Table of Contents
A fictional dialogue between a Teacher (T) and his Disciple (D), where the musical heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church is discussed.
Part 1 – The Forms of Music
D: How true are the words of the prophet David when he said in the Psalms: “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise” (Ps. 84:4). For that was exactly what I felt today during the Divine Liturgy, where through praising God along with the whole Church in the house of God one feels such unity and happiness, not only among every member of the Body of Christ, but with Christ Himself.
T: It is true, as you say, my son. The whole Divine Liturgy is one symphony of music, a chanted praise offered as a sacrifice to our benevolent God. The love and mercy He revealed to us through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is what we offer back as a sacrifice of praise, as we proclaim in the beginning of the Anaphora of any Divine Liturgy. The heart is at peace because of the love of God, so naturally we always wish to live in His house and sing His praise.
D: This part about music that you mentioned reminds me of some questions I wanted to ask. I do not wish to be understood as a critic of the music in our Church, but rather as someone who wishes to learn more about the music in our Church, and especially in relation to our world today.
T: Go ahead and ask me, my son. It is always important to ask questions and learn through proper guidance, rather than keep those questions in one’s mind and never arrive at an answer. May the Lord guide me to direct you to what you seek.
D: Alright. I’ll begin with a comment I’ve heard from a youth in Church, whom I truly love. Once, while one of the deacons was chanting one of those long songs during the Kiahk Praise, this youth, who was sitting next to me, began making some beats with his mouth. When I looked at him in surprise, he looked back and told me that Coptic music is just awesome since it has a ‘rap’ type of beat. I didn’t really know what to say then, and thought that since he likes listening to ‘rap’ music, he may find that such beats are, to him at least, spiritually fulfilling.
T: Spiritually fulfilling, or emotionally exciting? I would rather side on the fact that the music he is thinking of during the time of the Kiahk Praise is inappropriate for praising God.
D: Why, then, is it inappropriate? If someone has such a connection to some form of music, why can’t we conclude that every individual has a different taste for music, and can praise God with whatever music he desires?
T: I am of the opinion that the youth you mentioned has been listening to a type of music that cannot be used to praise God. For he enjoys a form of music that is different to what the Fathers have taught and preserved for us through many generations. In fact, if we examine carefully what you just said, and imagine that someone likes a certain form of music, whereas someone else likes a different form of music, then these two people cannot stay in one Church and praise God in unity. This is why the Church had to establish one form of music, and certain types of hymns and rites for every occasion, to maintain order and unity in the Church. How can one pray if there is a divided mind in the Church?
D: But why would the Church choose the form of music that you speak about, rather than use other forms of music? Does that mean that other churches, even though they are Apostolic, do not have appropriate music, since they do not share our musical heritage?
T: Be assured that this is not what I meant. Other churches have also maintained a strong musical heritage that is appropriate to praise God with. They, too, would feel reluctant to change anything and use other forms or genres of music.
D: Can you please explain to me how they have music that is appropriate to praise God with, although it is different than the music we have in our Church?
T: The Apostles, when they preached to the nations and established churches there, taught those people the Gospel of Christ, how to praise and pray, and especially the sacrament of the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments. As Jews, the Apostles were used to a certain form of music and rites, but when they went to the nations, they did not enforce the Jewish music and heritage onto them, but taught them how to conduct the sacraments. They left the nations to use their own musical heritage and unite their traditions with what they were taught. In certain countries, such as Egypt, where Jews were also present, some of the Jewish musical heritage was adopted along with the pagan heritage.
D: And what sort of musical heritage did the people of the early Church have? Where did they get such a heritage, and if they used what they previously used in their pagan worship, why can’t we introduce the modern genres of music into the liturgical tradition of the Church in the same way that the early Christians did?
