St. Andrew’s Great Canon: a Rival Voice


Every year during Lent we invite into our churches a great pastor, St. Andrew of Crete, and listen while he leads us in a meditation on sin and repentance. That is, we listen while his Great Canon is chanted, and in response we reply over and over again, “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” Some things in this long poetic work might strike some moderns as a bit jarring, if not downright pathological—all this self-flagellation over our sins, this torrent of anguish and self-abhorrence. Is all this really necessary? Is it even healthy?

A quick and superficial perusal of the text might leave us wondering. “There has never been a sin or act or vice in life that I have not committed, O Saviour. I have sinned in mind, word, and choice, in purpose, will and action, as no one else has ever done.” “I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against You. Be merciful to me. For there is no one who has sinned among men whom I have not surpassed by my sins.” “From my youth, O Christ I have rejected Your commandments. I have passed my whole life without caring or thinking, a slave of my passions. Therefore, O Saviour, I cry to You: at least in the end save me!” Isn’t all this self-condemnation a bit much? And how accurate is it? Are all those people standing about in church for hours on end in Lent really as bad as all that?

Such questions miss the point of the Great Canon. The long meditation from the pen of St. Andrew is not offered as an individual’s personal confession of sin. It is not intended to be the sort of thing one shares with a psychiatrist while lying on his couch, or with one’s confessor while standing before the Cross. It is not intended as autobiography, but as medicine. Like some medicines, it might seem a little severe, and even taste bitter. But it is exactly the medicine that we need, however it might taste.

The disease the medicine is intended to cure is the one now afflicting large segments of our modern secular population—that of careless and serene self-righteousness. We far too easily fall into the assumption that we are pretty sensational spiritually, and that we have racked up an impressive score. We soon enough become blind to our true spiritual state. We can see others’ sins clearly enough, especially when they sin against us, but our own failings often seem to elude us.

I remember this kind of delusional approach being expressed on the radio one afternoon. A lady was being interviewed about her life and her life choices, and she said that she really couldn’t bring herself to regret anything she had ever done, because all her actions combined to make her the person she was today. Quite the confession! Really—she couldn’t bring herself to regret anything? Ever in all her life? Speaking personally, I can find plenty of things I regret doing, saying, and thinking in the last twenty-four hours, never mind all my life. The interviewed lady seems to reflect a culture in the last stages of the “I’m Okay; You’re Okay” disease. We are just fine spiritually, and we can’t bring ourselves to regret anything we have done.

Into this den of insanity and illness comes St. Andrew of Crete, bearing just the right medicine. We need to hear him, to listen to our conscience afresh, and to submissively receive its inner rebuke. Something inside of us is indeed broken and dark, diseased and dying. By confessing the brokenness, by admitting to the darkness, we can begin to separate ourselves from them, and to find healing and soundness of mind and peace. The World with its lies shouts at us every day, all day long, without ceasing. We need a rival voice, the voice of sanity, a voice calling us home. We need St. Andrew and his Great Canon. Maybe that is why he is so welcome in our churches every Lent.

Used with permission.
See also
A Time For Humiliating One’s Soul A Time For Humiliating One’s Soul
St. Augustine
A Time For Humiliating One’s Soul A Time For Humiliating One’s Soul
Sixth Homily on the Lenten Season
St. Augustine
Be on your guard against these tendencies, then, my dearly beloved. Consider what is written: Go not after thy lusts. If this most salutary precept ought to be observed at all times, how much more fully should it be carried out in these days when the relaxation of our desires in unusual pleasures is so discountenanced that even he who has not restrained his usual pleasures is rightly censured.
A Song of Repentance: the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete A Song of Repentance: the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete
The Monastery of Axion Estin
A Song of Repentance: the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete A Song of Repentance: the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete
The Monastery of Axion Estin
The experience of Lent is a spiritual journey whose purpose is to transfer us from one spiritual state to another, a dynamic passage. For this reason the church commences Lent with the great penitential Canon of St Andrew of Crete. This penitential lamentation conveys to us the scope and depth of sin, shaking the soul with despair, repentance, and hope.
A Meditation on the Canon of St. Andrew A Meditation on the Canon of St. Andrew
Fr. Robert M. Arida
A Meditation on the Canon of St. Andrew A Meditation on the Canon of St. Andrew
Fr. Robert M. Arida
The Canon of St. Andrew is interwoven with two complementary strands. There is first the historical strand, in which St. Andrew skillfully uses the history of salvation as the foundation for his hymn of repentance. It is the loving and compassionate God, who reveals himself through his saving acts and who calls the listener to repentance.
Rdr Andreas Moran3/12/2019 1:28 pm
The prayers before communion have such words: we are the chief of sinners. We may think we are not murderers or robbers; how then can we say such words, and see ourselves in the words of the Great Canon? The point is we do not compare ourselves with others for that is the sin of the Pharisee. We compare ourselves only with Christ Who is love which is absolute, perfect, unconditional, immutable. Even such words cannot describe His love. If we examine ourselves and compare ourselves only with Christ, we can start to mean it when we say we are the worst of sinners, and to identify with the words of the Great Canon. And the closer we get to Christ, the more we see how far from Him we are.

Gary Cox3/12/2019 12:01 pm
I am looking for information on the forgiveness Sunday service. Anybody know the history of it. When did it start? Who started it? Is it practiced in all Orthodox Churches? Thanks, Gary
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