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 Music as Prayer

By Priest George Johnson
(From Orthodox America)


Among many things, the newcomer to Orthodox worship is at once impressed by the fact that our services are continuous song. From first to last, no sound is heard, aside from a sermon, that is not some form of music. Even sermons were of old cast in poetry to be sung, and to most elaborate music at that. Almost the entire content of a service is made for singing. Even the reading is always intoned and becomes inflected in a tune-like manner, never entirely monotonous. This union of word and song spills over from public to private, spontaneous acts of worship. Are Orthodox gathered in pilgrimage at a holy place? At the very least, they will sing a hymn about what happened there. Is a pious person traveling? Whether especially musical or not, he will sing "He that dwellest in the help of the Most High." Is someone soon to die? When the priest comes, those at the bedside and, if possible, the sufferer, will sing the hymns of the Unction service. Where there is Orthodox worship, there is music.
Why is it that music is so wedded to the spiritual life of the Church, to her prayer? This is so because of the power in its beauty, the power to drive deep into the souls of the faithful the memory and meaning of what our Creator and Deliverer does for us, the power to tell to the world these more-than-heroes' deeds in a way that simple speech cannot, the power to ignite our longing for the Heavenly Kingdom. Because of music's great power, the Church has ever carefully husbanded its use. This husbanding does not, however, mean that her music is everywhere cookie-cutter identical. On the contrary, when we hear music from different Orthodox national traditions, we find that no two sound anything alike, unless directly borrowing from each other; but there is ever present a sobriety and spiritual serenity which is the hallmark of Orthodox music, regardless of its dress. This is the result of the Church's care for her worship. The music is never static, it is ever-evolving but always characteristic, representing in its time and mode the treasured and precious inheritance. Since the spiritual life of the Church is so wedded to its music, we in the Church who are musically aware, and therefore responsible, must make it the first call on our effort to know and hold as our own our inherited musical tradition in all its glorious detail. If we would add something of our own, let it first be our open eyes and ears. At all events, complacency should play no part; we should make ourselves merciless skeptics toward our own preconceptions.


We who are converts to the Faith in adulthood have a particular labor to perform. We bring baggage. In our fresh zeal and desire for perfection, we tend to lift items of this baggage to the level of moral or even theological principle. One piece of such baggage is the notion that since everyone can more or less sing, then the only proper worship consists in everyone singing, and that continually. This idea has more to do with a rigorous Calvinism than with Orthodoxy. The historical fact of the matter is that church music has always consisted in some combination of particular and general singing. One is no better than the other in any absolute sense. Everyone knows and sings some of the music; a few know and only they sing some of the music; sometimes, everyone sings all the music, whether they know the music or not. The possibilities exercised vary from time to time, place to place and from occasion to occasion. No one possibility represents the immutable paradigm. Another piece of baggage is a tendency to trust to the tradition as found in books rather than in living tradition. This tendency comes from those religious bodies with legalistic pre-dispositions, having only a legacy of the written word with a nearly inbred distrust of any other type of tradition. Again, with our fresh zeal for perfectionism, on finding a discrepancy between what we have found out in a book and what is done, we try to enforce the thing read and dismiss the thing done. The thing done just happens to be the on-going prayer life of the Church. When we attempt to drive the wedge of our opinions between the faithful and their prayer life, the most likely result is that we will drive a wedge between ourselves and the Church. In any case, the last thing the Church needs is a re-enactment of the Protestant Reformation masquerading as purest Orthodoxy.


Having said all this, no claim is made here that musical prayer life is everywhere perfect as it stands. It is a fact of our fallen world that dust settles on things that must then be cleaned. In human activity, the dust of complacency corrodes the quality of what we do. But as we refresh, let us remember that what we are dealing with is living and spiritual. We have heard the jest: "The operation was a success, but the patient, unfortunately, did not survive." Woe betide us if our actions traumatize the spiritual life of a place and we thereby adorn ourselves with a millstone. When we refurbish, let it be by barely perceptible degrees. Let our work be entirely with pastoral support and consultation. Let our labor reflect a prayerful and expectant patience. Are we part of a new parish and part of getting musical prayer life established? Let our hands build on the best that already exists elsewhere.


All these expressions of work are no metaphorical excess. If we would lead in the Church, in anything, not just music, we must be willing to be humble, tireless workers. When we think we are done, there is, forever and always, more. But what else have we better to do? Once, when visiting our dear, then 95 year-old retired pastor, Father Nicholas Pekatoris (may his memory be eternal), I tried to cut the visit short since he was looking tired, even for his age. As I began to make my good bye, he said, "Oh, Father George, no need to go. Pretty soon I rest, many, many." Let us, like Father Nicholas and countless others, Be not weary in well-doing. For help, let us call on those, like Saint Romanos, Saint John Kukuzelis and all who have kept the song sounding through the ages, to pray for us. Let us strive to be the harp in the hand of God; let all our song be of Him.

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