What Happens When We Sing to God?

“God inhabits the praises of Israel.” (Psalm 22:3)

The true nature of existence is best expressed as communion. Though we experience much of our life as unique individuals, the experience of all that is around us remains one of communion. In no way do we actually exist as an independent entity, somehow separate from our environment. We breathe the world; we eat the world; we drink the world; every cell of our body is itself composed of elements from the world; the bacteria in our bodies outnumber our cells and make our life possible. It is only through a modern force of habit that we restrict our consciousness to a kind of individuality: an awareness and a will. But this is only a consumer’s point-of-view – life reduced to economics. The fullness of life, inescapable even when unacknowledged, is the life we live in union with everything and everyone around us, and most especially in union with our Creating, Sustaining, and Life-Giving God.

It is interesting to me as I grow older, how my awareness changes. The questions that marked my days in my teens and twenties bear very little resemblance to those that mark my late sixties. Walking and breathing now seem like gifts, not always given easily. I have lately been battling with a back injury, such that each morning brings a question: “Will I be able to go for a walk today?” In the same manner, my years as a Christian have served to change my awareness. My walk is also a primary time of prayer. If I cannot walk today, what will my prayer look like? Over time, my awareness has been drawn more and more to the matter of communion.

St. Paul wrote: “Whatsoever you do, in thought, word, and deed, do it as unto the Lord.” I would add to that to not only do it “as unto the Lord,” but to do it with Him, through Him, by Him, and in Him. The creation itself is the very goodness of God made manifest. If we breathe, we breathe His goodness. If we walk, we walk on His goodness. If we eat, we eat of His goodness. And these facts are not anxillary – they are primary. What matters is our communion with God (and His goodness) in that it is our very life (whether acknowledged or not).

It is in light of this that I reflect on the observation of Psalm 22: “God inhabits the praises of Israel.” This is the same psalm that opens with, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” It is a strange juxtaposition. On the one hand, the Psalmist utters a cry of personal abandonment, while, two verses later, he affirms the sacramental reality of God’s presence within the sound of our songs and hymns. Of course, the contradiction is resolved when the speaker of the Psalm becomes Christ Himself on the Cross. It allows us to say without paradox that just as God inhabits the sound of our praise, so He inhabits the cry of our anguished abandonment. It echoes Psalm 139, “Lo, if I descend into Hell, You are there.”

Singing is something that (as a topic) I return to again and again. It is, I think, the most easily understood example of communion available to us. Our common voices raised in song offer a sound that is many while being one. It is a sound that reflects the truth of our being in a manner without equal. It is consistently part of the heavenly visions recorded in the Scriptures. It also serves to explain why, traditionally, Orthodox worship is sung from beginning to end.

The Divine Liturgy is “heaven come down to earth,” and is thus an example of the truth of our existence (as heaven is our “true home”). In the writings of some of the Fathers, the Garden of Eden is understood to have been a Temple where Adam and Eve served before God. In the Liturgy, we re-enter paradise and take up again that life for which we were created. It is also true that “heaven and earth are full of Your glory,” making paradise of all creation.

St. Maximus the Confessor described five fundamental divisions: uncreated and created: intelligible and sensible; heaven and earth; paradise and the inhabited world; male and female. All of these divisions, he says, will be reconciled and united in the age to come. In the Divine Liturgy, we stand in the age to come. The reconciliation of all things begins there. The created eats and drinks the uncreated and becomes a partaker of the uncreated grace of God. Through sensible things (wine, water, bread, oil, and such) we become partakers of the intelligible and noetic things. Heaven and earth are united as we become earthly angels and heavenly human beings. Paradise is opened in our very midst. The antipathies of male and female, as described in Genesis, are overcome in the Theotokos, in whom is fulfilled the promises given to Eve.

This Cosmic Liturgy is revealed among us in sacramental form, a foretaste of the age to come. The nature of the Christian faith is apocalyptic, that is, it is meant to be a revealing of that which is hidden – it makes known the “mystery hidden from all the ages” (Col. 1:26). The whole of it can be described as a song – one which we sometimes hear being sung – and one which we join in singing as well. This is a very rich image. First, it has a literal component in which we are able to “practice” the act of communion. Secondly, the practice of that image, carried forward, describes the landscape of our daily lives, lived as communion. Thus, St. Paul says:

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another 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, submitting to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:17–21)

This is a description of our lives offered as a continual eucharist (thanksgiving). St. Dionysius the Areopagite, in his Divine Hierarchy, uses the liturgy as an image of salvation itself, drawing particularly on the structures and order seen in its “hierarches” (“holy orders”). In St. Paul’s admonition, this same principle of holy order is manifest as “submitting to one another.” This is Christ’s self-emptying put into practice in our lives.

