Archive for February, 2010

The Icon of Music

February 10, 2010

Orthodox theology is a “seamless garment”: no part of Orthodox doctrine, worship, prayer or life stands in a category of its own. Everything refers and reveals the one thing in Christ – our salvation. Even the doctrine of the Trinity, as utterly sublime as it is, remains a matter revealed for our salvation. Because this inter-relatedness is true it is possible to speak of Scripture as a “verbal icon” (Florovsky), or to say that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words” (Seventh Council), or that “one who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” In my limited reading I have never read any particular commentary that spoke of the music of the Church as an icon, but I feel confident in describing it in that manner. It is possible to say this, at the very least, because all of creation can properly be seen as icon – a window to heaven.

To say that music is an icon is not to have said all there is to say about music. But it does say something about the proper place of music in the Church. Music is not about us. Music in the Church does not exist for our enjoyment or entertainment, even though the joy associated with it may at times be exquisite.

Archimandrite Zacharias (of St. John’s Monastery in Essex) describes the heart of worship as “exchange.” It is not an exchange in the sense that we offer something in “trade” with God. Rather, it is an exchange that is also named “communion” and “participation.” God becomes what we are and in and through Him (by grace) we become what He is. This “exchange” is our salvation. In the mystery of Holy Baptism the candidate is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” The union which is effected in Holy Baptism (Romans 6:3-4) is our salvation, “newness of life.” All that takes place within the Christian life is union and exchange – it is the means and manner of our salvation.

Music exists for exchange and union. It is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in which we unite ourselves in offering our bodies (the voice) as a living sacrifice to God.

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim,
And who sing the thrice holy hymn
to the life-creating Trinity,
now lay aside all earthly cares.
That we may receive the King of All,
Who comes invisibly upborne
by the angelic hosts,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
(Cherubic Hymn from the Divine Liturgy)

Not all paintings are icons. Not all music is iconic. Not every voice is raised in union with the heavenly hosts. To write a true icon is a great and holy thing. To sing in a manner that reveals heaven and unites us with the heavenly hosts is a great thing indeed. We were created to sing in just such a manner.

Lest I be misunderstood, I do not claim that all music in Orthodox Churches is iconic in character. Many Churches are decorated with religious art, which, though beautiful, is not iconic. Some music falls short of its intent within the Tradition. By the same token, there is music outside of the Orthodox Church that is iconic – both by accident and by intention.

Music that renders heaven opaque – particularly music presented as Christian – is tragic. We were meant to sing with angels – just as they delight in singing with us.

Why Does God Sing?

February 8, 2010

A comment was posted this past weekend about prayer and singing (or “chanting”). This article represents some earlier thoughts I have written on the topic. Over the course of this next week I will be largely engaged in another writing task and will only be able to monitor the blog once or twice a day. I’ll also try to post some things of interest.

Why would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. This past autumn I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September [2008]. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else.

The Fox And Elder Paisios

February 6, 2010

Elder Paisios said: Often we see a person and we say a couple spiritual words to him and he converts. 
Later we say, “Ah, I saved someone.” I believe that the person who has the disposition and goodness 
within him, if he doesn’t convert from what we say,  would convert from the sight of a bear or a fox or from anything else. Let 
us beware of false evangelization.


The soul is a great mystery – greater still is the mystery of a soul’s turning to God. Argumentation is frequently misleading. For though we may mount the perfect rational case for turning to God – the heart will not receive it unless it is prepared. We never live our lives on a purely rational basis.

This does not make rational discussion of no value – but it recognizes that such discussions require the disposition of a good heart. Such a disposition in another person is utterly beyond our control (and even sometimes beyond their own). Kindness and prayer are thus of far greater importance than masterful argument.

It is always God Himself who is the desire of our heart (that is, according to our nature). Explanations, be they ever so good, are not the true hunger that haunts us: God Himself is the true explanation of all things. If in the course of discussion or even argumentation, someone comes to faith in God, it is because something has happened (in the heart) that allows God to be apparent.

