Singing the Lord’s Song

singing churchI have been attending a conference and traveling this week and have not had time to write. I offer here a reprint of an article that is a personal favorite. It is frustrating for me that the article is so short – simply because I have a deep sense that the topic could be so much better explored. But every time I attempt to take the topic further, everything dissipates in music. I think that the end of the matter can only be sung.

Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity.
– St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 44, 441 B)

In St. Gregory’s thought,  man is not only a singer, but a song. We are not only song, but the song of God. Indeed within one theme of the fathers, all of creation is the song of God, spoken (or sung) into existence. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue. God sings. All of creation sings. The song of praise that arises from creation is offered to God, the Author of all things. It is also the sound of the creation itself, a revelation of the truth of its being. Music is not entertainment: rightly sung, it is the very heart of creation.

The angels within Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) call to one another in the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O Lord God of Hosts….” The song of one calls forth the song of the other. Worship is the offering of our whole being, calling forth the song of all creation in union with the song which God Himself sings.

To understand oneself as the song of God, a phrase within His hymn of creation, affirms both our uniqueness as well as our union with the whole. Our prayer, our worship, our lives, are an offering of the song that God Himself has breathed.

Our habits of thought provide ways in which we conceive ourselves. It strikes me as worth noting that our modern concept of human existence has minimized the role of music. Music is something that we do, an industry by which we make money. It is an instrument for the glorification of egos. Music is distorted.

At the same time our culture has made music into a vast financial industry, people have themselves become less musical. The ability to play an instrument (other than air-guitar) has declined deeply. Music programs within schools are considered too expensive to fund. The number of young persons with no formal training or experience in music continues to rise. People rarely sing together (a once universal custom prior to modernity) except in the most structured environments. “Folk” music (the peoples’ music) is rapidly disappearing (these things are perhaps more true of America than Europe).

I would never predict a disappearance of music – for human beings are a song and the song will not disappear. But to live in a manner that is alienated from ourselves as the song of God is to live with an existential emptiness. If man is a singer, then he must sing – and he must sing to God – and he must learn to hear the Lord’s song everywhere and within himself.


  1. I liked your post, “Singing the Lord’s Song”. It caused me to think about the importance of singing and being God’s song. It also caused me to think about two things in Orthodox Christianity connected to singing. The first is whether laypersons during Liturgy should be singing or silent. I am a 3 1/2 year old Orthodox Christian, former Protestant of various sorts. I attend an Antiochian Orthodox Christian church. We have a very wonderful choir which sings very beautifully during Liturgy. However, I thought Liturgy translates as “work of the people.” Well, ok, but I don’t hear a lot of the people doing the work of singing during Liturgy. What’s your opinion? Should laypersons be singing during Liturgy or leave it to the choir?

    Second thought about singing: I started my Orthodox journey as a catechumen in a Slavic Orthodox Church (an OCA church) so we our Liturgy was somewhat Slavic-sounding. Now, at my Antiochian influenced OC, our Liturgy is somewhat Middle Eastern sounding. I read that when the Russian OC priests came to Alaska to bring the faith to the native Alaskans, the priests started by learning the native language and customs. Then the Russian Fathers adapted Russian Orthodoxy to the local culture, translating the Gospels and the Liturgy into native Alaskan language. I admit ignorance on what the Russian Fathers did to the songs of the Liturgy. Did they teach them to sing like Russians or Greeks? Or did they adapt the songs of the Liturgy to Alaskan musical styles. This brings me to my second song-related questions: I am a Midwestern American. Why am I singing during Liturgy in the Greek tones or, in my former OC church, in somewhat Slavic tones? My wife has not become Orthodox and of the sticking-points for her is the very foreign sound of the songs of the Liturgy. While I certainly don’t want the songs of the Liturgy to sound like clones of Contemporary Christian (Protestant) Music, I would like the songs to be closer to the native culture in Midwestern America.

    Anyway, thanks for your blog postings. I will subscribe to continue hearing your thoughts!
    Jarold (Benjamin) Winans

  2. I always remember a quote from Rich Mullins, a Christian singer who didn’t particularly like his own voice. He said, “I sing because God has commanded me to do so”. I can easily understand song as communion with God, although it makes me uncomfortable to think of God commanding us to sing. But how is that different from calling us into communion–out of ourselves and into Him?

    In a more humerous vein, what if we are–if you’ll forgive the picture–in line to enter heaven and Peter requires a song (solo) from us at the gates? How very uncomfortable! LoL! I’m certain there are many denominational jokes that can be inserted here….

    This is a wonderful article that resonates with beauty and joy as I meditate upon it. Many thanks, Father! Bless you!

