Singing the Lord’s Song

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.” In our prayers, it is possible to become lost in the words. It is import to remember to sing – and to do so often.

This blog is posted as part of the ministry of Ancient Faith Ministries. 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 and 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.

70 comments:

  1. Please note that the Lutheran trajectory of the Protestant Reformation never rejected the chanting of the Liturgy. It was normative in most Lutheran worship for centuries. It think it is only in American Lutheranism that many abandoned it on the part of the celebrant. Sometimes this coincided with the transition to English. In other cases it was due to unfortunate influences from the prevalent Reformed Protestantism, or a combination of both these factors. It became more common again in the second half of the 20th century with the Liturgical Movement. There are still pockets of resistance here and there, due to “anti-Catholic” prejudice. But today one will find more chanting going on in Lutheran parishes than in many Western Rite Roman Catholic parishes.

  2. Father, what reflections would you offer about chanting in one’s private prayers? Does it make a difference whether I’m praying my regular daily prayers or a particular service such as an Akathist?

    (I’ve been Orthodox for six months.)

  3. Two associated moments: I have always loved Tolkien’s description of creation in the Simarillion as being sung into existence and evil being an intentionally introduced disharmony.
    Then the wonderful scene in Amadeus where Mozart is trying to explain to the Emperor about opera and its capacity to have many people “speaking” at once and each can be understood.
    On a personal note: being a bass I love the ison. The foundational quality of it that allows the rest of the music a freedom without risk of chaos.
    Instruments are artificial-man made. Our voices are not

  4. Also, Eugene, I had a wonderful experience that illustrates what you said about Lutheranism. When I was in college I attended a Mass for Reformation Day at the Lutheran chapel on campus. The chaplain (now a bishop in the ELCA) announced that everything there would be as it was in Luther’s own Masses, except for the language being English. Nearly everything was chanted; the chanting of the Epistle and Gospel readings, for some reason, made a particularly strong impression on me. That was one of many turnings in my life that God worked through to bring me (18 years later) into the Orthodox Church.

  5. New to Orthodoxy, my wife and I have been listening intently and humming when we can. This past Sunday we recognized and voiced some of the words. Growing from the beginning.

  6. I can’t disagree with any of your points Father. But I cannot exaggerate how painful and distracting to worship – for me, obviously can’t speak for anyone else – it is when I visit a parish who has a tone-deaf priest, or 2 or 3 sincere but completely non- musical choir members doing their best but always coming in on a different key in each response of the litanies, trying to harmonize but singing out of tune with each other, etc. That’s when I have to wonder why singing everything is so absolute, when imo hearing a sober but understandable reading of the prayers would elicit much better prayer and meditation for the people doing the work of worship. In a related matter, it seems that there is much fear that beautiful music will arouse the passions, but I hear no one expressing the same concerns about “beautiful iconography” or lavishly decorated temples. So I’m confused – just what are “appropriate” aesthetics for we who are being transformed by Grace in His holy church? I love Rachmaninoff’s Vespers and it always only elicits a longing for heaven’s eternal Beauty. Aesthetic passions transfigured.

  7. Father Stephen-

    You articulate beautifully the nature of music and how it works in and around us! Although fairly new to Orthodoxy, I am now the choir director at our parish. The previous director did a marvelous job organizing resources and developing a rich sound with our choir. With the corona virus troubles I have a makeshift choir every week, an unusual and challenging position, but we are making the most of it.

    I am on a mission to educate the congregation (do we call it that?) to learn the music and texts so they can pray more freely through them during our services. A few of our people have asked for this and I am thrilled I have the skills to teach them. These treasures of the church belong to all of us. There shouldn’t be such a demarcation between the choir and those not in the choir. Music is for all of us; the texts are for all of us.

    One of the best parts of singing in the choir is having the texts in front of me all the time. That’s how I’ve come to know what I know in terms of theology, and I’ve learned a bit about communing with God and the people worshiping alongside of me.

    I love this article. It resonates with me (couldn’t resist…) on a deep and happy level. Thank you!

  8. Randy,
    Yes, badly sung music is a distraction. One of the most tone-deaf priests that I know is also one of the most effective pastors and evangelists that I know of. He has a very good choir. Having served in a number of start-up missions, in which catch-as-catch-can is normative for even a semblance of a choir, I’ve experienced the liturgy in a variety of badly sung manners. For this, God can and will give grace. There are any number of fruitful meditations to be had in the midst of such sounds – all of which are better than thinking about our private misery. I have sometimes meditated and gloried on the wonder of our incompetence and the gracious willingness of God to accept such a flawed offering. Their sound reflects the dissonance of my own heart – and I find that it is better to embrace that and forgive it than to dwell on it as a judge. Blessed are the merciful – for they will obtain mercy. That is, if you pray to extend mercy towards them – you’ll discover God giving mercy to you and making bearable what you have not been able to bear.

    That said, it’s easier to have beautiful temples than it is good singing. We do the best we can in every direction. It’s just that when people are involved, and all the dynamics that are incurred, the “best” is often less than we want. Good singing can take time.

    I really like the choir at my parish – but – they are a far cry from the earlier years of our mission, 20 years ago. Of course, in those days, we were in a warehouse with aesthetics that made Walmart look like Hagia Sophia.

    The true aesthetic is found in the heart – the outward ones serve to nurture it. We should be honest and say that the darkness of our hearts makes it difficult for us. Were our hearts pure, we would hear and see the beauty of heaven always and everywhere.

