Monday, March 11, 2019

'The bright sadness of these Lenten services...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel." (MK. 1:15)

As I continue my relentless campaign to encourage you to be present for at least one of the evenings this week when we chant the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete (Monday - Thursday of this First Week of Great Lent), I would like to share some of Dr. Peter Bouteneff's comments on this service from his book How to Be a Sinner. 

In one of the chapters, entitled "The Sweetness of Compunction," he speaks specifically about the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. And Dr. Bouteneff begins by asking an interesting question: "Why is it that the most penitential services of the Church are so often seen as the most beautiful, even joyful?" He then goes on to say: "People seek them out." After these comments, he quotes the opening troparion/hymn of the Canon:

How shall I being to mourn the deeds of my 
   wretched life?
Come, my wretched soul, 
and confess your sins in the flesh to the 
   Creator of all.
From this moment forsake your former
and offer to God tears of repentance.

Dr. Bouteneff continues: 

"Who wants to come to such a maudlin service? Apparently a lot of people do. The Canon services are among the most heavily populated of the year in the many parishes I have attended. Artists, bankers, academics, doctors, construction workers, teachers, and office administrators come. My teenage children would insist on attending: "My favorite!" (actual quote). All of these people, prostrating themselves willingly, devoid of pathos, as the prayers are chanted - it's a sight to behold." (p. 124-125)

At the same time he acknowledges the challenges these heavily penitential texts will pose: "First time visitors can be shocked at the depth and severity of their penitence. But for those who understand their context, they feel heavenly." (p. 125) He then goes on by quoting some of the comments he has received from friends through social media:

"The bright sadness of these services reveals something about joy, about love, that doesn't skim over faults but encompasses and heals them."

"It's the 'no matter what' quality of forgiveness and love. You don' really see the divine love until you look at how poorly you've done, and then see that you are still beloved and accepted."

"These services are beautiful because we drop our shields and open up our hearts, and we realize that we are not alone: others have made mistakes, felt sorrow and pain, and all need to heal."

"Somehow the distance from woundedness to joy is shorter than the distance from happiness to joy."

Concerning this enigmatic comment, Dr. Bouteneff writes: "This observation still has me reflecting with wonder." (p. 126)

Summarizing his overall assessment of the Canon, he concludes this section as follows:

   "The Canon services are special, deliberately so. In then we see how the Church's liturgical cycle are a masterpiece of pastoral management. We don't delve so deeply into our compunction throughout the whole church year; if we did, we couldn't bear it. We have to maintain a balance. During the seasons of fasting, we focus on our responsibility for sin. But we must never lose sight of our goodness, created by God, restored in his Son, by his Holy Spirit. The Church's liturgy is designed to show us how to fast and how to feast, how to lament and how to rejoice. In opens our hearts to an increasing acceptance of these realities. Because until we allow them, they can barely touch us." (p. 127)

This is time well spent. And if our Christian stewardship embraces "time management," then "offering" that precious commodity of time back to God by our presence and concentration in church for these services, can only be meaningful and deeply fruitful - at least potentially. Is it a bit inconvenient? Then so be it.

I just spoke with another friend of mine, a priest up in Minnesota, and he told me how the children of his parish love this service and how many of them are present with their parents. And we do have some of our own parish children and young adults present. God willing that will expand this year. For those who have been to the Canon before, I am sure that you are looking forward to the service this year. For those who have never been, here is the opportunity to expand your experience of the depth and beauty of the Church's unique lenten services. 

We approach the Canon here in the parish with appropriate reverence, but somewhat modestly. What is "prescribed" is that we make a full prostration after each of the troparia of the Canon. That is a bit much. (Though we do make full prostrations near the end of the service with the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim). What I practice, and what I suggest that everyone follow, is making the sign of the Cross accompanied by a deep bow at the waist, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand after each troparion of the Canon. Our bodily gestures are meant to manifest the movement of our souls - inner compunction, repentance together with adoration and praise are thus outwardly manifested. This is a holistic approach to who and what we are as human persons.

All in all, a wonderful opportunity to repent of our sins as Jesus exhorts us to.

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