If we think of music, we can see this submission very clearly. There is a key signature, and a rhythm. There are parts for different ranges of voices. There is listening to the voices around you so that your own voice can blend. There is the direction given that allows our song to remain cohesive. In contrast to this, the “music” of modern living is cacophany (literally, an “evil sound”). It is the noise of everyone’s private song, shouting and battling to be heard within the onslaught of our fragmented lives.

Oddly, the retail masters of our world understand a great deal about the liturgy of our lives. However, their liturgy is the song of mammon that tells us that existence and well-being are things that can be bought. Here’s an excerpt from a retailer’s guide on music in stores (you have, of course, noticed that we never shop in silence).

Research shows that music can influence what shoppers choose and how much they buy. A 2005 study revealed that people tend to spend more on impulse buys when pleasant music is playing. The effect was present even when people did not notice the music playing in the store, showing that music has a subconscious (yet very real!) effect on shopping habits. More interestingly, the type of music played can act as a trigger for specific purchases. Classical music, for example, has been found to influence shoppers to buy more expensive items. Scientists believe that it may be because classical music evokes feelings of high quality and elegance, and thus influences shopping decisions in that direction. If you run a high-class store, you may want to consider playing classical tunes as a backdrop to your customers’ browsing. In an often-quoted research published in Nature in 1997, researcher played various types of music in a wine store. They found that when French music was playing, people would buy more French wines; when German music was playing instead, people bought more German wines. Amazingly, the shoppers themselves were not aware that the music had had any influence on their wine choices. Is your music strategy designed to support your specific sales goals? (LS Retail)

It is apparently the case that we cannot opt out of the liturgy of life. The greater question, then, becomes whose song will be sung in our lives? It is God who sings the world into existence, whose angels sing with “unceasing voices,” and whose song is sung by rocks and trees and all creation. It is the greater song, indeed, the Great Song. There is an American folk song, written by the Baptist minister, Robert Lowry, in 1868. It is one of my favorites:

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?

Sing. Listen. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Man is a musical composition.” Whose song are you?


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.



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39 responses to “What Happens When We Sing to God?”

  1. Anna Avatar

    ” The antipathies of male and female are overcome in the Theotokos ,” Would you please expand on that?

  2. Johnpaul Avatar

    I am a musician and my contact with Orthodoxy started when I heard Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” then I discovered all your wonderful chants, and now I am here enjoying all the posts and podcasts, My Orthodox leanings are due to Music. I get the theology of a song, I remember the theology of a song, and I believe the theology of a song which can be the dangerous part of it. Some hymns make me wonder, “Is it harmful to listen to this?” Some can be taken multiple ways. For example one protestant hymn says, “The burden of my heart rolled away… and now I am happy all the day.” While we are to always rejoice in the Lord, I wonder if it pushes me towards a more emotional basis for my faith. Some I flinch at like “On the cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” I would rather hear, “You who did fashion me of old out of nothingness and with your image divine did honor me.”
    But then in the protestant world there are some good hymns too (Like the one you cited in the article) so it is a mix. I wonder especially about the modern ones. A lot of them have good aspects, but also bad aspects. Right now I am thinking of a modern Christian song “Love never gonna let me go” It has some good aspects, “Love breaking through my heart of stone, love breathing to awake my bones” It has some very deep theology that reminds me in ways of Orthodox theology. it can be seen as playing into the “once saved always saved” theology. Will love really never let us go? And also modern songs seem to have a heavy emotional emphasis. Some offer the idea “turn to God and then everything will be OK” when in reality there is a process to it.

  3. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    The participatory aspect of music is often overlooked. As a liturgical musician, using the traditional, pre-Reformation form of church music more and more—no harmonies or “ison” of any kind, but just monophonic unison—really helps bring people together, express a cohesion that spans the universe, and create a joy that can be lost when singers are focused on various harmonic technicalities. Moving away from harmony, at least liturgically, has been life-changing.