  9. Kristin,
    I know of a couple of OCA parishes in the Chicagoland area in which the music and texts have been made into booklets and are distributed to the whole congregation. It might be a bit over the top for some – but it is certainly possible (with the blessing of the priest). I’ve noticed in our parish that we have very strong congregation participation in the familiar hymns. We are OCA which makes it easier – but I’ve seen the same in a number of Antiochian parishes as well. I have less experience with the Greeks.

    The choir has an important position. I’m sort of in-the-middle. There are things the choir can do that a congregation cannot – and I like those (difficult settings, and such), but I think the hearty sound of the congregation singing praise is one of the most wonderful sounds of all. Even better, when there are a number of children who are belting out the Creed louder than anyone else – I think angels smile. Right now, during Corona-time, my heart aches for the full congregation and full participation. Soon, Lord.

  10. >I know of a couple of OCA parishes in the Chicagoland area in which the music and texts have been made into booklets and are distributed to the whole congregation.

    I would love this! Our parish has the Divine Liturgy in a booklet for anyone that wants to follow closely. With my priest’s blessing, I took a copy home and keep it there. I would dearly love to do so with the hymns as well but have been told that they change regularly enough, depending on the service, that it is not practical to make booklets for all of them!

  11. I know bad singing can be a distraction and jarring in the midst of prayer. The priest who shepherded our parish for over almost 50 years, he fell asleep in the Lord in November, always emphasized the orientation of the heart over singing capability. That has led to a wide range of results at the kliros. Sometimes we sound beautiful and other times (plenty of the time) not so much. Still, we have had a thriving parish with a large number of Priests, Deacons, Subdeacons, Readers, and Seminarians for a parish our size and a very active body of laity. I believe that this is because our departed father so emphasized prayer, reverence, participation, and joy in the divine services and showed it forth in himself.

    All that to say that I know people wince at times when we are off key, but I believe that the Lord delights in and blesses the prayers when they are offered up in such a way, and we have seen the fruits of that in our midst even when we fall short in execution. I enjoy singing with talented singers, but anytime I am acting as protopsaltis and I feel myself getting a little frustrated at our struggles I stop and praise the Lord from my heart that I have the gift of singing with these men. It is largesse beyond measure to be there praying with my family and offering up praises to the author of life.

  12. There is so much beauty in song! My parish made a CD of our Men’s Choir and, while it is very good, I think of it as over produced. All the individual voices are, mostly, “smoothed out” and blended. I much prefer the “rustic, back country” approach of just a mixed choir with all its roughage.

    There can be “bad” singing in any choral situation, no doubt. But there is also the unprofessional, yet wonderful, singing. I actually prefer the latter to many of the professional choirs that are recorded.

  13. One of the wonderful things about Orthodox hymnography for me is the cycle of tones throughout the year. The tone always seems to evoke a certain quality about the feast that deepens my appreciation. I also appreciate that some tones are in a minor key. I was talking with our choir director one day about that and the tendency of many Protestants to use major keys only. I commented that Orthodoxy is not a C Major faith.

    As to tone deaf priests we had one several years ago. He prayed to Mary and worked hard. He got much better.

  14. I’ve long been fascinated by the history of temperament in western music, or how we have come to standardize the twelve tones of the musical scale. It was a long process with a lot of arguments along the way. The main problem is that the math doesn’t quite work. Harmonies can be expressed in simple ratios (like 2:3), but if you try to construct a scale using only those simple ratios you won’t be able to produce all the tones in harmony with one another. Something will end up sounding out of tune. I imagine that this was quite maddening for Pythagoras and others who came after him, because it really seems like it should work… but it doesn’t. So all our music is a BIT out of tune. It is the cost of flexibility. A good singing ensemble theoretically could make the adjustments on the fly to compensate.

    I find it gladdening in a way that things don’t quite “work.” That’s not the sort of universe we live in, one that works. Or that there are limitations. Do you want a perfect fifth? You can have one, but you won’t necesssarily be able to do much with it as far as composition. We learn to live with the bumpiness and imperfection of reality. The squiggly and fuzzy parts of the universe are the most interesting.

  15. Randy, one of the key differences in music and the other arts you mention is that we all sing. We do not all paint icons or do religious architecture. Music is therefore much more intimate and personal to each of us. I can practice discernment in what is proper iconography, with the guidance of the Church and with music as well, but with bad music, I also have to guard my heart. Instrumentation adds another level of that problem as the instrument can and does put its own vibrations into you body complimenting and amplifying what else is there.

    Not all experience this consciously, but when I sing, my whole body-every single cell- vibrates with what I sing. That vibration has an impact on my emotions and the physical/spiritual centers of my body as nothing else. That is one of the troubles with modern music. It is made to excite the sexual energies in many cases. Bringing us down into the passions and even sin. I first was made aware of that in my pre-Orthodox “New Age” exploration.

    The tones of the Church resonate with a much deeper level of awareness and can help lift us up to God: mentally and emotionally and physically in the spirit of joy, sorrow and repentance. The music of the Church is a participatory icon.
    I can be distracted without focus during worship closing my mind to the words and my eyes to the beauty around me, but even if I were deaf, the music would get in. I cannot stop it. On a blessed day, it also comes out of my heart seemingly unbidden.

