Since the Christmas holiday, I have been enjoying Alexander Schmemann’s classic book For the Life of the World.
I also recently discovered that a pamphlet that he wrote on Lent is available in the Public Domain.
The following piece is adapted from that pamphlet.
(Alt.Kindle, epub and versions for other e-readers
are available at Project Gutenberg…)
Lent in the Orthodox Tradition
And, last but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to slow down our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation, meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, social gatherings–all these things, however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something
more important to do, and it is impossible to do without a change of life, without some degree of concentration and discipline. Lent is the time when we re-evaluate our life in the light of our faith, and this requires a very real effort and discipline.
The meaning and the spirit of the Great Lent find their first and most important expression in worship. Not only individuals but the whole Church acquires a penitential spirit, and the beautiful Lenten services more than anything else help us to deepen our spiritual vision, to reconsider our life in the light of the Orthodox teaching about man. We shall briefly analyze the most important of the liturgical particularities of Lent.
1. The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete
The Lent begins with the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. Written in the seventh century by one of the greatest hymn-writers of the Orthodox Church, this canon is the purest expression of repentance. The author contemplates the great history of salvation, recorded in the Old and the New Testaments and applies its various images to the state of his sinful soul. It is a long, pathetic lamentation of a Christian who discovers again and again how much God has loved him, how much He has done for him and how little response came from the man:
“How shall I begin to deplore the deeds of my miserable life?
What beginning shall I make, O Christ, to this lament?
But since Thou art compassionate, grant me remission of my trespasses.”
“Like as the potter gives life to his clay,
Thou hast bestowed upon me
Flesh and bones, breath and life;
Today, O my Creator, my Redeemer and
Receive me a penitent…”
“I have lost my first made beauty and dignity,
And now I lie naked and covered with shame…”
And to each one of these troparia the congregation answers: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”
The Great Canon is sung and read twice during Lent: in four parts at Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the first week; and again completely at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week. It is a real introduction to Lent, it sets its tone and spirit, it gives us—from the very beginning—the true dimension of repentance.
2. The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
On weekdays of Lent this prayer is read twice at the end of each service: first, with a prostration after each of its petitions, then with one final prostration. Here is the text:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.”
“But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.”
“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Then all bow twelve times saying: “O God cleanse me, a sinner.”
And the whole prayer is read again, with one prostration at the end.
This prayer, constantly repeated throughout the services, is the simplest and purest expression of repentance in all its dimensions: desire for purification, desire for improvement, desire for a real change in relations with other people. The Lenten rules of the Orthodox Church pay great attention to prostrations: through them the body participates in the effort of “breaking down” our pride and self-satisfaction.