Music and Orthodoxy

I was thinking of blogging on the exact subject of this post, but fortunately a priest already did that for me.  I hope to meet him someday, as this is spot on.

Music and Orthodoxy

by Father Michael Varlamos

Music is one of the most powerful forces known to man. It communicates in ways beyond our comprehension. The Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church recognized this and were very selective in what type of music was appropriate for our worship. The same can be said for our iconography, church architecture, rubrics of our worship service, vestments, etc. In the Orthodox Church, music was used to emphasize the meaning of the words of the hymn. It was not supposed to sound similar to secular music. Hymns were written and composed to be prayed to a simple melody that can either be done by a single individual or by a one hundred-voice choir. The words of the hymn were always more important than the music. The music was there to add color, support and amplify the meaning of the text. The Church music was meant to penetrate the depth of our heart and there to “prick it,” that is, to wound it into repentance, contrition, and humility, which is the only way to bring us to pray.

That is why our holy Orthodox Church for almost 2,000 years used the type of music known today as Byzantine chant. It is a music that may not always be appealing to our “secular ear,” but is the music of simplicity, purity and prayer. It is, in the opinion of the saints of our Church, “the music of the human soul,” “the music of prayer,” and the “sound of Orthodoxy.” It is the music used in all Orthodox spiritual centers—monasteries, convents, shrines, the Greek Patriarchates, etc.—throughout the world.

From the beginning of the 19th Century and through the 20th Century, history shows us that human beings were becoming more secular and materialistic. In the world of art, music, and even architecture, there was an emphasis on external beauty and less so on the inner, spiritual nature of things in general. In painting, canvasses became huge and depicted emotional and realistic events. Eventually, art effected bold colors and abstract figures. Music became loud, filled with emotion and complexity. Even church music in our Archdiocese was affected by this Romantic trend. We tried to copy what other denominations were doing. More emphasis was placed on the music and the text began to disappear into the background.

Music was becoming more complex and intricate. It tried to affect us emotionally, and we confused this with spirituality. There seemed to be an emphasis on “feelings” in the music that was being written by our Greek Orthodox composers—that certain feelings and emotions were trying to be evoked, almost with no regard to the text, or even oblivious to it. In America, more and more people did not understand the original Greek anyway, so it seems that attempts were made to bury it in complex melodies with four and six part harmonies. It didn’t really matter what the words of the prayer or hymn meant, as long as it sounded beautiful! The music became more important than the prayer itself!

This new type of music dominated the Greek Orthodox churches in our country during the 20th century and, for the time being, continues to do so. Efforts are being made throughout the country to rediscover the ancient music of the Greek Orthodox Church—the music that was supposed to go with our hymns and prayers. More and more parishes are beginning to recognize why the Fathers of our Church selected this music instead of what we have had in the last 50 to 75 years. I’m pleased that our parish is one of these churches.

This music is not intended merely for singing, whether in the loft or from the pew, but it is to be prayed. To truly pray, we must live and approach this music the way our saints did: in a state of repentance. To repent means to change our ways, to initiate a new beginning to our relationship with God. It is living a life of faith, love, humility and obedience. It is placing our souls in the hands of our spiritual fathers who strive to guide us by the teachings of Jesus Christ and His saints.

Look at the Divine Liturgy in a different way: as a dialogue with God. Don’t only worship with your ears (that is, by the sound of music); listen carefully to the text. Internalize and strive to understand the meaning of what is being chanted or intoned. Learn to speak to God within your hearts. He is there in the depth of our being. Converse with Him in meaningful words there, first. Then raise your voice in praise and supplication.

Some people say that they do not find this Byzantine music uplifting, perhaps because it is not as emotional as the music we have become used to. Please understand that before we can be truly uplifted, we must first humble ourselves from the depth of our hearts and initiate our prayer and worship there with: humility, simplicity, purity and peacefulness. Then our uplifting is not a feeling or an emotion, but a truly spiritual experience: it is nothing less than standing before God.

This is what the Fathers of our Church taught and this is why they did not choose the emotional, complex music which, as we know from Plato, did exist in ancient times, and would be analagous to the complex harmonies of today’s church music in America; but rather they selected the simple spiritual music we know as Byzantine chant. And this is what more and more churches are discovering. As more people, Greeks and converts, are coming to appreciate the faith and traditions of Orthodoxy, many are seeing the connection between this traditional music and our iconography, spirituality and life as Orthodox Christians.