  16. Jordan,
    I recall hearing a Russian choir of 6 voices singing Chesnokov’s Cherubic Hymn – a very demanding piece. I spoke with several members afterwards about their experience of the piece. They spoke about practicing in a circle in which the focus was on the sound of the whole. It was a performance in which the music seemed to match the sight of Rublev’s Trinity. They also said that it was very, very important that all of their relationships be right with each other. They were traveling and touring – so, I ‘m sure it made for some strain. But I was quite moved.

    The universe is not digital – it’s more analog and the numbers are just as accurate as “pi.”

  17. About a year ago I was introduced to the Wholetones Project created by a Christian musician named Michael Tyrrell. His book, “The Sound of Healing,” explains how sound affects us. A lot of the science is based on the work of Masaru Emoto but Mr. Tyrrell also looks at the “life” of music and sound in worship.

    I regularly have his music playing in the background at home or while I sleep. I noticed an improvement in my mood and attitude after a week or so of starting to listen to it. This was a vast improvement over how I feel when subjected to what gets played on the radio at work or in most stores.

    For those interested here is a link: https://wholetones.com/

  18. I recall a statement by Axel Rose (of Guns ‘n’ Roses fame) about his singing. He said something like, “I don’t; I scream on key.” I always found that funny but insightful at the same time.

  19. Father that is really fascinating, both senses of being “in harmony” with one another. Really beautiful. A wonderful image of group discernment.

  20. We have a lot of congregational chanting/singing in the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy. There’s the priest’s part, the deacon’s part, and the congregation’s part, and though I’m not sure, I would say that the congregation’s part forms half of what is loudly chanted and sung during a liturgy. There was a time, when I was a child, so to speak, that I would not chant. Now I don’t know how I could do without it!

    I don’t know if it’s our music, but or because I’m tone-deaf myself, or what, but though some priests and deacons are better than others at chanting, the difference is not great. I’ve heard my priest say something to the effect of the traditional training being able to change a terrible chanter into a middle of the road one. Won’t make him great, but it won’t hurt your ears. And that’s my experience. I’ve seen 12 year old deacons chant horribly, and by 18 or so their voices have been smoothed out.

  21. I’m blessed to be in one of those Chicago-area parishes where our talented founding Rector put the Liturgy(ies) in booklet form for congregational singing. I’m sharing that yearning with you, Father, for an unencumbered return to full Liturgical assembly in our parishes. The first time I was able to re-enter our Temple Nave (for Vespers) after the shutdown, I got very choked up.

    A friend who found out we were singing even in our masks more than 6’ apart in church got very concerned, saying the choir director in her (mainstream protestant) church did extensive research and has declared any singing in public is a no-no because it spreads virus particles much farther than speech. This to me begs the question (which I ask now only rhetorically, so as not to derail this comments thread) of at what point and for how long do we eschew and deny everything that makes life worth living to preserve mere physical existence for the ever-shrinking small real percentage that may die prematurely or the still very small percentage that may struggle with more longterm serious effects of infection from a virus? It’s hard for me not to see the present crisis as anything other than an all-out political and spiritual assault, not only on the Liturgy of the Church, but also on the very core of our true humanity. (I hasten to add I’m not one who blames our hierarchs or believe them unspiritual or untraditional for acting in good faith on information from authorities to protect the public, but I have many reasons rooted in my own experience and the medical realities and science of which I have become aware over the last 20-odd years to question if what we are receiving from authorities is honest and rooted in the best science. If I am correct in my suspicion of bad faith on the part of certain authorities and public institutions of our gov’t, this will only become clear with the passage of time.)

    When I first joined the Orthodox Church, it was not in the OCA, so the music and chant was much more middle-eastern in style. My son, who was ten, was similarly affected by the music, and I believe used the precise same term, “spooky,” to describe why he didn’t like it as the young person in your anecdote. I find your observations about sung speech very profound and insightful.

  22. Karen,

    It may not be a matter of time we must endure, but rather a limit on our own desires to be in the Liturgy together. I have come, very slowly, to a greater knowledge of my own house as a “little parish” and what is needed for it to be that during this time. As St. Paul states, we should be weak for those who are weak. That’s not a statement of trust in any State authority but a realization that humility is hard to practice; even more difficult when we are denied something that we love and don’t agree with why that is so! Pray constantly, for all the Church. The Soviet persecution lasted 50+ years!

  23. Karen,
    I think the notion of singing through a mask being dangerous is poorly researched. If we sing quietly, even, hum along, it’s surely safe enough (with a mask). But, hopefully, we’ve only a few more months to go…What we are learning, at least, is how valuable things are that we have taken for granted. I pray that we will be grateful beyond measure when we get through this. Thus far, we’re not doing very well.

  24. Byron,
    Americans, as a culture, do not suffer well. When we suffer a little, we vote and expect to fix it. We’ve been doing that so long to the leaky roof of our republic that we’ve failed to see that the foundations were crumbling and the walls were cracking. I only look for grace as a means of saving us from ourselves. It’s more than possible – but there is nothing human on the horizon that offers any hope or promise.

    BTW, I’m looking forward to Rod Dreher’s forthcoming book, “Live Not By Lies,” that is rooted in the experience of Christians under the Soviet system.

  25. I’ve read Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand’s books on their experiences under the Soviet system. They are both horrifying and uplifting. There’s are several others I’ve read of that time period as well that are of great interest in dealing with persecution. Rod Dreher’s book will be on my list as well, once it comes out.

