The use of sung hymns to open our hearts to God is as ancient as the people of God themselves. In fact, the Book of Psalms is frequently referred to as the hymn book of the church and instructs us to “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;” (Ps 33:1a) and to “Praise in the assembly of his faithful people” (Ps 149:1b). The Psalms even teach us that creation itself praises God for His wonders, “The heavens shall praise thy wonders, O Lord: thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints” (Ps 89:5).
We Bless You from the House of the Lord
But the psalmist isn’t suggesting that we praise God, instead the Psalms identify praising God as an essential element of what we do as the people of God. The Sunday prokeimenon in Tone 3 commands us to “Sing praises to our God, sing praises. Sing praises to our King, sing praises!” Offering right praise and true worship to God are identified as our calling. The Psalm 33 says, “…it is fitting for the upright to praise him.” During Matins on Holy Saturday we read the verses of Psalm 119 which outline how we are to live, and the psalm concludes with, “Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.”
The wonders of God are so amazing and wonderful that it is only fitting that we “Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.” (Ps 150:2). Countless generations have sung the hymns and songs we sing today in church, joyfully proclaiming how great is our God. Like the children who shouted, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” when our Lord entered Jerusalem, we too echo the psalmist himself.
Centuries later, these words of praise are still our prayers. We sing them to our God, who is so great and does things which are beyond our comprehension and most importantly, for our salvation. We offer our worship in thanksgiving for what we have received from God, and as St. John of Damascus says, we “sing our hymns of gratitude, partaking in His goodness.” As our beloved Father Sergei Glagolev quotes from the psalms, “Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, O Lord, they walk in the light of Thy countenance.” (Ps 89:15) The ‘they’ is intended to be ‘us.’
The Beauty of Creation
To know God is to love God. We come to know God in many ways throughout our lives: through the natural beauty of this planet, in the faces of those around us, and in the creative spirit of humanity. Our talents and the creative spirit given to us by God are expressed in the arts, medicine, science, and technology, and foremost through our life in the church. As Ps. 103 says, “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works, in wisdom hast Thou made them all.” St. Basil the Great even wrote a treatise, The Hexameron, on the wonders of creation. The beauty of God creation must be understood in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice and example of God’s love. We know that God loved the world so much that he gave His only Son for us. It was through His death and resurrection that creation has been restored to the beauty it was intended to have in the beginning - and to restore our place in the presence of God.
If we desire to be in the presence of God, it is only natural that we should want our experiences in the church to reflect that divine presence and beauty. For those of us who serve as church musicians, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to let this guide our every action. All of our works and interactions - whether it be in directing during the liturgy, leading rehearsals, singing in a choir, chanting on the kliros, writing new compositions or settings of sacred texts, teaching children how to sing, training new readers, engraving a hymn on the computer, conducting research on ancient manuscripts, translating hymns from one language into another, or even simply sustaining an ison – must be completed in a way to project the beauty, love, and majesty of God.
These actions, often over-simplified and described as ‘singing in church,’ are much more than hobbies or something we like to do every Saturday evening and Sunday morning. They represent a sacred responsibility. God has blessed each of us with the means to use the gifts and creative talents to help proclaim the joyous news of the Resurrection. This means that our focus and attention must be on Jesus Christ and His resurrection to ensure we are prayerful in offering our best with beauty and humility for the glory of God.
It means honing our creative talents and abilities in service to God through His church, for His glory, and the benefit and salvation of others. But if we think we’re singing or studying or researching or directing or writing music for ourselves, then we may need to reassess our motives. The glory and beauty which exists in the church may be the result of our work, but it is only through God and for God that these creative expressions exist in the church.
If our focus is on God and we are intent on drawing closer to Him through the liturgical actions of the church, we can then understand what true beauty is and can be.
The Beauty of God
For Christians, beauty is not a matter of individual tastes, but is first and foremost a reflection of God. The beauty of God is found in His consistent and unending love for each of us, making it possible for us to reflect that joy and love in our divine services. The liturgical texts proclaim God’s majesty, the music heightens those texts beyond normal conversations, and when combined, they reflect man’s creative nature as bestowed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must allow God to guide our creative spirit to reflect the beauty which illumines the world.
The beauty of God should be found in the music we compose or use, adding a depth and character to the texts we sing. It should be in the language or languages we use in our parish, reflecting our ministry to the many cultures found in the English-speaking world, yet unified in the oneness of the Orthodox Faith. It should be in our service as church musicians to sing and proclaim the teachings of the church with care and Paschal joy at every service, singing clearly and in a manner which inspires others to join us. We can also reflect God's love through non-liturgical events such as concerts, the use of para-liturgical hymns, caroling during the holidays, teaching children to sing, or organizing small plays and productions which enable those outside our parish communities to come in contact with the church to experience the joy of our Orthodox Faith.
The beauty of the God is found in each of us and it is up to us to use our talents for His glory. By reflecting His glory, we can be instruments used for the building-up of the church here in North America. We can help the faithful who are in our communities to understand what is being proclaimed in song, guiding us towards salvation. As church musicians we have this great opportunity and responsibility to bear witness to God and ensure these hymns are proclaimed joyfully, with care and attention to their understanding, beauty, and prayerfulness.
