Brother Robert on the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

March 30, 2011

Presented below is a chapter from an unpublished book, titled Light from the East, by the late Brother Robert Smith, FSC (1914-2006), longtime tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis. It was a book he was working on during the last few years of his long life; when he left his house at Annapolis a few months before his death, he asked me to save the files of it onto my computer. I have cleaned up spelling and punctuation as best I can, but, as far as possible, have left Brother Robert’s wording intact; occasionally, what is presented here is a hypothetical reconstruction of the meaning of an unclear original passage.

The essay will give the reader, I hope, some idea of what sort of a man Brother Robert Smith was, and what sort of a God he worshiped. And it is also, I think, a most insightful reading of St. Andrew’s Canon, and an excellent lenten meditation.


This poem, beloved by the Eastern Church, lets us overhear a conversation between Christ and an old man, who knows he will soon die and then face judgment on all the deeds of his life.

Andrew asks renewed forgiveness for his known sins and light to uncover any hidden leanings still within him that, if uttered, would show how unfit he was to talk openly with his Lord.

Christ in words found in Scripture reminds Andrew of how all-inclusive the two commandments of love are, and how eager he is to greet prodigals when they return.

To many the mere thought of anyone having to face judgment will be terrifying.

Imagine: an all-knowing God coming to question us, weak from age, about things we did in youth, middle age, and later years!

When, however, we hear this poem read in Church, it will strike us as indeed grave, but still consoling because it shows Christ’s never-failing desire for us to become one in mind with himself. He wants to talk familiarly with us in the way God did with Adam in the coolness of the afternoon.

Andrew has a vivid sense of his own failings, but, despite this, the conversation between him and Christ is between people who love one another. Andrew is talking to his soon-to-arrive judge, but he knows him to be presently anxious to help him put on the wedding garment guests need to wear.

The old man grieves over his past wrongdoing, but expressions of this concern are interspersed with memories of his master trying to find lost sheep or search for lost coins that have the king’s image stamped on them. Even more to the point, Christ condemns our failings because he wants us to be better.

In listening to Andrew, Christ hears an old man who has spent his life seeking to find what his Master wants. Now, in these last days, that old man is striving to know whether there are unknown commands he has not heeded, or failings he has neither recognized nor confessed. From the bottom of his heart he is begging his Lord to help him become a good disciple; he fears being disowned by someone he loves and whom he knows wants him not to fail.

There is no better way for any of us to learn what God wants of us than meditating on the stories of good and bad men spoken of in Scripture. Andrew has been pondering on them during all the years of his monastic life. Now, in old age, he is going over in his mind texts grown dear to him and peering into them in hope of discovering lessons he has missed.

He does not, like some scholar, speak in an orderly way of all parts of Scripture simply because they are there to be read dispassionately. Instead Andrew will be listening for messages God set down for us to heed. In the light of those stories there is one more chance to find out how he falls short of thinking and feeling as God does.

Memories of past blindness renew his worry about wrong desires that may still be lurking in some corner of his mind. Therefore he keeps asking both forgiveness for failings he knows about and help for him to uncover still hidden ugliness.

The Great Canon shows us thoughts of someone who reads the Scriptures in an affective way. He knows stories about God’s interaction with outstanding men and women from the past, and, as he thinks about them, he uncovers their bearing on him.

So his approaching meeting with Christ is not something unlooked-for; on the contrary it is a culmination of many years spent talking with his Master about his actions and how to make them better.

The Church invites us to listen to this poem during Lent (1) because we too will have to face judgment and (2) Lent is a time for readying ourselves to rise into the newness of life made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.


One quarter of this poem is sung during Compline on each of the first four days of Lent.

It deserves the name “great” for several reasons, but certainly because it is very long, having more than two hundred stanzas.

The Church punctuates verses of the poem by inserting familiar litanies and other prayers well known to the faithful. These additions give us time to pause and see how Andrew’s words relate to our life.

Most importantly, the Church, after each verse, adds a petition we will want to make more meaningfully our own when we recognize some message in Andrew’s poem as addressed to us, something that will make us want to say:

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me.”

By joining our minds to these words as the priest recites them, we may, with the help of the Holy Spirit, gradually come to see hidden failings in our life, and so more clearly recognize our need for forgiveness and purification.

As we grow older and have wider experience of coping with the world, we will, as we pray, recognize how much we need to take a deeper look at what we are doing. We will discover unsuspected ways God’s commandments bear on what we are or are not intent on doing. What loving God and our neighbor means will emerge gradually through prayer and meditation on scripture and our own mindset.

Again, as this happens, our pleas for mercy and forgiveness will become more to the point and more earnest.

Individual men and women present in the Church can and do, according to their own inspiration, add some special response to the Church’s repeated pleas for mercy. Many men and women sign themselves with the Cross as they listen to that repeated prayer, while others kneel from time to time — normally one stands during church services, at least in those that follow Russian tradition — or, when some special verse touches them, they may even prostrate themselves with their forehead to the floor begging God’s help. This last practice, being physically demanding, is best suited to those in the vigor of youth.

The Great Canon will be sung a second time — on that occasion in its entirety — on Thursday of the fourth week of Lent. This happens when we have been prepared to take it seriously it by weeks of prayer and fasting.

If we listen attentively to Andrew’s words, they will over the years grow dear to us. They will inspire us to make Lent a time when we come to know better both Christ’s love of us and our own failures to respond. Struggling for increased knowledge of how we stand before God will make listening to the poem a personal drama and Lent a milestone in our life.

Various things may affect us when we attend this service. A friend of mine told me he liked to follow it when an old priest who had officiated at it many times was presiding. He said the contrite tone of voice of the priest as he was moved by one or other sentiment in the poem also helped him, my friend, to turn in on himself.

Because the Great Canon has the possibility of taking on real importance in our spiritual life, we should make an attempt to say exactly what kind of poem it is.

A well-known theologian, Olivier Clement, calls it “A Song of Repentance.”

On each of the three Sundays before Lent, the Church brings before us a plea for repentance, set to special music. Here are the words of that prayer:

Open unto me, O Giver of life, the gates of repentance.
For early in the morning
My spirit seeks Thy Holy Temple,
Bearing a temple of my body all defiled.
But in Thy compassion cleanse it
By Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.

Lenten Triodion, p. 101

Before Lent the Church tells us to pray for repentance, and then on the first four days of Lent it has us listen to Andrew’s poem.

This proximity of antiphon and poem suggests a connection between Lent and hope for repentance.

Another evidence stands forth in the opening words of Andrew’s poem:

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

I 2

After looking at these suggestive texts we need to ask what the term repentance means.


Andrew seeks to answer this question by looking at an example:

David once joined sin to sin,
Adding murder to fornication;
Yet then he showed at once a twofold repentance…
David once composed a hymn setting forth,
As in an icon the action he had done
and he condemned it, crying
“Have mercy on me for against Thee only
Have I sinned.
O God of all, do Thou cleanse me.”


A violent change came over David when he awoke to the fact that he had forsaken God. This response was not just another good action he did during his lifetime.

It was a shaking experience and profoundly changed his relationship with God.

To help us understand this let us look at more things Andrew says:

I fall down, Jesus, at thy feet;
I have sinned against thee; be merciful to me
Take from me the heavy yoke of sin,
And, in thy compassion, grant me tears of compunction.
Enter not into judgment with me
Bringing before me the things I should have done,
Examining my words and correcting my impulses,
But in thy mercy overlook my sins,
And save me, Lord almighty.

Cant. 1, last two verses

Falling down before Christ because we realize we have sinned, asking him for mercy, begging that the heavy weight of sin be removed, are all parts of repentance, and so is praying for grace to shed tears of remorse.

David abjectly fell down before God as soon as he recognized that his actions toward Bathsheba and her husband betrayed his duty toward God.

This discovery happened suddenly. David learns that God condemns his actions and that in doing them he has forgotten God.

In his sinful state David was no longer talking to God about his desires, his hopes, or his fears. Wrong wishes have taken over his life. He now spends his time thinking up ruses and lies to keep others from finding out what he had done. He does not even think of asking God for help. For the first time in his life he is walking alone. What God does or doesn’t want is no part of his concern.

This attitude was decidedly new. When he decided to kill Goliath, he did so because he thought it wrong for an uncircumcised heathen to threaten those whom God had chosen for his own.

Now only Bathsheba’s beauty filled David’s mind.

Andrew accurately describes David’s new experience as an awakening; and for that reason the words of the poem tell us accurately what repentance is and they invite us see how, like David, and, indeed, Andrew, we can turn again when we sin.