    This also came out in the retail store I’ve worked at during college (just graduated with 4.0—woohoo!). For better or worse, we had our biggest day of sales in history just a few weeks back. What did we do differently? We shut off the music. It isn’t that we don’t like music or like singing, but the music—particularly the jarring stuff like Classical—just becomes noise. It ceases to be something participatory and becomes cacophonous. Now, with the music off (and we’ve kept it off since), we’ve been doing *more* singing, we’re all getting to know each other more, and we’ve built more relationships outside of work, too. I followed the links and made it to the Nature study but wasn’t able to easily tell if it had been reproduced—I wonder how the music affected not just product preference but total customer engagement and joy.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! I’m reminded of one of my favorite hymns to “sing around the house” as my children were growing up and long days from attending my grandparents church where I first learned it (I’m sure Our Lord reminded my heart of the words and tune) 1 He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
    O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
    Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
    still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
    He leadeth me, he leadeth me;
    by his own hand he leadeth me:
    his faithful follower I would be,
    for by his hand he leadeth me.
    2 Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom,
    sometimes where Eden’s flowers bloom,
    by waters calm, o’er troubled sea,
    still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me. Refrain
    3 Lord, I would clasp thy hand in mine,
    nor ever murmur nor repine;
    content, whatever lot I see,
    since ’tis my God that leadeth me. Refrain
    4 And when my task on earth is done,
    when, by thy grace, the victory’s won,
    e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
    since God through Jordan leadeth me. Refrain
    Psalter Hymnal, (Gray)

  5. Byron Avatar

    Johnpaul, I think that we all wince at times when we hear Protestant theology and hymns (both from our past and current ones). Don’t burden yourself overmuch with it. It is enough that we recognize the error and not entertain it in our lives. There is still a great deal that glorifies God rightly and we can be thankful for that and sing along.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I wondered if someone would ask this question. The answer could fill a book, I suppose. There are aspects of the relationship of male and female, somewhat described in Genesis (the so-called “curse”) that foreshadow the tensions between us in our world:
      To the woman He said:
    “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
    In pain you shall bring forth children;
    Your desire shall be for your husband,
    And he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)
    There is a kind of interplay of power, always tempting us to abuse one another. We struggle to get this right in marriage, but always find ourselves failing (some more, some less). In the Theotokos, there is a sinlessness about all of this. There is perfect regard and respect from God – there is utter self-emptying on the part of Mary. There is an ecstatic fulfillment as her soul “magnifies the Lord” and the perfections uttered in that hymn.

    The Church’s veneration of Mary is not a distraction or a mere “add-on.” It is integral to the whole of our salvation. I think that the veneration of the Theotokos, over time, (as she becomes united in the communion of our heart), is a necessary part of the healing of what is broken in human sexual/gender, etc. She not only reveals to us the fullness of what it means to be Woman, but takes us into its depths, over time.

    All of this, to me, seems to be a slow thing and impossible to capture in a few words. I often think that it is an aspect of Orthodoxy that is the least susceptible to codified teaching. It’s as if that kind of teaching were somehow a contradiction to what is trying to be taught. I know from my own experience that it has been the many years of devotion to the Theotokos, and certainly the more intense form this has taken over my 23 years of Orthodox experience, has healed much in me viz. male and female, mother/father, etc.

    I wish I had words to say more at the moment.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As a man I can say I am not sure I would be a Christian without Mary, the Theotokos. Jesus got my attention over 40 years ago but it was not until I walked into my first Orthodox Church in 1986 and saw the icon of Mary, More Spacious Than the Heavens that reality began to sink in.

    My favorite hymn is The Bridal Chamber. The icon and the hymn together lead me toward a holy place where tears of joy and repentance intermix and an a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Christian man. The question that I began to ask when I started to follow Him in ernest back in 1977.

    Somehow when I gaze on that icon and I sing that hymn–it all makes sense. The rest of the time…..

    But somehow, she works to transform me into an actual man. One not quite so self-centered.

  8. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Father Stephen,
    which of the Holy Fathers describe Eden as a Temple in which Adam and Eve served before God? I would really like to know where to find this in their writings. Thank you.