  3. Jarold,
    There is no simple or single answer to the matter of congregational singing. It varies from place to place and even culture to culture. There is, for example, incredible depths in Byzantine chant that can only be explored with a trained chanter. Learning to “sing the Lord’s song” while remaining personally silent is its own important spiritual practice.

    There are also wonderful examples of congregational singing that are magnificent. I would simply say that we should be careful not to assume that there is a single, simple practice that is correct. Liturgy is not really “the work of the people.” That’s a distortion fostered by modern liturgical scholars (with a modernist agenda). The word is better translated “public work.” For example, donating money for the building of a ship for the Athenian navy in ancient times was called a liturgy. It is thus that work, sacrifice, offering that the Church makes publicly rather than privately. The other translation (which is incorrect) has been used to drive a democratic modern agenda that has caused great distortions in public worship.

    Both practices are common in Orthodoxy. Good Orthodoxy should include the ability to do either. As for local parishes, the music and abilities are simply going to vary. We should guard against the thoughts about “how it should be.” The devil is an incredible music critic. He also does a good job of reviewing sermons, parish programs, art work, and almost anything else.

  4. This article reminded me of my childhood when my grandmother used to welcome my waking up by singing some tunes and rhymes inspired by that very same moment… I can still hear her in my mind. Marvelous experience indeed!

  5. My son Cole had severe cerebral palsy (CP). Learning his reactions towards things took a lot longer than the average baby. At the time Cole was a year old and we were watching the movie Gladiator. At the end of the movie there’s a song that this lady sings in a different language that is hauntingly beautiful…I didn’t know it at the time but Cole felt the same way because he started crying and I thought I had the TV turned up too loud, so I turned it down and he quit. However I turned it down so much I couldn’t hear it anymore so I turned it up just a bit and he started crying again. When I realized that it was the song making him cry, I was thrilled because I had some sort of reaction from him, that I had read correctly….. which is important for CP mommies. I woke my husband up from a nap & brought him out into the living room & turn the volume up and down on the TV so that he could watch Coles reaction for himself. And yes, we stood and watched his bottom lip quiver and curl under several times with delight fueled by hope. By the way out of my 4 boys this is my most favorite “My son son did this” story to tell. Between his father and I its been told many-o-times. This simple story. Now that I actually think about it, it’s never bothered me that most of the time people didn’t know what To say…. “Really.!?”… ….”Wow”….with the exception of therapist and people that had some sort of knowledge of CP. Over the years I can’t tell you guys how close I came to googling the translation of that song but never did. I think about how many times I was in the middle of actually doing it but something every single time interrupted me. I always seemed to get busy. I even set alarms and wrote myself reminders…. As I sit wright this to you now it is sort of bittersweet to realize that the harmony of this story, this song, for me has never had nor ever will have a beginning or end to it….Cole fell asleep in September 2014. He was 11 years old. I set my driveway for 3 hours that day in my car. And then it hit me.I couldn’t reach for my phone fast enough. I knew I wasn’t going to be interrupted. After listening I felt like the deepest part of me was changed forever. Cole loved all music. It made him happy. It made him smile. It made his bottom lip quiver….

  6. “We are not only song, but the song of God. ”

    How beautiful, Father!

    Music is rhythm and harmony, beauty of fluid order without rigidity.
    To live true Christian life, or just simply a sane life we need to be in harmony with God and His creation, which very difficult without askesis (rhythm of dayly life)
    We sing liturgy (choir and congregation) many voices, many far from perfect uniting in one, sounding much better, transformed by fath, in fitting praise to God the Creator of all things of beauty.
    We are song of God, His love song.

  7. There is a joy to singing that is just wonderful. Many of my favorite singers both professional and non-professional always have an evident joy in them even when singing sad songs.

    My late wife was an amazing musician–she felt and heard the music deep within her and was able to bring it forth. Unfortunately, she never had the confidence to perform and gradually stopped singing altogether. Yet, her singing always brought tears to my eyes but joy to my heart.

    She composed a brief hymn to Mary, the Theotokos which is deeply evocative of Mary. I had not sung it in too long and had almost lost it. Now I will sing it more often and hope to pass it on to our son.

    The words I can write, but it is the melody in a soaring and wrenching minor key that makes the song.

    Gentle Mother Mary, we lift our hearts up to thee
    In deepest reverence and humility
    Both gentle and strong
    You have taken on, in one perfect birth
    The children of the earth.
    Gentle Mother Mary, we lift our hearts up to thee
    In deepest reverence and humility.

