Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Great Canon: An Ancient Healing Prayer

This week, Orthodox Christians gather together in the evenings to pray The Great Canon together. St. Andrew of Crete wrote The Great Canon around the year 700. The heavy words of this prayer reflect the human experience, help us look into our hearts honestly, and can lead us to becoming better people, more spiritual and more human. We all sin, turning away from God, who is the source of life. Sin produces darkness and confusion within us. We need to repent, turn around back toward God, to find true life. The sins we commit are like self-inflicted wounds that injure us deep within, but through repentance (turning away from the death within us toward our life-giving God), we can begin walking back toward the One who heals us and restores our beauty. With our whole hearts and minds, let us pray:

Come, wretched soul, with thy flesh to the Creator of all. Make confession to Him, and abstain henceforth from thy past brutishness; and offer to God tears of repentance.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have rivaled the transgression of Adam, the first-formed man, and I have found myself stripped naked of God, of the eternal Kingdom and its joy, because of my sins.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Woe to me, miserable soul! How like thou art to the first Eve! For thou hast looked in wickedness and wast grievously wounded; thou hast touched the tree and rashly tasted the deceptive food.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Instead of the visible Eve, I have the Eve of the mind: the passionate thought in my flesh, showing me what seems sweet; yet whenever I taste it, I find it bitter.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I confess to Thee, O Savior, the sins I have committed, the wounds of my soul and body, which murderous thoughts, like thieves, have inflected inwardly upon me.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Though I have sinned, O Savior, yet I know that Thou art full of loving-kindness. Thou dost chastise with mercy and art fervent in compassion. Thou dost see me weeping and dost run to meet me, the Father calling back the prodigal son.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I offer to Thee, O merciful Lord, the tears of the harlot. Take pity on me, O Savior, in Thy compassion.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

With the lusts of passion I have darkened the beauty of my soul, and turned my whole mind entirely to dust.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have torn the first garment that the Creator wove for me in the beginning, and now I lie naked.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have lost the beauty and glory with which I was first created; and now I lied naked and ashamed.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have adorned the idol my flesh with a many-colored coat of shameful thoughts, and I am condemned.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have cared only for the outward adornment, and neglected that which is within—the tabernacle fashioned by God.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

With my lustful desire I have formed within myself the deformity of the passions and disfigured the beauty of my mind.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

I have discolored with the passions the first beauty of the image, O Savior. But see me, as once Thou hast sought the lost coin, and find me.

Christ said, “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15.8-10, RSV).

Photo of an icon of Christ by Dana S. Kees. The above selections from The Great Canon, also known as The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete are found in The Lenten Triodion, Trans. by Mother Mary and Bishop KALLISTOS, Great Compline for Monday and Tuesday of the First Week of Lent (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001). These selections are printed, with commentary, in First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete by Frederica Mathewes-Green (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), Chapters 1, 5, & 6. The passage from Holy Scripture is from the Revised Standard Version.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Sunday of Forgiveness

Today is Forgiveness Sunday. During the service of evening prayer, known as Forgiveness Vespers, those of us gathered together at the Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk asked each other’s forgiveness. I approached each person, one by one, who stood side by side in a long line that winded confusingly around the interior of the candle-lit church.

I stood face to face with another person. We bowed to each other, kissed each other’s cheeks, sometimes kissing hands as well, and asked each other’s forgiveness. I moved on to the next person, and the next, and the next.

“Forgive me.” “God forgives and I forgive.”

I asked forgiveness from and bestowed my forgiveness upon the gathered bishops, monks, priests, deacons, seminary brothers with their wives and children, and other members of the church community. On this night I embraced my seminary brothers from all over America, as well as those native to other regions of the world: Jordan, Russia, Brazil, Uganda, and Palestine (even the town of Bethlehem, where Christ Himself was born). I encountered good friends, professors, men and women I don’t think I’ve ever met before, and too many children to count. We are one people with one Faith. We are the Church of the Holy Apostles. We are the body of Christ. This is how we begin Great Lent, a time of deep, honest self-reflection, prayer, fasting, and repentance. We begin by giving and receiving forgiveness. This is the way of the Orthodox. This is the way of healing. This is the way of beauty.

