The Least of These My Brethren

“I was in this gospel choir in prison. They gave me a solo. But my time was up two weeks before the concert. I asked them if I could just stay in until the concert. They said no. I was so sad. It was just two weeks. I figured it would be no big deal, just two weeks. But they still said no.” 

A friend of mine said this to me recently. He said it earnestly and with deep regret. He would rather have stayed in prison than missed that performance. He was in several choirs in prison. He said the years he spent there were the most fulfilling and peaceful period of his entire life. He spent actual years in prison because he actually broke the law. And for him to have been driven to that extremity, means there was probably a lot wrong with his life. So it’s likely that there were many other reasons that the rigidity of prison life felt reassuring and peaceful to him. But I didn’t hear about those reasons. I heard about the choirs. Many times. 

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

We live in a VERY unusual time, in terms of the human experience. 

For millennia, even as civilized humans, we were hungry, and we were naked, and we were oppressed (or imprisoned). But for most modern societies those are no longer our major obstacles. Materially, modern societies are extremely wealthy. Even the poorest Americans are radically more privileged than any other humans at any other time in human history. Things we take for granted—clean water, sanitation, indoor climate control, basic medical care, basic human rights, a steady (even indulgent) food supply, refrigeration, agricultural and manufacturing machinery, comfortable and fast transportation, sufficient artificial lighting, even window screens and glass—all would be unimaginable luxuries to humans from any other age, even as recently as the nineteenth century. Of course, poverty and homelessness are still present and as terrible as they ever were, the changes in the practical lifestyle of the average westerner in the past two hundred years have been dramatically for the better. And that means that those historical problems of humanity aren’t, in a sense, our problems. 

So what actually are our problems?

Depression affects more than one in ten adults in the United States in any given year and is the primary reason why someone dies of suicide about every 13 minutes—over 41,000 people annually (two and a half times the number of annual homicide deaths).

Isolation is statistically as significant a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking. Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health in adulthood. If you’re isolated, you’re twice as likely to die prematurely than someone with an active social life.  

One in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 suffers Addiction to alcohol or drugs (that’s roughly equal to the entire population of Texas). Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990. For nearly all drug addicts, their addictions began before they were 18 years old. This is to say nothing of the more “benign” kinds of addictions, such as screen addiction, pornography, gambling, and countless others.

Anxiety disorders are the most common kinds of mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults—that’s nearly one out of every 5 Americans in any given year. Panic attacks, PTSD, phobias, social anxiety, and OCD are so common that most of us have someone in our lives who we know suffers from one (or several) of these disorders. 

Purposelessness—Power, pleasure, and pride are the assumed motivating forces behind all advertising and all political and economic movements.  Advertising and political discourse tend to get the most media airtime in western culture, and most of us are influenced pretty heavily by those messages. But they pit us against one another, leaving us isolated, suspicious, and dissatisfied. 

So what can we Christians possibly do to minister to these afflictions?

It’s interesting that so much of Orthodox Christian worship involves singing. We have to sing in church in order to do our services. But, as is so often true of God’s commandments, it’s not an arbitrary order that we are expected to obey for the sake of obedience. Obeying the commandment serves to actually HEAL us. Music making—and singing in particular—is actually physically, mentally and socially healing

The scientific data supporting the powerful physical therapeutic effectiveness of music is compelling. Music stimulates parts of the brain responsible for memory. 1 Music can reduce blood pressure and slow heart rate. 2 Singers’ heartbeats physically align as they sing together. 3 Music can calm the parts of the brain that manage anxiety and stress, and significantly lower anxiety levels. 4 Music making is a highly effective treatment for depression, and is able to improve a patient’s condition without the nearly universal side effects experienced with medications. 5 Music triggers the brain to release dopamine (the same feel-good chemical that opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine stimulate the brain to produce). 6 

And as a psychological and social medicine, music turns out to be a powerhouse as well. Singing triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain, the hormone associated with intimate bonding and affection, and creates a powerful sense of intimacy between musicians. 1 Musicians often (and often easily) experience flow state, and ensemble music making triggers a social flow state in which many people can share the same ecstatic flow experience, and a subsequently deep connection. 2 Ensemble music making requires a level of cooperation that serves to build social bonds and trust, characteristics essential to a stable society.  3 Listening to music increases empathy and strengthens the social skill of imagining what someone else is thinking. 4 Even just listening to music together—let alone making music together—increases social cohesion in families and peer groups. 5  

(Check out the faces of the players and the crowd as they sing the Brazilian national anthem at the 2014 World Cup!)

