This is the first in a series of posts on the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, a penitential service in the Byzantine cycle for the Great Fast that quite literally changed my body to pray in a Byzantine way. Perhaps it will also become clear through this series why I have a special love for the desert hermit, our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, in whose life the Most Holy Theotokos also plays a special role.
My Kyivan sisters and brothers did the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete last night, a penitential service that occurs on fourth week of the Great Fast in preparation for the fifth Sunday, the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt. Tonight, I’ll be doing the same at the Orthodox Church in America cathedral in Chicago, one of the few places in Chicago proper where the service seems to be held in English. As I am reliving my catechumenate this Great Fast, I must blog about this service because of all the services in the Byzantine cycle, this is the one that transformed my body such that I quite literally began to pray in a Byzantine way, despite my background in evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism; this, I am discovering through the writing of these posts, will take more than one post to cover. Because the Life of St Mary of Egypt is so central to this service, I like to say that it was Holy Mary of Egypt who made my body Byzantine, even though the tropars through which I learned how to do proper prostrations were written by Holy Andrew of Crete. However, as may become clear from what follows, I still think Holy Mary of Egypt had a lot to do with it.
The first time I had heard of Holy Mary of Egypt, I was in a book study at my home temple in Richmond. My spiritual father wanted to introduce the lot of us, most of us raised in Western Christian traditions (both the Latin Church and its Protestant discontents), to Eastern Christianity, so he assigned us to read Frederica Matthewes-Green’s Facing East. The truth was that for the whole time I was reading Facing East, I was thinking of the delicious Taiwanese food at the restaurant of the same name in Bellevue near Seattle.
Matthewes-Green gives a rather colorful description of Holy Mary of Egypt as one who used to be a ‘singer, an actress, and a sexual athlete of inexhaustible appetite’ who was then converted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by viewing the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos and then drove herself out into the desert for fifty years of repentance (p. 54-55). I was so confused when I first read and discussed this; as far as I was concerned, the only Mary that was in Egypt that I had learned about as a Western Christian was when the Most Holy Theotokos had gone to Egypt with Holy Joseph the Betrothed and the Christ child.
In the middle of our discussion, my spiritual father slipped out to get what he said was the favourite icon that he owned. He came back in with an icon of Holy Mary of Egypt.
We were even more confused. Here was nothing like what Matthewes-Green seemed to be describing. The icon displayed a faded old lady with white hair and a gaunt figure.
I can look at this icon forever, my spiritual father then said, to which we did not say: and we have no idea what we are looking at, although that would have been the truth.
Then my spiritual father issued a curious invitation: We’ll read her story at the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete this Wednesday night. I’ve heard the story so many times that I am now like a child; I need it to be read with the exact words of the story. But come completely unprepared. Do not prepare to pray. We will do so many prostrations that you’ll be able to see if your body can trick you into prayer.
That’s how I showed up that Wednesday night, completely unprepared and with no knowledge of what on earth the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete was and why Holy Mary of Egypt was so important to my spiritual father.
I was somewhat familiar with the Matins service with which we began. But as we got ready for inserting ‘The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete’ – and at this point I still had no idea what it was – my spiritual father issued another instruction: OK, so there are two conventions about what we are going to do. Each person will read a whole set of tropars. After each tropar, we will all sing together, ‘Have mercy on me, O G-d, have mercy on me.’ The convention is to make a full prostration either before you sing this or after you sing this. Either one of the two ways is fine, because either way you’ll make a prostration.
Then said I: But I don’t know how to do a prostration yet.
My spiritual father then looked over at me: Oh, you will, by the end of this. And oh yeah, I would recommend standing in the center aisles because the pews will get in the way, and maybe take off your shoes too – I broke mine one time doing the Great Canon.
This sounded a little scary, but I felt reassured that my spiritual father had said that it was after each tropar that we’d make a prostration. At this point, I had been going to Divine Liturgy enough to be able to think of a tropar as a hymn that takes some time to sing and get right.
I did not expect each of the more-than-twenty lines of an ode to be called a tropar. My first reaction to the first tropar was, What? A prostration already? I decided to make mine before I sang, Have mercy on me, O G-d – OOF! – have mer- OOF! – cy on me. I suppose we would have had fewer ‘oofs’ if we had a proper kliros to sing that part, but our temple is small enough such that whoever shows up is the kliros.
The next one came less than a minute later. And then the next one. And then the next. And then the next. It was relentless. I don’t think I even heard what the tropars were talking about – they’re supposed to accuse you of your sin and drive you to repentance – but I was too overwhelmed by how many prostrations were coming so quickly that I failed to listen.
At this point, I had been told that there was actually a prostration technique. The idea, my friend had told me, is that you go all the way down, bending from the waist until your hands touch the ground, then going all the way down till your head touches the ground, then pushing back up to standing position. Don’t bend your knees, my friend had told me. You’ll pull something.
I was an idiot for those first forty or so prostrations. I went down on my knees and went down and then came back up on my knees and miraculously pushed back up. This was because I had seen some Ukrainian ladies at a Presanctified Liturgy a few weeks before just genuflecting instead of prostrating, and I thought it was the right thing to do; besides, I had grown up in the Western tradition, and there was a saying for those of us who were interested in Catholicism in general that the strongest part of a (Latin) Catholic’s body were the knees.
And so it was that by the middle of the second ode, my knees were already killing me. I also still had no idea what the tropars were saying. It was with great hesitation that I switched up my prostration technique, doing what my friend had told me. But my body was not used to it, and I fell off balance more than once.
It eventually got to my turn to read the tropars. I thought perhaps I’d take a shortcut and not prostrate after each one at this point (the third ode), both my quads and my knees were killing me. But then the tropars began to hit me:
The Lord once rained fire from heaven and consumed the land of Sodom.
Seek salvation on the mountain as did Lot, O my soul, and find thy refuge in Zoar.
Flee from the flames, O my soul, flee from the burning heat of Sodom, flee the destruction of the divine fire.
…and so on and so forth. Each tropar hit me so hard that I’d step away from the lectern and prostrate, only omitting the ‘Have mercy on me, O G-d’ so that I’d have time to hop back into chanting.
At the point when I felt like my knees would give way from the pain, my spiritual father said that we could have a seat from some of the sitting hymns. Then he began to read the Life of St Mary of Egypt.
I’ll continue with my initial reactions to the life of our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt in the next post.