By the same token, an evil disposition and a darkened heart, if found within a “believer,” will become the source of many dark thoughts. Such a heart will argue for the destruction of others and constantly misrepresent God. We cannot present the good God out of an evil heart.

A believer’s first concern, above all else, must be to acquire a good heart – one that is disposed to God and that loves everything and everyone. Only with such a good heart can we be of use to anyone in all of creation.

Private Prayer – Thoughts of Met. Anthony of Sourozh

February 3, 2010

The following is an excerpt from a posting on Orthodox World. It is from the late Met. Anthony Bloom (England). There are many articles of interest on this website.

There was a time when I read with great faithfulness all the prayers which the Church offers us in the morning, in the evening and on other occasions. But I could not always identify with them. They were prayers which were strange to me. I had not grown to that measure of faith or to that measure of love for my neighbour. There were passages in the prayers which I could say sincerely; but there were passages which I could not say; partly because they went against my experience, my feeling, partly because I had not grown to that measure of faith and spiritual experience.

My spiritual father gave me advice on that. He said to me: ‘For a year I forbid you to use any of the prayers of the books of prayer. Before you go to bed, make the sign of the Cross and then lie down and say, “Lord, at the prayers of those who love me, save me,” and begin to ask yourself who are those who love you — who love you so much, so deeply, so truly, that you don’t need even to pray, because their prayers are your shield and your way?’

I tried it. One name after the other came. And every time a name floated up, I stopped one moment and said, ‘How wonderful! He loves me, she loves me! Oh God, bless him, bless her, for the love she can give me as a present. Read more…

Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day

February 3, 2010

This article, from an earlier parish newsletter is posted here by request.

Candlewax and Hedgehogs—a peculiar way to entitle an article, I’ll admit. But both have their associations with the second day of February. The first is more important so we’ll begin there. The second day of February is one of the 12 great feasts, and is also celebrated by Christians in the West. The feast is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, described in the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.

There we are told that the Christ child was brought by his mother into the temple in fulfillment of the law, 40 days after his birth (February 2 is 40 days after December 25). The Old Testament Law commanded that “every male that openeth the womb (the first born child) shall be holy to the Lord.” Thus the child was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and an offering made on His behalf in thanksgiving to God for his birth.

The Most Holy Mother of God certainly kept this teaching of the Law. We are told that she brought her child to the Temple to make offering (and to receive her purification—another required rite of the Temple). There she was met by two people, one a woman, another a man, and both of them prophets. The woman, Anna the Prophetess, spoke to her concerning her child. The aged prophet Symeon, saw the mother and Child and exclaimed in words we repeat at every Vespers:

Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. To be a Light to enlighten the nations and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

This prophecy of St. Symeon has as its key phrase the description that Christ would be a “light to enlighten the gentiles.” It is the emphasis on light that brings these words each evening to the service of Vespers, when we give thanks to God for the Light He has given us. It is also for this reason that candles are blessed on this holy day. The candles of the Church (and especially those to be taken home and used by the faithful) are blessed on this day, because they remind us that Christ is the “light of the world.”

The associations of this feast with light is also where the hedgehogs come in. Christian cultures have usually never let the feasts of the Church stay within the Church itself, but have exported them to the house and farm. So it was that in Europe (particularly Germany) there arose a folk custom that on the Feast of the Presentation (also called “Candlemas” because candles were blessed on that day) if a hedgehog [badgers in some areas] should come out of his burrow and see the light (and thus his shadow) he would return to his burrow because winter would last six more weeks.

German immigrants brought this folk custom to America in the 1800’s. There being no hedgehogs, the groundhog was drafted to take his place. Thus the secular calendar celebrates “Groundhog Day.” But only the faithful Christian knows and understands the secret of the Light that shines on February 2nd. Not the light of the sun, frightening a furry creature back into his hole, but the Light of Christ, which frightens all the evil powers that would do us harm.

