Singing the Lord’s Song

choirIn my first parish as an Anglican priest, I approached my first Midnight Mass with eager anticipation. I was trained “High Church,” with a very traditional liturgical emphasis – but I was serving in a “Low Church” parish. I was the first priest in their history to wear Eucharistic vestments as a normal practice. But it was common, even in Low Church areas, for the Midnight Mass to be “High.” Thus, I worked with the choir and we had our first “sung” mass – one in which the priest chants many of its parts. It was well-received, without controversy. But one teenager’s comment was enlightening and spoke volumes.

“It was spooky!” She said. I quickly ascertained that she meant “frightening” rather than some new meaning of the word rendered in youth-speak. I was puzzled until, after more conversation, I realized that she associated chanting with magic and witches and spells. It was not a response driven by any ideology or doctrine – it was a true cultural artifact. How did chanting come to have such a perception in the modern world?

At a certain point in Western Civilization, words came to triumph over all other forms of cultural and intellectual expression. Some of this is the natural place of words. The Western Catholic tradition developed a “low mass” tradition fairly early on – a Divine Liturgy that was spoken rather than sung, though the “high mass” continued to be normative. The Protestant Reformation did little to change music (other than to discontinue any use of chanting) but did much to elevate the spoken word even over the sacraments and the Cross. The practice of chanting made its continued decline towards dark associations and ridicule.

Music has traditionally had a somewhat suspect place within Christianity (even in the East). A number of the fathers, following the Desert tradition, were wary of the power of music and its ability to arouse the passions in a negative manner. They by no means championed the spoken word over chanted prayer (chanted prayers were considered normative), but were concerned about melody and harmony and the use of musical instruments. Christianity was non-instrumental for many centuries, and remains so in Orthodox tradition (with very rare exceptions). But despite some reservations, music came to have a dogmatic and canonical place within Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is sung.

Hymns were part of the faith from the very beginning. There are hymns embedded within the New Testament itself (Philippians 2:5-11 is among the most famous). St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:

…speak within yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (Eph 5:19-20)

Our modern assumptions immediately leap to the text of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. For it is the words we value and not the music. We fail to see the value in singing.

Music is more than a vehicle for words. There are things that can be done with music that cannot be done with speech. The Church teaches that the purpose of our life with God is union. Our experience of speech is always isolating – only one can speak at a time. But in music, a song frequently contains many voices. And many voices can become one voice without ceasing to be many. The experience of harmony and its relationship to communion is probably more apt as a descriptor than anything else we know. The very common use of a drone note within Orthodox hymnody acts as a musical expression and experience of communion that spoken words simply cannot attain.

Music offers far more possible ways for considering the nature of being than most other images. The soul is the song of the self (my phrase). The universe, existing as vibration and energy-in-motion is itself best described as a song. It’s musical nature even goes far to explain the mathematical character of reality (music is what numbers sound like).

Ancient Greek philosophy gave careful thought to music. Pythagoras was famous as mathematician, as musician and as mystic, all of which were combined as a “philosophy.” Plato imagined in his Republic an educational system that required musical training “for the sake of the soul.” It is in such a culture that the Fathers lived and taught. We should presuppose such thought whenever we read their writings.

St. Augustine, in a work largely ignored today, wrote a treatise on music, De Musica, in the early years of his conversion. It is as much a classical treatment of pure music theory as any ancient example. Such an interest would have seemed perfectly natural to him within the context of his theology. Music was an indispensable part of all philosophical consideration.

If the “soul is a song,” then how we sing and what we sing is deeply important. The reticence of the early fathers regarding the music of their own culture is probably far more apropos today. Music can be violent (sit next to a sub-woofer at a stoplight). Music can and does rouse any and all of the passions. Consumer culture is driven by advertising, which makes use of its ability to manipulate us according to our passions. Music, some as inane as a mind-numbing jingle, is deeply part of that process. It is interesting to note that the heretic Arius drove the popularity of his false doctrine through the writing of “catchy” little songs. Much of contemporary Christian music is driven by the same passionate understanding that reigns in consumer culture. The sentiments created by music are made to substitute for the true sound of the soul. Such music becomes a distortion of our very humanity.

But music is also a primary path to union with God. The spiritual life can rightly be described as a search for the “Lord’s song,” that music which is uniquely the song of our life intended to be offered in union with God’s song of creation. It is interesting to me that one of the properties of sound is that is causes objects to vibrate that belong to its frequency. Such “sympathetic vibrations” are a metaphor for aspects of the spiritual life that have no other natural example.