What is crucial here is the “once” of David’s mind fixed on Bathsheba’s beauty and the “then” of his repentance.

Repentance is the decisive change that happened between these two moments.

It took a special intervention from God for David to change. Repentance is something new and sudden like our being created or our Baptism.

Prior to hearing Nathan’s message David’s mind did not waver. As soon as he saw Bathsheba, he forgot God, seduced her. Then he started to worry how he could get away from trouble that might arise when others learned what he had done.

When his first efforts at a cover-up failed, he arranged for the woman’s husband to be murdered.

Safeguarding his reputation filled his mind.

For him to repent, something outside these thoughts had to burst in on his darkened mind.

This did not happen because David’s eyes opened of themselves; God had to intervene. He, unlike David, wanted their close friendship to live again. The wellspring of repentance is God actively seeking out the sinner and helping him change his mind.

God’s messenger, the Prophet Nathan, was skillful in the way he approached David.

He came to the king’s court ostensibly to complain about the injustice some rich man had done a poor neighbor. Nathan claimed this rich man had refused to kill any of his own flock to feed a suddenly arrived guest and instead stole the lone ewe a poor neighbor owned and loved so much he habitually took it to bed with him at night.

A king in Israel is anointed to defend the poor against the rich. When he does so a king is doing what God named him to do.

Nathan aroused this still uncorrupted side of David’s mind; and the king with indignation asks: “Who is that man?”

Nathan’s abrupt reply: “You are the man”, brings David back to himself; and he was able to speak to God again and say:

Against thee alone have I sinned;
And I have done evil before thee.

Psalm 51:4

David now knows his heart has for a long time been turned away from God.

He had settled into adultery and murder.

That turn of mind makes him worthless; he is just one more man fleeing from God. That is why he can say, “Against thee alone have I sinned.”

Taking Bathsheba and killing her husband are indeed sins against them, but by cheating them David robs God of his rights.

The parallelism between Nathan’s words and David’s deeds was so close that David’s ears were immediately opened. He sees he is guilty and begs for mercy. This is the true meaning of repentance.

Before his sin David of course knew the commandments, and was consequently, on one level, aware adultery and murder were wrong. That knowledge, however, existed in a separate part of his mind than the operative part absorbed in Bathsheba’s beauty.

Repentance in the sense Andrew expects us to think of it is an awakening to what without realizing it we have because of our actions become.

Without concern for what God wants from us, our life is trivial. Our desire to please him joins us to the immensity of God’s activities within his world.

❖ ❖ ❖

The first of these is his merciful and unexplainable decision to bring it and us out of nothingness.

Inseparable from this mysterious kindness is his equally unfathomable desire to share his own life with us. He had no idea of creating us and then forgetting us. His coming to talk with Adam in the coolness of the afternoon is as genuine a fact as his creating of us. He wants to share his life with us and asks that we want to share ours with him.

We know this marvel and feel guilty because we have not consistently tried to keep pace with him as one of our days succeeds another.

Andrew knows his life and that all of us are encompassed in this divine plan. Astounding as it sounds, we are called to glory. This fullness is already present among us; Christ by his death and resurrection has outdone evil. It is a mistake to think of the world and not see the evidences it presents us for rejoicing in it.

This kingdom of God is, as Christ says, within us. It shines forth in the faith of millions living and dead who display the truth of what he says.

Andrew writes his poem because this uniquely worthwhile link between us and a loving God is dear to him. We are to one degree or another separated from God when we fail to see how good life is.

Stories in the Old and New Testament spur Andrew on to ask pardon for the known and unknown moments in his life when he forgot to lovingly share his life with his maker.

In this poem, written at a time close to the day he will face judgment, he is once more going over the record of things God has told us about himself and what he wants from us. Andrew now wants to hear any messages God has sent him and that selfishness may have driven him to ignore.

This is the purpose underlying the long reviews of his life Andrew makes in the Great Canon. He is begging God to show him sides of himself that make him unable to be a man whose whole heart and mind are fixed on loving God above all things and his neighbor as himself. The Great Canon is an effort to reach that purity of heart. It is a plea for full repentance.

We will not learn of Andrew’s past failings in any detail nor will we be privy to new discoveries he makes. He is talking to God who already knows what Andrew has to say and is waiting to hear the admissions it will be good for his disciple to make.

If we want to understand the Great Canon we must remember the already mentioned fact that it is a conversation between lovers. Andrew does not want to disappoint Christ.

Every genuine lover thinks he or she is not worthy of being loved. Each of us almost surely has just reason to suspect his or her words and actions have not always been what they should have been. These memories, though heavy, will not erase the certitude that Christ unfailingly loves each of us and is calling on us to repair our past so we can live with him.

Because of our failures, feelings of guilt haunt us. Because of our blindness in the past we have reason to fear other blindnesses may be darkening our sight.

True lovers unrelentingly struggle for purification. Andrew is asking Christ to make him now fit for their approaching meeting.

We need to ask for this help, and we can count on getting it. It may however come to us in strange ways. God does not start off as a mere spectator of our actions and then turn into a judge. He follows each turn in our actions. The Holy Spirit in his mysterious way knows how to enlighten, strengthen, and guide us while still leaving us free to venture out our on our own.

God hears us when we pray, though he often fails to give us exactly what we ask for; a refusal is sometimes the favor we need.

All of us can probably discover examples in our life when this was true.

God wants our real good and helps us reach it. He grieves when we are far off and rejoices when we return to him. There is therefore nothing plain or prosaic about our life; it is mysterious because God is entangled in it and we are entangled with him even when on the surface of our mind we are busy only with the people and things around us.

Andrew knows that, especially at this late hour, he must talk to Christ about his past failings, so that by growing beyond them he can even at that late date become clean as God wants him to be.

Christ told us to become perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect. That goal stays beyond rational explanation; nevertheless it is, as we have remarked, the primary truth about human life. Squirm as we sometimes do, there is no escape. The only counterweight to our feebleness is trust in a God willing to help us meet him on his terms. We can count on being more able to love, if we remember that some one has first loved us.

Andrew’s poem, as we shall see, is full of evidences from Scripture showing this truth about God is operative in the world.

Andrew is talking to someone who cares for him and in his poem he will share with us his reasons for thinking so.

Scripture to the degree we understand it tells us what God intends. That gives us a start on finding who we are. To learn more, we must search this record of what he thinks and keep on comparing it with memories of what we have in fact loved and neglected.

God sees the meandering of our actions and all their strange interconnections and unfoldings and he looks on them with same loving concern that guides him while he made and makes us.

Nothing happens separate from this benevolence. Reading Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit gives us a share in this accurate sense of what is going on in the world.

When Moses and Elias met with Christ at the time of Christ’s Transfiguration they recognized him as the fulfillment of work they had begun for the race of men.

Christ too, a man like them, heard his Father praise him lovingly and tell the Apostles listen to him.

They fell on their faces before the splendor shining from Christ and his two predecessors. Those Apostles had, unknown to themselves at the time, their own place in this continuing story of God’s care for his world. At the moment they do not know their own future; they only knew it was good for them to be there.

Peter’s offer to build three tabernacles, one for each of the three heroes of our spiritual history, is, unbeknownst to him, a prophecy of what the Church they would help to build would bring about. That same Church, active in the whole world, is now making it ready for Christ’s return in glory at the end of time.

If, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are able to see in Andrew’s verses that which describes our own relationship to Christ, we are blest. Each such awakening is a step on our road to sharing God’s nature.

We, like Andrew, must try to uncover hidden twistings in our thoughts that keep our minds apart from him.

We are now ready to look at some parts of Andrew’s song of repentance.


To understand his own failings better, Andrew compares himself to Adam.

I have rivaled in transgression 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.

Heaven is not far off or of small immediate concern.

Andrew knows he is stripped naked of the sight of God now, and that he cannot talk to God directly with the intimacy enjoyed by those who live in his presence.

When any of us here on earth pray, we neither see him as he is, nor are we now good enough to do so. Our search for theosis is an effort to discover God as present everywhere in our daily life.

Andrew knows he now can only talk to God within the limits of his present way of looking and feeling about him. What are those limits?

Like all of us he can abruptly cry out to be delivered from a present danger, and is even ready to express gratitude when an unforeseen good thing happens to him. The sudden burst “Thank God” crosses our lips easily.

But Andrew knows he should be ready to talk feelingly to God about everything that passes through his mind. Nothing less can satisfy the Lord who wants to live with us on intimate terms. Our mind and heart should be full of wonder and joy over the world our Creator made and we should be filled with love for God and our fellow men.

