A word given at the reading of the Great Canon of Repentance of Venerable Andrew of Crete on Thursday of the Fifth Week of Great Lent.
canon of St. Andrew of Crete is read for the last time this the year in the fifth week of Great Lent, thus closing the book on this Great Canon until next year. The holy words of the penitential canon will be read again by those who live until next year, and who heed these many lamentations: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me”—by those whom the Lord blesses to meet Great Lent next year.
In reading this canon, we repeat the words “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me” many times, and in doing so we as if see the scroll of our whole lives unraveling, from the day of our birth, and not simply until the present day in each of our lives, but until the day of death, and further until the day of the final Dread Judgment of God. How does life begin for every one of us? With crying. But there would be no suffering for the one bearing us, and the one being born if there was no guilt or impurity. What suffering? That which cried out in me when I, a newborn babe, began life with crying? I as yet had neither memory nor intelligence. My nature cried out from its inherent imperfection. Every child is born with the stamp of the ancestral sin of our forefathers and with the inclination to sin, which is inherited by every one of us from our forefathers. And when we, having defiled our lives by many sins, remember that we are born with an inclination towards sin, and that our duty is to master it, and that we cannot manage to do so, we bow our heads low at the recollection of our first day of birth, and from our heart breaks forth this prayerful cry: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” Look, God, upon Thy poor creation, which was born with an inclination to sin, which for many years of this earthly life did not want to refrain from this inclination and now fears Thy righteous judgment!
While we were yet insensate and unconscious beings, the Lord God, our philoprogenitive Father, led many of us to the enclosure of His Holy Church, and gave us, Orthodox babies, the joy of receiving the grace of Holy Baptism. The Holy Church cleansed from our souls this seal, the vestige of the hereditary sin of our forefathers, the first people, in Holy Baptism. It made every one of us clean, it adorned our souls in angelic clothing, it sealed us with the sign of the Holy Cross, it cleansed and sanctified us and, to strengthen our spiritual powers, the Holy Spirit was given to us in the Sacrament of Chrismation, strengthening us in the spiritual life, and in the battle with temptations, with seductions, with vices and with passions.
And when it’s given to us think about how we have lived our lives, when we remember that we were given freedom from this inclination towards sin already in childhood, and that we began to defile the pure, snow-white garment of our immortal souls already in childhood, by speaking lies, showing anger, laziness, disobedience, and other childhood sins, then the same supplication to the Lord arises again in the soul of every one of us, coming from that freedom from the inclination to sin: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”
The days of our childhood and youth have flown by. We were similar to our forefathers, the first people in Paradise, in those years when they were innocent, before they had sinned: Before them was the tree from which it was forbidden by God to pluck any fruit, and before us all stood, and stands, the tree of sins and passions, from which God’s will prohibits us to pluck these fruits which destroy our immortal souls. And, thinking about our youth, many of us are ready to beat ourselves on the breast, recalling how we had been careless and flippant, how we didn’t give much thought to how man should live, and how from the days of our childhood and youth we did not accustom our sinful hearts to fulfilling the will of God and preserving them in purity.
Perhaps many of us would like to regain our irreversibly gone youths, to begin life again, that our souls would not have those sins, vices, and passions which have so greatly accumulated in our souls—but it remains only to speak with and pray to the Lord with the words of the prophet David: Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions (Ps. 25:7). And once again this sigh of our heart: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”
Whether our adult years have already come, or are coming, or we have already passed through them, they are a time when we, Orthodox people, consciously look around ourselves, and learn from the Holy Church, its homilies, and the holy word of God, how to live, how to look at our own lives as preparation for eternal life, and how to protect our souls. When we look at our adult years, in which we must consciously and bravely battle with vices and passions, and wisely use the gifts which the Lord sends us, and patiently endure life’s blows, this prayerful lamentation, which St. Andrew of Crete puts into heart and soul of each of us, is ready to erupt from the depths of our hearts again: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”
I know Thy will, Lord. I want to do good, but I do evil and wickedness as before. I know that I am not walking along the path that I should, and, yet, I do not walk it. So many times I have promised not to repeat my sins and defile my soul, and again I break this promise! When will this battle between my conscience and my passions end? When will this captivity to sins and passions end? This cry is borne to the Lord from our souls: “Touch, O Lord, my sin-loving soul, that it would no longer serve sin, that it would not walk this path of sin, because my heart knows that this path leads to eternal destruction! I infect my immortal soul with sins, I drown it in a wave of passions and lawlessness, and I must give answer before Thee, O Lord, at the final and Dread Judgment!
