It is possible to sing praises to the Lord without ceasing. ‘The soul is a consummate musician, an instrumentalist. The instrument is the body, which serves as lute, harp and lyre… Desiring to teach you that you should sing praise to Him and glorify Him always. God joined together instrument and player [that is, the body and the soul] in a permanent union.’ (1)
In the Orthodox Church, we do not use musical instruments in worship. Every believer is a musical instrument made by God, and at the same time a musician. If the musician (the soul) keeps the instrument (the body) pure and uses it properly, the two together raise to the Creator a hymn of praise that is pleasing to God. For the hymn that is sacred ‘is born of the soul’s piety, nourished by a good conscience, and accepted in heaven by God.’ (2)
(1) St John Chrysostom, Homily on Holy Week and on Psalm 145, 3, PG 55.522.
(2) St John Chrysostom, Homily on being ordained Priest, 1, PG 48.694.
Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, (Cell of St John the Theologian, Koutloumousiou Monastery), 139-140.
I was given this book when I became Orthodox, but have only recently got to reading through it seriously, as part of my preparation for a (very basic) series that I am doing on the Liturgy in Evangelion. But I was struck by these words, which are largely quotations from Saint John Chrysostom. In recent months, I have come across some discussions on Christian worship which have left me wondering about the criteria that people use for determining what is and is not appropriate in worship, or even whether there can be any criteria for what constitutes Christian worship. For many Christians worship seems to have simply become about entertainment or about “what works for me.”
I am raising this not to criticise others or to condemn all use of musical instruments – although I am very pleased that the tradition of the Church is as it is! – but rather to point out that, in the tradition of the Church, worship is not something subjective but is, among other things, a pedagogical activity that leads us to God and therefore has a real and objective content. Moreover, while this content has a clear textual and intellectual content – “The Church choir is the school of theology” in the words of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern – it also has a less immediately identifiable but no less real spiritual content which does its work on us through the bodily acts of singing and hearing, together with a host of other physical and sensory “texts”.
Being more or less musically illiterate, I dare not say anything much about music! But it has become increasingly apparent to me that, in large part, the point of Christian worship is to lead us into silence. Prayer consists of quietening the mind and the heart so that they can be purified in order to see, encounter and receive God. And the sacred music of the Church (and possibly also of other traditions) has been developed over centuries and in an era when people had a far better understanding of the relationship between the body and soul that we would appear to have today.