For an interesting theological meditation on Groundhog Day, I suggest you rent and view the movie by that title. Bill Murray finds redemption as he lives his way through a near eternity of Groundhog Days. But I will spare you.

Looking for the Self in All the Wrong Places

February 1, 2010

A few years ago, a major American magazine dubbed a particular age-group as the “me generation.” It would have been more accurate to describe the whole of modernity as a “me generation.” For it has been a hallmark of our age to fashion a particular understanding of what we mean when we say “me.” It would come as a shock to many, but human beings have not always defined the self in the manner of modern man. Modern man is just that: modern.

Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity is probably the single most complete study of the topic. Not only how we perceive ourselves but what part of our experience we consider important and defining are significant elements of this identity. Orthodox theology has often offered criticism of modernity’s over-emphasis on the self-as-individual, preferring instead to emphasize our identity as found within the communion of persons (the Church).

Foundational questions for the self can be found in statements such as this of St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet, not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

What does St. Paul mean by the word, “I,” in this statement? It is clear that the identity shifts over the course of the two sentences. “I live, yet not I.”

The same thought resides in Christ’s commandment, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

The question “Who are you?” or even “What are you?” is not quite as obvious as it would seem. The fathers of the Church who write on prayer and the inner life, speak about the problem of the logismoi, the little thoughts that sound constantly in our minds. The modern ego is described by Archimandrite Meletios Webber as a sort of false construct, a narrative of the logismoi which we often struggle to maintain and defend, projecting it backwards and forwards through time. The identity that exists only in the present remains virtually unknown to most.

It is understood as well that the identity that is so fiercely defended in our acts of pride and the like is not the self at all. In Christian teaching the true self is only found in “emptying ourselves” in the likeness of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). We create a false self not only in defending our false positions, but also in creating a life of opinion and judging where thoughts and feelings, particularly those that give us a sense of belonging to a particular group, become of paramount importance. Thus to say, “I am an Orthodox Christian,” can, in some cases, mean little more than “I am a fan of such-and-such a football team.” Our identity becomes marked by arguments and positions – but not marked by prayer and communion with God. Holding Orthodox opinions is not the same thing as the life of the Orthodox faith.

But this only becomes clear as we are freed from false identifications of the self. The modern world tends to smash communal identities: the culture views us and wants us to view ourselves purely as individuals. All identity of the self beyond personal desire and opinion are seen merely as the choices and proclivities of individuals. Communal identity becomes a function of individual loyalties. It is this that reduces religious identity to the level of a sports fan.

St. Paul points the way forward towards our true self:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

“Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” gives the identity of the true self. Interestingly, this true self is spoken of as “hidden,” thus indicating that even our own identity is “apophatic” in character: our true self is not obvious but is instead a mystery in Christ. The ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting also direct us to struggle against the logismoi, the constant flow of thoughts that are not our true self.

I was interested last week to hear Archimandrite Meletios speak of the logismoi and particularly identify them with that flow of thoughts that arise as we lie in bed nearing the waking state. He stated that he asks his monks to stop and think of 5 things for which they are grateful before getting out of bed. “I would prefer not to encounter anyone in the morning who has just arisen from the logismoi,” he said with some humor. I could well imagine that it is a matter of survival within a monastery.

Much of our anxiety and regret (maybe all of it) are the sounds of this voice of the false self. Hidden with Christ in God, the true self sings praises and rejoices in all things. The true self does not dwell in the past or worry about the future: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

A friend recently sent me a link to a letter written by a contemporary monk who is slowly passing into deeper stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. The words of the monk are an amazing testimony of faith, but also a reminder that much that is considered the “self” in our modern world is not the true self. There is a self that transcends even the ravages that assault our brain. I found this to be deeply comforting. The letter may be read here.

May God keep us all.