Let us Pray to the Lord
Beauty however cannot stand alone in our liturgical celebrations – otherwise it exists solely for artistic expression and becomes a reflection of our fallen nature. Beauty can be found in the sincere and humble offering of our best to God. It exists in a delicate balance between striving for perfection and not accepting mediocrity. Our liturgical services should reflect the creative energies of the Holy Spirit Who breathes life into all that we do.
The beauty of our prayers is found in how we pray them and how we offer our prayers to God. As St. John Chrysostom says in his Paschal homily, “If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.” The feast we celebrate each Sunday commemorates that same miracle of Pascha – it is our weekly celebration of the resurrection and the joy of the risen Lord. Our prayers can and must be offered joyously.
Prayer makes it possible for each of us to lead transfigured lives. As St. Seraphim of Sarov says, ‘save yourself and a thousand around you will be saved.’ The prayers we offer during the liturgy as Orthodox communities define who we are and become the catalyst for us to transform our culture and the world around us. The struggles, terrors, and evils of this world consume the media and distract us from the things needful for beauty to exist. Prayer enables beauty to exist, because it is through prayer that we recognize the beauty of creation and all that God has done for us.
Today’s world moves at an amazing pace, filled with so much information and noise that it often feels impossible to escape it, especially when we need to find a moment to pray. We all need to find our way back to church each Sunday to refocus our lives towards God through the liturgy. Regardless of what happens in our personal lives, the world around us, the true center of our lives is found in the church.
Our responsibility as church musicians is to assist the clergy to create opportunities to pray as a community during the liturgy. Our common work – our λειτουργία – needs to be done prayerfully and beautifully, with thanksgiving and with joy. The services must engage the assembly, drawing them into the experience so they can add their ‘Amen’ to those offered by the choir, cantors, and singers. Our liturgy must be contemplative and restorative so that we can leave church renewed, ready to return to the world, but not being part of the world. But instead, bearing witness to the Light of Christ.
If the liturgical experience in our churches is prayerful, it has the potential to nurture a life of prayer for each of us as we go home from the church and back into ‘the world’, sustaining each of us through our weekly struggles. Through the reception of the Holy Eucharist, the liturgy becomes the means for us to build and strengthen a relationship with God Himself. He unites and brings us together in a bond of love, not just with Him, but with all of our fellow Orthodox Christians.
The hymns of our liturgical experience are sung by the faithful, not just on behalf of the community, but as our own personal prayers of thanksgiving, “Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise O Lord, that we may sing of Thy glory; for Thou hast made us worthy to partake of Thy Holy, Divine, Immortal and Life-creating Mysteries. Keep us in Thy holiness that all the day we may meditate upon Thy righteousness. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
These prayers, set to music, raise simple ideas to an encounter with the divine. We share with those around us and reflect the creative expression and gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to offer our own talents and gifts for the glory of God.
Be All Things To All People
As Orthodox Christians, we have a great responsibility to live in a way which reflects the love of God in our interactions with others. For this to happen, we must reflect on whether we are doing everything possible to ensure the liturgical life of our parish communities is filled with beautiful and joyous prayers to God.
Can others comprehend what we are singing? Are our prayers exclusionary or esoteric or unintelligible? Are they in a language which may reflect our ancestors but not our future? If we accept our Lord’s command to be all things to all people, are we consciously using our received tradition and the liturgy to enable the assembly and our neighbors to encounter the divine?
How often do we sing beautiful settings of music which distort the text through repeated snippets of phrases or long melismatic patterns that interrupt the liturgical service or disrupt prayer? Does the form of our singing follow the function of the liturgy in our churches, or is it regretfully the other way around?
If we believe that Our Lord was speaking to us when He commanded his disciples to be all things to all people – perhaps we need to step back and assess our efforts: are we truly being Christians before all people?
In the English-speaking world we have the unique responsibility of ministering to hundreds of diverse nationalities, not just one ethnic tradition or people. There may be parishes which need to consider making the transition to all English for the sake of their children and future generations. There may be parishes which need to introduce or even reintroduce foreign languages because of the neighborhood or new immigrant members. Are we doing everything necessary to allow God to work within us and our communities to provide a beautiful and prayerful encounter with Christ for those who enter our churches?
The beauty of our liturgical experience can be expressed in many diverse chant patterns and a multitude of languages. In our efforts to maintain a particular tradition, are we using translations which coherently proclaim the meaning of the text? Or are we preserving the poetic structure of the texts at the expense of comprehension? Or in our enthusiasm to incorporate many traditions are we creating a cacophony of sound which distracts from the function of the liturgy? If our prayers are not intelligible to those who sing or hear them, why are we doing these things?
God Dwells There Among Them
We have the opportunity and the responsibility to create liturgical offering of beauty and prayer in our parishes. Are the beautiful musical settings we use vehicles for prayers to be offered humbly and sincerely by those participating in the divine services? Do we recognize the proclamation and understanding of the texts by the assembly is dependent on our efforts as church musicians?
History records the visit of emissaries to the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople on behalf of the Kievan prince Vladimir and their description of attending liturgy in the Great Church, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
Is this the same type of impression we want for everyone who attends services in our churches?
It wasn’t simply the beauty of the cathedral, or the mosaic icons, or even the singing. It was the totality of the experience of worshipping and praying to God in the Orthodox Church. That same worship is our worship. True prayer is possible when accompanied by true beauty, and the reverse is also attainable. Our prayers must be offered joyously with beauty and sincerely with prayer. And if God wills, may He use our efforts to enlighten those who are seeking to encounter the divine.