Posted by Eric (March 22, 2007 at 12:22 pm)
Today we chant the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, one of those landmarks of Great Lent like last week’s observation of Mid-Lent. Of Mid-Lent, by the way, one might be tempted to say, “It’s all down hill from here!” but in fact it’s all very much uphill from here, with the air thinning at every step.
The fifth week of the Great Fast is difficult, I find. Somehow, it feels as if it’s the sixth week—as if Great and Holy Week is just upon us. But it is not; there is another whole week of Lent to go, after this one, before that week that, because of its intensity, is actually more endurable. Pascha is in view, and already in the midst of deeper prayer and more rigorous fasting the chords of paschal joy are beginning to vibrate softly within the soul.
But here in the Fifth Week, Pascha seems far off. That’s where the Canon comes in, during which we read the life of St. Mary of Egypt, who did penance not for forty-eight days but for forty-eight years, deep in the desert. Her Life is a reminder of what we’re doing this for—to recover the spiritual strength we need to be capable of saying Yes to God.
The Canon is very long and, with literally hundreds of troparia laced with Biblical references and each followed by a prostration. As Orthodox writer Frederica Matthews-Green says, “It’s tough stuff.” But that’s exactly what makes it so appealing, especially at this exhausting point in Lent. Matthews-Green explains:
It seems to me that so much of contemporary Christianity is squishy and sentimental. It presents the faith like a consumer product, and is desperate to please. But go back 1,000 or 1,500 years, to a work like the Great Canon, and you don’t get that at all. There is a sense of awe and mystery here—a sense of seriousness—that you won’t find in a so-called “praise chorus” . . . .
Recently, we’ve been in a culture where “Pal Jesus” was mostly in the business of emotional reassurance. I see a new interest, however, in “grown-up” spirituality, that grapples honestly with the unspoken loneliness, despair, and fear right under the smiley-face surface.
Matthews-Green goes on to say that it’s the generations coming after the Baby Boomers—like my own Generation X—that especially thirst for this kind of serious Christianity.
The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is the crown jewel of “serious” Christianity—a Christianity of unfathomable depth. The sublime beauty of the chant, the inspired genius of the canticles, the bodily demands standing and prostrating for so many hours—a desperately needed reminder of why we are here, in the midst of Great Lent, “grappling with the unspoken loneliness, despair and fear” under the surface of our lives.
For it is only by taking seriously such things as sin, repentance, spiritual battle and the wisdom of spiritual fathers and mothers like St. Andrew and St. Mary that we can experience the authentic lightness of heart that the world is seeking but never finding in feel-good spirituality.