T: Actually, the early Christians did not adopt any form of music, but a specific form, and that is spiritual music. In all the nations, at least in the ones that had a strong and developed civilization and preached to by the Apostles, there had always been two distinct forms of music: the secular form of music, and the spiritual form of music. The best way of understanding this is by looking at the example of our own Church. In Egypt, there were the two forms of music I mentioned. Secular music was played in meetings, parties, and fairs in the streets; on the other hand, there was a strong spiritual heritage of music in Egypt, used by the priests and the Pharaohs of Egypt in their worship of the gods. The Egyptians were certainly very spiritual people, although they worshiped false gods, but the early Christians of Egypt, who were brought up in a land that maintained a powerful, oral, and spiritually rich musical heritage, decided to adopt that form of music in their worship of Christ. They took the spiritual music of the Ancient Egyptians, but instead of worshipping the false gods, they inherited the music and blessed it by worshipping and praising the true Lord, the King of Kings and God of all gods. As I said earlier, the Apostles themselves did not discourage the use of such forms of music, because they were spiritually rich and were appropriate ways of praising God. The same thing occurred in the other nations – the Syrians, the Greeks, the Romans… all of them have different forms of music, yet the music that those churches used was not secular music, but spiritual.
D: Well, what if there are genres of music today that may be spiritual? Why can’t the Church adopt those forms of music as well and use them in its rites?
T: The point is that these modern genres of music are not really spiritual, but only fulfill the emotions. I also admire the so-called classical music. That music is very relaxing, and could even help one maintain a healthy mind. However, we cannot say that such music is spiritually fulfilling, for it is only fulfilling to the mind or the soul.
D: By this statement do you intend to say that music can even be divided into three categories: music that fulfills the desires of the flesh, music that fulfills the desires of the mind or soul, and music that fulfills the desires of the spirit?
T: That, my son, is very true.
D: Then how can I know the difference between what fulfills which parts of my body? And why can’t one form fulfill the desires of more than one part of the body?
T: The response to these questions will best be answered through an example. Let us take the genre of ‘rock-n-roll’ for example. That music is of a form that causes the body to move about in anger and rage, and most often in dances that display drunkenness. No matter what lyrics are attached to that form of music, the music itself is enough to influence the flesh and give it power to fight against the spirit. Thus, we cannot use such music to praise God. It is true that some people really enjoy that form of music and are extremely attached to it, but that is the real problem: they use it as something that they find attractive. They enjoy the beats with their sense of hearing, and they move about in sinful ways. Even if the lyrics contain words that praise God, the music itself arouses the lust of the flesh, as well as anger. So, music has a strong influence on our morality. If the music is immoral, even according to the standards of society, how can it be used liturgically in the Church to praise God with it?
D: The fruits of secular music, then, are usually immorality, as you said. But there are others genres of secular music that fulfill the desires of the soul, so even these are so close to the spiritual music you speak about. How do I know the difference, then?
T: You hinted at the best method of knowing the differences of how a certain form of music influences what part of the body: we know the difference by considering the fruits of such music. Secular music is not always immoral and unhealthy, but, as I mentioned earlier, there are forms, such as classical music, that are healthy for one’s mind. However, the fruits of this genre of secular music, while in itself is considered good and healthy, are not the same as the fruits of spiritual music. Spiritual music directly affects the spirit of every person (and particularly the baptized believer), whether the person is chanting the hymn or simply listening to it. If chanted with understanding, and the person truly means what he chants or hears, the Holy Spirit will bestow His fruits on that person. And there are twelve fruits of the Spirit, as Saint Paul the Apostle taught us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). These fruits stand in opposition to the fruits of the flesh, that may also be aroused by the music that fulfills the desires of the flesh, and Saint Paul tells us that these are: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). It is for this reason that the Holy Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, chose to inherit only the spiritual musical heritage of the people from the very beginning. This, in fact, fulfills the advice of our teacher Saint Paul the Apostle by the very letter: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:25, 26).