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery was founded by St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, who named the monastery after his patron saint, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. Since I worshipped in the monastery church tonight with my brothers and sisters in the Faith, I offer a sermon for Forgiveness Sunday by St. Tikhon of Moscow, the founder of the monastery:

Today is called "Forgiveness Sunday." It received this name from the pious Orthodox Christian custom at Vespers of asking each other's forgiveness for discourtesy and disrespect. We do so, since in the forthcoming fast we will approach the sacrament of Penance and ask the Lord to forgive our sins, which forgiveness will be granted us only if we ourselves forgive each other. "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."(Matt. 6. 14, 15)

Yet it is said to be extremely difficult to forgive discourtesy and to forget disrespect. Perhaps our selfish nature finds it truly difficult to forgive disrespect, even though in the words of the Holy Fathers it is easier to forgive than to seek revenge. (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk after St. John Chrysostom) Yet everything in us that is good is not accomplished easily, but with difficulty, compulsion and effort. "The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."(Matt. 11. 12) For this reason we should not be discouraged at the difficulty of this pious act, but should rather seek the means to its fulfillment. The Holy Church offers many means towards this end, and of them we will dwell on the one which most corresponds to the forthcoming season of repentance.

"Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother." The source of forgiving our neighbors, of not judging them, is included in seeing (acknowledging) our sins. "Imagine," says a great pastor, who knows the heart of man, Father John of Kronstadt, "picture the multitude of your sins and imagine how tolerant of them is the Master of your life, while you are unwilling to forgive your neighbor even the smallest offense. Moan and bewail your foolishness, and that obstruction within you will vanish like smoke, you will think more clearly, your heart will grow calm, and through this you will learn goodness, as if not you yourself had heard the reproaches and indignities, but some other person entirely, or a shadow of yourself." (Lessons on a Life of Grace, p. 149) He who admits his sinfulness, who through experience knows the weakness of human nature and its inclination toward evil, will forgive his neighbor the more swiftly, dismissing transgressions and refraining from a haughty judgment of others' sins. Let us remember that even the scribes and Pharisees who brought the woman caught in adultery to Christ were forced to depart, when their conscience spoke out, accusing them of their own sins. (John 8. 9)

Unfortunately, brethren, we do not like to acknowledge our transgressions. It would seem natural and easy for a person to know his own self, his own soul and his shortcomings. This, however, is actually not so. We are ready to attend to anything but a deeper understanding of ourselves, an investigation of our sins. We examine various things with curiosity, we attentively study friends and strangers, but when faced with solitude without extraneous preoccupation even for a short while, we immediately become bored and attempt to seek amusement. For example, do we spend much time examining our own conscience even before confession? Perhaps a few minutes, and once a year at that. Casting a cursory glance at our soul, correcting some of its more glaring faults, we immediately cover it over with the veil of oblivion until next year, until our next uncomfortable exercise in boredom.

Yet we love to observe the sins of others. Not considering the beam in our own eye, we take notice of the mote in our brother's eye. (Matt. 7. 3) Speaking idly to our neighbor's detriment, mocking and criticizing him are not even often considered sins but rather an innocent and amusing pastime. As if our own sins were so few! As if we had been appointed to judge others! "There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy" ? God. (James 4. 12) "Who art thou to judge another's servant? It is before his own master that he stands or falls." (Rom. 14. 4) "Thou hast no excuse, O man, whoever thou art who judgest. For wherein thou judgest another, thou dost condemn thyself. For thou who judgest dost the same things thyself." (Rom. 2. 1) "Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith; put yourselves to the test." (2 Cor. 13. 5) The pious ascetics provide a good example of this. They turned their minds to themselves, meditated on their own sins and avoided judging their neighbors at all costs

One pious elder, noticing that his brother had committed a sin, sighed and said, "Woe is me! As he sinned today, so will I tomorrow." And the following is a story about another ascetic, Abba Moisei. A monk committed a sin. The brethren, who had assembled to decide his case, sent for Abba Moisei, but the humble elder refused to attend the council. When the rector sent for him a second time, he appeared, but in quite a striking manner. He had taken an old basket, filled it with sand and was carrying it on his back. "What does this mean?" asked the monks, catching sight of him. "See how many sins I bear behind me?" answered Moisei, pointing to the heap of sand. "I don't see them, yet I have come to pass judgment upon another."

