Celebrated by Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine tradition on July 4, Saint Andrew of Crete was a seventh-and eighth-century monk, bishop, and hymn-writer.
Among Eastern Christians he is best known as the author of the “Great Canon,” a lengthy prayer service traditionally offered as a penitential practice during Lent. He is also venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, where he is better known for his writings on the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He should not be confused with a different “Saint Andrew of Crete,” celebrated on Oct. 17, who suffered martyrdom while defending the veneration of icons during the eighth century.
The author of the “Great Canon” was born in the Syrian city of Damascus in the mid-seventh century. He is said to have remained mute for the first seven years of his life, gaining the power of speech at age seven after the reception of Holy Communion.
Devoted to God from that time on, Andrew went to Jerusalem and entered the Monastery of Saint Sava when he was 15 years old. He went on to serve as a cleric of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, and was sent as a representative to the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (680-681).
The council took up the monothelite controversy, a disagreement as to whether Christ had both a divine and a human will (as the Church teaches), or only a divine will. Though the question may seem abstract to modern ears, it was an important point, bearing on the reality of Jesus' full humanity.
In 685 Andrew returned to Constantinople, where he did charitable work for orphans and the poor, and served as a deacon in the great Hagia Sophia church. Around the year 700 he became archbishop of the city of Gortyna, on the island of Crete.
In 712, during a resurgence of the monothelite heresy, Andrew was forced to attend an illegitimate gathering in which the Byzantine emperor Philippicus Bardanes tried to reverse the decisions of the Sixth Council. Andrew's coerced attendance was questioned, but forgiven, by the reigning Pope Constantine.
Little is known about the rest of the archbishop's life, which ended peacefully, probably in 740. While his participation in the historic Sixth Council is important, St. Andrew of Crete’s legacy has more to do with his outstanding sermons and liturgical hymns, reflective of a deep interior life of faith.
The Great Canon, his most ambitious known work, takes around three hours to chant. It incorporates more than 200 full-body prostrations along with its many litanies, odes, and refrains. Surveying the Old and New Testaments, it stresses the urgency of repentance and conversion.
The service begins: “Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.”
“Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In future refrain from your former brutishness, and offer to God tears in repentance.”
Interspersed throughout, is the Great Canon’s defining plea: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!”