D: The words of Saint Paul also answers one of the questions I’ve asked previously, which is why we can’t conclude that every individual has a different taste of music, and may praise God with whatever form of music he desires? If that were the case, then the Church would be a place of competition, with every individual becoming conceited by his favourite form of music, and others may envy and compete against every other person. In that sense, I understand now that the Holy Spirit must always guide us if we were to truly live by the Spirit, and that the Church has adopted the spiritual form of music from the very beginning by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
T: Yes, and it is good to keep in mind that the Church chose to use such spiritual music from both the Jewish and pagan ancestors because, as the philosophers and theologians say, that form of music is natural to the human being, unlike secular music. Spiritual music, actually, is the sound of the spirit praising God along with the whole of Creation, whereas secular music is an invention of humans used for the purposes of enjoyment, emotional expression… or even war! Spiritual music is not even invented by man, but is the co-operation of man with the Creation and the Angels of God. The early Greek philosophers contemplated on these forms of spiritual music in many of their writings and dialogues. Pythagoras, that great mathematician, who is also considered the father of the science of music, believed that the spherical planets, which orbit the earth in perfect harmony, create music as a result of such perfect harmony. Plato inherited that tradition, and equally praised spiritual music, which he believed was given directly by God through what the Muses played in harmony: “It seems, then, that a God has given music… to human beings, not, except incidentally, for the body and the soul, but for the spirited and wisdom-loving parts of the soul itself, in order that these might be in harmony with one another, each being stretched and released to the appropriate degree” (Republic III, 411e). He also said that, in the same manner as music is produced by the harmony of the orbiting planets, spiritual music is naturally produced by man by the harmony in his spirit, which leads him to be filled by grace from God: “All composition that lends itself to making audible musical sounds is given in order to express harmony… And harmony, whose movements are akin to the orbits within our souls, is a gift of the Muses, if the way we deal with them are guided by understanding, not for irrational pleasure, in the way people nowadays seem to make use of it, but to serve as an ally in the fight to bring order to any orbit in our souls that has become unharmonized, and make it concordant with itself. Rhythm, too, has likewise been given us by the Muses for the same purpose, to assist us. For with most of us our condition is such that we have lost all sense of measure, and are lacking in grace”(Timaeus, 47c-e). Look! Even in the East such Truth was proclaimed by their philosophers, as evident in this saying from the Chinese philosopher, Confucius: “Music expresses the harmony of the universe, while rites express the order of the universe. Through harmony all things are influenced, and through order all things have a proper place. Music rises from heaven, while rites are patterned on the earth. To go beyond these patterns would result in violence and disorder” (Lin Yutang, Wisdom of Confucius, p. 259).
D: Those were interesting sayings, teacher. It amazes me how these pagan philosophers were so close to the Truth, even though they never fully found the whole Truth.
T: They did not just try to find the Truth, but they even went so far as to be conservative with the spiritual music they inherited and maintained, and did not wish to turn around and use secular music for spiritual purposes. Plato, again, says: “To put it briefly, those in charge must cling to education and see that it isn’t corrupted without their noticing it, guarding it against everything. Above all, they must guard as carefully as they can against any innovation in music and poetry… that is counter to the established order. And they should dread to hear anyone say: ‘People care most for the song, That is newest from the singers’ lips’ (Odyssey, i. 351-352). Someone might praise such a saying, thinking that the poet meant not new songs but new ways of singing. Such a thing shouldn’t be praised, and the poet shouldn’t be taken to have meant it, for the guardians must beware of changing to a new form of music, since it threatens the whole system” (Republic IV, 424b,c). Now, if the pagans thought of guarding their spiritual musical heritage in such a way and avoided all forms of new music, how much more must the Church stand clear of all forms of modern secular music?
D: Along with what you say, I can now see why it is important to maintain our spiritual musical heritage and not turn this-way and that-way to other forms of music. The Holy Spirit truly guided our Fathers, and we must be careful and fully defensive of what we have preserved with us.
T: It is a shame that some people actually think that secular music may fulfill the desires of the spirit, which is to be in union with God. I can even go further and say that, today, secular music has put on the robes of spiritual music, and tries to persuade people to listen to her and enjoy her, and by this she deceives them into believing that she is spiritually fulfilling, even more than what the Church has preserved intact for us for many generations. It is like the devil who appears in white light as the form of an angel, deceiving those whom he appears to and attracts their attention to falsehood. May the Lord protect us and His Bride, the Church, from these attacks of Satan and his demonic angels.
T: Therefore, we must realize that spiritual music is a holy gift from God, and that we must never get rid of it in anyway. St. John Chrysostom spoke of this sacred music: “When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm” (Psalmum XLI, 1).
D: How beautiful are the words of the Golden-Mouthed! Now I see the value of this spiritual music, which is truly concordant, since everyone in the Church is involved. The Psalmist’s words are now firmly establisheD: “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise” (Ps. 84:4).
T: Perhaps, then, we can conclude our conversation with a saying that His Holiness Pope Shenouda III once saiD: “Music has an influence: secular music has a materialistic influence, and the music of various songs have an influence of the song itself, regardless of the lyrics and words. In addition to this, there must be a match between the lyrics and the music. For example, if the lyrics were spiritual, whereas the music was secular, the influence on the person is materialistic, so they do not suit one another. We have our own spiritual music.”
