Glory to God for All Things

The Song of God

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.

27 Responses to “The Song of God”

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  1. Julia Cutler says:

    my husband and I really enjoy reading your blog. we are currently exploring Orthodox Christianity and your blog has been a blessing to us! God Bless

  2. Well put father. A subject dear to my heart!

  3. Drewster2000 says:

    Good words, Father.

    I’m reminded of Aslan singing the world into being in “The Magician’s Nephew”. And I think a lot of this disappearance of musical ability among the people comes from the fact that a person is required to express themselves when they perform music. They must not only reveal something that is in their hearts; they also by default perform the act of creation.

    The evil one is hostile to the act of creation – an ability we have because we were made in His image – and showing what’s in your heart is a vulnerable thing to do. Music (and other acts of creation) is most present where people feel safe.

    Such a catch-22. If a person is willing to venture out and make music, it will make the world a lighter, warmer place that will encourage others to join in. But it takes courage since when you first stand and start to play or sing, you often do it alone. Blessed are those who have a group to create in.

  4. reedettes says:

    I am reading Song of Solomon… “the song” that is of His pursuit of us and our “song’ response back to Him. Beautiful. This post is right in line with some of my conclusions in this past week.

  5. mic says:

    i rock the air guitar! :D

    Good post, Fr!

    peace
    mic-

  6. Ed Smith says:

    I really liked this post. Perhaps it has to do with you quoting my patron saint at the beginning and reminding me of the works of both Tolkien and Lewis in which they both describe a world being sung into existence.

  7. Rd Andrew says:

    This post spoke to me of a great protestant hymn by Robert Lowry that was published in 1869. The title of the song is “How Can I Keep From Singing”. The lyrics say it all:
    “My life flows on in endless song;
    Above earth’s lamentation,
    I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
    That hails a new creation;
    Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
    I hear the music ringing;
    It finds an echo in my soul–
    How can I keep from singing?
    What tho’ my joys and comforts die?
    The Lord my Saviour liveth;
    What tho’ the darkness gather round?
    Songs in the night he giveth.
    No storm can shake my inmost calm
    While to that refuge clinging;
    Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
    How can I keep from singing?
    I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
    I see the blue above it;
    And day by day this pathway smooths,
    Since first I learned to love it;
    The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
    A fountain ever springing;
    All things are mine since I am his–
    How can I keep from singing?”

    Forgive me if this was inappropriate.

  8. Andrew,
    Not inappropriate at all. I thought of quoting that hymn myself. It is a favorite.

  9. Byron says:

    I was also reminded of Aslan. What a beautiful post! And as an amateur musician (well, ok, guitar player), I can vouch that something is going on within the primordial power of music.

    I heard once that in heaven there are only two kinds of sound: music and silence. Does anyone know where this might be from?

  10. Mrs. Mutton says:

    Byron – that was C.S. Lewis, who described heaven as a place “where all that is not music, is silence.”

    Fr. Stephen – I have sung for as long as I can remember, and in church choirs for nearly 50 years. If you don’t mind, I would like to quote this post on my own blog, Singing in a Strange Land. Fully attributed, of course!

  11. jamieahughes says:

    I, too, am a musician, and I cannot imagine how people claim to worship without it. I am reminded of John Dryden’s poem (which was eventually set to music by G.F. Handel) “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.”

    “From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began”!!

    http://www.bartleby.com/101/399.html

  12. Peggy says:

    Maybe our next question should be, how do we communicate this to people for whom music is nothing more than entertainment?

    Something to think about, Father? Maybe your particular interest in this theme might lead you to some insights into that problem. Surely the way into the Orthodox Church is one of her greatest assets.

  13. Peggy says:

    I meant to type “Surely the music of the Orthodox Church is one of her greatest assets”.

  14. Michael Bauman says:

    When I first read Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” I was struck by his description of the birth of evil into exsitence coming from the evilly inclined singing out of harmony on purpose.

    Our sinfulness is a great disharmony. To relate it to the previous post on the ‘chief among sinners’–our disharmony allows for and perpetuates all other disharmony.

    What think you all?

  15. Juliana says:

    Rdr. Andrew,
    I too love this hymn. It is sung by the students of St. Innocent’s Academy in Kodiak, AK on an album with exactly that title. (How Can I Keep From Singing) They do a beautiful job of singing many old hyms, folk tunes and some creative bagpiping as well. Worth a listen for sure. Thanks for posting the lyrics. Fr., as always, thank you so much. I have two young men in my family who have played classical piano for many years now. They play primarily Bach and Chopin and I can tell you that music sings of creation and Glory to God for All Things.

  16. Juliana says:

    Here is another link to a yutube video I recently came across that is music for that deepest part. In Russian it is, “Lord have Mercy”.

  17. Rdr Andrew says:

    Juliana,
    I am very familiar with St. Innocent’s Academy as I live not to far away in Homer, Alaska. Some of the members of our parish have attended the Academy and our former priest, Fr Paul, was on the board there for some years. I have some of their recordings and enjoy them very much. If you are ever in Homer, please visit.

  18. Juliana says:

    Rdr. Andrew,
    So glad to hear it and thank you. We are not too far from the parish Fr. Paul has moved to and I know several families who attend that mission. Please know the welcome is extended to you and your family as well if you ever venture to the Lower 48, North of Seattle.

  19. Tap Estes says:

    “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.”

    I hate to be pedantic about a post that I broadly agree with, but these statements are almost certainly not true. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2000, 94% of schools surveyed had some form of music education (undoubtedly that number has been negatively impacted by the recession). Gallup found in 2003 that more than half of all US households have at least one member that plays an instrument. I do not have data on the historical trend, but music and musicianship appear to be quite healthy currently. Given that, as you point out, music has become a commodity and that access to instruments and training is cheaper and easier than ever I’d say there’s good reason to suspect a much higher percentage of the population plays an instrument than ever before.

    While I would agree that music has become distorted and that, more specifically, it has turned itself inside out by glorifying the singer rather than the song I would very much disagree that this is in someway new or a product of our culture. Rather, the basic failings of our humanity – the desire to glorify ourselves rather than God – our simply better enabled by current technology. Of course, that’s just one guy’s opinion.

    Pax Christi

  20. M.P.F. says:

    I’m a musician and I was lucky enough to have this post shared with me by my mother. I must say how much it resonated with me, in particular: “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue.” What a beautifully dynamic illustration.

    On the other hand, as a teacher, I can’t help but respond to a fellow reader’s accusation that Father Stephen’s statements regarding the state of music education are ‘almost certainly not true’. Statistical figures, although often poignant and digestible, can be misleading. Mere numbers can never come close to representing reality despite the fact that many lead us to believe that they do; something akin to engaging in numerical alchemy if you will.

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 94% of schools had ‘some form of’ music education, but what were they being taught? Who was teaching them? How often did they have class? How many children in the schools were receiving a musical education? All one needs to do is open a newspaper or speak to a music teacher to hear about music departments across the country that have been ravaged. Better yet, talk to the children themselves. Certainly a school may offer ‘some form’ of music education, but does the paltry 25 minutes a day every other week this could potentially imply deserve our praise? We must not take things at face value.

    Secondly, I agree that it is the entertainment which has become the commodity, not music, and society is becoming more and more intoxicated with cheap thrills and profane allurements offered by tycoons masquerading as ‘gods and goddesses’ of music. We have become addicted to aesthetic junk food, and much of the $30+ Billion dollars we throw at the music industry ends up lining the pockets of individuals who offer us fleeting delights that rot our brains and our hearts. How much of this pays for music lessons, or piano tunings? Violin strings and manuscript paper?

    I most certainly agree that we glorify the singer and not the song, and yes I agree that humanity has (and has always had) its faults. If one claims technology is accelerating the degradation of musical culture, does not the thought that ‘more people play instruments than ever before’ seem antithetical? If it doesn’t seem so, than why are symphony orchestras collapsing left and right? Why are sheet music stores and instrument shops shutting their doors? Why do we so rarely see instrument playing in our homes? Why is the band student the ‘nerd’ and the Lady Gaga the ‘hero’? Why do music teachers have two jobs, and record producers two vacation homes? My best guess is that much of this is due to the fact that technology has taught us to yield to that which comes quickly rather than that which comes with patience, much like faith.

    Music is a force fundamental of our existence; there has never been a culture anywhere at anytime that has not had music. It remains a potent gift that has the power to uplift the soul or degrade it. Likewise, there many beautiful things we as humans are capable, and which sharply contrast with the terrifyingly deplorable things we are also capable of. Music and the human spirit are driven by free will and unless we take the reigns and gain control of them for ourselves, we are inviting the alluring, domineering, and the unsavory to control them for us. Shut the TV off and sing a song, put down the Wii-mote and go play the guitar, turn off the iPhone and join a chorus. Music is the essence of humanity and therefore humanity’s essence is expressed in music. The soul and the music are the same; we are the song and the singer and all at once the music and the musician.

  21. MPF
    Thank you for your work on behalf of music and for all of us. Well said.

  22. Mrs. Mutton says:

    Public-school music “education” in southeastern NH, where I live, consists exclusively of rock ‘n’ roll, in many of its worst manifestations. And I know one now-retired music teacher, who taught in Upstate NY, who was told that his introduction of classical music into the curriculum was “elitist.” In my experience, real music education is consistently underfunded, while the sports programs get everything they ask for without question – then they schedule practices for Sunday morning, and you’re cut from the team if you’re not there. Church is not an excuse (“You can go on Saturday, or you don’t need to go”). Music education in the United States is in a sorry state, indeed.

  23. turtlemom3 says:

    Music is entirely out of our school systems here in GA. I could write a tirade about this, and I might!

    Fr. Stephen, I would like to quote this post in it’s entirety on my poor little blog that has few readers, but the ones it has I cherish. I will, of course, give attribution and a link here. I’ve found that simply giving a link doesn’t mean anyone will actually read what I have directed them toward. Most irritating, especially since I only post URLs that have great importance to me.

    I’m also going to refer some of my Anglican friends to this particular post of your blog – in hopes…
    Love in Christ
    Elizabeth

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