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.