  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Macarian Homilies are a good place to see this. I was listening to a lecture by Abp. Alexander Golitzin when the subject came up. Also, I’ve been working through a book by Fr. Bogdan Bucur who is now at St. Vladimir’s (formerly at Duquesne and was a student of Abp Alexander). Similar themes come up. I think it is in St. Ephrem’s hymns that Eden is described as a mountain and a temple on the mountain. To this day, the doors into the Altar are described as the Gates of Eden (closed-opened). But, I’ve been immersing myself for the past few weeks in some of this work and writing in order to clarify a few things in my own understanding. I’ll dig some more, and post a further answer as I recall who said what. Ephrem’s Commentary on Genesis is pretty replete with this stuff. It is also stated explicitly in the Book of Jubilee’s – which, of course, is not canonical, but was certainly a part of the rich diet of reading on the part of the Fathers.

  10. Eric Avatar

    Thank you for this Father Stephen
    Singing is such a Grace – The Eternal Song. I have noticed recently how closely our health is related to singing. People start to sing when they are becoming well. Singing is Salvation in a sense – both healing and health. Certainly it is the more ‘poetic’ use of our voice – the whole body can become and instrument of worship in a way less obvious in spoken speech.

    Re the inability to speak of things, or put them into words – this morning re ‘words’ it came to me how in the modern wordy world, tragically in the Church also, we have confused words for Life, or, as it presented itself to me, we have become adept at turning bread into stones . . .

    Grace to you!

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eric, the first stirring of Christian faith was listening to Afro-American spirituals sung by Paul Robeson, although he was not a believer. Especially, “There is a Balm in Gilead”. Listening to that song on old 78rpm records and then singing it myself changed me.
    ” There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul. Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my life’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again because there is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”

    Then I discovered the Orthodox Church and the mystery of Holy Communion through thr Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

    I sing it now with deeper understanding

  12. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Thanks, Father. I’ll look forward to your further information.

    In my book group – all Protestant long-time friends – we take turns suggesting the next thing to read. Prof. John Walton of Wheaton is someone they would listen to, and he has written in the last few years on creation as the building of a Temple in which the Lord places his image and then enters to inhabit. When my turn comes around, I’m thinking about suggesting his book, and ‘twould be fun to add, “Oh, by the way, some of the earliest Church Fathers saw this in Scripture…” It could be a way to help them see that Scripture can be interpreted differently than they’re used to. They’ve humored me with other patristic writings over the years; I got them to read “On the Holy Spirit” and “On the Incarnation” 🙂


  13. christa Avatar

    “How can I keep from singing” I heard pete seeger sing it years ago, I’ve only remembered parts but singing it has always been strong hope and love and tears of joy amidst sadness. Thank you! Now I have all the words!

  14. Anonymo Avatar

    Most people do not join in the chanting at my parish, but I can’t help myself now. My soul and body long to join in song!

    The ‘O rejoice unwedded bride’ maybe be one of my most treasured parts of the divine liturgy. I hope to grow in love and communion with our Lady. I can attest that on a subjective level I sense a benefit to my relationship to the feminine and women in my life has improved, in the short time I have been Orthodox.

    This article helps me understand why it is that music and the songs in LOTR play such an integral role, and really draw me into communion with the characters.

  15. Andrew Roberts Avatar

    Father Stephen, do you have any thoughts on what is behind music; the ‘inspiration.’ You have written much about modernity and music plays a large part in many peoples lives, especially modern pop culture. It has no little impact on how people behave and view reality.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Looking through things – I think the best read with such references would be St. Ephrem’s Hymns of Paradise – which is published by St. Vladimir’s.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In our modern culture, the easiest and most effective way to motivate people to do things and behave in a desired fashion is to play to emotional responses. Classically, the Church describes these irrational responses as the “passions.” Feelings and desires such as, anger, lust, greed, envy, pride, shame, etc., can easily be manipulated in a variety of manners. Such feelings can be so strong, they by-pass thinking and reasoning and the will and move us to act on impulse. Governments and ruling powers have manipulated such feelings from time immemorial in order to move large numbers of people to perform desired actions (such as war).

    In our modern times, this understanding has been used to motivate us to shop, to buy, to spend, etc. We “enjoy” our passions – at least some of them. And the manipulation of the passions is used to create the illusion of “happiness.” Again, none of this, for us, is the result of thought and reasoning. It bypasses all of that.