David in the Psalms talks that way. His heart was pure; he loved God and his plans for the world with an unclouded mind.

Andrew, as he thinks about himself, realizes he lacks this simplicity; barriers still keep him from living his life in full sincerity.

His task in the Great Canon is to discover these constraints and to ask God that they be removed. Otherwise he will have to answer questions from Christ while wrong impulses still hold sway over his mind. Unable to answer frankly, he will be forced to squirm when the discussion turns to matters where his heart is in thraldom.

This twisted state of mind is what Christ, using a different metaphor, is thinking about when he speaks of someone who has to be excluded from a wedding feast because he lacks proper clothes.

For us to live on even terms with Christ we must have sufficiently changed that it is natural for us to think, speak and act as he does.

Andrew’s poem is intense because he dreads duplicity in his own heart. We will follow him as he speaks to Christ about this matter. It is clearly tied up with the whole idea of repentance. We have already spoken of this sufficiently to grasp the general idea, but it will help us follow Andrew’s text as a way to discovering how we continue to need it.

The fact that Andrew begins with a reference to Adam — and will shortly follow up with words about Eve and her children — gives us reason to dwell a little longer on the general notion of repentance before we follow Andrew in looking for personal reasons we still have for seeking the gift of repentance.

In the widest sense repentance is a gift from God, and we will understand it better on that level if we compare it with other essential gifts he gives us.

He brought us out of nothingness into life. That is his first gift. Why he gave it is mysterious; the clearest explanation we have comes from the words found in the first Epistle of Saint John: “God is love.”

His benevolence is evidently identical with himself, and is therefore infinite and beyond our grasp.

This mystery — it is a mystery, not a puzzle; there are answers to puzzles — is inseparable from another one: God wants to live with us on intimate terms!

This desire that we be concerned about him is utterly inexplicable; but the fact that there is something about us that God loves is more permanently true of us than how tall we are, or what we are currently trying to do. These latter things can and do change, but that God wants to know us on a one-to-one basis is an unchanging part of our definition.

Andrew knows this and is trying to follow up on God’s invitation. He knows that the most elementary decency requires an effort on his part to reciprocate his maker’s love.

The strangest of all facts is that God yearns for all of us to do so.

In response Andrew is earnestly speaking to God from his present stance as a sinner asking for purification.

Anyone who thinks only in legal terms will see exaggeration in Andrew’s tireless dwelling on how bad he is. How can a pious monk demean himself by indiscriminately referring to his actions as “past brutishness”?

The same question may be asked in another way: How can anyone like us, born morally half blind and whose life lasts only a day, be expected to meet standards set by someone absolutely perfect and, to our mind, far off?

The only way to meet such objections is to look with an open mind at the pictures in Scripture that God gives of what he wants from us and the help he proffers us in our task of growing close to him.

If we consult that record we will see that, despite its seeming plausibility, the idea that it is cruel for God to ask us hard questions about our life is wrong. He does so only because he wants us to become better, and for our benefit not his. He sets before us the fact of judgment so we may become alert to what we need for happiness.

God is not inaccessible nor is our path toward him unwalkable, and the fear of judgment helps us act accordingly.

The whole meaning of the Great Canon comes from showing how closely two facts are knit: God earnestly wants us to be close to him in thought and feeling, and we are presently short of that goal.

This duality is complicated: God could bring non-existent things into existence; there is no obstacle to his action. To ask us to live intimately with him is an invitation and he can help us get ready to do so, but our consent is necessary at every stage. God’s interaction with us is part of a drama where we play an essential part.

Because this is true, and because we are not born with full knowledge of what is and is not desirable, there is good reason for Andrew and us to join in the Church’s refrain:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy.

To deepen his knowledge of God and how he relates to us, Andrew turns to Eve:

Woe to thee, miserable soul!
How like thou art to the first Eve!
For thou hast looked in wickedness
And was grievously wounded;
Thou hast touched the tree
And has rashly tasted the deceptive food.

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 from it, I find it bitter.

1 4

We are hearing someone who during his long life of prayer and fasting has become aware that there are within us many impediments to keeping our mind attentive in prayer. Numerous phantasies distract us and we are pulled toward things God does not want us to have. These experiences help Andrew see how closely he resembles other sinners.

The serpent told Eve there were more ways than one of looking at the tree God forbade them on pain of death to touch. Instead of death, the serpent said, something wonderful might lie just over the horizon. Perhaps a taste of fruit would bring with it knowledge about good and evil that up to now only God possessed. Why not risk a bit and maybe gain a lot? Might not the serpent be right?

Eve’s eyes grew big. If she knew good and evil wouldn’t she, by her own efforts, become like God? If she knew in advance what good or bad result would come from anything she tried, would she not be independent and not need God any more?

Pride is present in every sin because when we choose to do something wrong, do we not claim our desires are by themselves true tests of good and evil?

Andrew is praying for the removal from his heart of any hidden vestiges of Eve-like yearnings that may still be lurking in him.

He knows we are most seriously corrupted when we choose to believe there is genuine good in what God forbids. This delusion produces in us “the Eve of the mind.” She sinks into it, and, from love of her, Adam follows.

Genesis makes a melancholy comment on this:

The Lord God sent Adam away from the garden
To cultivate the earth he was drawn from.

Gen 3:23

God, by punishing him, reestablishes in Adam’s mind the truth that following his wife made him forget.

Andrew has a poet’s skill for turning lone facts into metaphors beyond the particular. He now comments on a corruption of mind that seeks to reverse truth and remake the earth in the image of our desires.

By my own free choice I have incurred
the guilt of Cain’s murder.
I have killed my own conscience
Bringing the flesh to life and making war on the soul
By my wicked actions.

At this grim point Andrew remembers the Lord he knows is listening too:

O Jesus, I have not been like Abel in his righteousness.

There is then another way to go than the one Cain chose. We can train our eye on God and choose to return to him the best of his gifts, our ability to serve him.

Andrew has sufficient knowledge of himself to see that, like other descendants of Adam, he has often not acted so, and can truthfully make this condemnation of himself:

Like Cain, O miserable soul,
We too have offered to the Creator of all,
Defiled actions and a polluted sacrifice
And a worthless life,
So that we too are condemned.

We should not forget our own history. Our life does not begin with some action we do; God has been at work before.

As the potter molds the clay,
Thou hast fashioned me,
Giving me flesh and bones, breath and life.

Heartened by memory of this generosity, Andrew asks for what he now needs from a generous God:

…accept me in repentance,
O my Maker,

and Andrew must do this because he is speaking to someone who is two things at once:

[my] Deliverer, and Judge.

As “Deliverer” God is being asked to rescue from disaster an old man to whom he has given breath and life and who is now begging that creation may in his own person reach its fulfillment. He prays that he may soon be able to return the love shown by the one who made him.

Nevertheless because he remembers times in the past when he blindly settled into wrongdoing, Andrew turns once more to his master.

I confess to Thee, O Savior,
The sins I have committed,
The wounds of my body and soul,
Which murderous thoughts like thieves
Have inflicted upon me.

The seriousness of this plight is balanced by what he knows about his judge.

God is inflexible in one central way: he insists that we so love him and our fellow men, that we are fit to live alongside him. What makes his firmness less dire is the fact that he is more eager for us to advance than we, with our dim sight, can without his help consistently desire. We need him to make events turn to our advantage. Sometimes this turning has to come from our experiencing the pain resulting from wrong choices we have made.

Though I have sinned, O Savior,
Yet I know that thou art full of lovingkindness.
Thou dost chastise me with mercy,
And art fervent in compassion…

There is good reason for Andrew and the rest of us to trust this description. Evidence comes from a story, found uniquely in the Gospel of St. Luke. There Christ tells about a father waiting for his errant son’s return:

Thou dost see me weeping
And dost run to meet me
Like the Father calling back the Prodigal Son.

Other memories crowd in on Andrew’s mind; all of them are at once grim and reassuring.

I am an outcast before Thy gate, O Savior.
In my old age, cast me not down empty into Hell;
But, before the end comes,
In thy love grant me the remission of my sins.

To this memory another one previously alluded to again comes to mind:

I am the man who fell among thieves,
Even my own thoughts,
They have covered all my body with wounds,
And I lie battered and bruised,
But come to me, O Christ, my Savior,
And heal me.

Andrew fills in this story. By recalling the details in it he recognizes how bereft we are when we count on any one but Christ to save us. Others have their own absorbing concerns:

The Priest saw him but he passed me by on the other side;
The Levite looked on me in my distress,
But despised my nakedness.