“Deep calls unto deep,” the Psalmist says (42:7). The sound of God echoes within us, because we are made in His image. The frequency of the voice of God calls forth a sympathetic sound within us. The Church teaches that bells are “icons of the voice of God.”

The latest work in my blog has united itself with the ministry of Ancient Faith. This umbrella of ministries includes other blogs, podcasts and recorded lectures, the book publishing work of Ancient Faith Publishing, and, most especially, Ancient Faith Radio. There can be no true exploration of Orthodoxy or presentation of the faith that ignores music. It is good to read, but it may be even better to listen. And it may be better still to sing. That, of course, happens most wonderfully primarily in the assembly of the Church. There the deep voice of God calls us to lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving and to join with the sound of all creation.

Glory to God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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23 responses to “Singing the Lord’s Song”

  1. Joel J. Miller Avatar

    Thank you for this wonderful article. The chanting was puzzling and overwhelming to me the first Orthodox service I attended (Nativity, 2008). Now I find it to be among the most essential, worshipful, and beautiful things I know. It orients me immediately to worship. I can hardly imagine Liturgy without it. I suppose it would be like the small Matins services we would do at my Anglican parish–adequate, but lacking. The strain of melody lifts the heart in a way thoroughly unique to itself.

  2. Timothy Kyril Avatar
    Timothy Kyril

    My parish does all its hymns in Greek. Though i don’t really speak any Greek, even singing those sounds to God has always felt like worship. Your message helps clarify that.

  3. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    This reflection is very timely, as I have been playing over and over a rousing rendition of “Arise, O God” as I work. There is an energy and a depth in both the music and the words that I find to be profoundly moving. And it is the music on AFR (which initially sounded so odd and–dare I say–“unchristian”) which has had a great deal of staying power in drawing my interest to Orthodoxy.

    No small part in my dissatisfaction with my local streams of Evangelicalism is the trend away from the rich 4-part harmony of the “traditional” hymns. Those hymns, whatever their merits or defects otherwise, had the ability to draw the entire congregation into a common experience and movement of worship. Voices of widely varying range and ability could unite in a common work. How different are the “top 40 on the Christian radio station last year” selections which leave us struggling to master their rhythm and range. All of which is compounded by the use of PowerPoint to present the words only. No music available (or at best, only the melody). Pity the visitor who is unfamiliar with the song or any joyful soul who wishes to join in harmony!

    That said, I have been disappointed when I have visited the local Orthodox church and have observed only a small fraction of the congregation joining in the singing with the choir. Is there a cultural or historical reason for this? Sometimes I feel quite self-conscious singing along. I want to shout, “You people have a rich treasure in this music. Revel in it! Convert me by your singing!”

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Tim, your observation is a common one. Not enough of us sing with the choir. It is a bad habit. It has never deterred me but I have sung quite a bit in my life and love to do it–sometimes I get too loud. But that is not the experience of most people. Music these days is performed, not participated in. It is part of the voyeurism of modernity.

    I’ve sung hymns most of my adult life from all sorts of sources, but none have ever touched me as deeply as the hymns of the Orthodox Church.

    As much as I have enjoyed and still enjoy Protestant hymns, they seem to me to all be written in C Major. The tones used in the Orthodox Church move my soul in different ways at different times for different reasons. They have changed my heart–slowly but consistently burrowing a bit deeper each time I hear them or sing them.

    On 9/11 as I struggled to come to terms with what had happened I found myself singing over and over again: Lord God of Hosts. The minor key reveals sorrow yet the deep longing and trust in God are so evident.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think your point is quite salient. I visited a couple of years ago in an Antiochian parish in New Mexico – largely convert. They used Byzantine style tones and hymns, but the congregational participation was amazing! It is today one of my favorite memories of Orthodox worship – anywhere.

    Of course, I am spoiled. As a priest, most of what I do is sing! But I would have gladly seen that congregation from New Mexico go on tour across America and show us how it’s done.

  6. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    This is a fine article but I have a number of questions/comments.

    1. Why does Orthodoxy remain non-instrumental? I understand not wanting to turn liturgy into a performance but trumpets, lyres and harps are mentioned in Scripture as instruments of praise. I find that instrumental music, when prayerfully incorporated adds much to my RC liturgical experience.