So, as it turns out, the humble, unassuming art of singing might just be one of the most powerful forces at our disposal to treat our modern social and psychological pandemics.

Singing can strengthen, inspire, and give meaning to people in even the darkest of circumstances. (Just consider how my friend wanted to stay in prison, of all places, so that he could sing in a choir.) It can actually heal the body at the same time as it heals the soul. I have to admit that I chose a career in music because I need this medicine as often as I can get it. And all of us suffer, to some degree, from these modern afflictions, even if we’re not carrying the cross of a chronic diagnosis. I think we all need this medicine.  

What if we started offering to the world our singing, our music—the actual medium of our worship— as a carefully crafted medicine for the ills that millions and millions are suffering? What if we realized that God made us able to be addicted not by some cosmic mistake, but so that we would want to come back again and again to this medicine, to this beauty?  What heights of joy might we create for the world—and for ourselves, who need it, too—if we determined to make our music as good as it could be, to learn as much as we could, to improve as much as possible, and to keep doing it, to the Glory of God and to comfort His people—all people? And what if everyone began to know that the Orthodox Church was a source for this healing, and that beyond it lies an even greater healing? What then? 

But how? (Coming soon…)

 

Talia Maria Sheehan

About Talia Maria Sheehan

Talia Maria Sheehan has been a professional vocalist and music instructor for over twenty years. Her musical background and performance experience is broad, including rock lead vocals, jazz and classical piano, operatic soprano, and folk and classical ensemble singing. She recieved her musical education at Westminster Choir College, where she sang in the Westminster Choir under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, and appeared with them on many of the great American stages. As a professional ensemble singer she has appeared with Cappella Romana, the Saint Tikhon Choir, and the Grammy-nominated PaTRAM Institute Singers, among others. She lives at St. Tikhon’s Monastery and Seminary with her husband, composer and conductor, Benedict Sheehan, and their seven daughters. At St. Tikhon’s she teaches voice, music theory, liturgical music, and directs a children’s choir and a women’s choir. Her instruction synthesizes age-appropriate choral vocal technique, with an early music influence, and systematic Kodály-based music pedagogy.

4 comments:

  1. Makes a lot of sense — and isn’t it interesting that the more we have – the more we take for granted all of our benefits, the more depression there seems to be. Probably because God is not present in our lives. Thank you for this insightful essay. Marie Guidos-Maruskin

    1. Thank you! That is so very true! Gratitude is so important. I used to feel a powerful nostalgia for “traditional lifestyles” that I imagined were so much more fulfilling. But realizing that those times were SERIOUSLY DIFFICULT has really helped me. And gratitude has been the result. THANK GOD we are alive NOW, right?!

  2. Wonderful article- thank you.
    It is interesting though, that in most Orthodox Churches we’ve relegated the participation of singing (responses) to formal choirs and out of the reach of the faithful parishioners. If you ever get a chance to attend services at Antiochian Village Camp, you’ll experience a model that should be followed- all the responses & hymns are learned and heartily sung by the youth in all of the services.

  3. Being a Russian Catholic myself, and a tenor in a very small choir (four voices) at my little church, I can confirm every thing that the author has written here. I would go even further, though: the singing of the Divine Liturgy is an even more immersive and profound experience than that of Western Christian liturgies. In the Latin West, at its best, there is an Ordinary of five pieces, and propers of perhaps six or seven other hymns. Whereas in the East, the shape of that Liturgy comprises up to forty hymns. I have sung in both Eastern and Western church choirs. While each have their merits, I must say that my personal experience is far deeper and more profound when I have sung in Eastern choirs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *