Getting Past Religion

My wife inherited a habit. It was her father’s not uncommon practice to sing his way through the day, especially the morning. A devout man, his songs were his favorite hymns. My wife’s habit is similar, only as an Orthodox Christian, her repertoir has grown to include the traditional hymns of Orthodoxy. It is not an entirely conscious practice (I think) – though her heart is clearly engaged in what she is doing. It is a spontaneous outpouring of praise.

I am a sinful man, sometimes grumpy in the morning, and foolish enough to have said, “Stop!” Such outbursts reveal the darkness that continues to abide in my heart.

I knew an elderly monk, himself a convert to the Orthodox faith. In his later years, he lapsed into one of the many forms of senile dementia. To the occasional dismay of the other monks, he enjoyed walking through the monastery and singing the Protestant hymns of his childhood (loudly). It made me think of my father-in-law. It also likely revealed the thoughts of many around him.

There are a number of human activities that reveal depths transcending rational necessity while at the same time revealing the deep truths of Christian theology. Singing is certainly among them. The hunger for beauty is another. Forgiveness and sorrow, sadness and joy are all part of this often unspoken theology.

It is not that such topics or phenomenon are ignored by those who engage in formal theology – rather it is their relegation to a subsidiary status which renders much theological activity arid and uninteresting. I have heard some say, “I’m not interested in religion.” I am tempted to say, “Neither am I.” But it would be a rare thing to encounter someone who had no interest in music (of any kind) or cared nothing for beauty. Joy and sorrow are part of our common lot, though we may not think of them as “religious.”

The rationality and specialization of religious dialog have contributed greatly to the marginalization of religion within our culture. Secularism already prefers to separate God from the concerns of the world – the fascination of theological dialog with its own specialized issues makes this just that much easier. Either God lies at the very heart of the human experience (however we may have perverted it) or He rightly belongs to a place of secondary interest.

Paul Evdokimov observes:

The face of Christ is the human face of God. The Holy Spirit rests on him and reveals to us absolute Beauty, a divine-human Beauty, that no art can ever properly and fully make visible. Only the icon can suggest such Beauty by means of the taboric [Mt. Tabor, the site of Christ’s Transfiguration] light.

Beauty is no mere genetic attraction rooted in the math and pheromones of human sexuality. There is a beauty whose presence all but crushes the human soul. It is a depth that speaks at such a deep level – we have no words for its description. How do we describe a vision which is so great that a human being would give his life for it? The encounter of the face of God in the man Christ Jesus comes closer to describing the fundamental “religious” power of Christ. At its very heart, such an encounter cannot be described as “religious.” It belongs to no category of human life, for it has no rival once it has been perceived.

St. Paul speaks of the “face of Christ,” an odd expression if his only concern were the doctrinal trivialities to which many Christians have reduced him. Rather, he reserves this expression for the greatest description of Christian salvation:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor. 4:6  But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. 2 Cor. 3:18  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 1 Cor. 13:12.

There is a theology of beauty, which harkens back to the language of the Old Testament when Moses desires to see God “face to face.” Such a vision is not granted to Moses, but many other visions which foreshadowed the vision of St. Paul are indeed given to Moses-the-God-seer. This is not the language of abstract religious thought but the language of the whole of art and its inner desire. We long for beauty, regardless of how poorly we often define it. True beauty takes our breath away and confounds our ability to describe it.

Much the same can be said of music. “God has made man to be the singer of His radiance,” St. Gregory the Theologian has said (PG, 38, 1327). We sing and we love to sing because at its very heart, we are singers of the radiance of God. It is certainly true that we sing many things that resemble in no way the radiance of God – and yet the drive towards song has its roots in God’s radiance. Perhaps the most essential writing in all of Scripture is the book of Psalms. At best, we moderns read it like poetry, though it was always meant to be sung.

God, rendered as prose, is perhaps the deepest misrepresentation of all.

This itself is the problem found in many modern expressions of Christianity – they are prosaic. This is not to say that they are without music – though they are often without good music (let the arguments begin…). Liturgical expression (particularly of the ever-changing make-it-up-as-you-go-variety) fails to rise to the level of mystery. Sacraments, even where underpinned with relatively sound doctrine, still collapse into the prosaic life of modernity. In very few cases would emissaries from a strange land return from modern Christian worship and declare, “We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven. But of a truth we know that God is with them” (the report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople in the 10th century).

Far more to the point is the prosaic character of Christian lives. Beauty and poetic wonder are not only missing in our relationship with God – they are missing from our lives. My experience is that Byzantine worship is no guarantee of beauty within its participants. However, it does not underwrite the banality of modern culture.