I pray on a daily basis that all our people, choir members and not, will come to see my preference for Byzantine chant not as me implementing my opinion and personal tastes on others. Quite the opposite! My personal tastes in music are quite broad, from classical to jazz to rock. But within liturgical services, I only wish to bring others closer to God in the way our Greek Orthodox Church has for almost two millennia. This matter has more to do with the salvation of our souls than it does with music. Again, I pray that people see the changes I advocate in this way and this way only. We should pray, fast, repent, live as Christ taught us with meekness and humility, read the Bible daily, be obedient to the Tradition of our Church, come to Confession for forgiveness and guidance, and praise God not only with our voices, but with our thoughts and deeds as well.



Liturgy, Music, and Hesychia

In the course of the debate between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam on what the Orthodox approach to prayer and spiritual growth should rightly be, St. Gregory responded to the notion that Barlaam had put forth that we must focus our mind outside of ourselves in order to find God:

For if, as the Psalmist says, “all the glory of the king’s daughter is within”, why do we search for it without?  And if, according to the Apostle, “God has given His Spirit to cry in our hearts, Abba, Father,” how is it we too do not pray with the Spirit in our hearts?  If, as the Lord of the prophets and the apostles teaches, “the Kingdom of God is within us”, does it not follow that a man will be excluded from the Kingdom if he devotes his energies to making his mind go out from within himself? (The Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of the body, from the Triads)

The services of the church provide a forum for us to participate in worship with our fellow Christian.  At the same time, it can be argued that the services of the Church serve as a training ground for us to seek out God within us.  How is that accomplished?  One mechanism is that all of the senses are actively engaged and focused on spiritual matters, in order to help us avoid getting distracted by wordly thoughts.  We have the icons, incense, prayer ropes and candles to hold in our hands, the taste of the holy gifts, and the music.  All of the senses are engaged to help us avoid worldly distractions.  At the same time, the engagement isn’t intended for us to focus on all those elements.  Instead, it is meant to free our nous to “descend into our hearts” as the Fathers say.  For it is there that we can find God.  One priest I know of said the following with regard to worship, “We will get more out of the services if we pray rather than merely attend them.  Allow the hymns to enter your heart, and make their words your own.”

When we look at music, we know that the style of music can have a great affect on our moods and attitudes.  Certain songs raise your energy level, while others can darken your mood.  Some can cause you to enter deep into thought, while others can lead you to move about with little thought.  It is therefore important to pay attention to the style of the music used in Worship.  It is not merely the words, but the ability of the music itself to alter your approach to the words that is important.  Traditionally, the Church has treated its hymns in the same way it has treated its theology.  One does not simply make up a new hymn just as one does not simply make up a new doctrine – hymns reflect established doctrine and go through a very slow process before they are accepted.  Similarly, although people may write new settings for hymns, they follow rules regarding the musical structure and format.  One major reason for this is precisely that the stylistic elements of the tune can impact your reaction to the words that are being sung with it.  As my chant teacher told us recently, some hymns are available in all 8 modes, so that we me reflect on the words of those hymns in different ways as we experience them through these different melodies.

So, although worship is corporate, because we are corporate beings, it is also personal, as it is the means to enter into closer communion with God.

From an anecdotal perspective, I must relate my experience of Holy Week this year.  We had a monk, Fr. Maximos, visiting with us for the week.  Currently a professor at Holy Cross School of Theology, he is also a monk from Simonopetra Monastery on Mt. Athos.  You can “meet” him in this 60 Minutes special on Mt. Athos.  For that week we had Fr. Maximos and our Protopsaltis, Dr. Alexander Khalil leading chanting.  The services were longer, in general, than they had been in the past, because we were not doing some of the reduction of the services that had happened in years past.  I chanted the entire week through these longer services.  Yet, at the end of the week, while physically tired, I was spiritually refreshed in a way that I had never been during our previous Holy Weeks.  It was more reminiscent of my sensation after a weekend at one of monasteries.  Reflecting back on the week, I think the beauty of the chant, and participating in it, brought me into a much more meditative space.  I feel that, at least for brief pieces of time, my mind had moved to at least the edge of the kingdom.  I think it was coming just that close to God was so spiritually refreshing.



The Blind Man

In the Orthodox Church, the sixth Sunday of Pascha is the Sunday of the Blind Man from the Gospel according to St. John.  This year was a bit different, as the sixth Sunday landed on May 25th, which is also the celebration of the third finding of the head of John the Baptist, but we still sing and read the hymns of the man born blind.

The story is, on a factual basis, about the healing of a man born blind, the nature of sin, and the ability of Christ, as the Son of God, to forgive sins.  Although one could argue that this has impact on our lives, after all, the ability of Christ to forgive our sins is significant, there doesn’t seem to be much application of this story to our lives.  However, the hymnography of the Church once again provides us with the deeper meaning of this story, and its impact on our lives.  The kontakion for the day goes as follows:

In the eyes of soul have I become unseeing.  Unto You I come, O Christ, as did of old the man born blind, and in repentance I cry to You.  For those in darkness You are the most resplendent light.

