Liturgical Singing 3
Praying through Our Hymns
Part III: How Do We Sing?.
Abbess Thaisia’s words (from last issue of “Notes from the Choir Loft”) provide a convenient moment to segue to the next question: How do we sing? Or How should we sing? As I now read several pertinent quotes, I would like to ask you to please place them alongside the responses to my previously-posed question – What is real or true prayer? In His 1st Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says: “Sing with understanding.” On face value, a rather simple instruction, but before we meet all the criteria of the mind and heart and spirit involvement we heard earlier, could we simply understand the text, know what the words mean? When we attempt to sing-pray through the words of a language we do not understand, we remain on the periphery of understanding. What if a congregant understands only snippets of the Greek language and the entire Divine Service is celebrated in Greek, what expectations can we realistically place on that congregant for deeper mind-heart connections? The experience of ‘church’ is reduced to sentimental journeys into childhood memories, cultural enrichment of sorts, and if the singing is decent–it’s like listening to a good concert, but if not, it’s like listening to a concert in which our attention wanders. Instead of entering the fullness of worship in the heavenly realms at the words “Blessed is the Kingdom…” we enter a kind of museum. Think for a moment how much we love the Lamentations we sing every year on Holy Friday; think how much more we would gain from the stunning beauty and depth of those verses if we understood each word!
It seems we fail at the doorstep with St. Paul’s admonition. But assuming we know the language, we understand the words of the hymns, we are now invited to enter the fullness of praying/singing (I will use the two words interchangeably now) with St. Theophan’s instructions: “It is necessary to not only understand the song, but to be in sympathy with it, to accept the contents of the song in the heart and to sing it as if it came from our own heart. In the time of the Apostles, only those who were in such a state used to sing; others entered into a similar mood and all the congregation sang and glorified God from the heart only. No wonder that, in consequence of this, the whole congregation was filled with the Spirit! What treasure is hidden in Church songs if they are chanted properly!” St. Theophan raises the bar of “understanding”even higher to heartfelt participation. It seems He is saying: “sing with understanding and sing with your whole mind and heart connected to the words!”
Phillips Lecture Series, April 13, 2022, Dr. Peter Jermihov