10 passages about music and its effect on the spiritual life

1) The purpose of church hymns by St Theopan the Recluse

‘Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody In your heart to the Lord’  (Eph. V. 19).

How should we Interpret these words? Do they mean that when you are filled with the Spirit, you should then sing with your mouth and your heart? Or that If you wish to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you should first sing? Is the singing with mouth and heart, mentioned by the Apostle, meant to be the consequence of being filled by the Spirit, or the means towards It?

The Infusion of the Holy Spirit does not lie within our power. It comes as the Spirit Himself wishes. And when It comes, this Infusion will so greatly animate the powers of our spirit that the song to God breaks out of itself. Freedom of choice lies only between leaving this song to be sung In the heart alone, or expressing it aloud for all to hear.

The words of the Apostle must be taken In the second sense rather than the first. Desire to be filled with the Spirit, and sing with that aim In mind. Singing will set alight the Spirit, or lead to a state of Infusion by the Spirit, or show forth His action. According to Blessed Theodoret,’ the Apostle refers to spiritual rapture when he says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’ (Eph. v.i8), and he shows us how to attain this, namely by ‘unceasingly singing praises to God, entering deeply Into oneself and always stimulating thought’. That is to say: by singing with the tongue and heart.

It is not difficult to understand that the most Important part of this is not good harmony in the singing, but the content of what Is sung. It has the same effect as a speech written with warm feeling, which animates whoever reads It. Feeling, expressed In words, is carried by words Into the soul of those who hear or read them. The same can be said of Church songs. Psalms, hymns and Church songs are spiritually inspired outbursts of feeling towards God. The Spirit of God filled His elect, and they expressed the plenitude of their feelings in songs. He who sings them as they should be sung enters again Into the feelings which the author experienced when he originally wrote them. Being filled by these feelings, he draws near to the state wherein he is able to receive the grace of the Spirit, and to adapt himself to It. The purpose of Church songs is precisely to make the spark of grace that is hidden within us burn brighter and with greater warmth. This spark is given by the sacraments. Psalms, hymns and spiritual odes are introduced, to fan the spark and transform it Into flame. They act on the spark of grace as the wind acts on a spark hidden in firewood.

But let us remember that this effect is conditional on their use being accompanied by purification of the heart.’ St. John  Chrysostom enjoins this, guided by the teaching of St. Paul himself, and also says that the songs must primarily be spiritual, and sung not only by the tongue but also by the heart.

Therefore, In order that the singing of Church songs may lead us on to be filled by the Spirit, the Apostle is insistent that the songs should be spiritual. By this It should be understood that they must be not only spiritual in content but moved by the Spirit: they must themselves be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and be poured forth by hearts that are filled with Him. Without this they will not lead to our possession by the Spirit. This is according to the law whereby the singer is given that which has been put into the song.

The second condition of the Apostle is that songs must be sung not by the tongue only, but by the heart. It Is necessary not only to 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. A comparison of this text with others makes it evident that 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 if, in consequence of this, the whole congregation was filled with the Spirit! What treasure is hidden in Church songs if they are performed correctly!

St. John Chrysostorn says: ‘What is meant by “those who sing In their heart to the Lord”? It means: Undertake this work with attention, for those who are Inattentive sing in vain, pronouncing only words, while their heart wanders elsewhere,’ Blessed Theodoret adds to this: ‘He sings in the heart, who not only moves his tongue, but incites his mind to understand what is said.’ Other Holy Fathers, writing about prayer to God, believe that prayer is best achieved when offered by the mind established In the heart.

What the Apostle says here about gatherings in church, can also be applied to private psalmody. This everyone can perform alone at home. And the fruit of this will be the same, when it Is done as it should be: that is, with attention, understanding and feeling, from the heart.

Let us note that the although the words of the Apostle refer to singing, his thought indicates turning in prayer to God. It is actually this that arouses the Spirit.



2) St John of Kronstadt

If the sounds of music evoke in you calm, pure, holy sentiments-I is t e n to them and nourish your soul; if, on the other hand, they awake passions in you, stop listening and turn away from both the sound and spirit of this music.” Whenever he encountered any thing in art, and entertainment, or the culture of his time that violated the sanctity of the soul, he would quote from St. Paul: …but having itching ears will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts” (II Tim. 4:3).”


