The Lenten Act: Repentance and the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

Today is the feast day of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem. St. Sophronios is known for many thngs, but two which concern me today are his revision of the Phos Hilaron, composed by St. Basil the Great, and his composition of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. I’m not sure when, but his Life of St. Mary has for centuries been associated with the Great Canon of St. Andrew. On Thursday during the fifth week of Lent the Canon is sung, and the Life of St. Mary is read in two parts.

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is also sung in the Church on the first four nights of Lent. St. Andrew composed his Canon sometime in the early part of the eighth century, probably after 710. In total, it consists of 250 stanzas, each with the refrain, sung in beautiful and haunting minor key “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.” Last night was my first singing of the Canon. The first stanza runs: “Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.” Then the refrain: “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.” At which we bowed and crossed ourselves.

The genius of Orthodox Lent is revealed in the first two days. On Sunday, after Vespers, the dietary restrictions of the Fast are in place. That morning after Liturgy, for example, was the last time to consume eggs and dairy products. Needless to say, many dishes contained these items. (Something of an Orthodox Mardi Gras?) Then every worshipper present at Forgiveness Vespers cleanses their soul by asking and giving forgiveness. On Pure Monday (yesterday) the Church proclaims an absolute fast, although subject to priestly oikonomia if a parishioner is unable or it would be unwise for them to fast completely. Humbled by our knowledge of our sins, and from the freely given grace of our brothers’ and sisters’ forgiveness, wearied by fasting, we come to the Great Canon knowing and understanding, as Fr. Schmemann notes, that we have been living a lie of self-sufficiency. We begin to get an ever-greater inkling that God is our hope, our life, our all. We are ready, prepared physically and spiritually, now, to begin that Lenten askesis, that athletic wrestling with our soul called repentance, metanoia.

And I had a lot of which to repent. I didn’t count last night, but in the text in front of me now, there is opportunity to sing “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me” more than 70 times–with three “Lord, have mercy” sung after the sixth ode. When asked why it’s necessary to say “Lord have mercy” forty times (as some liturgies call for), Frederica Mathewes-Green has quipped, “Because we don’t mean it till the thirty-seventh time.” She’s right. I’m not sure even after more than 70 “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me” I really meant it. But I do know that the last time I sung it, I meant it more than the first time. Small drops of water, after all, do wear away stone. And right now my heart is stone.

Thank you, God, for this season of Lent. May it be profitable for my soul, and may I serve You and Your Kingdom ever more diligently from having been through this journey to Pascha.