Part 2 – Languages and Praise
D: Another question came to mind after our previous conversation. In the Book of Revelations, Saint John the Theologian beheld a marvelous sight, and this is what he described as seeing: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no o¬ne could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated o¬n the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9,10). In this vision, the beloved disciple saw people from all nations praising God in heaven, which shows that the Lord permitted people from all nations to praise God in whatever language they spoke. My question, then, is: why are we, the Coptic Orthodox Church, very conservative about our Coptic language, and prefer not to change and use any other language in praising God?
T: You ask a very important question, my son, and I think that the issue you are bringing up is o¬ne that is relevant here in the West and all the lands of immigration. Many people, and in particular the youth, complain about our firm belief that we should chant our hymns of praise to God in Coptic and Greek. However, I think that there is no problem with our firm stance o¬n the use of the languages, and I would rather encourage someone who is conservative rather than o¬ne who changes the language of our praise.
D: Perhaps our conversation will bring to light what you mean… but I would first like to know the interpretation of Saint John’s quote from the Book of Revelations, especially in the context of our Church’s conservativeness.
T: Saint John’s vision regards the fact that the Gospel of Christ was preached to all nations. It points to the fact that the Blood of Christ was shed for both the Jews and the Gentiles, and both are now able to stand together in unison before the throne of God, before the Lamb who offered Himself as a sacrifice o¬n our behalf, and praise together with o¬ne voice, affirming the salvation that God gave us. This is the proper context of that verse – that the Gospel was preached to all nations, and that they all praise God for their salvation. I don’t see how it may be used as an objection to what we do in our Coptic Church; I mean that it is irrelevant to use the verse as an objection through which we decide to get rid of Coptic and Greek and use whatever language we are living with at the moment. The reason behind this is that both Coptic and Greek are of the many languages that the Apostles preached with to the nations, and it is because of the fact that we use these languages in our praise that the verse from Revelations applies to us, since we are Gentiles and are praising in the language of the Gentiles.
D: I understand now how the verse applies to us. If we use Coptic and Greek in our praise, then we are actually fulfilling the verse. The verse, then, is not a means of attacking an old language for the sake of using a newer, more relevant, language, but is meant to show that the praises of the Gentiles were accepted along with the praises of the Jews, since everyone was saved by the sacrifice of Christ our Lord.
T: That is exactly what I meant.
D: Alright… since the verse was interpreted, and I am satisfied with the interpretation, I would like to ask why we are being conservative with the Coptic and Greek languages, despite the fact that not everyone understands the languages today? If we don’t understand what we say, what is the use of praising? Is praising effective if we don’t understand the language we are praising with? I am reminded of the controversy the Roman Catholics had at o¬ne point of time, when Scripture was not translated from Latin to the common language, and no o¬ne understood what was being read. It became a blind observance of a rite, rather than a reading with understanding and a growing spiritual life.
T: Well, I think that this objection doesn’t really apply to our Church either. The Roman Catholic Church at the time did not even translate the Scriptures, whereas in Egypt, as soon as Coptic and Greek were nearing their extinction because of the forced use of Arabic, the scribes and scholars of the Church immediately got together to translate the Holy Bible into Arabic, so that everyone may read with understanding. This was also the time when the Church’s rites were first translated to Arabic. Again, when people left Egypt to live in other countries, the rites were translated to every language, whatever language that may have been. The Holy Bible, by the way, was readily available in any language. Thus, the problem of having translations is not an issue in our Church. Since the translations are complete in a sense, it is always easy to look at the translation and understand what o¬ne is saying in his praise. So, the question should be narrowed down to what language we should use to pray and praise God in our Church – do we pray and praise in the language that our ancestors used, or do we pray and praise in the languages we use presently, which are widely available?
D: And may you answer that question?
T: I still think that we should try our best to praise in the language of our ancestors. This does not mean that we shouldn’t use other languages at all, but I give preference to the original languages. After all, as I said earlier, o¬ne can praise in Coptic and Greek, yet everyone has the chance to look at the translation of the text. For instance, I could begin the Midnight Praise with the hymn “Ten-theeno,” and I could still look at the translation in the language I prefer of what the words mean. Today, since I know what the translation is, because I’m used to saying the hymn, I can praise with the same words as our ancestors praised with, and I preserve the language and the hymn itself.