According to Leviticus, contact with a dead body made one impure and consequently barred priests and Levites from carrying on their duties.

In our time of greatest need, the moment of judgment, no one among the race of mortals except Jesus can help us. Andrew implores him insistently and repetitiously because the time of judgment is near.

O Jesus, sprung from Mary, do thou come to me,
And take pity on me.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of all,
Take from me the heavy yoke of sin,
And in thy compassion, grant me remission of my sins.

It is time for repentance, to Thee I come, my Creator.
Take from me the heavy yoke of sin.
And grant me remission of sins.

All my offenses, voluntary and involuntary,
Manifest and hidden, known and unknown,
Do thou forgive, O Savior,
For Thou art God, be merciful and save me.

This direct appeal to Christ will be repeated like a litany for the rest of this first Canticle.

Andrew is inspired to pray this way because he knows sins — all of them: voluntary and involuntary, manifest and hidden, known and unknown — have lasting consequences on our ability to serve God. The descriptive phrase “the heavy yoke of sin” pointedly brings before us this enslaving effect of sin.

It will be helpful if we think longer about this before we return to the final verses of the first Canticle.

Andrew uses a metaphor, “the heavy yoke of sin.” What does it mean?

A yoke is something fastened around an animal’s neck that allows others to make it obey.

The meaning here is plain. Things we wrongfully allow ourselves to love snatch away our power to move freely. We feel pressure from a choice that has narrowed our interest and makes it hard to respond to the rich manyness of things God invites us to admire and seek out. The hold of sin must be broken before we can again freely want to go where Christ wants us to go.

The danger of this constraint lies behind the repetitiousness we hear in Andrew’s ensuing words. His voice is that of someone straitened who has no time to spare. His own past crowds in on him.

From my youth, I have rejected thy commandments,
Ruled by the passions, I have passed my whole life
In heedlessness and sloth.

His very guilt will now become reason for Christ to help:

Therefore, at the end, I now cry to Thee,
O Savior, even now, at the end, save me.

If his consciousness of his past were less present to his mind, Andrew’s prayer would not have the near desperateness we hear.

In our turn, we are not less guilty than Andrew, only less aware. Perhaps we have not sufficiently looked at the way our mind is bent and compared it with what Jesus expects from us.

Words of Andrew spur us on to attend to this matter more seriously. He speaks knowingly of the power our past sins have over us and with near desperation asks help from Christ.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of all,
Take from me the heavy yoke of sin,
And, in thy compassion, grant me remission of sins.

It is time for repentance:
To Thee I come, my Creator.
Take from me the heavy yoke of sin,
And in Thy compassion
Grant me remission of sins.

Reject me not, O Savior:
Cast me not away from Thy presence.
Take from me the heavy yoke of sin,
And in thy compassion
Grant me remission of sins.

The steady repetition in these three verses shows how seriously Andrew looks on this constraining power of sins we have allowed ourselves to enter into. This misfortune befalls us when we allow ourselves to hate someone or covet the position or the influence someone else now holds.

The first Canticle ends with memories of Jesus’ continuing love for those who flee him and leads Andrew to beg again for mercy and the freedom full remission of our sins can bring:

As the Prodigal, O Savior, I have wasted
The substance of my soul in riotous living,
And am barren of the virtues of holiness.
In my hunger I cry, O compassionate Father,
Come quickly out to meet me,
And take pity on me.

Not only Andrew, but we as well, can take comfort in the Psalmist’s words: “A heart broken and humbled you will not despise.” As Lent passes we can make this final verse of this first Canticle a model for our own prayer.

Canticle Two

The Second Canticle, like the first, is a humble man’s plea for mercy. Nevertheless in its opening stanzas that same man talks of his own bad actions in a cosmic way; as if they, and, by implication, he himself, had world-shaking importance.

Attend, O heaven, and I shall speak
Give ear, O earth, to the voice of one who repents before God
And sings his praise.
Look upon me in compassion, O God,
With Thy merciful eye,
And accept my fervent confession.

More than all men I have sinned;
I alone have sinned against Thee.
But, as God, take pity on me
Thy creation, O Savior.

To an unbelieving ear these verses will seem at least exaggerated, or even signs of delusion.

How can one lone man bid heaven and earth listen while he pleads for repentance? Even when he says, “more than all others I have sinned,” is he not exalting himself? Has Andrew forgotten that he is just one mere human being among millions of others?

In a way this accusation sounds right; but these seemingly prideful words really prove the opposite of what the scoffer imagines.

A creature is made by a Creator, and ours made us out of love and wants to share his own life with us. Besides, he made heavens and the earth for us to admire and dwell in.

None of us is trivial and what we do is important. God keeps on scrutinizing everything we do and eagerly awaits our return to him when we sin. There is joy in the highest heaven when a sinner repents. We and our actions have weight in God’s eyes.

We can cry out to him and hope to be heard because he is concerned for our happiness. Because his own eye is a merciful eye, he will help us repent.

So Andrew is not exaggerating. Our actions have weight on a world scale; the master of the universe cares about them.

The one who scoffs at the importance Andrew gives to his deeds lacks knowledge about the real world.

The words Andrew uses are nevertheless paradoxical. On the one hand, every man and his actions stand out as great because the Lord of the universe recognizes them to be so. When he finished making us and his world he saw we were good, and keeps on wanting us to become better. No earthly title approaches the marvelousness of this origin or that hope for our betterment.

There is, however, a second side of the paradox: If God wants us to become better, we are not good enough. Until we have acted well our full worth keeps on being a mere hope, and, even worse, we sometimes slip into a worse state than we started with.

Knowing these falls, we cannot fail to feel we have sinned more than all others, and that no one is worse than us. The only thing that lightens this feeling is the fact we can, like Andrew, be given grace to speak to the ruler of the universe and say: “As God, take pity on thy creation.”

Man is great because God made us to be so; and sin is deforming because it shows we have forgotten this.

After its strong opening, the Second Canticle goes on to talk of two things: the pity Christ has for us when we are in danger and our wretchedness apart from him.

After this Introduction, Andrew first thinks of Christ’s willingness to rescue us from danger; and then more at length about those dangers. He ends the Second Canticle with a series of litany-like cries for Christ’s mercy.



This rescue happens toward the end of a long story describing Christ’s effort to teach the Jews and especially his Apostles.

There was an immense distance between what they knew in their early days of following him and what they needed to learn before they could bring his message to the world.

Like all good teachers, Christ first captures the attention of those he wants to educate. The rescue of Peter was a step in that direction.

Let us look at the whole story as Saint Matthew tells it.

Christ spent his day preaching to crowds, and then wanted to be alone on a mountaintop where he could pray to his Father.

To make this possible he first dismissed the crowds, and then told his disciples to get into their boat and sail across the lake without him.

We know nothing of his conversation with his Father, unless we imagine Christ’s prayer inspired him to astound his Apostles by the way he chose to rejoin them.

During the final hours of the night, when they were miles off shore, they suddenly saw a figure moving on the water toward them. Thinking it was a ghost, they were frightened and cried out. [Matthew 14:31]

Jesus came into closer range and they hear him say:

“Do not be afraid; it is I.

Something else, basic to the the story, then happens; Peter, on an impulse, dares to say:

“If it is really you, give me the order to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says the single word: “Come.”

Peter gets out of the boat and takes several steps toward Jesus. Then, frightened by the winds, and forgetting Christ, he thinks only about the danger and begins to sink.

In terror he cries out:

“Lord, save me.”

Jesus stretches out his hand, then takes hold of Peter’s whole body and says:

“O man of little faith, Why did you doubt?”

When they had climbed back into the boat, the wind fell.

Those in the boat prostrated themselves and said:

“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Matt., ibid. 24-34

This final touch in the story explains what went before.

By walking on the water toward them Jesus is forcing his Apostles to wonder about who he is.

Up till then they have been following him as a religious teacher, a rabbi, like others they had seen or heard about.

When they fall down and call Jesus the “Son of God,” neither Peter nor the others had any idea of what they were saying. Prophets and other holy persons are also called sons of God. Only after their master’s death and Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost will the Apostles grasp the true meaning of the words they are saying.

They do realize their Master somehow has God-given power and wants them to know it.

Andrew, in his meditation on this incident, is not immediately concerned with the gradual enlightenment of the Apostles. He thinks of Jesus reaching out to save Peter as a sign of willingness to save us from the dangers of sin.

I am surrounded by the storm of sin,
O compassionate Lord,
But stretch out Thy hand to me,
As once thou hast to Peter.