  26. Father and Byron,

    I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to attend vespers in person on a weekly basis. I have trouble even when normal routines are not disrupted carving out uninterrupted space for ordered prayer at home, so have failed pretty miserably with normal supports withdrawn and added obstacles and distractions to make an Orthodox home church.

    I’m so grieved and disturbed by all that is happening, and by lies I see perpetrated by authorities and media, I can’t even bear to watch live-streamed services of my church anymore or attend Zoom coffee hour because its a constant reminder of the lies and what they are costing us. I hope we must endure at most a few more months of this, but since we are being constantly propagandized this is our “new normal”, I have my doubts. I have thought often lately of what believers endured under the Soviets and have wanted to obtain and read Solzhenitsyn’s work, “Live Not by Lies.”
    .
    I’m deeply grateful my husband wasn’t rendered jobless like so many families who have lost businesses and livelihoods from the shutdown. It’s agony to see harmful public health policies being advocated and perpetrated on our children, who experts agree have a vanishingly small risk from the virus, yet who are grossly disproportionately adversely affected by the abnormal demands of the gov’t response to this crisis.

    I accept the personal losses as allowed by a loving Father as His chastisement intended for my repentance and healing. I pray little prayers of desperation throughout the day and wait for Him to act, especially on behalf of the children. It seems to be all I can manage right now. This is a time of deep lament for me.

  27. I don’t have anything to add particularly except that my heart absolutely soars when reading a beautiful essay followed by wise and loving comments that illuminate said essay. The words the ideas herein, as father says, should make the angels smile. What a tremendous blessing mean to be orthodox, to encounter Christ thru its beautiful prism. Glory to God indeed

  28. My favorite chant is either the Znamenny chant used by the Russians (go find Hierodeacon Herman on YouTube) or the Prostopinije chant of the Carpatho-Rusyns (used by ACROD and the Byzantine Catholic Church.) With Prostopinije, congregational singing is the norm, and at Pascha the people can almost lift the roof off the church.

    And if scripture tells us anything about the angels it’s this: they sing.

    And let’s not forget America’s contribution: Bluegrass gospel music.

  29. Trish,
    I had not read any of your comments, so you can be assured my comment has everything to do with my own research about and experience of what is going on, and nothing to do with anything you said (much less a judgment about that). I do not wish to derail this thread, so that is all I will say here about the reasons for my perspective.

  30. William, et al
    Forgive me, but I find this all quite simple. I have no interest in whether the “authorities” of the state or medical world are right or wrong or abusiving their authority. My interest is only in obeying my bishop. He, in turn, has the difficult task of making authoritative decisions for the faithful with regard to how we observe the present civil and medical demands. And, it’s that simple.

    I have believed from the beginning – and this is deeply important – all earthly authorities are incompetent. I have emphasize that as many ways as the computer allows.

    I never expect them to be competent. I also know that I am incompetent and that I would do incompetent things if I were in their shoes. Their incompetency is a result of many factors – some of them willful, some of them the result of stupidity and delusion. I’ve been around the medical world long enough to know that medicine is, and always will be, something of a debate. Science is always something of an educated guess. Some guesses are really great.

    But the myth of modernity is the myth of competence – both our own (which produces shame and worse because we secretly know we are incompetent) and of others around us. We take ourselves so seriously and believe we can manage the world into a better place – failing to acknowledge that the world needs to be better only because we keep making it a worse place.

    So, I trust that the time-limit on the present distress will pass and we will be allowed to return to our lives and worship in its fullness. It will take some time for our hearts to be healed from the trauma we will have endured. The trauma is made that much worse by our anger and railing at the various incompetencies. It’s hard. 2020 will have been a year to remember.

    Last Sunday, I filled in for a vacationing priest in a parish that has (due to local circumstances) been able to employ a bit more freedom than my home parish. I’ve known this parish for about 18 years – so it has a home feeling for me as well. But just the presence of more people and greater participation (they had altar servers, for example) was such a joy in my heart. I treasure that joy and know that it will be so truly sweet when we return to unincumbured worship in its fullness. At the moment, I am working to prevent a root of bitterness to creep in that would later want to reduce that sweetness.

  31. Trish,

    Small prayers throughout the day, even in desperation, are good. God will provide the increase. Pray for me; I will pray for you as well. May God bless and hold you and your family close in these trying times!

  32. William,

    It is very hard to be content with where we are. It may be almost impossible because we have come to abhor restraint and limitations of our desires and needs (and in this I include such things as a comforting word from our Bishops or even just our friends). Father’s concern with bitterness is well founded: there is nothing worse than not receiving the love one desires from their friends and loved ones.

    I don’t know of a good way out of this; I think it is a form of despondency so I pray over it and try to be still in my heart and mind. These are very difficult times and it can be hard to give thanks in all things. May God grant you peace!

  33. And I would recommend the psalms as some of the best examples of cries of lament–sanctioned by God–in the face of unmet needs and desires. If we don’t, the rocks will cry out in our stead!

  34. Father, I hesitate to post this on such a public forum, so if you think it’s in appropriate, please feel free to remove. But after your last comment, I thought I would just say for you and others reading –

    I’m an Orthodox convert who took Orthodoxy quite seriously for a number of years. And then through one reason after another (changes in my career, thinking I could “marry” politics and my faith – which really resulted in politics taking over my faith, and a host of other struggles), I gradually took Orthodoxy less seriously and the things of the world more seriously.