D: Preserve the hymn itself? Is this a relevant point to make? I think that what matters in the hymn is the music itself, which can be preserved in any language, yet maintains the Coptic spirituality. Am I right?
T: I think that some hymns can be chanted in any language, yet there are others that cannot. Recitative hymns may be chanted easily in any language, but when it comes to the melismatic hymns, we get a problem. The first thing I want to mention is that because of translation, some words lose their real meaning.
D: What do you mean?
T: For example, there are words in Greek that were not translated to Coptic, such as “Logos” and “Monogenes.” There are also words in Coptic that are problematic to translate. These words have great theological significance, such that the whole meaning is preserved in the original language. The very word “Logos” has a long philosophy behind it, and by translating it to “Word” in English really makes it lose all its significance. Again, there are also words in Coptic that are problematic to translate. For example, there is a distinction between the two words: “Pi-epnevma eth-owab” and “O-epnevma ef-owab,” even though they are both translated in English as “The Holy Spirit.” In fact, the former refers to the Holy Spirit as a Hypostasis in the Holy Trinity, whereas the latter refers to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to us through the sacraments of the Church. This is what I mean by losing the real meaning of some words in our praise… the problem with translation may lead to a lack of a real understanding of what the words in the praise actually mean, and it won’t make any sense unless o¬ne preserves those two great languages, uses them, lives them, and loves them!
D: Fine, and could you continue with your second point that you wanted to mention regarding the relation between the hymn’s music and the language?
T: The second point that I wanted to mention was that the Coptic and Greek languages are wedded to the music of the hymns of our Church. By that I mean two things: first, the hymns we chant are actually composed in these two languages, so the poetry is lost when it gets translated. For example, think of the joyful hymn everyone loves from the Midnight Praise, “Aripsaleen.” Each verse of the hymn is arranged in the Coptic alphabetical order, and, within each verse, the last words of each stanza actually rhyme. All this artistic work of poetry is lost when the hymn gets translated. Secondly, the hymn itself is balanced o¬n those languages, and o¬nce there is a translation, which may use more or less words to translate a single word in both Coptic and Greek, the music itself will certainly change. If there are more words, for example, in translating a single word in Coptic, then the pace of the hymn will speed up, and you immediately lose the original spirituality of the hymn. This really affects those people who think of every single uttering of the hymn as something that may be contemplated upon, something with deep spiritual meanings.
D: I see what you mean here. But let’s assume that a translation has the same amount of words as the Coptic and Greek. In this case, wouldn’t the hymn remain as it is?
T: Not necessarily. Let’s take as an example the melismatic hymn of the Fourth Canticle’s Alleluia, also called “Alle-el-Asr,” chanted during the Annual Vespers Praise. In Coptic, the words are “Alleluia, pi-wou fa Pennooti pe,” and in English it is “Alleluia, Glory is to God.” Now, the problem that I think we will encounter in applying the English words to the whole hymn is that the spirituality will change. How? For example, in Coptic, the beginning of the word “pi-wou fa” (I mean the “pi” here) has a joyous tune to it, and it only makes sense when the vowel “i” is chanted in that melismatic tune. If we were to choose the exact point where this joyous tune is chanted in English, it will be in the vowel “o” of the “Glory.” The “o” here, I think, will not serve the same purpose as the “i” of the Coptic – it sounds more solemn than joyous. Take another easier example: the melismatic hymn of “So” of “Sothis amen” in the Divine Liturgy. The whole hymn is centred o¬n the “o” of “So,” and it will be very easy to say it in any other language. However, let’s consider the hymn if it is said in English – it will be centred o¬n the “a” of “Saved.” Right there, the hymn loses its spirituality and significance, because the “a” is not as mournful as the “o,” whereas with the “o” the whole hymn reminds us of the burial of Christ and the mournful environment of a burial. I know that these may be some extreme examples, but some people, when they see that some hymns are chanted in another language other than the original, will not hesitate to change all the hymns, arguing that they’re preserving the musical heritage of the Church despite using another language. They are not, since the spirituality of the music and the significance of every word preserved through many generations are lost. When the spirituality is lost, the whole heritage is dead.