    So – with music. Music is a powerful tool for accessing areas of feeling. The primary feeling is – whatever makes money for those who make the music. Some of the illusion of this dynamic can be revealed by the word “popular.” “Popular” music makes us think that it is we the people who are making the music and they are only giving us what we demand. Instead, the dynamic is that those who are doing the selling and actually creating the demand – and they use the music to foster that desire within us – then sell us stuff to satisfy the desire they created. We are pawns.

    Music is not evil. Like all created things, it is how something is used that can become evil. I largely quit listening to pop music around 1972. After a short amount of time, the spell was broken. I like to choose my music for my own reasons. It is tragic, I think, that we have so little music that is generated “naturally” in our cultures. I like the deeper traditions of folk songs and folk dances that are still found in some countries.

  18. Renata Avatar


    That song is one of my very favorites! I learned it while a member of a Catholic choir. How happily surprised I was to see you had included this beautiful song into your posting to describe communion with God! I was so, so very delighted!

    I am studying Orthodoxy with a group on Zoom, and am looking forward to my Chrismation which I hope will be this summer. I will then be part of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Glory and thanks be to God!

    Thank you for this treasured writing — it helped me to further understand the Church teaching on communion with God.

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father song is indeed relevant and is the heart of our prayers and praise—and is part our preparations for communion. The precommunion prayers refer to the three youths in the furnace. We have a passage in the book of Daniel where we can ‘hear’ their song of praise as the fire raged around them; they praise God because they love God and Christ came to them in the fire and the raging fire did not hurt them.

    The raging fire is many things that can distract us from God, our passions, our anger, our cares, our hurts.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it is the case that the Great Song (as I’m calling it), sung by us and sung within us, is the clearest and easiest route of experiencing communion with God.

  21. Andrew Roberts Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen.

  22. Seraphima Avatar

    Thank you for your fine post, Father. In regard to the inspiration behind music – I think of Bach and his dedication of every score he composed to God. I believe Handel did the same. I do think the inspiration for the composition of a score can come from different sources. I once mentioned that I compose sacred music for use in church, and a non-believer immediately said all music is “sacred”. Since God is in everything in the world and is its life and being, God can be found in sounds, including music and song. I don’t think that is the same thing as saying that all music is sacred – the vehicle for making music is provided by God and the way the universe is constructed and follows basic mathematical principles set up at the creation of the universe. The expression of something through the vehicle, though, depends to me on the state of the mind/soul/heart of the person composing the music or singing or performing it. I think that’s where the question of inspiration comes in. I know I have heard popular music which expressed themes/feelings that were not in sync with God, and I felt were damaging to me to listen to, so I don’t. My favorite music has a purity and elegance about it and plays with the beauty of the mathematical underpinnings of music and way the universe is created. In my own compositional practice, becoming a composer was a gift from God which came unexpectedly in one moment (I had had a long history of various other types of musicianship) and then continued. There is a clear experience in commencing a composition for me that is an experience of God, and I think that’s where the musical inspiration comes from. Otherwise, I don’t know whether I could compose music at all or would want to. The moment of inspiration is ecstatic, humbling, and something to live for as it is a type of communion with God. I have learned that music that is going to “live” in the world, has a certain quality — it has a timeless quality and sounds and feels as though I have known the melody forever, and that it has existed forever. I have learned not to waste time on music that does not bear this quality – although it is not so often that I have to jettison an idea if I am listening well enough in the first place. Composing is a prayer experience and an entering into communion, as much as communion at church is and perhaps even more so. It is an experience of the whole person — when it is not, the music does not breathe and live. I view inspiration as a brief stepping into the river of song that is always passing by out of the Eternal One, and retrieving a melody — one has to be ready to catch the melody, otherwise it goes back forever into God somewhere. I regret that I cannot wade into the River more often and with more competence than I have — it is hard to express what is there to be expressed most of the time. My own practice is not to put a composition out there in the world unless I think the listener can delve in and commune with God in some way through listening to or singing or performing it. I haven’t figured out the best way to put the music out there, and just have local performances from time to time.
    As far a communion in song, I also think that God is there wherever two or more are gathered together, so imagine when there are a hundred singing! The best church music happens when the result of the song is greater than the sum of the parts — one might have only a few people singing, but the music takes off into a greater realm when everyone is praying the music and singing from the heart — therein lies a fundamental type of communion with one another and with God that is among the best experiences in life to me. I also think God hears more than what we are singing, with all our imperfections, wrong notes, sinful selves, and other issues — I like to think God hears it as perfected, because of the inspiration in the Perfect that the music came from, and we are adding our best parts to that original inspiration and the music becomes more. When I am leading a choir, I don’t worry about the person who is tone deaf as a result — every tone is beautiful, especially if sung with a devoted and enthusiastic heart, and I am sure God hears it that way, even if we don’t. Not to say we shouldn’t try to perfect our music-making. Dedicating all of our music-making to God and intentional devotion in music-making would help our church music-making a great deal – it is too easy to get caught up in things that are of lesser importance and miss the main event and the opportunity to know God.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for your reflections. A composer of music is similar, I think, to someone who paints icon. Indeed, music, at its best, is itself an icon of the Great Song.