    For what it is worth, the pandemic really helped to open my eyes. At first I responded politically, per my usual mode. But as time went on, and I saw the hopelessness of it, I finally turned my eyes back to the Church and the teachings of the Church. And I’m slowly peeling away the onion that has been my life, concerns, and worries over the last few years.

    I took your advice and stopped watching and reading the news. It has been immeasurably helpful (though the temptation does remain).

    Who can say whether God would have pulled me back in some other way. I certainly don’t know. And I don’t want to say that, for my own gain, the pandemic is good. But I do give thanks to God that in the midst of this, He has pulled me back. And, as hard-headed as I can be, I have to imagine I’m not the online one who has had such revelations during this time.

    I understand that for so many, who were more faithful than I was, the pandemic has resulted in a loss of things in the present that they depended upon and loved and was truly helpful. And for this, I am deeply sorry. Please know, though, that for some of us, this may be a time of renewal, and of finding our way back to the Church – or perhaps even seeing the folly of the world for the first time in a way that we never have before, and learning to fix our eyes ever more firmly on our True King.

    I know that it should not have taken a pandemic to effect this. But please know that good is being worked, even here and now, in the present, in the midst of this.

  35. I can’t sing. I can’t carry a tune. I am largely deaf. I “sing“ when I’m alone. But not where it will grate on others. I was always told a could not carry a tune in a bucket, and I couldn’t sing to save my soul. This makes me very sad. I’d love to be able to sing.

  36. I am not under direct obedience as Father is yet I know the blessings that can come if one is obedient even when disagreeing with one’s bishop. I have an icon, the Lord Save Me icon, of Jesus saving Peter from sinking. I have taken to contemplating it frequently of late. Not only is it an icon that expresses my entire conscious life in Christ which began on a hill in northern Illinois in 1968 to the present day but is very apt for our situation today. Why did St. Peter sink? Because he started paying more attention to the storm raging around him than he was to Jesus and he became afraid.
    Im 1968 I stepped out of the boat. I have been sinking many times since yet when I cry out, Lord Save Me, He always does. ALWAYS!

    Storms come. In our incompetence and arrogance we sink. Do we call out or do we just sink. There is no shame in sinking BTW. My late mother danced for Martha Graham in the early 20th century. Ms. Graham told all of her dancers that falling on stage during performance was inevitable. The question is whether you fall and just fall or you fall and pick daisies.
    God is with us. He provides the daisies if we ask.
    I have a lovely Bishop. I can talk to him anytime I want as am part of his Cathedral parish. I also can see the burden on him now and pray for him every day.

    Isaiah 41:10
    Fear, distrust and anger prevent clarity.
    There may come a time when we are called to stand before Caesar and worship anyway. Fear prevents our ability to be discern the time and wait in readiness and hope.

  37. Michele, perhaps you can with practice. There are free voice lessons online on youtube, perhaps try them out. My voice is no great shakes either, but the videos might help to train the ear and train your voice muscles.

    Father I’m deeply grateful for your comment at 11:35am.

    I’ll admit I’m weary of hearing from people expressing doubt of the severity of the issues involved. And I deal impatiently with myself with my own impatience! What a mess of myself I can make! Sometimes I wish I could express available facts on this blog but unfortunately that would open the door for political polemic, and that’s not conducive to calming hearts.

    We’re all in a mess of various strands. And we need to calm ourselves and wade through this slowly with care for others and our own and others’ hearts.

    I have found these words from St Sophony helpful (Striving for knowledge of God–2016 pg 44)

    “Give yourself over to the will of God and do not enter into any kind of dialogue with the thoughts. Every thought which gives rise to trouble of the soul and disturbs the peace of the heart comes from the enemy”.

    Our hierarchs are doing their best with a difficult situation. Holding patience and love in our heart for others is not only extending balm to them but it is also balm for one’s own heart and mind.

    Father thank you again for your ministry in a difficult time!

  38. Michèle-

    I was told in the midst of a family dinner as a child that I was among the family members who could not sing. So I believed it and didn’t sing for many years. Music captivated me so I studied instruments. Somewhere along the line I started singing anyway, probably during worship services, and even joined choir.

    Anyway, I believe there are very, very few people who truly cannot sing. Most people simply need a little help to know how. Little children all seem to sing naturally and freely. I hope God puts someone in your path who can help you with this. In my parish I have several who long to sing as you do and so far everyone has shown some improvement when they received help. And that made them even hungrier to sing!

  39. Michael-
    I understand the direction your mother received as a dancer for it is true in music as well. So many singers are self conscious and self deprecating when they make a mistake. The issue is never whether one will make a mistake, for all do, but what one does when a mistake is made. Often that’s when true musicianship makes its appearance. Thanks for tying this in with Peter’s journey out of the boat. I can now contemplate that further in my daily struggles.

  40. Dear Pastor Freeman,
    I would love to listen to your book “Everywhere Present” but it is only available in Audible format or for downloading which I do not have or able to do. Why is it not available in cd format to be played on a cd player? I would like to listen to your book in my car or at home. Let me know if it is available in simple cd. Thank you. God bless you, go with God.

