In my first parish as an Anglican priest, I approached my first Midnight Mass with eager anticipation. I was trained “High Church,” with a very traditional liturgical emphasis – but I was serving in a “Low Church” parish. I was the first priest in their history to wear Eucharistic vestments as a normal practice. But it was common, even in Low Church areas, for the Midnight Mass to be “High.” Thus, I worked with the choir and we had our first “sung” mass – one in which the priest chants many of its parts. It was well-received, without controversy. But one teenager’s comment was enlightening and spoke volumes.
“It was spooky!” She said. I quickly ascertained that she meant “frightening” rather than some new meaning of the word rendered in youth-speak. I was puzzled until, after more conversation, I realized that she associated chanting with magic and witches and spells. It was not a response driven by any ideology or doctrine – it was a true cultural artifact. How did chanting come to have such a perception in the modern world?
At a certain point in Western Civilization, words came to triumph over all other forms of cultural and intellectual expression. Some of this is the natural place of words. The Western Catholic tradition developed a “low mass” tradition fairly early on – a Divine Liturgy that was spoken rather than sung, though the “high mass” continued to be normative. The Protestant Reformation did little to change music (other than to discontinue any use of chanting) but did much to elevate the spoken word even over the sacraments and the Cross. The practice of chanting made its continued decline towards dark associations and ridicule.
Music has traditionally had a somewhat suspect place within Christianity (even in the East). A number of the fathers, following the Desert tradition, were wary of the power of music and its ability to arouse the passions in a negative manner. They by no means championed the spoken word over chanted prayer (chanted prayers were considered normative), but were concerned about melody and harmony and the use of musical instruments. Christianity was non-instrumental for many centuries, and remains so in Orthodox tradition (with very rare exceptions). But despite some reservations, music came to have a dogmatic and canonical place within Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is sung.
Hymns were part of the faith from the very beginning. There are hymns embedded within the New Testament itself (Philippians 2:5-11 is among the most famous). St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
…speak within yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (Eph 5:19-20)
Our modern assumptions immediately leap to the text of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. For it is the words we value and not the music. We fail to see the value in singing.
Music is more than a vehicle for words. There are things that can be done with music that cannot be done with speech. The Church teaches that the purpose of our life with God is union. Our experience of speech is always isolating – only one can speak at a time. But in music, a song frequently contains many voices. And many voices can become one voice without ceasing to be many. The experience of harmony and its relationship to communion is probably more apt as a descriptor than anything else we know. The very common use of a drone note within Orthodox hymnody acts as a musical expression and experience of communion that spoken words simply cannot attain.
Music offers far more possible ways for considering the nature of being than most other images. The soul is the song of the self (my phrase). The universe, existing as vibration and energy-in-motion is itself best described as a song. It’s musical nature even goes far to explain the mathematical character of reality (music is what numbers sound like).
Ancient Greek philosophy gave careful thought to music. Pythagoras was famous as mathematician, as musician and as mystic, all of which were combined as a “philosophy.” Plato imagined in his Republic an educational system that required musical training “for the sake of the soul.” It is in such a culture that the Fathers lived and taught. We should presuppose such thought whenever we read their writings.
St. Augustine, in a work largely ignored today, wrote a treatise on music, De Musica, in the early years of his conversion. It is as much a classical treatment of pure music theory as any ancient example. Such an interest would have seemed perfectly natural to him within the context of his theology. Music was an indispensable part of all philosophical consideration.
If the “soul is a song,” then how we sing and what we sing is deeply important. The reticence of the early fathers regarding the music of their own culture is probably far more apropos today. Music can be violent (sit next to a sub-woofer at a stoplight). Music can and does rouse any and all of the passions. Consumer culture is driven by advertising, which makes use of its ability to manipulate us according to our passions. Music, some as inane as a mind-numbing jingle, is deeply part of that process. It is interesting to note that the heretic Arius drove the popularity of his false doctrine through the writing of “catchy” little songs. Much of contemporary Christian music is driven by the same passionate understanding that reigns in consumer culture. The sentiments created by music are made to substitute for the true sound of the soul. Such music becomes a distortion of our very humanity.
But music is also a primary path to union with God. The spiritual life can rightly be described as a search for the “Lord’s song,” that music which is uniquely the song of our life intended to be offered in union with God’s song of creation. It is interesting to me that one of the properties of sound is that is causes objects to vibrate that belong to its frequency. Such “sympathetic vibrations” are a metaphor for aspects of the spiritual life that have no other natural example.
“Deep calls unto deep,” the Psalmist says (42:7). The sound of God echoes within us, because we are made in His image. The frequency of the voice of God calls forth a sympathetic sound within us. The Church teaches that bells are “icons of the voice of God.”
The latest work in my blog has united itself with the ministry of Ancient Faith. This umbrella of ministries includes other blogs, podcasts and recorded lectures, the book publishing work of Ancient Faith Publishing, and, most especially, Ancient Faith Radio. There can be no true exploration of Orthodoxy or presentation of the faith that ignores music. It is good to read, but it may be even better to listen. And it may be better still to sing. That, of course, happens most wonderfully primarily in the assembly of the Church. There the deep voice of God calls us to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving and to join with the sound of all creation.
Glory to God.