Perils of the sea, and escape from drowning, are metaphors for help we need and will be given whenever we respond to Jesus bidding us: “Come.”

Peter makes one discovery. Saying “yes” to that invitation demands from us unflagging attention to our Lord. All of us can find reason to trust he will rescue us when our faith and love falter.

Jesus admires those, like the Centurion and the Woman with an issue of blood, who approach him with strong faith, but Andrew remembers our Lord stretched out his hand and took hold of Peter’s and rescued him when he lacked the full measure of belief needed to keep him afloat. Jesus will reach out to us when we cry out to him.

In all humility Andrew, old in the service of God, does just that. Afraid he may perish in these final days of his life, he begs Jesus to extend his saving hand.

It is important for us to bear Andrew’s attitude in mind. We unceasingly need help since we are expected to do not just a number of good actions but to purify feelings and intentions that are the sources of all we do.

A Western journalist traveling in post-Soviet Russia happening on a convent, asked a young nun why she was there. She said: “To save my soul.” She knew the same truth Peter learned when he felt alone in the sea.

It is not enough for us to avoid bad actions or even to do some good ones. Christ tells us to seek first the kingdom of heaven and promises that other things will be added. We must pray our heart be fixed on our authentic treasure.


Andrew thinks gratefully on Christ’s kindness toward Peter, and immediately afterwards remembers someone else:

I offer unto thee, O Lord, the tears of the Harlot,
Take pity on me, O Savior, in compassion.

ibid. 5

She not only turned away from her sinful life but she then shed tears. Andrew now offers tears like hers on his own behalf. Why should she do so, and why does Andrew want to imitate her?

The answer to this question comes from what sin is and what it does to us. The remainder of the Second Canticle speaks of this and we will look at what it says. We can, however, give a brief preliminary answer to the question now: Sin is more than a passing act; it is an expression of who we choose to become. It is a choice springing from a deep desire that defines us. What we do is our way of saying where we stand. We remain someone who once chose defiance and therefore has reason to distrust his faithfulness.

One needs to ask Christ to forgive us when we have turned away from him but to purify our heart lest we explicitly turn away or neglect to respond to calls we hear.

Andrew now sets out to explore what it means for him and us to make sinful choices.


Andrew begins by comparing stories about our first parents and their children with what he knows about himself.

Adam: first formed man, stripped naked
Of God, of eternal kingdom and its joys
Punished for disobeying one commandment
Versus me, always rejecting words of life.

Not like Abel in his righteousness.
Never have I offered you godly actions,
Or acceptable gifts
nor a pure sacrifice or a life unblemished.

Like Cain, O miserable Soul,
we too have offered to the creator of all
Defiled actions and a polluted sacrifice
And a worthless life,
And so we also are condemned.

Abel’s good life, the sinful one of Cain, Eve’s wandering eye, and Adam’s willingness to follow her, are not merely facts in their respective histories. Each story has inescapable carryover power in our life.

We all have the the same origin, and must answer the same judge:

As the potter moulds the clay,
Thou hast fashioned me
And given me flesh and bones, breath and life;
But accept me in repentance,
O my Maker and Deliverer and Judge.

This continuing sense of connection with the Maker who also delivers us from sin is the true battleground where our search for theosis takes place.

Acknowledging his dependence, Andrew will on his own behalf say:

I confess to Thee, O Savior,
The sins I have committed,
The wounds of my soul and body
Which murderous thoughts, like thieves,
Have inflicted interiorly upon me.

Sins are not merely passing incidents in our life, or things we do and then go on as if we had not done them. By our actions we carry out our desires that, as has been said, mark out who we are.

To be convinced of this we need to remember periods in our life when we have been governed by one or another evil impulse. We should for example ask ourselves whether anger has pushed us — or maybe still does — toward spiteful words and deeds. Has rancor taken root and made us easily think ill of others?

Anger is undoubtedly grave, and our Lord warns us not to let the sun go down on a day when someone has reason to be offended with us. We are bound not merely to restrain anger against others; we must remove any reasons they may have for being angry with us. We must actively try to be a continuous source of peace in our small world.

Anger is, however, far from being our only danger. If we look back we can perhaps see how serious ambition is and how it has made us carry out our private plans without reflecting on the ways doing so hurt others. We may have neglected or even treated cruelly men and women to whom we owed love.

When we think about periods in our life marked by this unfeeling behavior, we will perhaps find that an initial decision to work toward something that seemed worthy ended up in our blindly pushing ahead despite its evil effects.

Are unrenounced and unrepentant desires not still active within us? Half-forgotten decisions may still be having evil effects on our character, even though we are no longer conscious of the original impulse or have gone on to new projects. We must ask whether old reflexes still are active in what we are engaged in now. Do those old attitudes still make us easily attribute evil motives to others, or distrust other people’s sincerity?

It is easy for the determination needed to succeed in good actions to turn us into blind partisans or make us believe enemies have scant right to be judged fairly

These matters are serious. Even residual hardness of heart makes us unfit to converse familiarly with a God whom the Church calls “lover of mankind.”

If, with his help, we think carefully enough about how we feel now, we may discover layers of oblivion still keeping us from seeing pain we cause.

We truly need God to reach into our lives and tell us of attitudes that are at best thoughtless and perhaps worse. We may, without realizing it, be cruelly minded and neglectful of the attention others need and deserve from us.

Because of these dangerous possibilities, the final part of the Second Canticle is filled with references to times when Christ reached out to help people change wrong ways of thinking and feeling.


Andrew is therefore shaken by memories of individual bad things he remembers having done.

As separate acts each misdeed belongs to the past and should perhaps be left there; but, as we have observed, those acts spring from wicked desires that keep on covertly guiding us over long periods. Our actions will show a consistent bent toward evil actions of a special kind. We do not always carry out these bad desires but we are inclined to do so. This is something Andrew fears.

He starts with a graphic description of the harm our yen for bodily pleasure causes:

With the lust of the passions
I have darkened the beauty of my soul
And turned my whole mind into dust.

2 6

This sense of danger from his own propensities will for the rest of this second Canticle lead Andrew to ask deliverance from them.

We must begin by admitting how far off our evil tendencies keep us from loving God and our neighbor — only in this way can we grow into union with him. Andrew of course does so:

I have torn the first garments the Creator
Wove for me in the beginning
And now I lie naked.
I have clothed my self in the torn coat
That the serpent wove for me by his counsel
And I am ashamed.

I looked on the beauty of the tree
And my mind was deceived,
And now I lie naked and ashamed.

All the ruling passions
Have ploughed upon my back
Making long furrows of wickedness.

I have lost the beauty and glory
With which I was first created
And I now lie naked and ashamed

I am clothed with the raiment of shame
As with fig leaves
In condemnation of my self-willed passions.

I am clad in a garment that is defiled
And shamefully defiled
By a life of passion and self-indulgence.

I have stained the garment of my flesh,
O Savior, and defiled that which was made
In thy image and likeness.

I have fallen beneath the painful burden
Of the passions and the corruption of material things;
And I am hard pressed by the enemy….

I have adorned the idol of my flesh
With a many-colored coat of shameful thoughts.
I have cared only for the outer adornment,
And neglected that which is within
— the tabernacle fashioned by God.

With my lustful desires I have formed within myself
The deformity of the passions
And disfigured the beauty of my mind.

I have discolored with the passions
The beauty of the image, O Savior…

When we hear this description, and, gradually over the years, see in fact ways it has been replicated in our own life, we will be inspired to pray like Andrew for mercy.

Listen to Andrew as he express his own hopes of becoming better.

Uppermost in all his examples is God rejoicing when a sinner returns to him.

He starts with the memory of a right action one unfortunate woman could at last do:

Like the Harlot I cry to Thee:
‘I have sinned, I alone have sinned against Thee.’
Accept my tears also as a sweet ointment, O Savior.

Note: We hear one more repentant sinner claim her deeds are worse than anything others have done. “I alone have sinned against thee.” Her exaggeration is the genuine voice of someone who has rediscovered God and his goodness.

Andrew next looks at two more repentant sinners. Quite evidently he has known each of them for a long time and has long thought of the mercy God showed them. He starts with David and goes on to dwell at length on the Publican:

Like David I have fallen into lust
And I am covered with filth,
But wash me clean, O Savior, by my tears.

Like the Publican, I cry to Thee:
Be merciful, O Savior, be merciful to me.
For no child of Adam has ever sinned against Thee
As I have sinned.

Speaking in the same tones the Publican used, Andrew continues:

I have no tears of repentance, no compunction;
But as God, do Thou Thyself, O Savior, bestow them on me.