So therefore, brethren, following the example of the ascetics, upon observing others' sins, we should consider our own sins, regard our own transgressions and not judge our brother. And should we hold anything against him, let us pardon and forgive him, that our merciful Lord may forgive us also.

(The photo of St. Tikhon of Moscow is in the public domain.)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Looking to the Cross

As we prepare to begin Great Lent, forty days of intense personal reflection, prayer, and repentance in preparation for Pascha (Easter), let's begin by looking to the Cross for encouragement and strength:

Hail! life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of godliness, door to Paradise, succour of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. Through thee corruption is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to heaven: invincible weapon, adversary of devils, glory of martyrs, true ornament of saints, haven of salvation bestowing on the world great mercy.

Hail! Cross of the Lord: through thee mankind has been delivered from the curse. Shattering the enemy by thine Exaltation, O Cross all-venerable, thou art a song of true joy. Thou art our help, thou art the strength of kings, the power of righteous men, the majesty of priests. All who sign themselves with thee are freed from peril. Thou rod of strength under which we like sheep are tended, thou art a weapon of peace round which the angels stand in fear. Thou art the divine glory of Christ, who grants the world great mercy.

Hail! guide of the blind, physician of the sick and resurrection of all the dead. O precious Cross, thou hast lifted us up when we were fallen into mortality. Through thee corruption has been destroyed, and incorruption has flowered forth; we mortal men are made divine and the devil is utterly cast down. Seeing thee exalted by the hands of bishops on this day, we exalt Him who was lifted high upon thee, and we venerate thee, plenteously drawing forth from thee great mercy.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Cross is the guardian of the whole earth; the Cross is the beauty of the Church. The Cross is the strength of kings; the Cross is the support of the faithful. The Cross is the glory of angels and the wounder of demons.

Today the Cross is exalted and the world is sanctified. For Thou who art enthroned with the Father and the Holy Spirit hast spread Thine arms upon it, and drawn the world to knowledge of Thee, O Christ. Make worthy of divine glory those that have put their trust in Thee.

- From the Matins (morning prayer) and Vespers (evening prayer) services text for the Feast of the Elevation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, celebrated on September 14th. The Festal Menaion, Trans. by Mother Mary and His Grace, Bishop KALLISTOS (Ware), St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1998. Photo copyright © 2007 by Dana S. Kees.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What Feminine Beauty is Not

Advertisers send manipulative messages to American girls and young women about what the ideal model of beauty looks like and what they need to do to become beautiful. The American cultural conception of beauty often promoted and reinforced in the media reveals a warped vision of beauty.

Perhaps the best way to begin expressing what a really beautiful woman looks like and how a woman can become beautiful is to first describe what beauty is not.

Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty has produced the Evolution Film that demonstrates why Americans have a distorted image of beauty. The animation shows how the image of a girl has been changed into something she is not. (Men are affected by these images too because the images shape the way men think about beauty, including the beauty of women.) Also check out this GirlPower - Retouch webpage. Click on the picture of the cover girl to see what she really looks like. (You may have to click the image a couple times for the process to begin.) Deconstruct the altered photo step by step.
Copyright © 2007 by Dana S. Kees. (The Palm Leaf is a painting by William Bouguereau, my favorite European artist.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Music: Adam Nixon

"I write, play guitar, and sing. I like to sing about things that matter to me. I try to describe life realistically and to point out whatever small beauty I am capable of seeing." - Adam Nixon

Adam is a good friend of mine. I like his music. It's honest. His music is about life and, since he's living the Orthodox way of life, it's an expression of the Orthodox experience.

If you go into an Orthodox church you will hear the ancient music of our divine services. If you go to one of our cultural festivals, like a Greek Fest or Mediterranean (Arabic) Fest, you'll hear the folk music of Orthodox people who have cultural ties to other parts of the world. Adam makes music that has a familiar American feel, and it's good with a cup of coffee. Check out his music at MySpace Music and at StageFM.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Russian Movie: The Island

I recently discovered the existence of The Island (Ostrov), a Russian film shown at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival about Anatoly, a Russian Orthodox monk. You can watch about 15 minutes of the film (English subtitles included) on the festival's website. Click on the "View the Video" link under the picture.