D: Very interesting examples, teacher, and I am satisfied with what you said. I never really realized how our hymns and heritage could be at stake when we desire to change the two great languages of our Church that have endured through the ages. Is there anything else you can add?
T: I can think of o¬ne more point. This o¬ne is more of a practical point. I mentioned earlier that the problem of chanting hymns in different languages is an issue that is faced in the lands of immigration. Now let’s say that, if the hymns are eventually chanted in all the other languages, and Coptic and Greek have been neglected and forgotten, what would happen when someone who knows a hymn in German goes to Egypt for a vacation, where he meets two other people in a Church – a deacon from Egypt who knows the same hymn in Arabic, and another deacon from Australia who knows the hymn in English. Now, they’re all in o¬ne Church, they’re all Coptic Orthodox, they all know the rite very well. But what’s the use? They’re not really united, because they do not speak the same languages. They o¬nly know the hymn in the languages they use. Which language should they use, then? We can’t stand as o¬ne Church if that ever happens, and God forbid that it does! By preserving the Coptic and Greek languages in our hymns of praise, the Church maintains a strong identity and unity. How can we ever think of change? May Christ our Lord strengthen us against the attacks of the Devil, who desires to destroy our unity because of our love for praising God.
Part 3 – When boredom and distraction are at hand
D: Our Lord Jesus Christ tried to keep His disciples awake for prayer while He was suffering and praying at Gethsemane. Understanding their need for sleep, He told St. Peter the Apostle that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk. 14:38). Now, as we’ve discussed concerning the spiritual music of the Church, God gave us hymns, which move our spirit to praise Him. So, it may be true that the spirit is willing to praise God, but Christ mentioned that the flesh is weak to stand up and praise God. What do you think about people who say that the flesh is weak when it comes to praising God through the Church’s hymns?
T: I think that the problem might, initially at least, be more of a lack of interest in the hymns.
D: Do you mean a kind of boredom? I do notice that frequently among the congregation these days – both among the youth and the adults. They tend to complain about the length of the services because of some of the lengthy hymns, and might even utter a complaint about the deacon who chants the melismatic hymns, and so on.
T: Yes, I do mean a person might get bored with those.
D: But is boredom in this sense a weakness of the flesh?
T: I suppose that the weakness in the flesh might sometimes create a specific sense of boredom in the Church, but the case of boredom we’re speaking about now is not linked, I think, to a weakness in the flesh, but rather just a lack of interest in hymns.
D: Is there any way of distinguishing the two?
T: Perhaps. For instance, let’s say that the congregation feels bored when a deacon is chanting a hymn during the Divine Liturgy in the Church, and they complain about the length of the service. But perhaps we can have a look at their reaction when some spiritual songs are chanted instead. They sing along, and don’t realize the length of time spent on singing all of the songs. In this case, the boredom is caused by a misconception of what purpose the hymns of the Church serve.
D: This is why they think it’s lengthy, boring, and something only for deacons to chant, while they sit down waiting for it all to end. And I see your point about the spiritual songs – I’ve never heard anyone complain about them, nor have I seen anyone not participating. Then, what about the weakness of the flesh that leads to boredom?
T: That weakness of the flesh, I think, is a different kind of temptation from the devil, who does not wish to let us remain in our place, standing to praise the Glorious Lord of Hosts. In that temptation, our thoughts are distracted and we forget that we are in the presence of God, and instead feel that we are either alone, or only in the presence of other people, whom we’d probably think are wasting their time and effort in praising. That thought of neglecting the presence of God is what leads to laziness, which is a weakness in the flesh, and later to boredom. The person realizes that his time is getting wasted, and even though his spirit may be willing to praise God (that’s why he’s in Church!), his laziness and boredom overcome his willingness to continue praising.
D: This is true, I think, because I do sometimes get bored during some services, but at other times I do feel like something spiritual is being fulfilled, and so I continue to praise God because of that feeling.
T: Yet I think that that feeling shouldn’t be the reason why one should stand to praise God.
D: Do you mean that the fulfillment of a spiritual feeling is wrong?
T: I mean that if we are in the Church and praise God because we want to experience a certain spiritual fulfillment, then we’re in the Church for the wrong reason.
D: Can you elaborate a bit more?