    2. Although I enjoy singing and listening to voices harmonizing, I don’t find speech to be “always isolating”. For example, to be part of a congregation proclaiming the Creed, “I believe…” can be very moving. In my RC tradition, there is a moving back and forth between speaking and singing that feels more natural to me than when I have been at liturgical events that were completely sung. We are a people who sing – but we don’t only sing.

    3. I have only attended Orthodox Vespers twice and that is, of course, a very limited sample. However, I got the impression that the congregation was not supposed to be singing with the choir – it seemed odd to me to just watch and have almost no vocal participation. Did I misunderstand? The congregation was extremely small and obviously I didn’t know enough to participate myself. I was given a printed copy of the changeable parts of the service but no musical notes to follow. (It was still a very nice experience, however.)

    Thank you again for much to reflect on.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    1. In the early Church (it was non-instrumental in the West as well) – musical instruments seemed to have been associated too strongly with the theater (hence pagan and orgies, etc.). Altogether a very bad association. The synagogue was non-instrumental as well. And though instruments are mentioned in the OT, their usage seems not to have carried over particularly in primitive worship. They only gradually appeared in the West. Monastic worship (non-instrumental) had a very profound influence in Orthodoxy. If you will, asceticism has always been part of Orthodox worship – a certain restraint.
    The same sense of restraint also marked much of the music in the West as well – where choral expression was the dominant form. Instrumental music moves forward primarily in Protestant history and only gradually spread to Catholicism. Interestingly, there has long been a non-instrumental tradition within Protestantism. One group of the Churches of Christ are non-instrumental. Primitive Baptists are non-instrumental. There were some within the Reform tradition that were non-instrumental. These latter examples are not so much a direct connection with Orthodox experience, but it is an interesting set of facts.
    Orthodoxy wouldn’t say that it’s actually wrong to use instruments in Church. In Africa, drums are not at all unknown. And, as I alluded to in the article, organs are found in some Orthodox parishes, particularly in America, though most Orthodox think this is somewhat strange.
    But we don’t do it today, because we find it better not to. Some of the fathers when explaining the non-instrumental practice of the Church said that the Incarnation raises the human voice to such a dignity that no other instrument can be compared to it. So we sing because it’s better!
    2. By “always isolating,” I mean that our voices (even speaking in unison) tend to isolate us when we speak. Maybe I overstate this.
    3. Your experience is not unusual. It depends on where you go. In much of Orthodox worship, the singing involves Psalm verses and theological compositions (stichera, etc.) inserted within them, that require choir or chanter. Vespers is always a more monastic experience in contrast to the music of a Divine Liturgy.

  8. Lynne Avatar

    I find that when I am memorizing Psalms, using chant helps me to speed up the process of memorization. Some of the verses are quite long, as in Psalm 23:4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (King James Version). Using a change of tone at the end of a phrase, and a different change of tone at the end of the verse, helps the memory.

  9. MrsMutton Avatar

    “…in music, a song frequently contains many voices. And many voices can become one voice without ceasing to be many. The experience of harmony and its relationship to communion is probably more apt as a descriptor than anything else we know.” As someone trained in the Russian tradition of choral singing, I frequently get so frustrated with Greek priests who insist that all music “has” to be sung in one voice, with a drone being the only acceptable harmony. I can’t seem to get across that the one-voice mentality cuts out a substantial portion of the congregation that can’t sing in that single voice range, but could easily sing along in four-part harmony. Not to mention that the theological implications of singing in harmony, as a single voice, are vast.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,
    I sometimes think that the “one voice” Byzantine thing gets pushed too far, and without reflection. There are a number of very ancient traditions of polyphonic singing – the Georgian being among my favorite (not to diminish my love for the Russian). I share your thoughts.

  11. Lazarus Avatar

    Wonderful post.

    A practical question. I am new to Orthodoxy. I pray the Orthodox Morning Prayers alone since the monastery moved and the parishes near me don’t do the Morning Prayers. I don’t know how to chant. Do I just pick a note and do it monotone?

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Pick a note (the one closest to a normal speaking voice is by far the most comfortable) and sing it monotone. You eventually learn to add a small “cadence” on the end to signal the end of a verse, etc. and breaks things up so they don’t seem too boring.

  13. newenglandsun Avatar

    As of the moment, I go to a Byzantine Catholic parish for Vespers on Saturdays and an Anglican Catholic parish (Continuing Anglican) on Sundays for morning prayer and Mass…the music attracts me about the Byzantine Catholic tradition but it can be a bit too much at times…I like the level of quiet at the Anglican Catholic parish. There are no hymns or chanting at the Anglican Catholic parish. There might be hymns at its sister church in the local area though.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    And then, forgive me, the best of all is to simply let it be. I shudder anytime I hear someone say, “That was a good service.” It is the Lord’s service. Whether I like it or not is ultimately of no value. And in a consumer culture, we must repent from choosing things based on what we like. It’s bad for the soul. If you like something, well and good. But we must pray that God give us at least something in a service that we don’t like, else we will probably never be saved.