The key to this passage is not that Christ is able to heal us physically (which he is), nor that he can forgive our sins (which he can and does), but rather that he can provide us with the ability to clearly see with the eyes of our soul.  The eye of our soul is known as the nous, and is that aspect of humanity that permits us to attain knowledge of God.  While the nous is blind, we can see either not at all or, at best, as St. Paul puts it, dimly.  However, as our nous becomes healed by our relationship with Christ, our ability to perceive God, and enter into communion with Him, grows.  That is the goal of the Christian life, to become deified via communion with God.

And that is the point of that particular Gospel story.

The Pentecost Hymn

Of course there isn’t just one hymn for Pentecost, but there is one hymn that has come to be known as the Pentecost hymn. In Orthodox hymnody, sometimes there are several hymns addressing the same event from a slightly different angle, with the intent that all of the hymns together will help the listener grow into a deeper, more mystical understanding of the event. One example of this is the Resurrectional Evlogitaria (which we’ll present later), which address the myrrh bearing women’s arrival at the empty tomb. At other times, there is a single hymn that seems packed with a lot of different points, all of which merit some unpacking. The Pentecost hymn is one of those. I’d like to address just a couple of points from the hymn, but there is more there to be meditated upon.

The Pentecost hymn has an interesting place in the prayer life of the Church. It is chanted several times from Vespers through Orthros the next morning, and then again at the kneeling Vespers before the Monday of the Holy Spirit. Outside of Pentecost, though, the hymn takes its place as the opening prayer of morning services both for the home and Church, as well as at other times. The hymn is as follows:

Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, the treasure of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from all impurity, and save our should, O good one.

The first point I’d like to make I didn’t initially intend to address, but a quote from Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos landed in my in box, and I thought it worth sharing: “Here one sees the order of the knowledge of God. The heart of man is cleansed by the Holy Spirit, then it knows Christ and then it is brought to the Father.” I won’t spend much time on this, because Metropolitan Hierotheos addresses the topic of of coming to know God at great length in several books, and of course does a much better job than I could. One such book well worth reading is “Orthodox Spirituality”, and another is the “Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition”. In these books, as well as others, the Metropolitan addresses the Orthodox understanding of our life in the Church. Our salvation is not a matter of mere rational assent to the proposition that Christ died for our sins, but rather the entering into a life of communion with God. This process may begin with our assent to a set of propositions, but it must necessarily involve an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which, along with our participation in the ascetic life of the Church, leads us to a place where it grows in its knowledge of Christ, and ultimate of the Father. This knowledge is not a rational knowledge, but rather a mystical knowledge. That is, a knowledge of persons through the direct experience of them. I recommend reading the Metropolitan’s books for a much greater exploration of this topic.

The second point is also covered in great depth in a wonderful book that just came out in the last year or so. That is, that quiet little phrase at the beginning of the prayer, “everywhere present.” This is, in fact, the title of the book by Fr. Stephen Freeman. In it, Fr. Freeman explores the Orthodox understanding both of God and the heavenly realm. In the modern West we have adopted a view that God and the angels, etc., live on the second story of our universe. They are up there (or in the case of the demons, down there in the basement), and we are down here. Every once in a while God bangs around upstairs so we can here Him, and once, a long time ago, he sent Jesus down here for a bit. Otherwise, in our day to day lives we live somehow apart from what goes on up there. However, that is not really how things are. Yes, the metaphor of God being “up there” is useful for us, as it helps us think of upward progression. However, the reality is that heavenly realms are all around us. We are just generally too blinded by our passions to be able to see. It is interesting to note that there are numerous stories of both very young children (who have not become sufficiently blinded yet) or very holy individuals (who have managed to progress in their knowledge of God as Metropolitan Hierotheos discusses) who have seen amazing and wonderful things during the Divine Liturgy – angels, God’s light, etc. One priest I know was serving a liturgy and a young child was present with his mother at the liturgy. After the liturgy, the mother told the child that they were going to meet with the priest, and the child responded with, “is that the fire man?” When asked why the child referred to him as the fire man, the explanation was forthcoming that during the consecration of the gifts, the priest was surrounded by fire. Saints have been quoted as describing fire descending onto the altar during the epiclesis, or the calling down of the Holy Spirit. Others have reported angels and saints being present in the altar during the liturgy.