The main character in this film reminds me of the Saints, like St. Basil of Moscow, who are known as "Holy Fools."

Perhaps The Island is a good film to watch during Great Lent, when we are called to deep self-reflection, prayer, and repentance so that we may be healed from our own self-inflicted wounds.

Photo Copyright © Pam Roth. According to, “the copyright holder of this image allows anyone to use it for any purpose including unrestricted redistribution, commercial use, and modification.”

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thoughts on Orthodox Missions

I was inspired by a recent post on Orthodixie to offer a few thoughts on Orthodox Missions:

What is our motivation for Orthodox missions? In other words, why do we want secular people to become Orthodox Christians and endeavor to bring unchurched people into the Orthodox Church? The answer is simple: Love.

The Orthodox way of life is the way of love. We commune with Divine Love, are transformed by Love, and express love through our actions in the world. As St. Paul said, if we don't have love we are nothing. As the Orthodox way of life is the way of love it is also the way of healing, the therapeutic way. Our society is full of spiritual sickness and confusion because individual persons have spiritual sickness and confusion within them. (This is part of our shared human experience.) With hearts full of humility and compassion we reach out in love to bring people into the Church, the spiritual hospital where Christ, the Great Physician, heals our wounds and makes us well. Within the Church we experience the spiritual care of the soul, the kind of care we all need. If our hearts are really filled with love for those around us, can we restrain ourselves from bringing others to the fountain that heals and renews life?

The Orthodox way isn't just a path for educated religious people who read novels by Dostoyevsky and study Orthodoxy with intellectual curiosity. Our way of life is also for the ordinary people who don't have time to read books on philosophy or surveys of Byzantine history because they're too busy working for a living. It's also for people who do have the spare time to read these kinds of books, but would rather do something else. It's for environment-friendly types who love the beauty of the earth and want to live a holistic spiritual existence. It's also for those who haven't even thought much about spirituality, or even know what the word means. It's for the pizza guy who delivers dinner, the girl who's behind the counter in the coffee shop, the dad who works long hours at the office, and the mom who needs something more for herself and her kids. It's for the child learning to walk, the college student who drinks too much, and the retired couple settled into a routine. The Orthodox Church is for anyone who needs the healing grace of God in their lives. It's for human beings. It's for us all.

How do we introduce people, like those described above, to our way of life? We have several approaches rooted in our Tradition. The earliest approach may be called "go and tell." The Holy Apostles dedicated their lives to traveling throughout the world to teach people the way and to establish local churches. Most of them were killed, a fact that shows the depth of their love and the importance of their mission.

Another approach is "come and see." We have a saying that goes something like this: "If you want to know what we believe, come and see how we pray." Many people discover the Orthodox way of life by visiting a local Orthodox church, a holy temple where the presence of the Creator God dwells among His community. Within this temple visitors should see the beauty of heaven on earth, revealed through the smoky incense in our ancient liturgy, music, and art. They should also see the beauty of heaven in our hearts. Everyone who walks through the doors of our churches should be greeted with personal care, genuine hospitality, and other expressions of divine love.

I'll call the third approach "personal witness." (We need to remember that we are always persons within the family of the Church. A person is not an isolated individual.) This approach consists of showing people the Orthodox way of life by living it, daily. By living the Orthodox way, the way of participation in the divine life, Christ reveals Himself through us. Because people see the Orthodox Church when they see us, we have to live a life of constant prayer and repentance to overcome our self-centeredness and imperfection. We hope that when people encounter us they don't see our sinful pride and ugliness (since we're still in the healing process), but will instead see (with God's help) the image of Christ within us.

May we, guided by the Holy Spirit, continue to proclaim the good news, walk the path that leads to our own healing (salvation), and reach out into a dark world to lead others into the light. "I am the light of the world," Christ said, "He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (John 8.12, NKJV).

Copyright © 2007 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon shown above is from St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Used by permission.)