Advice On Psalmody

In the middle of Homily 54 of St. Isaac’s Ascetical Homilies, he begins a set of paragraphs with the question, “Do you wish to take delight in the psalmody of your liturgy and to understand the oracles of the Spirit which you recite?”  In the following three paragraphs, St. Isaac gives specific advice on how to do this, how to take delight in psalmody.

He begins by saying that one should disregard both the quantity of verses and the beauty or skill with which one recites them.  According to St. Isaac, delight in psalmody has nothing to do with how beautiful the reading sounds nor with the amount of verses one recites.

It seems to me that such advice might not be received very well in many Orthodox Churches today.  It seems to me that many Orthodox Churches place a great deal of emphasis on the beauty of the chanting and on fully chanting a certain number of verses—even if you have to repeat several of the verses to achieve the full complement (of, for example, the ten verses for the Lord I have Called).  But Saint Isaac tells us that if you wish to delight in psalmody and understand the oracles of the Spirit which you recite, then you are to “disregard completely the quantity of verses and set at naught your skill in giving rhythm to the verses.”

The term ‘psalmody’ refers not only to the reciting of psalms, although it certainly includes that.  Psalmody also refers to all of the poetic verses one may chant, verses composed by the Church throughout the ages and assigned to be canted in honour of certain saints or feasts.  All of this can be referred to as psalmody.  Unfortunately, according to St. Isaac, psalmody can become a “slavish activity” in which there is confusion and turmoil (of the mind) which does not bring peace and is not appropriate for “the freedom of the children [of God].”  In fact, he goes on to compare this kind of chanting, chanting that regards quantity of versus and quality of sound, with a leech that “sucks out the life of the bodies of other creatures together with the blood of their limbs.”   And the confusion that results from this inappropriate focus in psalmody St. Isaac likens to “the chariot of the devil.”

It has been said by more than one holy person that when the devil comes to Church, he stands at the chanter’s stand.  Too much focus on the quality of chanting along with the inner turmoil caused by expectations to get it right—expectations of the priest, or the bishop, of the head chanter, and of our own misplaced stress on doing it right—all of these stresses often leave one oblivious to the meaning of the text, sap (as a leech) all of the joy out of chanting, and worst of all, if we think we are successful, become a “chariot of the devil, because Satan is ever wont to mount upon it as a charioteer, and bearing with him the throng of the passions, he invades the wretched soul and plunges her into the pit of confusion.”  St. Isaac has no problem calling it as he sees it.

So what is to be done?  What do you do if “you wish to take delight in the psalmody of your liturgy and to understand the oracle of the Spirit which you recite”?  Well, St. Isaac does not say that shorter is better or that ugly is good.  His point is that understanding and delight, spiritual delight, in psalmody comes not from the amount of verses—whether many or few.  Neither does the beauty or lack of beauty in the chanting add to or subtract from the delight or spiritual understanding one can derive from it.  On the contrary, focusing of these things can sap all of the Life out of the psalmody and leave you confused, despondent and passionate.  Rather, everything depends on discernment which in this context St. Isaac defines specifically.  He says that discernment in chanting is not to read the words as though they are the words of another, “lest you imagine that you are diligently increasing your work of meditation, while in fact you are left utterly devoid of the compunction and joy to be found in psalmody.”  Does that sound familiar?  You say the prayers, and you chant the hymns and yet there is no compunction in your heart, no joy in the work.  You’re just doing it because you’re supposed to, while all the time confusion and passionate thoughts swirl inside you.

And you don’t have to be a chanter to have this experience.  I am guilty of just saying the prayer.  I’m guilty of praying or reading holy things without compunction, without joy.  I’m guilty of counting my prayers, saying to myself even while the words of the prayer are parading by rote through my mind: “I’m almost done.”  I know very well the leech that’s gotten fat sucking the Life out of my times of prayer and reading.  I know the “throng of passions” that rush in as on a chariot while I’m trying to perform my rule: say the Jesus Prayer then read the Gospel then listen to the words of St. Isaac.  I succeed, occasionally.  I make myself do it.  And I am drained.  The Life has been sucked out of me.  There is neither joy nor compunction.

St. Isaac advises that when this is the case, that we do the following:  “Rather,” he says, “recite the words of psalmody as your very own, that you may utter the words of your supplication with insight and with discriminating compunction, like a man who truly understands his work.”

What is it then, this work that we do?  Is the work to chant the words beautifully?  Is that the work?  Is the work to get through it, to say all of the words, all of the verses, all of the prayers?  Is that the work?  No, that’s not the work.  The work of psalmody is the work of saying, of praying, the words as your own.

Whether I say the words of Prophet and King David or the words of St. Joseph the Hymnographer or the words of some unknown monk from some unknown monastery, when I say the words, the work that brings joy and understanding is the work of making them my own words.  Certainly, beauty has a place—but a relatively small one according to St. Isaac.  Certainly, there are many verses to be chanted—but more is seldom better.  What is better?  What drives away the despondency and stirs that blessed and mysterious mixture of compunction and joy?  It’s owning it, owning the words, making the words of the hymns and of the verses your own. That’s the work of psalmody.  That’s the work that brings delight.

4 comments:

  1. Easier said than done. When I was singing in the choir, some of the songs had no effect on me at all, even though the people would tell us the music was beautiful. Other songs where I really felt these words were written for me, I’m saying these words and believing them, effected me deeply. A simple song like “Jesus, I believe….” made me cry every time I sang it. Love, Aunt Marlene

  2. Before I became Orthodox I sometimes felt guilty for spending so much time reading Psalms and not as much in reading other parts of Scripture. Now I see the Church giving hearty consent to this practice.

    Just this week I came across this quote by St. Basil the Great:

    “…the teaching of the Prophets is one thing, and that of the Historical books is another. And, again, the Law has one meaning, and the advice we read in the Book of Proverbs has a different one. But the Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behavior to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cases.”

  3. I do have a question about personalizing Psalms. I have found it to be very uplifting to read Psalms and other Scriptures by inserting my name or the name of someone I am praying for. But is that something that the Church condones and practices? Do you know of any Church fathers who have advocated this practice?

    1. Dear Kurt
      The Church discourages such things. It is often a delusion based on our own fears, passions and limited perspective that makes us think we know who an “evil one” or an “enemy” is. It is better just to read the psalm prayerfully knowing that God knows who our real enemies are, who the poor man really is and how the words of the psalms should be applied. Of course we may have opinions, but humility requires that we not dwell on them, but entrust ourselves to God who knows everything. Often it is the case that I am both the evil man in one situation or area of my heart and the poor and needy one in another situation or area of my heart. By not naming others, I remain open to what God wants me to see about myself. Yet this does not hinder God’s ability to save me from those who oppress me–whether they be people, spirits, situations or my own foolish passions.

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