Now, with clear awareness of his need, and even more of Christ’s continuing love, Andrew calls out:

Lord, Lord, on the last day,
Shut not Thy door against me;
But open it, for I repent before Thee.

O Lover of mankind, who desires that all men shall be saved,
In Thy goodness call me back,
And accept me in repentance

Give ear to the groaning of my soul,
And accept the tears that fall from mine eyes,
O Savior, save me.

These are words from a holy man hoping in a Lord who loves us. Saving us is what a savior does.


We have by now read enough of this Second Canticle to see how important it is for us to share Andrew’s attitudes.

Now, at the end of his life, he realizes he is far from ready to talk on comfortable terms with the three divine Persons. Hence he entreats Jesus for forgiveness and the purification of his heart. He wants to wear the wedding garment needed by those who wish to enter into the feast we have been invited to attend.


Is it genuinely desirable to concentrate on our perverse inclinations?

Even more naggingly, is such self-searching genuinely part of Catholic tradition? Should we not repent for bad actions we have consciously done and not worry about hidden corners in our mind?

Talking that way neglects an important part of Catholic tradition, our teaching on Purgatory. Do we not believe that whatever imperfection of attitude remains in the minds of people who die in God’s favor must be purified before we can be admitted into God’s presence?

Granted that the fullest description of Purgatory, Dante’s fully Catholic work, is set in the after-world, but the cleansing process Dante describes is one that can and should go on in this life. Andrew is begging Christ to make him fit to greet God before he faces judgment.

Dante inherited a version of the seven Capital sins close to the one followed in the Eastern tradition, and he makes it the framework for his description of our obligatory climb toward purification.

On every level we are made to feel mentally and physically the weight of one sort of sin and are helped to meditate on the beauty of a contrasting good action. Each person dwells longer on the level of the mount that corresponds to vices he or she has been most prone to and passes more quickly through the others.

This account does not differ substantially from what Andrew is telling us except that he is telling us to turn our Lenten observance into a purgatorial effort while we are still here on earth.

What is common to the two traditions is our need to raise our mind to God’s way of thinking.

Apart from the geography of Dante’s Purgatorio, the allegorical account of climbing a mountain with seven ledges, the two traditions are essentially the same. Each relies on graphic images from Scripture to help us think and feel rightly.


We cannot at this point go over every part of the poem, nor can we make readers feel the aptness of Andrew’s prayers in the way hearing them sung in church can do. Nevertheless it will be worthwhile to give more examples, especially some that are especially eloquent in their depiction of Jesus and his concern for us.

Let us begin with verses describing Job and the meaning his life can have for us.

Thou hast heard, O my soul, of Job,
Justified on a dung-hill,
But thou hast not imitated his fortitude.
In all thine experiences and trials and temptations
Thou hast not kept firmly to thy purpose,
But hast proved inconstant.

Once he sat upon a throne,
But now upon a dung-hill,
Naked and covered with sores.
Once he was blessed with many children,
And admired by all;
But suddenly he is childless and homeless.
Yet he counted a dung-hill as a palace,
And his sores as pearls.

A man of great wealth and righteousness,
Abounding in riches and cattle,
Clothed in royal dignity,
In crown and royal robe,
Job suddenly became a beggar,
Stripped of wealth, and glory, and kingship.

As has been said, it is no mistake for Andrew — or for us — to think we are important enough to compare our life with what happened to a man like Job whom God thought better than anyone else living on earth at some legendary time. We too are called to a high destiny and God cares about us reaching Job’s level of holiness.

There are of course differences between Andrew (or us) and Job. Andrew admits his guilt for base actions, while Job did no wrong.

The sufferings Job underwent are part of a contest between God and the Adversary of men who, just after he returned from traveling over the earth, appeared before God and was asked whether he had seen an incomparably good man named Job.

The adversary does not say whether or not he had seen him, but, on general grounds, he questions God’s claim that Job is genuinely good. The adversary thinks he does not need to look at individual men to know what they will or will not do. He despises us and knows in advance that we will be unfaithful to God if misfortune strikes us.

The rest of the story shows how wrong he was. Job went through great suffering and remained loyal. As a result of his fidelity, God will eventually talk with him as one serious person does to another.

We see how accurate God was in his initial estimation of Job, already a good man, and that now, by remaining faithful under suffering, he has become better. At the end of the story he has not only changed sufficiently for God to talk — even argue — with him but his preeminence over other men has been proved. God rebukes the so-called Consolers who, like the adversary, based their estimation of Job on general terms they derived from a flawed tradition about the connection of suffering with sin. God tells them to ask Job to intercede with him before he will pardon them.

The evils God permitted the adversary to work on Job turned into a blessing for him and also, by Job’s prayers, for the sinful Consolers…

Another man, Christ, after enduring sufferings and even a death inflicted on him by men ignorant of what they were doing, eventually rose high enough to sit at the right hand of God and become the savior of mankind.

Lesser men than Job cannot rise to familiarity with God unless they admit evil actions they have done and beg God’s pardon. The adversary proudly thinks all of us are liable to deny God. He exaggerates our weakness and ignores God’s willingness to help us rise above ourselves.

We are not caught in an inflexible law of guilt and punishment, nor will we be inevitably left in our weakness unfit to converse with God.

Andrew knows these consoling truths. He admits to evil deeds that have deformed his own life and made him guilty; he is not good man like Job or Christ:

If he who was righteous
And blameless before all men,
Did not escape the snares and pits of the deceiver,
What wilt thou do, wretched and sin-loving soul,
When some sudden misfortune befalls thee?

Judgment is near; so a sinful Andrew is in danger now, and says to Christ:

I have defiled my body,
I have stained my spirit,
And I am all covered with wounds.
But as a physician, O Christ,
heal both body and spirit for me through repentance.
Wash, purify, and cleanse me, O my Savior,
And make me whiter than snow.

Andrew finds happy words to describe the role Christ’s pure body plays in our salvation:

Savior of the world:
Thy Body and Thy Blood, O Word,
Thou hast offered at Thy Crucifixion
For the sake of all.
Thy Body to redeem me,
Thy Blood to wash me clean,
And Thou hast given up Thy Spirit, O Christ,
To bring me to Thy Father.

O Creator, Thou hast worked salvation in the middle of the earth,
That we might be saved.
Thou wast crucified of Thine own will upon the Tree;
And Eden, closed up to then, was opened.
Things above and things below,
The creation and all peoples
Have been saved and worship Thee.
May the Blood that flows from Thy side,
Be to me a cleansing fount,
And the water that flows with it
Be a drink of forgiveness.
May I be purified by both, O Word,
Anointed and refreshed,
Having as chrism and drink Thy words of life.

These verses sing the fulfillment of God’s plan for our return to the love he wants to share with us.

The reopening of Eden is another image for these references to Christ shedding his blood for us. Andrew chooses to dwell longer on the actions of Christ:

As a Chalice, O my Savior,
The Church has been granted thy life-giving side
From which flows down to us
A twofold stream of forgiveness
Representing the two covenants,
The Old and the New.

This last image is perhaps a reference to Moses sprinkling blood on the altar — representing God — and then on the people as a sign of a renewed union between them.

After these consoling reminders of God persistently acting to save us, frightening scriptural pictures of danger come to Andrew’s mind and lead him to ask for help in a way scarcely equaled in intensity by any other verses in the poem.

The prayers in this section are cries from a sensitive man listening to genuinely frightening warnings from God himself.

The grimmest of these dire images appears in the Second Epistle of Saint Peter:

Be sober and watch, because your enemy, the Devil, is roaming about looking for someone to devour. [I Pet. 5:8]

Trembling before this vision Andrew says:

Let me not become the possession
And food of the enemy,
But do Thou, O Lord, take pity on me.

Christ also uses an already mentioned image warning us of possible disaster. Andrew thinks of it and asks that he be spared:

I am deprived of the bridal chamber,
Of the wedding and the supper;
For want of oil my lamp has gone out;
While I slept the door was closed;
The supper has been eaten;
I am bound hand and foot,
And cast out. …

Andrew frightened by these realistic pictures turns in terror to Christ.

The time of my life is short,
Filled with trouble and evil.
But accept me in repentance
And call me back to knowledge;
Let me not become the possession and food of the enemy,
But do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.

This deeply felt prayer will turn into a several times repeated litany. It is easy to see how much Saint Peter’s graphic words terrify Andrew.

He wants to look lovingly into Christ’s eyes when they meet. This can only happen if he is ready to meet the Master’s gaze. He again remembers the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican as an explicit lesson on how we can become just in God’s eyes.