Several years back I was speaking with a small Russian choir, touring the United States from St. Petersburg. They were all Church singers, but also singers from various opera companies in St. Petersburg as well. Needless to say they were an exceedingly talented group. One of the hymns they had sung that night was a particularly difficult and moving piece by the Russian composer, Chesnokov. In the course of the conversation I noted the great beauty with which it was written and with which it had been sung that night. One of the choral members told that that it required careful spiritual preparation (“that all needed to be without anger and at peace with one another”) before this hymn could be properly sung.

Of course, this is not only true of the exquisite music of Chesnokov or other stellar writers – it is also true of a small four-member choir offering the most simple tunes of Obikhod chant on a Sunday morning. Four average voices will never sound like the trained voices of the Russian opera – but they can find beauty – first within and then as an offering of song. In that offering, other lives are transformed and lifted to realm of beauty that is Christ among us.

I do not wish to be foolish or dishonest: beauty, transcendant beauty is and transforming beauty is not the peculiar property of Orthodox Christianity. God is indeed everywhere present and filling all things. And he desires that all participate in His life (which is also a participation in Beauty). I do not offer this as an observation of ecumenism – merely as a resurrection that God is free and “does whatsover He pleases.”

I do, however, offer this in order to encourage Christians to consider such things as Beauty and music – and many other aspects of our lives when considering devotion to God and the presentation of the Gospel. The world in which we live (much of it, anyway) is hungry less for a careful presentation of the Christian doctrine of the atonement than for an encounter with the true and living God. Of course, such careful presentations are not foreign to God, but they rarely manage to rise above the level of religious rhetoric. The desire for beauty is far more than mere aesthetics. Mother Theresa once said that she wanted to do “something beautiful for Jesus.” She did not fail.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



17 responses to “Getting Past Religion”

  1. Steven Clark Avatar

    There is a passage in the Talmud which goes something like this: Thus says the Lord, “Are my statutes so ugly that they cannot be sung?”

  2. sermonwriter Avatar

    Thank you Fr Stephen. Your posts are quickly becoming my favorites. They are deep and uniquely able to unite my heart and mind. That’s quite a gift you have.

  3. Sabrina M Messenger Avatar

    Excellent blog entry. My story re: singing and church? I’ve sung my entire life in and out of various churches. For years it was my dream to become famous as a singer/songwriter/musician. In the past two years, however, I’ve finally had to face the reality that I will never have a career as a singer…and that perhaps as I approach 50, it’s time to let go of that specific dream because it had become an obsession. Not to go into detail, but there were several things happening that I believe were God’s way of telling me he had a different plan for me. Anyway, during that time, I was drawn to Orthodoxy and through attending Liturgy and listening to Ancient Faith Radio, I have become introduced to the various music used for praise. I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of Byzantine chants as well as the Russian chants I hear each Sunday at Divine Liturgy. It’s been really interesting the last year or so finding myself primarily listening to the songs rather than trying to sing along like I did by rote with so much of the Western Christian music,. I’m finding that taking that singing hiatus has been a good thing for my soul. My favorite part of this music/beauty experience? Hearing the Psalms chanted/sung at the hours and All Night Vigil. It’s has been such a revelation to me. I’m discovering things in the Psalms I had never noticed when they were merely read aloud in a monotone. Someday I may sing fully in church again, but for now I’m happy just to quietly be in the glory of the Liturgy as it were.

  4. Laura Avatar

    Thank you, Father! I would love to hear more on the theology of beauty.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    A number of Orthodox writers have good treatments of the topic – it’s inherent in the veneration of icons. Paul Evdokimov’s A Theology of Beauty is fairly thorough. For Roman Catholics, Hans Urs Van Balthasar has written much on the topic, but I’ve never read him.

    It is interesting even to do a simple word-study in the New Testament (on the word eikon in the Greek) or “face” or “countenance” and think about the meanings these verses have. There are many profound implications.

  6. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! Thank you for writing about Beauty and Song! I was raised with a singing mother as your wife was raised with a singing father. I do not sing as much as my mother did, but I do sing hymns around the house and I encourage my family too, also. There is no such thing as a “bad voice” in the home!

    Recently my husband asked our priest about my son (11 years old) beginning to chant. Our priest responded that chanting is not simply music or talented singing, it is a way to teach and it needs to be approached as a ministry. He does want to encourage and make a way for those who are interested in learning to chant, but he is going to look into the matter further and get back to us. I thought it was a beautiful response and it reminds me of what the Choir from St. Petersburg said about everyone needing to be without anger and at peace with one another. So true and such a blessing!

    One more comment concerning Beauty. When we came to worship in the Orthodox church 6 years ago the first service I attended was Pentecost and kneeling vespers were held immediately following Divine Liturgy. Such beauty in both services!!! I was so joy-filled! Also the church fathers often write so beautifully about worship, about God’s love for us, it is such a blessing!!! Glor to God for All Things!