    For a brief time she was the chanter at our first parish. Too young in the faith really to do it but the only one available. While she agonized over the responsibility and the public display of her abilities, she did an astounding job of chanting–mostly on her own. She had the ability to sing anything in any tone with little practice bringing forth the riches of the text in the process. That is a gift few possess. No amount of congregational singing can duplicate it–only compliment it.

    The tones of the Church and the manner in which the singing is choreographed with the Church year and the actions of the Liturgy seem to embed both the theology and the living experience in our hearts and bodies in ways that nothing else can do. Congregational singing alone cannot do that.

    Years ago we had an assistant priest who had been born in Lebanon. His father visited him one week. His father was an expert chanter but spoke no English. The Sunday he was here however, he was blessed to do the chanting for us. It remains one of the most beautiful and uplifting experiences of my life. I could make some sense of what he was singing by its place in the Liturgy, but I did not care that I could not follow all the words. It did not matter.

    I have sung all of my life. At my first job out of high school, I sang while I worked (not quietly). My co-workers thought it odd at first but when I left they mentioned how much they would miss my singing. Singing is intertwined with so much of my life in so many ways.

    Forgive my disjointed meandering. So many impressions. So many avenues to consider.

    Thank you Father.

  8. Leslie, your story made me weep in the depths of my soul. My prayers are with your family and with Cole. Can I share it with some friends on fb?

  9. I really do think that man, creation and life is song. In the Western art music tradition, you see practices of composing music in a sort of cyclical structure, or in an ABA form, where the last section brings the listener back to the beginning of the song. A bit like the idea of resurrection. But also, it is quite representative of daily routine – where we get up each morning and do similar routines which are repeated the next day. I believe – even if there is some musicological argument about this – that a composer cannot help but put their own life into their composition. This can be seen especially in folk music, and of course in spontaneously improvised performance. Even composers who choose to base their compositions on absolute formulas have somewhat of an agenda behind their composition. A performer who plays others’ compositions tries to ponder and understand what a composer has written, but again, inserts their own life into the song.
    And music is such an inherent thing. It in fact precedes language! Music is extremely helpful for children in primary school – the alphabet has a tune to it. But probably the most helpful of all music comes from where we come from – our mother! Lullabies are so useful, and we can hear our mother’s voice from inside the womb.
    The idea of music as something commercial has most definitely taken its toll on the Western world recently. It is an extremely new idea, and there are in fact people from non-Western places in the world who would be in shock if you tell them “Oh, I’m not really good at singing.. I’m not a singer”. Because music is such a natural thing, and does historically precede language. Of course, there is some advantage to commercial music – many people (myself included) have discovered new types of music through famous artists. For example, if a famous artist performs a version of a lesser known song, the audience are then exposed to that lesser known artist and are then able to expand their listening repertoire. I wouldn’t entirely agree that folk music is disappearing.. Here in England, I have met a few people who are very much into modern genres (some genres are more famous than others, but still very modern). I was astounded that they knew of many folk artists from various countries (both Western and non-Western). Then again, these people are very much so musicians themselves, so they (thankfully) do have a wide knowledge of repertoire – I even met one DJ who enjoyed listening to Byzantine church music. Although they may seem like a minority who still have a passion for listening and performing music and (possibly) more importantly have a passion for learning and performing for others, it is still very much a relief to see these young people with this awareness of music and its connection with life.

  10. I’d like to echo Jarold Benjamin’s question about why our music must be Russian or Greek or Slavonic, when we are Americans. This also bothers me, and I wonder if we will eventually have indigenous American Orthodox music. I agree, Father, that we’re not after “contemporary Protestant music” because we’re not Protestant. But I’d love to see something indigenous at some point.

    I love what you said about how music was once a part of daily life – people got together and sang. In the ’70s we played guitars and sang folks songs and I loved it. I miss that. Something in me has been missing music at home lately, and for my birthday my husband just got me an electronic keyboard. I haven’t played the piano in many years, and it is blessing me greatly to relearn those classical pieces as well as some favorite contemporary songs. We are indeed musical beings.

  11. Susan,
    It is only Russian, Greek, Slavonic, Georgian, etc., for the same reason that “American” music is English, German, and African, etc. It’s because that’s where our Church came from. But, there’s a goodly amount of music being written now in the American Church and there will continue to be. We have to remember that the first all-English speaking Orthodox Church was not begun until the 1960’s and remained unusual for awhile. All of this is happening, and even rapidly, but not too rapidly, I pray.

  12. Susan, indigenous Orthodox music can not be created out of thin air or desire. Music comes out of a culture — we don’t have that yet.

