"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 7, 2022

Bright Sadness

Slowly, reluctantly, in a world where there is already so much suffering and sacrifice, especially in Ukraine at the moment, the fast of Great Lent this year has approached not without some dread perhaps. But in dread of what we shall give up we must not overlook what we gain: Lent is a time of such splendid and diverse liturgical riches--the Canon of St. Andrew, the Akathist hymn, the life of St. Mary of Egypt, the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, and crowning it all the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy.

As we begin to think on our forty days in the desert, I draw your attention to something I wrote three years ago about making fasting perhaps a bit more practicable in our own day. 

I also reprint something I wrote on here more than five years ago now, offering some very rich readings as we prepare for, and then enter into, the mystery of the Lord's passover. 

Perhaps my favourite of his Alexander Schmemann's books, which every year I re-read at this time, is Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (SVS Press, 1974), 140pp.

This book, I think, is Schmemann at his best: serious but light, indeed lyrical; never letting the season of penitence and the tears of sorrow overwhelm the joy of knowing that Christ's Pascha has already happened, that death has been defeated, and that life will be given to those in the tombs.

One year I read the above work with his then just-released Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, and you can see in these latter reflections how much he loved the Lenten season and how he could, in spite of it all, never fail to see that Pascha really does stand at the heart of everything.

There are other books that come to mind here as well: Frederica Mathewes-Greene, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew (Paraclete Press, 2006, 195pp.).

If you are not celebrating the Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in your parish, or cannot attend, then her little book is a good way of reading a short passage from the canon for each of the forty days. 

Lev Gillet's book The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church also has much good food for thought in meditating on the liturgical cycle of Lent, and in offering practical recommendations for askesis in addition to the customary fasting.

Equally edifying is the little book by the prolific pastoral theologian and Orthodox priest William Mills: The Prayer of St. Ephrem: A Biblical Commentary, on which I commented previously, and whose author I have interviewed several times about his other books.

Similarly, this splendid CD is a wonderful resource if you are on the road a lot or sitting at your desk: Have Mercy on Me, O God: The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle). Under the expert direction of J. Michael Thompson, this schola's rendering of the canon is sublime. I received from Thompson a version of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified gifts performed by the Schola under his direction. I have to confess that its lovely prostopinije setting has forced me to reconsider a chant system I had previously considered a poor cousin to the Galician and Kyivan. (This latter CD is available from the Sisters of St. Basil in Uniontown, PA.)

For those who want a serious scholarly understanding of the liturgical heart of Lent as it were, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, see Stefanos Alexoupolos, The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite: a Comparative Analysis of its Origins, Evolution, and Structural Components (Peeters, 2009), xvi+355pp. 

In his expert review of Alexoupolos in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, the Byzantine liturgical scholar Peter Galadza lauded his book and said that his work is sure to become the scholarly standard for years to come.

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