T: Sure. What I’m saying is that I wouldn’t trust those feelings that seem to need to be fulfilled through praising. Those feelings, in fact, are fulfilled by other reasons – I think that these feelings feel fulfilled when someone enjoys a hymn, or enjoys the presence of his friends while they’re chanting a hymn, and so on. The feeling, then, is a worldly feeling that shouldn’t count as an equal to God’s presence with us at all times. These are feelings and thoughts given by the devil, in order to tempt us away from the true essence of praise. When those feelings don’t seem fulfilled, and we ignore the fact that God is among us, the first thing that attacks us is the feeling of talking to someone else. That feeling is called distraction from prayer – we see only the visible and want to communicate with them, but ignore that the invisible are with us too. When we realize that we’re standing with the visible beings, that’s when laziness overwhelms the body, for we no longer feel that we should stand firm to praise God, and then boredom is at hand.
D: Well, how can one eliminate not just the laziness and the boredom, but also the deceiving thought that we have spiritual feelings that seem to be fulfilled when we praise?
T: That answer we’ll find in our experienced Desert Fathers, who stayed awake during the late hours of the night, awake for vigils of praise and prayers, in front of God who is present at all times. In the Paradise of the Holy Fathers, one of the brothers asked one of the monks about why, while he did some work, he does not concentrate and feels weary and disgusted in his soul. Even though the thoughts here come to this brother while he worked, the reply of the monk is applicable to praising with the Church’s hymns. His reply was: “Because you do not desire to fulfill that which is written, ‘I will bless the Lord always, and His praises shall be always in my mouth’ (Ps. 34:1). Therefore, whether you are inside or outside, and wherever you go, you must not cease from blessing God; not only in actions, but with word and mind you shall bless your Creator. For God does not dwell in any place that has bounds and limits, but He is everywhere, and by His Divine Power He sustains all things, and is capable of all things” (128).
D: Does this means that one should not think about the fulfillment of feelings while chanting a hymn, but rather must be aware of the presence of God at all times and in any place in the universe? So, by praising and blessing God at all times, and knowing that He is everywhere, we won’t think of those feelings, lazy and bored. Am I right?
T: Indeed you are! The point is to remember that when we gather in Church, we’re not there expecting God to come out of a hiding place and give us a spiritual fulfillment; instead, we are in the Church together and are aware of His presence, according to His saying: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt. 18:20), and it is as a result of being in His presence that we praise and bless Him together through the beautiful hymns of the Church.
D: Well, what if someone is really aware of God’s presence, but still gets distracted from prayer and praising God through the hymns of the Church? I mean, I sometimes feel like I want to praise and I want to think about nothing but the greatness, holiness and mercy of God, but I can still get distracted when I’m praying a hymn. So, what about distraction, and how can one avoid it?
T: Distraction from prayer and praising God is the devil’s favorite tool, for the devil and the demons hate prayer, which is offensive to them, since it leads us to salvation and peace. Evagrius the Solitary, who was an Origenist but has some useful things to say concerning this topic, said that “the demon is very envious of us when we pray, and uses every kind of trick to thwart our purpose. Therefore he is always using our memory to stir up thoughts of various things and our flesh to arouse the passions, in order to obstruct our way of ascent to God” (On Prayer, 47). Thus, the demons’ way of distracting us from prayer and praising God is to use what is natural in our bodies, that is, to use our memory and our flesh. In the case of the flesh, we get distracted by its natural needs, such as hunger and thirst; in this case, we need to stand against our bodily passions and deny ourselves – this is again a case when the flesh is weak but the spirit is willing. One way of overcoming this is to practice fasting more often, for example, or eat and drink before praying a Vespers or Midnight Praise, for instance, so that we don’t get distracted from our prayer. As for the memory, Evagrius mentions that it is also natural to get distracted: “When you pray,” he said, “keep close watch on your memory, so that it does not distract you with recollections of your past. But make yourself aware that you are standing before God. For by nature the intellect is apt to be carried away by memories during prayer” (On Prayer, 45). From my experience, I feel that the best means of combating the war with memory is to find a time to sit in silence before the time of prayer. The world outside is too busy and noisy, and so before prayer one needs to separate himself from the world by sitting in silence. During this transitional period, the memory starts playing its role, but it is during this silence that you can fight and “try to make your intellect deaf and dumb” as Evagrius said (On Prayer, 11). Once you clear yourself from those memories, be aware that you are going to stand before God and are going to praise Him along with the whole of creation. This time, the devil won’t make you forget that you are in the presence of God by arousing your memories, since you’ve cleared yourself from them and are totally focused on God. Then, when you stand to praise God, follow one of my favorite commands of Evagrius: “Pray gently and calmly, sing with understanding and rhythm; then you will soar like a young eagle high in the heavens” (On Prayer, 82).