  13. Susan, at least one of the hymns for the Divine Liturgy at our parish has as one of the options in our liturgy book a traditional “North American” hymn tune (I don’t recognize it or the particular tradition it comes from). We are fortunate that our founding Priest had the skills to put the Liturgy in book form for congregational singing with alternative melodies for singing some of its parts (responses and hymns) from Polish, Serbian, Russian, Greek, Arabic, and American traditions (there may be a couple others also that I don’t at the moment recall). The whole congregation has been the choir from the beginning (out of necessity originally and now as our parish’s tradition).

  14. I love listening to traditional/folk music. Just the other day I was listening to traditional Syrian and Persian music. My sister happened to hear and thought I was going crazy. I love listening to traditional music. It’s raw humanity. In my own experience you don’t really even need to know what is being sung (though it helps) to “feel” the humanity in such music. Sadly many people don’t see this. Music is no longer about the song of the human condition. Instead it is about reinforcing our ego. In a secular society the only thing that exists is the ego. In today’s culture there is no such thing as the human condition.

  15. There is so much to be said of music – particularly as an “ontological” vehicle. For example, if everyone speaks at the same time, only confusion results, but singing at the same time, in the same key, etc., creates beauty, a vocal expression of the harmony of being that is an icon of love and all of creation itself.

    One of the inherent flaws of the forensic model is that it cannot be “sung.” You can sing “about” it, but there is nothing that would yield a musical icon of a forensic model. On the other hand, nothing better expresses the ontological model better than music.

  16. “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live, I will sing praise to my God while I have being”…Psalm 103. And the singing of the redeemed continues in heaven…Rev.14. When I taught English as a second language to children and adults we would sing at least one song in every class. Everyone loved it. Usually we’d sing oldies but goodies. Sometimes a student would come back to class and excitedly say…”Sr. Cafe, I was in the store last night and heard ‘Oh Donna’ and sang along with it!” Fun and easy way it was to learn English!

  17. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue.

    In “The Magician’s Nephew,” C.S. Lewis imagines Aslan singing Narnia into existence.

    “At the same time our culture has made music into a vast financial industry, people have themselves become less musical.”

    I once read that John Phillip Sousa, the march composer and leader of bands, expressed concern about Edison’s development of the phonograph. He worried that it would suppress the practice of music among ordinary people, as, rather than making music themselves, people would listen to music others made for them. He foresaw the decline of the town band, the parlor piano, and other musical staples of American society of its time.

  18. Susan,

    There are many indigenous American Orthodox composers (Zakkak, Morisan, Finley, Norman, the list is too long!) who have, and are, producing many pieces of superb work.

    As Mr Bauman pointed out, this is not created out of thin air, outside the Orthodox context, so don’t expect these works to sounds like CCM (contemporary Christian music). Thanks be to God!

  19. So David danced before the Lord. Like a child. People were mortified.
    Probably that Orthodox that gets dressed up later. Not the same thing.

    Loss of vanity is a price that is paid. Slings and arrows. Sehlah.

  20. Leslie, thank you for the story of your son and for the music that moved him so. He was definitely God’s song…

  21. Some thoughts on musical styles in church. I had the opportunity to attend Christmas Mass in a Catholic church (there wasn’t an Orthodox one nearby) in an area inhabited by the Kikuyu (a Kenyan tribe). The service was fine, but I wasn’t impressed by their liturgical music. It sounds exactly like the gospel songs we sing for entertainment–no complexity and a lot of repetition. Every verse and chorus is sung twice, for example. The chorus for the Lord’s Prayer was simply the first two lines–Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name–and by the time they were singing it for the sixth time, I wondered if we were ever going to finish the prayer.

    By contrast, I’ve heard the simplified Byzantine melodies we use in the parishes done *really* badly, but they still manage to give a sense of awe and reverence at times.

    So it seems wrong to me to uncritically adopt the musical styles of any culture. There should be both old and new, but not for the sake of either old or new, rather because this is the style we need to use to sing the Lord’s song. That requires that there be a “we” and that they be willing to reflect critically on music.

  22. What is in the heart will be form into music. There is no reason that the traditional tones cannot be used with a proper Orthodox heart in our own age.

  23. Fr. Stephen,

    I am struck by this idea of the mistranslation of the word liturgy. I am wondering what the implications are for the meaning of this difference. It seems like a small thing, “work of the people” versus “public work”, almost sounds the same. Yet you say this has been used to drive a modernist agenda. Do you have any article where you go further into this concept. I am very curious because it has a ring of truth to it, but I do not understand the importance of it.