  15. newenglandsun Avatar

    I guess I’m just a quiet person which is why I can’t help but liking the services of the more “high church” traditions. Raised Evangelical, most of our services featured the most corny pop music. But the liturgies always lead us to a greater sense of wonder. As an history and religious studies major, the sense of wonder is something that I long for in the liturgy. So forgive me for “liking” it.

  16. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I understand what you mean, Fr. Stephen, as seeking our own comfort or pleasure certainly should not be the focus of liturgy – even seeking spiritual comfort is dangerous in its own way.

    On the other hand, you have written much of Beauty and how we encounter God therein. Sometimes when someone says that they “liked” a service or that it was “good”, it is not a FaceBook sort of “like” but an effort to express and share with another that Beauty (or awe) was experienced.

    Music, voice and/or instrumental, prayerfully and reverently incorporated into liturgy, has many times led my dull soul to that place of Beauty and awe to encounter my loving God. At its best, it is almost an auditory icon, if such a thing be possible.

  17. Panayiota Avatar

    I have been trying very hard to learn byzantine chant for about a year now. Singing orthos. The words… the sounds….especially the ison bring tears to eyes. It is not something that can be expressed in words. The ison, is God constant presence in our lives. The melody is our participation. Life doesn’t get any better than that.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of course it is a good service even when the children scream, the choir messes up, the deacon fumbles the reading of the Gospel, the priest rambles through an incomprehensible setmon, and my legs are hurting.

    It is always a good service. Joy and thanksgiving and moments of repentance make life worth living no matter how shallow and incomplete. Especially when shared and it is always shared. So many people are there and angels and….

    At the same time it is never as it should be.

    Even in that there is always a moment when something or someone is so touched by God, they will never be the same.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course you’re correct. And it’s not inappropriate to share an experience of beauty – though such treasures are better kept quietly in the heart. We are not a culture that “fasts” very well. When we find a pleasure (even beauty), we long to repeat it until we have exhausted it and ourselves. It rests in the world of the heart – my reaction to “a good service, etc.,” is that it too often comes from a troubled state of the heart. So soon as we compare one service to another – even one moment to another – we leave the heart behind and entire the mind. And this is where trouble begins. The mind often says many things that are correct – but that were never meant to be said.

  20. Corvus Marinus Avatar

    I wonder about the relationship between music and silence, in this context. I’ve been gaining a great deal from learning (mostly from Orthodox and Catholic writers) to silence my mind and listen, rather than constantly having thoughts or even a song running free. I have likewise felt a great freedom in Anglican liturgy to be silent and worship in quiet, when I prefer; in the Baptist churches of my childhood, I felt under constant pressure to sing whatever happened to be projected above the congregation, because that was what “worship” was by definition. (Which is not in the least to say that I do not currently sing and worship by singing during the service.)

    Likewise, I have an art professor friend who tries to discourage his students from listening to music as they create art, a common habit; as he puts it, it makes it difficult for them to hear the artwork they are creating. The art is, of course, not generating music akin to or in competition with that on a student’s iPod. Nevertheless, that background noise is not neutral. It can interfere in the intimate relationship between the artist and his or her materials. Does matter sing by its particular existence within the grand song of God? Is this the song of the beautiful, yearning nature D. B. Hart describes as being hidden under the order of death in this world?

    As I look up into the depths of the Milky Way out here in the villages of Kakheti, it is silence that draws me away from the earth and reorients me to the universe. Yet the dance above is, as you say, a kind of music. The voices are hidden under silence; one must go through silence to retrieve them. Perhaps even singing, true singing, is about listening, and so achieving proper frequency with that song which exists beyond us, enthroned in holy stillness.

  21. EnochElijah Avatar

    What do you think of the long history of instrumental worship found amongst the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Ethiopian House of Israel Jews? They use sistrum, drums and staffs most commonly, but they also have lyres/harps, meseqoch (violin?), washintoch (flutes?) and the controversial arganon(organ?)?

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It obviously works for them. I have no position on the matter.

  23. EnochElijah Avatar

    That’s fair. Thank you for taking your time to respond.

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