Last night, the Orthodox Church celebrated (and will continue throughout this week) the 'Canon of St. Andrew of Crete,' which is a series of hymns comparing our sins to the various people of the Bible. In the canon, St. Andrew writes these hymns to his own soul, comparing the the good works of various Biblical figures to his own lack of good works, and how also these same people sinned though his own sins are worse.
To those without hope, it seems depressing and morbid. Why remember such ugliness?
But, then we could ask: why would veterans who experienced the horrors of war gather together, or Holocaust survivors celebrate reunions? Would it not be healthier to 'forget' those events and 'go on' with life?
Alcoholics do something similar to this canon: they will gather together and talk about their sinful pasts. Some call it a 'drunkalogue,' like a travelogue for those on the path to hell. There are sometimes tears, but oftentimes much laughter. Addiction can be rather silly at times, though very often it is poignant and even painful to remember.
Is it healthy to relive such events, even when one believes they are forgiven? Yes, it is. The remembrance of our falls reminds us that we are 'recovering' and not 'recovered.' We are reminded of our own frailty. Even if we no longer do those things, we still have the capacity to do them.
The canon acts as a means by which each person can remember his own sins by looking at the Scriptures. In doing so, he can also see the same hope the sober addict experiences when he tells his story: he is abstinent and happy. In the Biblical story, all of these figures ultimately receive their hope in the coming of Christ. Yet, even within the stories themselves, we see how hopeless situations (think of Joseph) ultimately work out. None of them die without their reward for perseverance.
While we are forgiven and ought not remember our sins as if they are not forgiven, it is dangerous to forget them entirely. This is for two reasons: the first reason is that forgetting our sins means forgetting our weaknesses, which leaves us blinded to the pit of temptations. If we remember our weakness, we can prepare ourselves and not be tempted. However, if we forget, then our weaknesses will eventually be taken advantage of.
The second reason is that forgetting our sins means we will forget God's mercy. If we constantly remember what we have been forgiven, we not only benefit from gratitude for what we have received, but we also have a vision of His love that will get us through the times when we are fighting temptation or even fail.
The 'drunkalogue' is publicly told because the other addicts can hear their own story of pain that the teller has experienced and yet has found happiness. The hearer shares in the hope that the teller has received. It is a means by which one person encourages another.
The Canon of St. Andrew also passes this hope along. We sing these hymns and realize that just as God did not abandon those people, neither will he abandon us. And, there in the pages of the Bible we see murder, betrayal, fornication, lying, stealing... and that was just the good guys! Yet, God does not forsake them, but accepts their repentance and ultimately saves them.
So, this first week of Great Lent marks a time of hope. Its difficulties of fasting and extra prayer are illuminated with the expectation of mercy: we ask for forgiveness because we know it is available to us for the asking. We must remember that we have received it before, and we can receive it again.
That's the message of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and the sober addict's 'drunkalogue.'