by Frederica Mathewes-Green
Each morning during Matins (morning prayer), we have something called “the canon,” consisting of nine odes based on biblical canticles. Twice a year (during the first and fifth week of the Great Fast), we pray a particular canon, written by St. Andrew of Crete (during the first week it is split up over the course of four days). This canon is interspersed with about 250 prostrations, and it lasts somewhere around 3 hours. It sounds intense (okay…it is intense) but it’s my favorite service of the year! And seriously, it feels timeless. I remember the first time we prayed the Canon at my home parish. Afterwards, the few of us present said, “Wow, that was super long. It must’ve been an hour!” We were astonished when we then checked the time. You just get so caught up in the beauty of the hymnography (and perhaps also the pain in your quads) that you lose track of time. In his Canon, St. Andrew takes worshipers through all of salvation history, drawing comparisons between the soul and various people in scripture. “To whom shall I liken you, O soul of many sins? Alas! to Cain and to Lamech. For you have stoned your body to death with your evil deeds, and killed your mind with your disordered longings.” I would definitely encourage each of you to come pray the Canon with us this year! Even if you can’t do all (or any) of the prostrations, or if you can only come to part of the service, it is something I think everyone should experience. This year we will be having the service on the evening of Monday, March 23. We will post something on our website closer to the date for details of time/location/RSVP info.
Regardless of whether or not you are able to come pray the Canon with us…you can still read this book! Frederica Mathewes-Green writes a beautiful commentary on the Canon, broken apart into 40 chapters so you can pray with the Canon throughout the Great Fast. I read it during the Nativity Fast (because patience isn’t a virtue I’ve yet acquired…) and was struck by the author’s ability to point out the beautiful insights of St. Andrew. My favorite aspect of the book was the “Consider” section at the end of each chapter, in which she asks keen questions to encourage the reader to apply St. Andrew’s words to his or her own life. Very practical! She helps the reader to understand sin “not so much as a bad deed meriting punishment, but rather as a self-inflicted wound.” She delves into St. Andrew’s references to mercy and compassion. And, perhaps one of the most helpful tools, she provides the passage location for every reference to scripture St. Andrew makes (which is…a lot)! I encourage you to read this book and take it seriously, and I think you will be much closer to our Lord by the end of the Great Fast.
“We are not used to thinking of repentance as a tool anymore, or as something that would continue to accompany a Christian throughout a lifetime. As we walk alongside St. Andrew, and see him search the Scriptures, and hear his humility matched by grateful confidence in God’s compassion, we begin to glimpse the healing power of repentance” (from the Introduction to First Fruits of Prayer).