    There is so much to reflect on within the music of our lives. The commercialization of music, like commercialism in every other area, has tended towards the destruction and misuse of a very good and sacred thing. At its worst, some commercial music is like porn. Something very holy is being abused in a very unholy manner.

    All of life is the gift of God and it finds it fulfillment in Him. That doesn’t mean that music cannot sing about all things (it should). All of life is holy and good and thus all of life has its place in the Song.

    There are some who become very narrow in their description of Church music (as in, only Byzantine chant, or now harmonies, etc.). I think such an ideology cannot be supported theologically. Orthodoxy in America is learning to sing. I’ve seen an increasing amount of composition for the Church over the past 20 years, some good, some less so, which is only natural. I’ve enjoyed any number of videos from Africa as the Church is growing in traditional cultures – and are surprising in their variety.

    The very best things, to my mind, in Western Christianity is to be found in its music. There are great hymns that are glorious, and there are chant traditions such as Plainsong and Gregorian that are marvelous as well. I watched the video of a Western Rite liturgy recently and enjoyed hearing some familiar hymns used in that setting – and it’s Orthodox.

    There are, in our congregation, times when enthusiastic children’s voices tend to overpower the choir (such as when we sing the Creed and the Our Father). That the children love to sing and are allowed to sing thrills my soul.

    St. Paul says, “Whatsoever you do, in thought, in word, and in deed, do it as unto the Lord.”

  24. Seraphima Avatar

    Yes – not much better in music than the joyful song of children singing, perfection in imperfection! I agree, church music gets defined too narrowly in most of the denominations – God can always do a new thing if allowed to and someone can hear it and share it.

  25. Dino Avatar

    I think that the secularisation of music and the establishment of the offshoots of this practice has gone through too many stages historically to even be able to discern that “evolution” away from the sacred.
    The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ of course is the quintessence of this philosophically. And the cerebral as well as the emotional appreciation of many art forms often cloud our spiritual judgements here.
    Traditionally music was never non-functional (as in sitting doing nothing other but listening to an orchestra.)
    And clearly, the “functional target” of music (or any other art) was and is, of paramount significance. Of course all music stands or falls (from a secular and from its ‘immediately alluring potency’ perspective) to the degree it achieves its purpose, no matter what that purpose is (a most secular post-renaissance effect) . This is obvious in some functional music like war/battle-music or dance/club-music or church/prayer-music. But this is also mist often a ready weapon in the hands of our adversary. If, for instance, a piece of music obviously sets out to arouse the carnal or to create a desire to take drugs or to arouse adrenaline and anger and make one besides oneself,
    … if it is astoundingly effective at producing said feelings, it is near impossible for the secular appreciator not to call it ‘amazing art.’ That’s what it will feel like.
    Of course in the more traditional classical era (as Handel once exclaimed, if memory serves me well) would firstly consider any music to be amazing art if it was effective at bringing man closer to God. Failing that, it would be seen as a profanity, and a most dangerous one if done with great finesse and allure (like porn can be as mentioned above)

  26. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Just shared this with my friends at the Summer Music Institute at St. Vlads. Couldn’t have been more timely! Thank you, Father.

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    If I recall correctly, music was the area of your academic focus, wasn’t it? Do you continue to use your experience and knowledge in music for ecclesiatic or prayerful purposes?

    Music is fascinating to me in the field of physics and our physical response to it. As you say, it can be manipulated for alterior and possibly unhelpful and unhealthy purposes.