And old age is coming, or for many of us it has already come. O how fruitlessly we have lived our lives! What have we done for eternal life? What have we done for the salvation of our sinful souls? How should we use the remainder of the days of our earthly lives? Will we spend them doing good works, to cleanse our hearts from defilement with bitter tears of repentance, and fill our hearts with good deeds at least in this remainder of days, or will passions and vices, as before, lacerate the remainder of our days and will my eyes, as before, be blinded by this vain sin and the stench of my passions? And again a groan arises from the depths of our souls to the Lord: “Take, O Lord, this blindness from my eyes, and grant that the remainder of my days may be short, and that I may not take these sins with me with which I have defiled myself throughout my entire life, and for which I have not been able to bring forth such repentance as would forevermore blot out these sins from my heart!” And again, the prayer, “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”
And the last hour of this earthly life will come for every one of us. The doctor will be powerless. Death will approach us. It is fitting if the Lord pleases to send us the happiness of a priest with the Holy Mysteries, to bid us farewell into life eternal. And what a prayerful groan from the heart of the dying will be sent up to Heaven, as that which St. Andrew Crete teaches us to cry out to the Lord with many times over: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” “Grant me, O Lord, Thy mercy in the hour of my death, that my sinful soul might leave this body with the sentiment of the Wise Thief, with his repentance, with his faith and with his hope in Thy mercy!”
Then our earthly life ends, and even if our soul wants to bring confession of sins and repentance, there’s already no one to accept this repentance and this confession. And, perhaps, I will painfully want to return at least an hour, at least a minute of this earthly life, that in that hour, in that minute, while the doors of Divine Grace are not yet closed and the doors of repentance yet open, I will weep bitter tears for my perishing soul. But it will be too late: life is already over and no one will have the power to return one hour, or even one minute.
And there will be that hour when the Lord commands our bodies, returned to dust, to rise, to unite with our immortal souls, and commands us to stand before Him (cf. Jn. 5:25, 29), before the face of His angels (cf. Mt. 25:31), before the face of the innumerable host of God’s faithful children, holy God-pleasers, and simple people faithful to the Lord, who were able to live and die with the Lord in their hearts. We will stand before them with our innumerable sins, with all our falls, and with all our filth. And in the hour of the final and Dread Judgment, will not these words erupt from our souls, to the Righteous Judge: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me?” This will be our last cry, which can only be addressed to the Lord, for this judgment will be final, and after it will be either eternal joy for Christ’s faithful children, or eternal tribulation for unrepentant sinners and for those who have pushed Christ’s hand away, and who lived without Christ and died without Him (cf. Mt. 25:46).
So, my dears, the manifold repetition of this prayerful lamentation reveals our whole life to us—from beginning to end and to the final Dread Judgment of God.
What the Lord will say to each of us—that’s His holy will. But, while we yet live, while we yet walk this earth, while we yet have these great and saving days of repentance given us by the Lord, let us bring our repentance to the Lord, with tears! Do not be ashamed of these tears, for our guardian angel collects these tears unseen. Weep bitter tears for the transgressions we have committed, and with these tears for our sins, draw nearer to the Lord with a prayer that He would save us by His mercy before we die to eternal life, and that He would cover our souls weeping before Him with His love, and that in eternal life and at His Dread Judgment he would not recall those sins for which we here brought repentance to the Lord with tears.
We will not hear these repentant sighs again until Great Lent next year. But may these holy words of the repentant canon never die in our hearts. May they live in the days of Great Lent, when we bring our repentance, and may these wonderful words of prayer, with which we ask forgiveness of our sins from the Lord and pardon for eternal life, not decay throughout our lives.
I wish you all, my sweet dears, with my whole heart, that the Lord grant you in these days of Great Lent to bring to Him not just your contrite souls, but your souls with tears wept for your sins, and that these tears would eternally cleanse our sinful filth; that we would not take our sins with us into the life of the future age.