless life. Therefore we too are condemned. (Genesis 4:5; Hebrews

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

In molding my clay into life, O Potter, Thou didst put in me
flesh and bones, breath and vitality. But, O my Creator, my
Redeemer and Judge, accept me who repent. (Genesis 2:7; Jeremiah
18:1-10; Rom. 9:21)

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I confess to Thee, O Savior, the sins I have committed, and
the wounds of my body and soul which murderous thoughts
like robbers within have inflicted upon me. (Luke 10:30)

Refrain: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have sinned, O Savior, yet I know that Thou art the Lover of
men. Thou strikest compassionately and pitiest warmly.
Thou seest me weeping and runnest towards me as the
Father recalling the Prodigal. (Luke 15:20)

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy

To The Trinity: Superessential Trinity, adored in Unity, take from
me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me
tears of compunction.

Now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Theotokion: Mother of God, hope and intercessor of those who
sing of thee, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and as
thou art our pure Lady, accept me who repent.

The mechanics work something like this:  The priest sings the ‘Eirmos’ after which the rest of us chant the refrain, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.’  And as we chant this refrain, we all make the sign of the cross and do a full, face-on-the-floor prostration.  Each of the following Troparia is followed by the same sign of the cross and full prostration.  After the prayer to the Mother of God, the priest sings the Eirmos again, and then we move to the next ode.  The service consisted of 9 of these odes, as well as Scripture readings from Genesis and Proverbs, and the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. 

Multi-tasking is not my strong suit, and it took me a while to get into the rhythm of crossing, prostrating (down and up in a cassock) whilst chanting Have mercy on me O God have mercy on me.  But at some point, the combination of hearing the words, owning the words, speaking my response, owning my response, and the physical exertion of so many prostrations, the meaning of repentance for me became increasingly clear.  St. Andrew takes no prisoners and pretense is summarily dispatched.  I found myself not just listening to the priest chanting the words of exhortation, but being addressed personally by them, not just speaking the response, but increasingly meaning the response.

The Service of St. Andrew’s Canon is not a user-friendly service.  It’s not something that one can just attend.  Instead it is hard work: physically hard work, spiritually hard work.  I had run seven miles earlier in the day yesterday.  But I felt more exhausted after walking through the Canon than all the effects of my day of work, my running and my emotionally intense conversations with my mission supervisors combined.  I am reminded again that Christianity cannot be simply about a change in status, but must also be a transformation of life, otherwise we do not know what we are talking about.  And transformation cannot occur without repentance. Which is why we Orthodox do Lent.  And why we find the Canon of St. Andrew so useful.  And challenging.

St. Mary of Egypt

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