    “Liturgy is not really “the work of the people.” That’s a distortion fostered by modern liturgical scholars (with a modernist agenda). The word is better translated “public work.” For example, donating money for the building of a ship for the Athenian navy in ancient times was called a liturgy. It is thus that work, sacrifice, offering that the Church makes publicly rather than privately. The other translation (which is incorrect) has been used to drive a democratic modern agenda that has caused great distortions in public worship.”

  24. Marla,
    I have not written elsewhere on this topic. I was subject to the liturgical movement when I was in seminary. It has a number of accepted shibboleths that are constantly recited to enforce its ideology. It’s why Catholic Mass and other reformed modern liturgies all look the same. Most of the liturgists involved were not theologians, nor were their efforts monitored or considered. But they slogan and campaigned and later legislated and ruthlessly enforced the most drastic changes in the history of Christian worship since the Reformation itself.

    “Liturgy” as the “work of the people” is one of their favorites. But this meaning is not found anywhere in the ancient writings. “Public work” is a closer, more faithful rendering.

    But the agenda was to create a liturgy that was highly democratized, in which the role of priest was radically changed, the visual arrangement of worship utterly altered, and the service “demythologized” wherever possible. I knew these people and studied under a number of their leading scholars. Many of them hated – and that is not too strong a word – hated the traditional Mass and other traditional forms. They would ridicule and mock it in class as utterly ignorant and ridiculous. They did not say these things in public – because they feared a backlash. But believe me, we were indoctrinated in this stuff like the soldiers of the cultural revolution.

    Priests congratulated each other (among the Anglicans) for successfully managing to move the altar out. They were very iffy on the Creed, but utterly certain about the position of the altar. How is this possible? How can there be doubt and uncertainty about the bedrock foundations of the faith but complete and utter tranquillity and certainty about the arrangements of the details of worship? Only by a mindless social indoctrination. Any priest who did not go along with such things was treated as a pariah and a neanderthal. And it could be brutal.

    But they lost God during all of this. In the Catholic Church they destroyed priestly vocations, emptied the religious orders. I could go on and on. People younger than I am often don’t know what happened or how different things were just a few years ago.

    And their religious/social agenda has been winning the day. The old saw is “lex orandi, lex credendi.” “The Law of praying is the law of believing.” It has a proper meaning – but it also means that people will come to believe what they pray. Change their liturgies and you’ll change their religion. It works. I’ve seen it.

  25. Marla,

    I think what you may find is that some emphasize that the Divine Liturgy is the work of the laity (“the people”) as much as the Priest to drive a Modernist democratic and anti-hierarchical understanding of the nature of the Church. Having myself (rather naively) accepted that interpretation, I have argued the Divine Liturgy is the “work of the people” to combat accusations that clericalism is inherent in the Orthodox understanding of the nature of the Liturgy of the Church. What is true from what I have read is that the Orthodox Divine Liturgy canonically cannot be offered apart from the actual presence of members of the laity as well as the clergy, but I have also learned that “public service” is the correct translation of “liturgy.” Insofar, as the Divine Liturgy is offered on behalf of “all mankind”, according to the prayers of the Church, it indeed presents itself as “public service.”

  26. Slightly beside the main point, but I do find it interesting that in traditional ascetic language one’s private prayer rule (alone with God) is fairly often referred to as ‘personal, public service’ (προσωπική λειτουργία) – a lofty characterization.
    The actual Liturgy of course is plain “Λειτουργία” (‘public Service’). Also, set services for all other communal prayers not involving the Eucharist (Matins, Hours, Vespers, Compline, Wedding,etc) are always a different, slightly more modest name: “ἀκολουθία”. (we can only translate this as service)

  27. Fr. Stephen,

    My spiritual father back in the US had explained that the Liturgy is a public work in “that work, sacrifice, offering”, come together publicly, in the Church. The offering, in the form of prosforon, oil, wine, kollyva, and of course, prayer come from the clergy and the people/laity work together with the sacrifice of the slain, standing Lamb, along with our own sacrifice of prayer (“I will sacrifice a sacrifice of praise unto Thee” Ps. 115). All bundled together, this is how a liturgia/work becomes a liturgy.

    Of course, my rendering is rather simplistic, but I find it tremendously odd to have read and heard that clericalism is dominant in the Orthodox Church…not so! I challenge the naysayers to keep up with the output – prayer, prosfora, kollyva, fasting – of the elderly women in our Church.

    Forgive me,

  28. oops!
    -that should read:
    The offering in the form of prosforon, oil, wine, kollyva, and of course, prayer come from people/laity, as well as the clergy, who then work together, with the sacrifice of the slain, standing Lamb, along with our own sacrifice of prayer …

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