  7. Lina Avatar

    When I read the title of this latest teaching, I immediately thought of a book I read probably 30 years ago, “How to lose your religion and become a Christian.” based if I remember correctly on the gospel of Luke.

    While doing a quick search of my books I came across one called
    “How to be a Christian without being Religious” based on Romans.
    I suppose it all boils down to what makes Christianity different from all the other “religions” of the world and what makes Christians different from the adherents of other religions.

  8. The Pilgrim Avatar

    Father Bless!
    Thank you Father for articulating for me something that I have felt but have heretofore not put into words.
    I am a landscape photographer, and you have helped me to see why my best work has been done on my most peaceful days, and why I love capturing the early morning light of the new day, when the world looks new.
    I love your blog and your insights, and I have enjoyed worshipping with your congregation.

  9. Barbara GOlder Avatar
    Barbara GOlder

    One reason why this Roman Catholic has a great collection of Orthodox chants (and other music) on her iPad to get her through the day. One day, in the middle of work, a particular fiddle piece came on and I was immediately seized with an image of waltzing effortlessly with a talented partner–my best metaphor for how the religious life is supposed to work. Suffused by music, dancing in rhythm with the tune with Christ leading….

  10. Visibilium Avatar

    Maybe the marginalization of religion stems from religion’s marginalization of music and beauty (and icons). Determining what is beautiful implicitly entails excluding ugliness. Who wants to make such a judgment anymore?

    Let me put it another way. Do you think that our culture’s religions are any less banal than other aspects of the culture?

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that in general, most religions within our culture simply reflect our culture, including its banality. It is a great struggle in the modern world to exist on a level that rises about banality. I sometimes think that those who are suffering mental illness, addictions, etc., are far less banal than most people around them, simply because they have to be. Someone who has to monitor their blood sugar (to use a different example) may live much closer to the “edge” of life, and therefore live more fully. Obviously this is no universal experience or example. But the comfort-level of our culture is able to sustain banality on a level unknown before our times.

  12. unworthyjohn Avatar

    Forgive me Father. St Theopan the recluse in writting to hos spiritual daughter said something to the fact that she should not sing songs of the “times” but rather the songs of the church. And St Tikhon in his amazement of America wrote: In this country (America) you don”t even have to sing of the Czar. Sing the songs of the church openly.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    St. Theophan may have had specific reasons for his instruction to his spiritual daughter. He may have been wrong. It might be wrong to generalize from a specific case. But there is nothing within the proper teaching of the Church that would suggest that people not sing songs of the times (or non-religious songs). There are songs that should not be sung because of their content (immorality, etc.). But it would be an extreme position to tell someone that it is not good to sing songs of the “times.” Saints say many things, usually with great wisdom. But sometimes saints are wrong. Canonization is not the same thing as declaring someone to have been infallible. Russia has always abounded with folk songs, as has Greece and all Orthodox countries. These traditions have never been condemned by the Church.

  14. easton Avatar

    father stephen, there has been a recent study concerning the music of today, comparing it to the 60’s(not that long ago). it found that we have gone from love, love, love, to profanity and immorality–and our young people don’t realize it because they have grown up in it…

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    John, et al,
    I do not mean to speak harshly or lightly, or to disparage a great saint. There is indeed much in our culture that must be avoided. But there remain some things that are harmless and normal. It is difficult because with regard to music our culture has moved away from musics normal role and made it very sexual, etc. which is true of so much in our culture. Since we are built on “impulse buying” and consumerism – things best powered by the passions – it’s little wonder that the puppeteers of our economic system would resort most often to the sexual passions to meet their goals (money). But in a traditional Orthodox society, people sing for many things. They sing when they work, when they cook, when they clean, when they do almost anything. It’s quite human and healthy. We also sing when we worship. Orthodoxy seeks to save the whole person and return them to right relationship with God. The whole person will sing. I have great respect for St. Theophan, precisely because he tends to be balanced. I am sure his advice to the young woman, was to turn her attention away from worldly things and towards God. But it was also likely that her life was already too occupied with the idleness of luxury. I suspect he would have said something very different to the peasant working in the field.

  16. […] My wife inherited a habit. It was her father's not uncommon practice to sing his way through the day, especially the morning. A devout man, his songs were his favorite hymns. My wife's habit is similar, only as an Orthodox Christian, her repertoir has grown to include the traditional hymns of Orthodoxy. It is not an entirely conscious practice (I think) – though her heart is clearly engaged in what she is doing. It is a spontaneous outpouring of … Read More […]

  17. […] to this is the idea of what religion is and what it is not. In the words of  Father Stephen ’s Paul Evdokimov The face of Christ is the human face of God. The Holy Spirit rests on him and reveals to us […]

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