Tonight (Wednesday of the 5th week of Great Lent) we will be "doing" the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. I could say "singing," or "praying," or "chanting" the Great Canon - but doing is more apt, since it involves praying not only with the voice and ears and mind and heart, but also with the body. There are hundreds of short, pithy, moving hymns - each followed by a prostration to the ground.
The hymns are arranged in 9 groups which are called odes, and which correspond to odes from the Old Testament.
The first time I experienced the Great Canon was as a novice at the Stoudion Monastery near Grottaferrata in Italy. I was 19 years of age. The community consisted of six monks who had fled from Soviet Ukraine, one from Canada, one from England, and me. I remember that in the course of the service, one of the Fathers began to remain on his knees, making semi-prostrations - rather than getting up to his feet each time. In my youthful "zeal" I recall both pitying the good monk, and also judging him. "If he would summon his strength, he'd be able to do the prostrations properly." The monk in question was missing a kidney and had a deformed hand. He had survived war, flight, refugee camps and God knows what else and had remained faithful to his monastic calling. But I - a recent high school graduate, forty years his junior, was happy that I could perform prostrations "superior" to Monk Lavrenti's.
"Among the Judges was Samuel the great, botn in Ramah and reared in the House of the Lord; learn from him, O my soul, and judge your own deeds before you judge the deeds of others." (5th Ode of the Great Canon)
The next time that I can remember the Great Canon would have been a year or two later. It was at the cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in the Bronx. Besides the bishop (Nikon, I believe), there were two monks who lived at the cathedral. One was tall and thin, with a somber demeanor. The other was short and stocky, cheerful and very agile and quick. The singing was "awful" by musical standards. But that added to the charm and the genuineness of the prayer. Unlike the Ukrainians in Rome who did their prostrations slowly and with measured devotion, the Russians did theirs with rigor and vigor. It was reminiscent of squat-thrust exercises in gym class. They made the sign of the cross, quickly fell forward on hands and knees and jumped up immediately! Though I was a mere stripling of a youth, I could barely keep up! And unlike the church of the Stoudion perched near the rim of volcanic Lake Alabano, in silence - the Bronx cathedral stood a block north of the Cross Bronx Expressway, and a block or two away from the Third Avenue El, in a neighborhood of poor Hispanics. It was pandemonium. But in the midst of it: what beauty and fervor!
Some years later the brethren of our Monastery in Steubenville were invited to join the faithful of the Orthodox Church up the hill for the Great Canon. The pastor was named Father Wojtila, and claimed to be related to His Holiness Pope John Paul II. Father Wojtila was a dear friend of our brotherhood. My memories of this occasion are as follows: After so many prostrations I began to notice little balls of red lint on my habit. My pious exercises were slowly but surely destroying the carpeting of the little church! I recall being preoccupied with thoughts as to how I might modify my prostration-style so as to spare the carpet. Listening to the deep and beautiful prayers, I was distracted. It turned out that the carpet had only recently been installed and my endless acts of "erosion" did no harm at all. On the way back to the Monastery, walking down the hill, I remember an awareness of being soaked from persperation, still feeling hot in the chilly night air - and also feeling aches throughout my body. The next morning I was so stiff I could barely move!
"O my soul, the waves of my sins have returned and engulfed me as the waters engulfed
the Egyptians and their charioteers in the Red Sea." (6th Ode)
Now, many years later, I am looking forward to tonight's prayer. The hymns themselves provide an excellent annual review of the Old Testament. They follow the course of the whole of Scripture beginning with Adam's exile from our homeland. They provide a reminder of all the sin and mercy and repentance of the whole history of the world - all that has been poured forth of the Triune God for the salvation of each human soul. I know that I will not be able to perform many prostrations. I could not even keep up with the elder monk Lavrenty of the Stoudion - though I am younger now than he was then. The arthritis and the knee-replacement preclude any likelihood that I'll be able to imitate the lively vigor of the Russian faithful in a Bronx that no longer exists. Chances are I will not even break a sweat as I had 35 years ago in Steubenville, OH. Nevertheless, the need for repentance is clearer now. There is a spiritual urgency with an awareness of how much must be done, how little I am able to do, and how much reliance must be placed upon His shoulders.
"O my soul, pass through the flowing waters of time, like the Ark of old, and take possession of
the Promised Land as God commands you." (6th Ode)