  41. Athanasios,
    Thank you for your uplifting comment. It is a joy to hear someone brought closer to Christ and to the Church through and in the midst of this. I too, have experienced certain changes and find blessings in unexpected ways that has helped to grow faith in God in my heart and mind, revealing that God is indeed working providentially in mostly unseen ways.

  42. Michele,
    My mother was the most tone deaf person I’ve ever known. She loved to sing. She would blast out songs as she drove us around in the afternoons to keep herself awake at the wheel (she had narcolepsy). She even liked to “yodel” which mostly sounded like a very distressed chicken. I suspect she sings wonderfully now that she is surrounded with the angels of heaven. But her sounds did me no harm. I sing passably well – at least on key. She saw to it I got music lessons. I play about a half-dozen instruments badly.

    Make a joyful noise is the commandment. Nowhere does it say, “Sing on key to the Lord!”

  43. Victor,
    I don’t know what your hardware situation is, but you can download the mp3 or whatever it is and burn it to CD. If you don’t have a CD burner, perhaps a friend does. And there are cheap USB versions available as well.

  44. To all,
    I ask your forgiveness and forebearance. I have taken the liberty of removing a number of comments, a couple of my own as well. I think we were derailing the conversation and headed down a path that was not going to be helpful in the long run. I well understand, and share the experience of loss and restriction during our circumstances. It will do us no good to speculate on how well administered the restrictions might be. We do best to put ourselves into the providential hands of God and to pray ever more fervently for a swift end to our afflictions.

    It was said of Jesus, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not quench.” It is a word describe His gentleness to something (or someone) who is at the point of being estinguished or breaking completely). Despair easily crushes the soul – and I do not want us to add to the despair of any by quarreling or complaint. There is so, so much of it out there.

    I awoke here at 3 a.m. with this on my mind and came to my computer to tidy things up. Please know of my prayers for you all!

  45. I have found during life great comfort and surcease of sorrow in singing as well as joy. The Orthodox way of combining prayer and chant has a remarkable effect. In this moment I am drawn to the Great Compline from Lent. We are in a kind of Lent I think.
    “Lord God of Hosts be with us for we have none other hope in times of sorrow but Thee. O Lord of Hosts have mercy on us”

  46. Dear Fr. Stephen, thank you for this blog post and for your comments here in responses to the comments by your readers. I was brought up in protestant churches with lots of singing and never thought of not singing, but the hymns of the Orthodox Liturgy are such a blessing that often I am stunned into silence by our Good God who Loves Mankind. I have not been following the comments conversations, so I happily do not know what you have removed, but trust your judgement implicitely! I agree with your comment to William, et al on July 28, 2020 at 11:35 AM and will keep these remarks to read as I have given up reading the news and find that my prayers for those close to me and indeed all the world continue without this “education” from the media. God bless all you do!

  47. ‘The news’ is such a distraction from The One who Is and the neighbour who stands before us

    As to singing, is it not the truest use of the instrument with which God has blessed us? ‘That my whole being may proclaim, thy being and they ways’

  48. Father, thank you for another excellent article. A few points.

    1. Eugene A. Koene, all you needed to say was “J.S. Bach” to close the case on the Lutheran contribution to liturgical music. 🙂 Any Lutherans still out there who doubt or dispute the power and importance of music should simply be reminded that their predecessors created the environment for such towering greatness and among the most enduring feats of true evangelism to the western world. (Bach’s Passions may well be one of the few ways that some westerners these days get to hear and even participate in the Pascha story told in a grown up way.) Evangelism, and teaching, are, of course, two other of music’s central contributions. And for me, pretty much the closest thing one can get to in terms of finding a whole new language for prayer not in words are entering into some of the greater Bach fugues. Pythagoras – eat your heart out!

  49. 3. Father and a few commentators have remarked that there is a physical dimension to singing, and indeed chanting. This article https://www.ccwatershed.org/2020/06/29/chanting-and-spiritual-health/ is interesting on this, and again on many of the themes in Father’s piece. But I’m mainly linking it because it has this famous and pointed story about what happened after some RC monasteries stopped chanting after Vatican II :

    “When after Vatican II the Trappist monks of an American abbey obediently discontinued the singing of their daily Offices in Latin, all manner of things began to go wrong. Most noticeably, they found that they could no longer survive with only four or five hours’ sleep a night, as some of them had done for years. Other troubles followed: sickness and psychological disturbances that threatened to upset the even tenor of their contemplative lives. After trying various conventional remedies, all unsuccessfully, they began to wonder whether the cause of their ills might have been the loss of the hours they used to devote to singing the liturgy in Gregorian Chant. So with special dispensation they went back to their old routine, and their troubles gradually disappeared.”

    Chanting is good for us, body and soul!!!

  50. 2. One of the most interesting reflections on the nature of the Trinity I have ever heard was from ‘music’ lecture on God and freedom given by Jeremy Begbie, who is a musician and teaches theology at Duke. Unfortunately the whole thing is subject to copyright. But I have taken the liberty of taking some what I hope are fair use excerpts and put the audio file up for download on my Dropbox here https://www.dropbox.com/s/scqq6oy84fxztrt/Jeremy%20Begbie%20Excerpt.mp3?dl=0 . (If it seems to jump, it is because I have edited bits out for this reason.) Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in pretty much any of the themes in Father’s article.