3) An extract from the life of Fr Seraphim Rose

Before coming to the 1981 Pilgrimage, I had listened almost exclusively to pop and rock music. My first real exposure to classical music came at the monastery. The fathers explained how rock music is (generally speaking) music of the body; the best classical music is music of the soul; and the music of the Church is the music of the spirit (or higher part of the soul). In order to lead ourselves to the realm of the spirit, we have to rise above the fleshly and prepare the ground of our souls. Presented in this context, it made sense to me why one would listen to classical rather than rock music. I remember that when Fr. Herman played Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto for us, it really moved me in my soul. Something deep inside me responded to it a part of me I had hardly known existed.

“Going back to my dorm room at college, I did not immediately throw out all my old albums, but I did begin a weaning process, listening mostly to classical and good folk music. People down the hall were playing The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen, while I was playing Rimsky Korsakov, Sibelius, and Celtic harp music. My fellow students began to respond. Their souls, too, had been starving on a diet of fleshly music. They would stop by my room and ask, ‘What is that beautiful music you’re playing? Can I borrow that album?'”


4) St John Chrysostom

Nothing in fact, nothing so uplifts the soul, give it wings, liberates it from the earth, looses the shackles of the body, promotes its values and its scorn for everything of this world as does harmonious music and a divine song rhythmically composed.


5) St Theophan the Recluse

All of our liturgical hymns are instructive, profound and sublime. They contain the whole of our theology and moral teaching, give us Christian consolation and instill in us a fear of the Judgment. He who listens to them attentively has no need of other books on the Faith.


6) St Theophan the Recluse

Psalms, hymns and Church songs are spiritually inspired outbursts of feeling towards God. The Spirit of God filled His elect, and they expressed the plenitude of their feelings in songs. He who sings them as they should be sung enters again Into the feelings which the author experienced when he originally wrote them. Being filled by these feelings, he draws near to the state wherein he is able to receive the grace of the Spirit, and to adapt himself to It.


7) An extract from the life of Fr Seraphim Rose

The music of the Church services was an integral part of Fr. Seraphim’s spiritual life. According to the Holy Fathers, music is the form of communication closest to the soul, and thus the first thing that the soul perceives upon entering Paradise.The most spiritual music, of course, is that of the Church.As Fr. Herman told the brothers, “The most refined classical music leads the soul to prayer, but the music of the Church is the music of prayer itself.”It was for this reason that Fr. Seraphim did not seek to listen to classical music during his years as a monk, even though this music had once had such a profound formative influence in leading him to God. In his first years at the skete he listened to classical music not at all. It was only later, when the children and young monastic aspirants came, that classical music tapes were played in order to refine the souls of the younger generation, many of whom had been corrupted by the carnal rhythms of contemporary cacophony.


8) About Fr Seraphim Rose

In a most beautiful voice he was singing the magnification hymn [to the Mother of God], ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord…’ The singer was a tenor with a voice like Father Seraphim’s, whose singing I had heard years ago in the San Francisco Cathedral. That had been in the early 1960’s when, standing in the kliros, he alone had sung the Matins service from beginning to end. Never in my life had I heard more prayerful singing. My soul had been uplifted to the heights…. Now in my dream, I heard that same incomparable singing. It was the same voice, but it sounded like that of an angel, a dweller of Paradise. This was heavenly, unearthly singing. Waking up, I understood that there was no hope for Father Seraphim’s recovery.” 


9) About St John of Kronstadt

“I shall never forget,” — recalls one observer, “how, once the hymns of praise (stikhera) were being sung. Father John had by that time almost finished vesting, so as to celebrate Divine Liturgy. Only the chasuble was not on him. Quickly, in a swift movement, more running than walking, he came out of the altar to the choir, joined the singers and began to sing together with them.

He sang animatedly, with deep faith, himself acting as choirmaster, again stressing individual words and slowing the tempo where that was required by the logical meaning of what was being sung. The singing, not very harmonious at first, quickly became melodious, strong, sonorous, mighty, animating, flowing over the whole church, wholly filling the hearts of those who were praying. It was touching to look at the singers at that moment. It was as If some holy early Christian family, with its father at the head, were singing, singing Its victorious, holy and great hymns.”


10) St Barsanuphius of Optina

When you have children, teach them music; of course, real music and not dances and songs. Music aids the development of the acceptance of spiritual lift. The soul becomes more refined. It begins to also understand spiritual music

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