The smug pride of a Pharisee stands in contrast to a truly humble attitude. The Pharisee going up to the Temple to talk with God gave thanks that he was better than other men. The proof he adduced was his meticulous observance of minor legal ordinances. For this blindness to his real situation, he left the Temple even more guilty.

Our Lord contrasts with this the humility of a Publican, who, coming to the Temple, stood far off from the altar, and not daring to look up, asks God for mercy on him a sinner. Christ said this man rather than the first went down from the temple justified.

Andrew will say:

Now I speak boastfully, with boldness of heart,
Yet all to no purpose and in vain,
O righteous Judge, who alone are compassionate,
Do not condemn me with the Pharisee;
But grant me the abasement of the Publican,
And remember me with him.

Andrew begins the final section of the Fourth Canticle in that spirit. He makes a series of severe self-accusations, and, in an intense and poetic way, follows each of them with a prayer for mercy.

He begins by accusing himself of the sort of sin we are all prone to in youth:

I know, O compassionate Lord, that I have sinned,
And violated the vessel of my flesh.

He follows this first confession with the plea for deliverance from the devil’s malice.

But accept me in repentance
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
And the prey of the enemy,
But accept me in repentance
And call me back to knowledge.

The thought of approaching death is a new reason for repeating what he has just said.

The time of my life is short,
Filled with trouble and evil,
But accept me in repentance
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
And food of the enemy,
But do Thou, O Savior,
Take pity on me.

Andrew next admits putting his own devious desires to the forefront of his mind despite their wickedness.

I have become mine own idol,
Utterly defiling my soul with the passions,
O compassionate Lord,
But accept me in repentance,
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
and the food of the enemy,
But do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.

I have not hearkened to thy voice.
I have not heeded Thy Scriptures,
O Giver of the Law,
But accept me in repentance.
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
And the food of the enemy,
But do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.

Absorption in passing concerns and blotting out thought of our true destiny is present in all our sins; it is discernible in our angers, our search for revenge, our neglect of other people’s needs, and especially in our forgetfulness to pray. This constant taint again reminds us that pride is present in all our sins.

Andrew speaks directly of his own pride:

Now I speak boastfully with boldness of heart;
Yet all to no purpose and in vain,
O righteous Judge,
Who alone art compassionate,
Do not condemn me with the Pharisee,
But grant me the abasement of the Publican
And number me with him.

He thinks again of disgraceful sorts of sin that make any pride ridiculous:

I know, O compassionate Lord,
That I have sinned
And violated the vessel of my flesh,
But accept me in repentance,
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
And food of the enemy,
But do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.

He returns once more to the isolation sin produces in us. When we seek God and serve him we are open to him and all his wide world; when we choose to blind ourselves to everything but some tiny facet of life we become petty, imprisoned, and unclean:

I have become mine own idol,
Utterly defiling my soul with the passions,
O compassionate Lord,
But accept me in repentance,
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
And food of the enemy,
But do thou O Savior, take pity on me.

Andrew adopts this same serious tone elsewhere in his poem. The fourth Canticle for example ends in the same tone:

I have not hearkened to Thy voice,
I have not heeded Thy Scripture,
O Giver of the Law.
But accept me in repentance
And call me back to knowledge.
Let me not become the possession
And food of the enemy;
But do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.

Canticle Nine

As death draws nearer, Andrew’s mind, as we have seen, is more and more filled with images from Scripture describing what he has to hope for.

He knows the true story of the universe starts with Creation and culminates in Christ’s return to reign over a world renewed by him. In between that beginning and its fulfillment in a kingdom without end passes the whole procession of events making up our earthly life.

That mysterious beginning and the start of something eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive do not by their importance make petty or insignificant the transient events of human history.

The universe begins because God wants to associate with us. He wants us share his magnificence — men and women whose lives stud the years that pass before his final wishes are fulfilled. What we under the guidance of the Holy Spirit do contributes toward God’s goal in making us.

The two comings on earth of his Son are aimed first at making possible and finally inaugurating the kingdom where God in his glory will be known and shared by men and women he has chosen to live in his presence.

Christ’s first coming is thus a bridge between the beginning of time and its fulfillment. He came to make it possible for us to adjust our attitudes and our actions so we are fit to live in a kingdom where God will visibly dwell and interact with us, or, as the Scripture puts it, where God will be all in all.

The genuine truth about us and the world we live in is missing unless we see its transience as joined with what lasts forever. Andrew thinks that way and expresses his understanding in the final Canticle of his poem.

The Second Vatican Council made a liturgical change that encourages Catholics to think in in these cosmic terms. It is good for us that it did so. We need to value time for its full implication. Otherwise we will float in it as in a shoreless ocean.

Let us look at what might at first glance seem a tiny addition the Council made in the central act of our worship, the Mass.

After the consecration has transformed bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the celebrant in solemn tones invites those present to express their faith. The most commonly used formula, sometimes recited but often sung by all present, is: CHRIST HAS DIED; CHRIST HAS RISEN; CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN.

The clear reference to Christ’s second coming restores attention to the goal we are aiming to reach in our worship and all the rest of our life.

In the final verses of this Ninth Canticle, Andrew speaks directly of the paradise he hopes to reach and all the cleansing of mind and heart he needs so he can fit in on arriving there.

We hear all this when he speaks feelingly about the thief on the Cross who, admitting the wrongs done during his life, turns to Christ and says: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In answer to that prayer he heard this generous response: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is Christ reaching the goal his death and resurrection aim at. The thief has readied himself to hear it by believing Christ was a heavenly king and by admitting he himself was a guilty thief.

Imitating the thief Andrew too cries out:

O Son of David,… let me hear thy compassionate voice.
Speak to me as to the thief;
‘verily I say unto thee,
Thou shalt be with me in Paradise
When I come in My glory.’

This is the answer Andrew and we want to hear. He talks to Christ about the whole story of the thief’s approach to his Lord and ours.

A thief accused Thee,
A thief confessed Thy Godhead;
For both were hanging with Thee on the Cross.
Open to me also, O Lord of many mercies,
The door of Thy glorious Kingdom,
As once it was opened to the thief
Who acknowledged Thee with faith as God.

This memory of a good thief on the verge of death acknowledging Christ as God leads Andrew to recall how all nature responded when its Creator was dying on the Cross:

The creation was in anguish,
Seeing Thee crucified.
Mountains and rocks were split from fear,
The earth quaked and hell was despoiled,
The light grew dark in daytime
Seeing Thee, O Jesus, nailed in the flesh.

As he remembers that the whole universe trembled with horror when it watched its Creator die, Andrew remembers how sensitive one needs to be in never forgetting Christ’s search for us. This reminds Andrew of how hard it will be for him to answer when his Judge confronts him. He begs Christ to spare him.

Do not demand from me worthy fruits of repentance,
For my strength has failed within me.
Give me an ever contrite heart
And poverty of spirit
That I may offer as an acceptable sacrifice
O only Savior.

We will next hear an old man utter a final cry to the Lord whose return in glory will mark this world’s end and the coming of the next.

O my Judge, who dost know me,
When Thou comest again with the Angels
To judge the whole world,
Look upon me with Thine eyes of mercy,
And spare me, take pity on me, Jesus,
For I have sinned more than any man.

This acknowledgment of the place where he, one lone man, stands and how utterly he depends on Christ’s mercy leaves Andrew in the position of the good thief, and ends the poem.

We, however, should not conclude without looking back at some earlier parts of this ninth Canticle.

Verses preceding the ones we have just read also touch on events that bring history to its term.

As we have seen, Christ’s first coming into the world and his return at the end of time are the two focal points in the history of creation as Scripture describes it, and we should not forget that they are punctuated by actions we do. The good and bad deeds of men and women are described in graphic ways that either encourage or warn us.

Andrew has meditated on these stories, and knows they resemble the full bill of particulars that will brought against him when the judgment comes. Small wonder he is troubled:

My mind is wounded, my body has grown feeble,
My spirit is sick, and my speech has lost its power.
My life is dead, the end is at the door.
What shalt thou do then, miserable soul,
When the Judge comes to examine thy deeds?

His responsibility is especially great because of the efforts God has made to warn him. He says:

I have put before thee, my soul,
Moses’ account of the creation of the world,
And after that all the recognized Scriptures
That tell you the story of all the righteous
And the wicked;
But thou, my soul, hast followed the second of these,
Not the first, and hast sinned against God.

The law is powerless, the Gospels of no effect,
And the whole of Scripture is ignored by thee;
The prophets and all the words of the righteous
Are useless.
Thy wounds, my soul, have been multiplied
And there is no physician to heal thee.