    In essence, the overarching idea is that metaphors like sound can be better at conveying subtle theological ideas than the underlying and unacknowledged visual metaphors that often underpin and constrain theological thinking. It riffs on lots of ideas though, including modernity and freedom. His main worked example is the Trinity, including the sad way the modern West struggles … It’s really interesting.

    He also gives a really, really good demonstration of Father’s point about sympathetic vibrations, and talks about how they are theologically interesting.

    Begbie has written a book “Music, Modernity, and God: Essays in Listening” (https://www.amazon.com/Music-Modernity-God-Essays-Listening/dp/0198745036 ), which I have been meaning to get once the price drops a bit, as I have heard him speak elsewhere about modernity and music’s role as a kind of rogue player in the western project, so it’s likely to be topical for many of the themes that come up on this blog.

  51. biermonk,
    I am dawn to Valaam chant—it has a deep calming effect on my anxious soul. Thank you for the Youtube recommendation and your comment.

    Michelle,
    my autistic daughter loves music and cannot carry a tune to save her life. I’m still happy to hear her sing along in church. For a while it was heartbreaking to me because she loves to watch “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” and kept expressing the desire to perform in competition like those she was watching. I would just tell her everyone has different talents and very few of us sing well enough to qualify to be on a stage. Scripture also enjoins us to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” Everyone can do that.

    Father,
    your comment about your Mom’s yodeling sounding like a “very distressed chicken” made me laugh out loud. I appreciate your wise moderation. Coming back into the conversation after the fact makes me glad I wasn’t privvy to what was deleted. Forgive me where my own lack of discretion may have provoked a need for that.

  52. The Native Americans particularly those of the Plains use chant a lot and it is all centered around the heart beat rhythm of the drum. It does not take long for the heart beats of the participants to be beating together. There is a rhythm to the Liturgy as well. That rhythm functions to draw us together to the alter. The various tones are part of that.

  53. While on the topic of music, Father I wish to thank you for this article.

    As usual it has a depth that begs for deep reflection. Physics tends toward describing what we might call “substantive reality” (I’m not sure I like these terms but using them for now) as waves of matter. In turn these waves have frequencies not unlike what we associate with music.

    Furthermore, I hope Jeff reads this article on account of his question in the previous article. Indeed, there is nothing more physical than singing praise to God, or singing/chanting prayer. And in turn this very physicality of worship helps us peer deeply into the windows of the world, to see hand and presence of God in His works.

  54. Father,
    How is our nature and our hypostasis related to the physicality of the world? We say that it is created, but is our hypostasis an individual revelation so to speak and nature what we share with all humans?

    I know that this is a large topic. I see it as related to your article here, nevertheless, pursuing it may create an unnecessary detour.

    How do we see our nature as it is revealed in our person, physically and spiritually, in reference to God’s nature? Christ has both natures, unmixed. God’s essence (what I equate with His nature) is shared in the Trinity but His energy is shared with all of creation and within our physical and spiritual being, as far as I understand it.

    How does His energy manifest in our hypostasis?

    For me there is no physical without the spiritual, nevertheless, common use of the English language almost forces me into this language box.

    I’ve read the sources on this topic but still need to hear it to help my grounding in my understanding. My experience of this reality is one thing, expressing it is another.

  55. I apologize, Father, one last set of questions.

    After His resurrection, Christ appears to the disciples and to a larger crowd. At times He is quickly recognized, but not so much by His appearance, by His actions and by His voice. These stories relate to the descriptions of God’s energies, revealing God by movement and tone felt almost as vibrations within the heart. (–please forgive my poetic license)

    His confounding appearances is what stikes me with questions. Undoubtedly He looked different, not just a surprise that He wasn’t dead. He ate fish and honey to corroborate His physical reality (again my interpretation).

    I’m taking these revelations as an indication that while our physicality is a necessary part of our hypostasis, that it’s form is ever changing in this life and is yet to be something that we are capable of understanding, (and may only come to understand in the Resurrection ).

    Are these thoughts far from an Orthodox understanding, Father?

  56. Clarifying: I mean to say that after His Resurrection, Christ seemed to be recognized by His actions and voice, rather than by His appearance.

  57. Dee,
    I try to tackle both of your comments. Our “nature” is never something that can be seen by itself. It is “what” we are (all of our “whatness”) but we can only ever see “what” we are in the context of a “who.” The “who-ness” is our person (hypostasis). As to energies (as in the Divine Energies), it is helpful to translate the word as “doings”. In our era of modern physics we tend to imagine energies as rays, or light, etc. There is the appearance of the Divine Energies as the Uncreated Light. But the primary aspect of the Divine Energies are God’s actions (doings). God’s doings and His being are one. He is what He does and what He does reveals Him. His love, His care for us, all the things that are His Divine Providence, these are His “energies.”

    As to human beings…we have “doings” as well. But i think they differ somewhat in character from the Divine Energies. We are not always “what we do.”

    Our physicality is an aspect of our nature – human beings are physical creatures. The resurrected body is quite interesting. St. Paul calls it a “spiritual body” (pneumatikos soma). Normally those two words, “spiritual” and “physical body” would be contradictory. But the contradiction exists as a new mode of physical/spiritual existence. I like to think of it as being a perfect revelation of the person. I note that people don’t recognize Jesus until something “personal” reveals Him, such as speaking your name. Then, He can be rightly seen. There is no “objectifying” the resurrected body. He is only properly seen in the fullness of personal sight.

