Square Zero

Have Mercy on Me, O God!

Posted by Eric (April 3, 2006 at 2:50 pm)

St. Andrew of CreteLast Thursday, we chanted the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete at St. George Church. This matins service, typically done on Thursday morning in the fifth week of Great Lent, takes about three hours and includes some 220-odd prostrations—down on your knees, face to the floor. Through haunting odes, refrains, litanies and canticles, St. Andrew reminds us, first, of our own sinfulness despite the example of the patriarchs, prophets and holy men of old, and then of the hope offered us in Christ.

It’s a pretty hard-core, Marines-boot-camp sort of service. Not being a complete idiot, I did have a Clif bar and a tankard of coffee before hand. Pretty hungry by the end and scarcely able to walk—going downstairs was particularly difficult.

I have to disagree with my friend John Gibson, who wrote that the experience was “like heaven on earth.” I thought it was much more like purgatory on earth. Aside from the pain in my quads that set in about half-way through, there was the constant reminder of my sin nature, over against the holy life of St. Mary of Egypt (HT: John Gibson), which is read during the service.

Here is just one of the literally hundreds of lines we intoned, followed by the refrain, “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” and a prostration:

Imitating that miserable Esau, O my soul,
you have sold the birthright of your original beauty to the Deceiver,
and thus you have been deprived of the paternal blessing;
henceforth, do penance.

What’s particularly pugatorial about the experience is that after so much painful reflection on one’s embrace of sin, through the lens of Old Testament figures like Joseph, Melchizadek, Jacob and Job, St. Andrew offers the hope of Christ—and purgatory is really all about hope; in fact, hope is precisely what separates purgatory from hell. The sheer length of the canon, made incarnate through the prostrations, fills one with a deep sense of the gravity of sin; yet it is the weight of that sin which points to the hope or Christ, who takes on that great burden.

St. Andrew’s long, ranging reflection reveals how much we have sinned, but how desperately we need Christ. When Andrew introduced Christ in the second half of the Canon—there is a thrill of joy. How unlikely that God would be merciful, when we deserve his just judgment!

So maybe John has it right. The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete opened my heart with gratitude for God’s mercy and offered a glimpse of the joy of redemption. That joy is heaven. Thanks to Holy Father Andrew, we were able to taste that joy for a moment.

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