    I’m curious about the Church’s tradition non-use of instruments. What is the history of this non-practice? When we read the Psalms, there are frequent references to the playing of the harp, and timbrel among a few others. My voice isn’t so great and therefor I don’t use it often for pleasure or praise in song. (But there is indeed a song in my heart) However, I play the harp (I’m still very much a beginner), and when I play it can have a soothing and even theraputic effect, like that of prayer. Although sometimes prayer is difficult, in regard to the self reflections arising in repentance.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, the Scripture does say “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. I have always felt that the joyful part was of paramount importance, not just how it impacted our ears and sense of harmony. But, I am probably too literal.

    I, too, would like to know more on the prohibition on instruments.

  29. Dino Avatar

    Yes and yes.
    Now regarding the ecclesiastical reasons for not using musical instruments… that area is not my expertise I am afraid.
    However, what I do know from Greek traditional explanations, is that this evolved gradually. Initially, the fear of persecution would make only quiet vocal chanting an option (especially in catacombs), and that early chanting was already based on ancient Greek vocal music, (possibly more so than ancient Jewish music).
    The fervent anti-idolatry mindset of early Christianity also had a role possibly, (instruments evoked theatrical idolatrous plays most vividly).
    Not that some basic instruments weren’t used at all (harp, bells, pipes/flutes, lyre) as accompaniments, they were on rare occasion, especially around Egypt, but not for long.
    Eventually, “the ‘soul-less’ instruments” (as opposed to “the en-souled voice”) as Justin Martyr says, came to be officially expelled.
    However, even the famous organ was initially a Byzantine invention, even if it later moved to its celebrated use in western denomination services. In fact, Orthodox Church chanters of Saint Sophia even apparently used it to aid in rehearsing (around the 9th century), but never during the holy services.
    However, what is more significant is that soon, Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music (as opposed to non-sacramental music), saw that for the rhythm, calibration and expression of the holy words of prayer, to perfectly and exclusively convey the meaning, mood, style, letter and hue of the holy hymns of worship (sacramental texts), chose the most singularly complementary means of expression for this alone: the human voice. There is no music heard that is not also “word” in the Orthodox Church. (in fact there is still quite some pushback in the rare occasions when this is done by chanters -what they call “terirem”, used as rare fillers when awaiting for something during a service).
    Also, another point is that nobody is utterly bereft of the ability to participate in this manner of musical expression, all have a voice, it is a ‘medium’ common to every person, and it is also a sound we have all heard from within our mother’s womb until the last day we live in the ‘womb’ of this life, whereas, in contrast, musical instruments require a prior practice and expertise, sometimes even to merely generate a basic tone.

  30. Matthew W. Avatar
    Matthew W.

    Thank-You Dino.
    I just realized something almost primal. All I need is my voice to make music. Everything else is an accessory.

    As I learn more about myself, I wonder if that’s why I was drawn to choir. I grew up poor(ish), my parents never paid for an instrument, or for lessons in anything. If I wanted music, I had to sing myself.

    So I did.

  31. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Thanks, Father. I already have St Ephrem’s Paradise hymns, and as it happens, I brought it with me as I am traveling at the moment. I started it some time ago, and will make it the focus of some real study. I heard or read from Abp Alexander that it’s probably the best catechism there is. Being recommended by both of you is incentive for me to really dig in.


  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael and Dino,
    Indeed the voice in song is beautiful (or it can be). Recently I read a quote by St. Amphilochios of Patmos “Prayer without love is like a bird without wings. It seems good and beautiful, but it can’t fly…”

    I think the same can be said of song or chanting.

  33. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    And dancing, too, was a part of praising God, according to the scriptures. Occasionally I see dancing in celebration of Pascha after Agape Vespers. But it isn’t part of the worship or Liturgy, proper.

  34. christa Avatar

    In the past 40 years I have been a member of orthodox churches of varied jurisidiction. Some of these, including my current church suscribe to monotone chant. This is often done without regard for punctuation, so that it all slides together. I find it difficult to hear what is being voiced… and almost every service I have to pray for forgiveness for my critical attitude to this manner of reading scripture. I can appreciate that we do not want to emotionalize…but do not understand why this insistence? It makes it harder for me to be a participant in service, and I would think others too. How can reading the scriptures with love be done in a monotone? I am told this is how the bishop would like the chanting done. How to stop stumbling on this? Any ideas?