If one thinks a bit further about God being everywhere present, then the question arises about where exactly, then, is God not present? If He is everywhere, what does that mean for people’s plans to “go” to heaven? What is heaven and hell, if God is everywhere? For a good exploration of this, I would recommend both Fr. Stephen’s book, as well as this piece. In addition, this talk, given to a youth group many years ago, is worth a read.


One significant challenge that the average Christian faces when attempting to study theology is figuring out who and what to read. Even for those who take a Sola Scriptura view this can be challenging. What do you do with conflicting passages or with unclear passages(what did Paul mean when he refers to his teachings not recorded in his epistles)? There can be similar problems when studying the Church Fathers, who frequently are attempting to explain scripture. Yet, we know that there are contradictions at times between Fathers, or cases where we know they are in error on occasion( like Augustine). What are we to do if we are seeking to deepen our understanding of our faith?

One way, as I’ve mentioned before, is to look to the hymns of the church. For the Orthodox, hymns are a significant means of passing down theology. We have never been in the practice of arbitrarily adding in hymns written by someone just because they have musical talent. Hymns (and the prayers and other components of the services) are somewhat slow in being adopted. The one exception are the troparia for a new saint, in part because these largely recapitulate the life of the saint and frequently are adaptations of troparia for other saints. Even at that, the adoption of these hymns would likely seem slow by Western standards. This unwillingness to add new hymns means that many of the hymns are very ancient.

Unfortunately, it can be a bit challenging to locate a hymn that addresses a specific topic of interest – like here, where I address the question of why Moses needed to part the red sea. Of course, the best solution would be for all of us to spend time learning many of the hymns, but it would also be nice to have a reference collection with a topical index.
Someday I hope to be able to work on something like that. In the mean time, I hope to publish the occasional hymn with a brief discussion of its background and subject matter.

I’ll start things off with one of my favorite hymns, the 15th Antiphon from both Matins of Holy Friday (read on Holy Thursday), and from the Hours read on Holy Friday morning:

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in a purple robe of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is struck on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.

This hymn is typically chanted in a somewhat embellished variation of what is known as “reader’s mode”. Here is Bishop Job, of Blessed Memory chanting the hymn:

A nearly identical hymn to this chanted before the feast of the Nativity. The text clearly serves to make us ponder the very nature of Christ. It is obvious, from the opening verse, that we are discussing the very God who created the world. However, the juxtaposition of the events, especially coupled with the style of chanting primarily serves as a means of forcing us to meditate, and meditate deeply, upon what was done to the very God who created the world, in order to free us from the bondage of sin. Adding to this the weight of the self examination that takes place throughout Lent and Holy Week, we develop a greater sense of the enormity of the impact of our sin. As the hymn concludes, however, we are taken from the deep sorrow for our actions and receive one of the first glimpses of the coming resurrection to be celebrated in a couple of days. I can tell you, the power of this hymn is incredible. Having had the great privilege of chanting this from the center of the solea in front of the Iconostasis and altar, I find myself struggling to control my emotions long enough to get through the hymn.

Another perspective to be applied to this hymn is to look at the juxtaposition of events as a way to understand what God subjected Himself to for us. This is similar to the Nativity version of this antiphon, where we meditate on the great condescension of God towards us.

Why We Worship the Way We Do

Orthodox are known for not changing much. The most modern hymn that I can think of that we ever do is around 100 years old. The oldest go back so far, that I’m not sure anyone is really certain of the age. Our worship service, itself, has undergone very little change over the last 2000 years. If a Christian in the second century were to wander into our Church, except for his inability to understand the English portions of the service (or Slavonic if he were to go to a Russian parish), I think his only comment would be to wonder how come we’ve made it so short (Orthros through Liturgy on a Sunday morning is, at best 2 1/2 hours, vs. all night which used to be the case in the early days of the Church).

I found a great article at a parish in Arizona, that explains the Orthodox understanding of what Worship is supposed to be about. I only would like to add a few thoughts to the great information there. There is one element of worship, arguably a less important element, so I can understand why Dr. DeVyver didn’t really address it. That is the element of Catechesis. Although not so much the case within the Divine Liturgy, there is a strong element of Catechesis in some of the other services, most notably that of Orthros. Although the structure is largely the same from day to day and week to week (Sunday Orthros is longer, as it has a predominant focus on the Resurrection, and additional hymns were developed for that), the text of many of the hymns change in order to express teaching about the Saints or feast being celebrated on that given day.

The wealth of teaching in these services is not to be missed. Unfortunately, in this day and age, most Orthodox do miss Orthros, and thus miss the edification that comes from this service. Given the lack of knowledge of the faith among the Orthodox laity as witnessed by recent surveys, one part of the solution would certainly be attending and listening to the hymns and readings of Orthros. I only hope to see more priests pushing this among their flock.