  58. Thank you Father. Your response was very helpful. Indeed I can easily slip into a modernist interpretation of God’s energies. It seems I need to keep hearing the Orthodox explanation.

    Thank you for your ministry!

  59. >As to human beings…we have “doings” as well. But i think they differ somewhat in character from the Divine Energies. We are not always “what we do.”

    Father, are His “doings” a reflection of God’s holiness? And ours reflect a failure to be holy, an incompletion?

  60. Piggy-back on Byron’s question, about the relationship with God’s energy: I keep thinking of God’s doings in us physically, soul and body, as part of his image in us. (Not only in appearance) And our likeness, indicative of whether we have aligned our doings with His. And in the latter work, the Holy Spirit works and abides in us and helps us with the battle in obedience to God, which is the process of the formation of the likeness of God. I associate the likeness that is being formed in this life is physical and spiritual, with the God-abiding soul embodied, with all that might mean.

    Does this conceptualization follow with what you are saying in your last comment to me and what you might say to Byron?

    Also, I suppose I can’t help think of God’s “doings” going down to the subatomic particle level and further, into space (that which we used to call ‘nothing’–a vacuum) and including (but not limited to) what physicists call energy as well (“present in all places and filling all things”). –Does that conceptualization of God’s doings follow appropriately the Orthodox Way?

    I attempt to understand God’s uncreated doings’ interactions with creation and how creation in turn interacts with God’s doings. I believe the usage you have used in the past has helped. And I think there are a couple of terms. One was the word, ‘coinherence’. And you have also used Providence, which is helpful.

    But I have some difficulties with my understandings and I’m trying to sort out where the difficulties lie. My impression/associations that I have with these terms seem to invoke a kind of conceptualization of God’s doings as something more static than what I think God’s doings actually are. Perhaps because they are not so visible to us until we have lived long enough to reflect back and see God’s doings?

    If the last statement is true, is there no other in-the-moment sensational awareness of God’s presence? And when we say God’s presence, are we actually saying His doings?

    It seems that I wish to say yes, that this (awareness of his Presence) is an experience of His doings, even in addition to the “Uncreated Light”. I hope that I don’t kid myself in believing that I encounter His presence. I have assumed this is the experience of His Energies, or Doings. But like I said, I don’t want to kid myself.

    Are such in-the-moment physical/spiritual sensations of awareness of God’s Energies/doings possible in principle? It seems that the prayer of Saint Patrick indicates this as a possibility to me. But again I hope for your thoughts.

    I think also these questions are related to Jeff’s question in a previous post about how we might help ourselves to become more conscience of (I’ll translate sensitive to) “thin” places.

    In this article you write about singing God’s song, and I can’t help but associate the physical experience with the soul experience of God’s Uncreated Presence (Holy Spirit and His Doings) in us.

    I’ll stop asking questions after this. I might be drilling down without fruitfulness–an action otherwise known as “splitting hairs”. : )

  61. I’m thinking about the place of singing in personal prayer.
    Until recently, my prayers and Scripture readings were done with thoughts. In silence.
    I started speaking my prayers after I learned that the ancients always read aloud.
    And more recently, I have been chanting the prayers and the readings. (I confess, it was partly to join prayer time with voice practice.) I enjoy chanting them.
    Hebrews 13:15: “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”
    It’s more work to speak or to chant than it is to think prayers. As an occupational therapist, I analyze tasks. And as I tell my patients, “We’re not lazy. We’re efficient.
    So part of the sacrifice of praise is the work of speaking or chanting.
    Monks in the desert report that the ringing of the bells calls the angels and drives away demons (From the Holy Mountain, by William Dalrymple)
    What are the effects of the human voice in prayer?

  62. Byron,
    Formally, the Church teaches that God can only be known through the Divine Energies (“doings”) rather than His Essence. It also teaches that His energies and His essence are one. Thus, God’s energies are not a “reflection” – they are God in His energies. God’s holiness is an energy. His goodness, His kindness, His mercy, His care, His sustenance, etc., and everything He is doing that is His providence.

    Human beings are also essence/energies. I suppose our energies reveal us as well. Though exactly how the fall and the energies are to be thought of is something that I’ve not attended to very much. So, I left it a bit “gray.”

  63. Dee,
    All of your thinking strikes me as Orthodox in this. The reminder that God’s energies and His essence are one, is helpful. I experience God’s essence and, in some manner, I suppose, I experience His essence but only in an un-named and un-nameable manner because it is beyond knowing. But that which is Unknowable is also fully present in that which is Knowable. But, our experience of God’s providence, in this understanding, must be seen as an experience of God Himself – for He is His energies as well as His essence. He is truly everywhere present and filling all things, at all levels. The mere existence of anything is a participation in His providence and makes Him known, etc.

  64. Lynne,
    It is of note that God is not described as “thinking” the world into existence. He spoke it. I think it is possible to see the voice and thought incarnate, and, thus, making the meditation of our hearts into the words of our lips “incarnates” them, so to speak. The sounds of the voice turn prayer into part of the physical creation, giving it a “presence” that joins all the rest of creation.

    “Say the word, only, and I shall be healed.” When God speaks, what He speaks happens. Every created thing exists because it was/is spoken into existence. We walk on the words of God, eat them, breathe them, etc.

  65. Father your comment about God’s energies and His essence are one is very helpful indeed!

    A very good lesson, thank you!! (another lesson I’ll need to print up!)

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