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    These are the sorts of things that parishioners have very little control over. For the Scriptures, if possible, you can look up the readings scheduled for the service and have them with you so you can follow along during their chanting. That would be of some help. It’s like going to the opera. If you don’t have the words in front of you, it’s very difficult to tell what’s being sung. I never enjoyed opera on the radio – but the first time I attended on in person – the words were posted on a screen-like device that we could see and follow (the opera was in Italian). I found it tremendously helpful and enjoyed it.

    But, in the Liturgy, if something begins to be troublesome, it will become like a “blister” on the foot, and will soon overtake every other sensation. The best thing to do is to identify things that you do like, and concentrate on them. The advice to “ignore” something that bothers us almost always fails – because ignoring something is pretty much a losing proposition. Something must take its place. Thus, having the readings handy is a useful thing.

    The Bishop is only following what is a canonical directive – it has the idea of eliminating the reader’s insertion of his own interpretation. I think it reflects a much older mentality about what is taking place – where the emphasis is not concentrated on whether or not we understand – and more like the chanted word being projected as a word of power that makes the demons flee (or something like that).

    Find the positive. Make some positives. It will help.

  36. Diana Christina Avatar
    Diana Christina

    Thanks Father. Some of my deepest moments of communion with God have come while listening to the music of Miles Davis. There’s something so transcendent, so mysterious, in his music, and it touches a sacred place within me.

  37. christa Avatar

    Thank you .

  38. christa Avatar

    “the chanted word being projected as a word of power that makes the demons flee”….then I think of some of strong chanting done by the deacon or priest where the tone goes up and the chant gets louder towards the end of the reading. That’s powerful . I have been allowed to chant some of the psalms, a few times and am working on a monotone with love. I grew up reading aloud, poetry and stories and the bible….it is something that gives me joy. I feel it is a gift and pray that I may use it for the glory of God. So how to how to use that gift without letting my pride interfere. ? Prayer and giving it up…over and over. Thank you again. For accepting our, my concerns and foibles and responding in love.

  39. Lina Avatar

    I came across this poem just after reading this article on singing. Don’t know whether you want to include it in the comments section.

    Dear Lonely Animal,
    Oni Buchanan
    I’m writing to you from the loneliest, most
    secluded island in the world. I mean,
    the farthest away place from anything else.
    There are so many fruits here growing on trees
    or on vines that wrap and wrap. Fruits
    like I’ve never seen except the bananas.
    All night the abandoned dogs howled.
    I wonder if one dog gives the first howl, and if
    they take turns who’s first like carrying
    the flag in school. Carrying the flag
    way out in front and the others
    following along behind in two long lines,
    pairs holding hands. Also the roosters here crow
    from 4am onward. They’re still crowing right now
    and it’s almost noon here on the island.
    Noon stares back no matter where you are.
    Today I’m going to hike to the extinct volcano
    and balance on the rim of the crater. Yesterday
    a gust almost blew me inside. I heard
    that the black widows live inside the volcano
    far down below in the high grasses that you can’t
    see from the rim. Well, I was going to tell you
    that this morning the bells rang and I
    followed them and at the source of the bells,
    there I found so many animals
    all gathered together in a room
    with carved wooden statues
    and wooden benches and low wooden slats
    for kneeling. And the animals were there
    singing together, all their voices singing,
    with big strong voices rising from even
    the filthiest animals. I mean, I’ve seen animals
    come together and sing before, except in
    high fancy vaults where bits of colored glass
    are pieced together into stories. Some days
    I want to sing with them.
    I wish more animals sang together all the time.
    But then I can’t sing sometimes
    because I think of the news that happens
    when the animals stop singing.
    And then I think of all the medications
    and their side effects that are advertised
    between the pieces of news. And then I think
    of all the money the drug companies spent
    to videotape their photogenic, well-groomed animals,
    and all the money they spent to buy
    a prime-time spot, and I think, what money
    buys the news, and what news
    creates the drugs, and what
    drugs control the animals, and I get so
    choked I can’t sing anymore, Lonely Animal.
    I can’t sing with the other animals. Because it’s
    hard to know what an animal will do when it
    stops singing. It’s complicated, you know, it’s just
    From Spring, published by University of Illinois Press. Copyright © 2008 by Oni Buchanan. Used with permission.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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