|Cover of an anthology of hymnody for the participation of the people|
in the Greek Orthodox Liturgy
We have a lot to sing about, because we have a wonderful God—I mean, He has us, and we’re glad. Praise has always been part of faith, returning to God thanks for all that He does for us. Once a week hardly seems enough, so most churches have more than just Sunday services. For us, singing is believing.
Now, I’m talking as a Greek Orthodox Christian, an adherent of the ancient Church, you know, the one that is keeping alive the biblical Greek language and ethos. Coming to my first Divine Liturgy twenty-seven years ago, even as a ‘high church’ Episcopalian, I was awed by the singing I heard in this church.
The impression was that not only was it astonishingly beautiful, it was—to my great relief—unashamedly human. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t performed. It was exactly in proportion to what was happening—human worship of the Divine, praising, praying, appealing for help, crying out for strength.
It was the sound most pleasing on earth, people singing together in all simplicity, as best they could, harmonizing the ‘good’ singers with even the tone deaf, female falsettos singing between syllables intoned by male voices that chanted with the gusto of fishermen, thrilled by their miraculous catch.
This was an opus Dei that I wanted to be part of. I couldn’t wait to learn the sounds—strange at first, but then quickly assimilated until I was as Greek ‘inside’ as the next guy—so that I could add my sound to the heavenly choir that descended to chant with the people whom I could hear singing around me.
The biggest surprise was not that much of the singing was in biblical (or Byzantine) Greek, but that the hymns were short, many of them one-liners, and totally memorizable. Gone from my worship world were the thick, heavy hymn books, and the placards with hymn numbers listed. We sang what we heard.
And we sang as much as we knew, as much as we remembered, or as much as we could reach high or low with our voices, not caring if we pronounced all the words audibly or not. Singing was as natural and spontaneous as that of birds, and as unself-conscious. We weren’t singing for anyone to hear, but God.
And He was listening. But of course, we listened too, and took courage to sing as we heard others around us, even when they sang just under their breath for modesty. I learned later that what we were singing, though ancient, had been adapted with musical settings designed for the people to sing easily.
Modern composers like Frank Desby and Tikey Zes had taken the traditional, ancient, sometimes monastic melodies, and smoothed them over a bit tonally, so that anyone could, and hopefully would, sing them. Our church had an organ in the choir loft that was used as a harmonium to keep us on tune.
That organ is still there, but a great reversion took place a few years back, and its overall effect has not only been to silence the instrument, but to silence the people as well. A spirit of Byzantine perfectionism, arrogant and oblivious to the worshiping people’s need to sing, has turned the temple into a concert hall.
This doesn’t displease some people. There are many reasons why people ‘go to church,’ but only one of them has to do with giving God thanks and praise. Sunday gatherings are the social expression of our faith, and that is valid. Some people come, too, out of their pleasure in hearing the sounds of worship.
Some of them, no doubt, are worshiping as well, but perhaps for others, worship means listening and enjoying good music. There is at least one member of the congregation that always turns around and gives me a look of disapproval when he hears my voice singing the hymns. I didn’t think I sang that badly.
But I never let it bother me. I just forgive him and keep singing, because as I just wrote, for me and for so many others who have now been silenced, singing, not seeing, is believing. And how have we been silenced? Well, anyone who goes to church in my family parish can tell you. Only the ‘elect’ can sing.
Christianity is a singing religion. What is left, then, when singing becomes the private reserve of virtuoso performers? Their singing, they would say, is their contribution to divine worship, their personal offering to God. Maybe it is, but what then becomes of the contribution and offering of other hearts to the Lord?
It is a great mistake, I think, when the Church sets people up with false expectations. When the Church exalts personal excellence not for the praise of God, but for the praise of men, and for pay, then disorder prevails. In the Greek Church, when chanters are on payroll, they feel they must perform, or else.
When the choir master is on payroll, the same thing happens. It’s one thing to provide a regular stipend to a church ‘musician’ (I don’t know what else to call them) as an appreciation for their time and effort in assisting us in our worship, and that’s what they should be doing, assisting, not replacing, our worship.
It is simply not worship anymore when we cannot sing the Divine Liturgy—I remind you, this is a problem in some Orthodox churches that have ‘music programs’—but are expected to just stand, watch, and listen. And the Church takes no corrective action, because ‘politically correct’ rules even there.
Sometimes I wish there were a red ‘reset button’ on life. Life in the world, in politics, in relationships, in the Church. We’re humans, a race with a built-in law of failure that we continually try to hide by piling on more of it and hoping no one will notice. We’re proudest of what we ought to be most ashamed of.
I stopped going to concerts of sacred music years ago because I couldn’t help myself—I begin worshiping as soon as I hear the strains of Greek hymns, even of ordinary English ones that I learned as an Episcopalian. On the other hand, when I am alone and at work, the hymns start up by themselves inside me.
I start singing along, sometimes aloud, when the Divine Liturgy begins in my heart. It feels like it’s always going on there, and when my silence reaches a certain depth, through concentration on a project or a complete cessation of self-consciousness, I hear it, and I join in, singing as naturally as breathing.
This is what comes of years of singing in church services, not as a choir member or a virtuoso. I hope that those who do assist our worship that way experience the same inner song. But this should not be denied to the people standing in the temple. Singing heals us. It feeds us. It joins us to the cherubim.
‘We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn, let us now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by the angelic hosts. Alleluia.’ This is not a metaphor for being an audience, but an invitation to participate in heaven.
I appeal to those who have been given the authority to move mountains by their faith, and to cast them into the sea, to remove this mountain that oppresses the people of God, and reestablish the ‘work of the people’ which is the Divine Liturgy, restoring balance and order, because as St John Chrysostom tells us in his Paschal Homily, ‘Let all partake of the feast of faith… for the Kingdom belongs to us all.’