Where shall I begin to lament the acts of my sorrowful life?1
I will begin by introducing some formal and historical context. A canon is an ancient liturgical hymn, a composition made up of various genres of canticles, each with a different function within its text. It is a form that combines prayer and poetry and has both aesthetic and spiritual parameters. The feature of the form brought to my attention the complexity of the relationship between the vocal and the literary. The fact that the words are written by a voice that sings or prays indicates an intensification of experience that projects language into a time always directed from the future to the present, a future contained in the past that connects everyday language with liturgical time.
A diffuse sense of a lack of direction in the contemporaneity in which we are immersed, comes from being abandoned to reaction. By inhabiting the symptoms of actions that occurred long ago, my mind acquired the habit of aligning with half-spoken wrongdoing both at the macro and micro scale, regardless of my intentions or beliefs. Following a narrative begun somewhere in the past became a kind of regression, a reaction to my own temporal complicity. And a communal sense of being often interrupted by wounded attention. A war is fought on the field of my attention, opening holes in time and memory, never giving rise to a wave. It is rare that a move is anticipated and, even if it happens by chance, it is an anticipation of what seems to be the inevitable. In this sense of inevitability the political is handed over to reaction.
On the other hand, I indeed inhabit a world permeated by change. Change appears as something good per se. I need to change, even before engaging in a deeper process of understanding. This is seen often in my everyday life. I know how difficult it is to change a habit. Before such a change can take place, it seems that a deep inner process of acknowledgement needs to occur. But such an undertaking requires time and dedication. And it looks like, on a global scale, we are running out of time.
The word sung in a future contained in the past means a present in the form of a principle of composition that emerges from the delivery. The delivery coincides with the transmission and the preservation of that same form. In some sense the delivery can be viewed as a form of writing and as a composition. That composition principle is what I call ‘holding one note’. When I began my vocal training in Byzantine chanting as part of my research on writing and composition, for the first six months I found that I was holding one note. It became clear to me that all the variations that took place on the basis of that one note, the very fact that you have no indication of how a canticle should be performed, presented a sort of inscription of the spiritual in the uniqueness of the voice, something mundanely referred to as improvisation. But there was no real sense of improvisation, because in this context, where the uniqueness of a voice is concerned, authorship and individual expression are irrelevant. Most frequently what happens is that the music becomes a prophecy within the breath. And that prophecy, or form of language, that connects everyday language with liturgical time was uninterrupted for centuries. The contingent form echoes those seventh-century texts in an uninterrupted liturgical form. And this is perhaps the nearest thing to eternity I have ever experienced.
The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete was written around the eighth century. Born in Damascus in Syria in the mid-seventh century, we know that as a child the poet was mute for the first seven years of his life. His communion is indicated in his biography as a passage to voice that connected language and physicality in the deep spiritual experience of faith. This is how the Great Canon of Repentance originated, by nothing so obvious as the institutional form of religion today might suggest.
The forgotten forms of genres such as irmos,2 troparia,3 katavasia4 were held for centuries in the literary depths. A repetition of ‘have mercy on me’, the echo of the hesychastic traditions of monks’ breaths and silences, bows and vigils. No written system, no notations will appear out of this curious exigency of simplification, which is not one of preservation but of being. This same principle of an uninterrupted voice is the closest example of a writing without any written system. And, as a consequence, there arises the question of what kind of writing might spring from such a commitment, or how writing might be understood as a radical hermeneutics of a plurality of practices.
The Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete is a re-reading of the Scriptures through the spiritual question of repentance. We can imagine not finding the words when we try to describe something which takes place within us. And a dialogue with his soul begins from that lack. The first question begins with where. Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my sorrowful life?5 And it indicates that the process shall begin within. How many times in our lives have we searched for the reason of our pain outside of ourselves, in others’ actions or in our circumstances. It is also common to arrive at a state of calm but be unable to keep it. To arrive at the one note within—this is something very difficult to accomplish. So the question of where to start is of utmost importance. Repentance here is from the very beginning introduced to us as turning the gaze inwards.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means a change of perspective or transformative change of heart. The verse ‘grant me forgiveness’6 means repentance is a reparation. A gentle approach to the language of interiority. It is the grammar of a nascent inner human being in whom the feelings of shame and guilt are transformed into a new language arising from an undisguised grief. We have reason to suffer. We shouldn’t be ashamed of what has been inflicted on us or on our ancestors. Our desire to safeguard narratives from distortion is a burning bush, the first ignition of faith. Our prayers, delivered in languages yet to be born, are transforming our sensibilities into an acute radiance. We celebrate our capacity for justice, the innate precision of our breathing dissolves platitude. The hearts are humbled and the proud eyes are lowered.7
On Repentance is an ongoing study led by Snejanka Mihaylova on the contemporary relevance of repentance by re-reading and re-contextualising the Great Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete through acts of listening, writing and giving voice.
Snejanka Mihaylova is a writer and artist working between philosophy, religion, publishing and performance. She holds a degree in philosophy of language and hermeneutics from the University of Florence, Italy, and a master’s degree in theatre studies from DasArts, Amsterdam. In 2012, she was a resident at the Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht. Her work Theatre of Thought , for which she published an eponymous book, has been performed in several locations in Europe, including De Hallen in Haarlem (2011). In 2012 she published Practical Training in Thinking and led a seminar in dialogue with Mladen Dolar at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. She has received commissions from If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution (Acoustic Thought, 2015) and Redcat Gallery, Los Angeles. Her most recent performance work was presented at Art in General, New York, and Swimming Pool, Sofia. She has taught at the University of Lausanne, the Dutch Art Institute, Documenta 14, and the Sandberg Institute. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Sofia ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’, where she teaches philosophy.
1 Ode I, troparia 1: verse 1 read on Monday, my translation from Old Church Slavonic.
2 Irmos is the initial brief canticle, the first verse of the ode followed by the refrain ‘Have mercy on me’. From the Greek verb ‘to tie’, ‘to link’ is a thematic bond between the content of the canon and the Biblical references of the ode.
3 Troparia (from ‘tropos’ - image) is a hymn of one or more stanzas that presents a synthesis of the celebrated saint or holy event, a sort of portrait in melodic form.
4 Katavasia is the final canticle of the ode. The term also refers to the singers’ coming down to the centre of the churchfrom their usual position in the kliros, or the spaces on the sides of the church dedicated to the choir.
6 Ibid., end of verse.
7 Isaiah 2:11.