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.