After this cry of near despair Andrew’s thoughts change. He again turns to what Christ’s coming means to him. What follows is a flood of memories where Christ, a true physician, is at hand to heal. All Christ did and said and how he entered into the lives of those he met help Andrew hope again.

He speaks first in general terms:

I bring thee, O my soul,
Examples from the New Testament,
To lead thee to compunction.

Instead of his previous despair he now feels ready to exhort himself:

Follow the example of the righteous,
Turn away from the sinful,
Through prayers and fasting,
Through chastity and reverence
Win back Christ’s mercy.

He will then go on to speak of cherished moments in Christ’s life where he, Andrew, can see his Lord in the midst of sinners and see that he loves them and helps them find the road to forgiveness.

The list will be long and the language Andrew uses will show how dear each of these often-prayed-over stories have become to him.

He starts with a memory of Christ newly born:

Christ became a child,
And shared in my flesh;
And willingly performed all that belongs to my nature,
Only without sin.
He set before thee, my soul, an example
And image of his condescension.

Still speaking generally, Andrew describes actions Christ as a grown man chose to do:

Christ became a man,
Calling to repentance thieves and harlots;
Repent, my soul, the door of the kingdom
Is already open,
And pharisees and publicans and adulterers
Pass through before thee, changing their life.

Andrew then turns to individual examples of how Christ’s life intersected with others:

Christ saved the Wise Men
And called the Shepherds.
He revealed as martyrs a multitude
Of young children.
He glorified the Elder and the aged Widow.

These are not mere memories of wonders that happened in other people’s lives; the are also warnings. When Christ meets us head on we are expected to change.

But thou, my soul, hast not followed their lives and actions.
Woe to thee when thou art judged.

Next Andrew begins to go over, one by one, actions Christ himself did. These memories are not a lifeless catalogue; they are as we have repeatedly said a caressing of incidents Andrew loves and keeps alive in his mind. We have heard him speak of many of them before, but this time he will trace what Christ did throughout his mortal life and beyond.

The Lord fasted forty days in the wilderness
And at the end of them he was hungry,
Thus showing he is man.
Do not be dismayed, my soul,
If the enemy attacks thee;
Through prayer and fasting drive him away.

Andrew knows incidents in his Master’s life have meaning in his own.

Christ was being tempted;
And the Devil tempted him,
Showing him the stones
That they might be made bread.
He led him up into a mountain
To see in an instant
All the kingdoms of the world.
O my soul look with fear on what happened;
Watch and pray every hour to God.

Andrew thinks next of John the Baptist who Christ once said was the best of men born of women. Like John, Andrew also spent years in solitude:

The Dove who loved the wilderness,
The Lamp of Christ,
The voice of one crying aloud
Was heard preaching repentance;
But Herod sinned with Herodias.
O my soul, see that thou art not trapped
In the snares of the transgressor,
But embrace repentance.

The Forerunner of grace
Went to dwell in the wilderness,
And all Judea and Samaria ran to hear him;
They confessed their sins
And were baptised eagerly.
But thou, my soul, hast not imitated them.

Andrew’s words can for us have the role John’s preaching had for those who lived in Judea and Samaria.

Andrew thinks next of Christ present at a wedding feast. He takes that presence as a reminder of how noble sexual attraction can be.

Marriage is honorable,
And the marriage-bed undefiled.
For on both Christ has given his blessing,
Eating in the flesh at the wedding in Cana,
Turning water into wine
And revealing his first miracle,
To bring thee, my soul, to a change of life.

Austere solitaries like John the Baptist and Andrew give up rich food and more importantly marriage because they feel called by God to concentrate on searching to find, while still living this life, glimpses of the very God who bade men and women to increase and multiply. Monks and married men and women are moving toward seeing God, but they are doing so in complementary ways.

Something akin to this union in diversity reappears in a list of ways Andrew draws up of Christ restoring different sorts of life to those he met:

Christ gave strength to the paralyzed man
And he took up his bed;
He raised from the dead the young man,
The son of the widow,
And the centurion’s servant;
He appeared to the woman of Samaria;
And spoke to thee, my soul,
Of worship in spirit.

The list goes on and in each instance Andrew finds encouragement for believing he too can rise to a new life.

By the touch of the hem of his garment,
The Lord cured the woman with an issue of blood;
He cleansed lepers, and gave sight to the blind,
And made the lame walk upright;
He cured by His word the deaf and the dumb
And the woman bowed to the ground,
To bring thee, wretched soul, to salvation.

These mighty deeds — raising the dead, curing the sick, and showing God to those far from him — Christ did them all; and, even before that, Isaiah foretold his actions. What is more, Christ standing up in a synagogue read the prophet’s description of the very actions he was soon to do. God not only enters into the lives of men and women, he lets us know beforehand that he will.

We see Christ working within time and drawing us within sight of eternity.

Andrew remembers this record of who Christ is and what he did. [See Luke 4: 17-19]

Healing sickness, Christ preached the Gospel to the poor…
He raised the crippled, ate with publicans
And conversed with sinners.
With the touch of His hand
He brought back the departed soul of Jairus’ daughter.

These actions encourage Andrew and us to trust Christ will reach out and rescue us as well:

The Publican was saved,
And the Harlot turned to chastity…

But this is only the happy side of the story. There is also a sad sequel:

But the Pharisee with his boasting
Was condemned.

We once more hear why these differing results come about:

The Pharisee with his boasting was condemned.
For the first cried out ‘be merciful’,
and the second, ‘have mercy on me’,
But the third said boasting
‘I thank Thee God’ and other words of madness.

With growing intensity Andrew continues this list of successes and failures, none impossible in his own life:

Zacchaeus was a publican,
Yet he was saved,
But Simon the Pharisee went astray,
While the Harlot received remission
And release from Him
Who has the power to forgive sins,
O my soul, gain His mercy.

O wretched soul, thou hast not acted
like the Harlot,
Who took the alabaster box of precious ointment,
And anointed with tears,
And wiped with her hair the feet of the Lord,
And he tore into pieces
The record of her previous sins.

Andrew’s thoughts take an even grimmer turn with the thought of cities Jesus condemned for their sins.

Thou knowest, O my soul,
How the cities were cursed
To which Christ preached the Gospel.
Fear their example, lest thou suffer the same punishment.
For the Master likened them to Sodom
And condemned them to Hell.

This fear is not final; there is an immediate reversal:

Be not overcome by despair, O my soul,
For thou hast heard of the faith
Of the woman of Canaan,
And how through it her daughter
Was healed by the word of God.
Cry out from the depths of thy heart,
‘Save me also, Son of David,’
As she once cried to Christ.

This hopeful note carries over in the strong plea we have already quoted at the beginning of these reflections on the Ninth Canticle.

O Son of David, with Thy word
Thou hast healed the possessed,
Take pity on me, save me, and have mercy.
Let me hear Thy compassionate voice
Speak to me as to the thief:
Verily I say unto thee
Thou shalt be with me in Paradise,
When I come in my glory.’

Andrew’s prayer ends in hope; because, like the good thief, he counts on Christ’s lasting will that we share life with him.

5 Responses to “Brother Robert on the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete”

  1. Mary Says:

    You always leave me sitting here staring at my monitor, sometimes with tears in my eyes.


  2. John Traffas Says:

    Mr. Gilbert: When I learned four years ago that Br. Robert had a manuscript on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, I wrote the editor, Rali Christo, about a projected publication date; she said within the year, yet it hasn’t appeared to date. Thank you for posting Br. Robert’s lengthy commentary on the Great Canon, which was obviously aimed at acquainting us Catholics with the riches of St. Andrew’s prayer.

  3. bekkos Says:


    This is interesting. You mention an editor, named Rali Christo. Would this be the Bulgarian woman at St. Mary’s College, who was helping Brother Robert edit his Light from the East book during the last couple of months of his life? (I had forgotten her name.) Or is this some other editor of Brother Robert’s work?


  4. John Traffas Says:

    Peter–Yes, I traded emails with Rali Christo four years ago. She was still adjunct at St. Mary’s at that time, and was collaborating with Br. Donald Mansir on preparing Br. Robert’s commentary on John Chrysostom’s liturgy for publication. Perhaps you could reach her and somehow move forward the publishing of Br. Robert’s writings on Eastern liturgy–to the benefit of East and West!

  5. Rali Christo Says:

    Peter and John – I was never the official editor in charge of this project, nor did I ever know the full details about it. So I am not the person to contact, especially since my involvement ended about three years ago.

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