D: What a great temptation it is when I get distracted from prayer, but I will surely follow your suggestions and Evagrius’ wise teachings to avoid remembering the things of the world during prayer. Now, we’ve examined two things here: distraction from prayer and praise, and my original inquiry about the weakness of the flesh that leads to boredom. What, then, can you suggest as a solution to the problem of the general boredom of some people in the Church?
T: I think that the solution is related to the first: be aware of God’s presence and praise Him as a result of this awareness. If one continuously praises God through his/her acts and thoughts in every aspect of his/her life, then praising God with the hymns of the Church during any liturgical service wouldn’t be something boring – not even something done as a “duty” – but something that fills us with joy, love, and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit; for it is the Spirit Himself who has brought us together, who made us Christians and members of Christ’s Body, who united us and has attuned us to sing together in unison to the Father and the Son.
D: How true! Isn’t this exactly what we affirm when we chant the Morning Doxology? It speaks of how pleasant it is when brothers are together in unity: “Those whom the Holy Spirit has attuned together as a stringed instrument, always blessing God.”
T: That is a good observation. I can also add so much more to the beauty of praising and chanting hymns. Praising, first of all, is the work of the heavenly beings, which we, who are sinners, were made worthy by God’s grace to praise Him with all the heavenly beings. They were the witnesses of God’s creation before we were even created, and they praise Him for His great and mighty acts, as it is written: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…. when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy” (Job 38:4,7); and we too are witnesses of what God has created, and for that we praise Him with the angels, declaring the glory of God that fills the heavens and the earth. We, as God’s children, are called to praise God and thank Him with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). As someone once told me, the hymns of the Church which we use to praise God are considered the backbone of the Body of Christ – if the backbone is present, the people are united, praise God together, and the Church is strengthened; but if the backbone is not present – that is, hymnology comes to an end in the Church – praising comes to an end with it, the people are dismembered from each other, and everyone’s spiritual life and the Church as a whole is weakened.
D: I can see how hymns are a very necessary aspect of an individual’s spiritual life. After all, weren’t the monks always advised by their elders to chant from the Psalmody to eliminate evil thoughts?
T: Yes, hymns eliminate evil thoughts because the demons do not like them, and also it is through hymns that we transcend with our mind and senses, and are elevated up to the throne of Christ, who sits at the right hand of His Father, who is surrounded by thousands of thousands and myriads of myriads of heavenly beings. Among them, we forget the world and all that is in it; we forget the sins, the temptations, the suffering, the sorrows… We are in the Ark, as was Noah and his family, and while the flood killed and destroyed, the Ark was floating safely above the waters of flood.
D: What you say certainly gives a sense of the holiness of the hymns we chant in Church. If one is truly aware of God’s presence, and aware of the love and joy that accompany our praising, I’m sure no one would ever think of our hymns as though they are boring.
T: Notice where we’re getting at now – praising with understanding is the key. If one doesn’t know what he is doing, what he is saying, and doesn’t contemplate on the hymns he chants, he doesn’t understand the essence of praising and does not fulfill the commandment of the Psalmist: “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with understanding” (Ps. 47:6, 7). It is also for this reason that we have melismatic hymns in our Church – they aren’t there to irritate the congregation and make them feel bored, they aren’t there for the deacon to demonstrate his knowledge and memory of a hymn, but they’re there to give us time to contemplate and praise with understanding.
D: I agree with you. Nevertheless, what would you suggest as a practical effort to give the bored congregation this lesson on the effect and beauty of our Church’s hymns? After all, they might enjoy praising, but dislike our hymns – it is these sorts of people who turn exclusively to spiritual songs and think that the old, Coptic and Greek melismatic hymns are boring.
T: I think that the solution to this kind of problem should start with the deacons first. In the present time, we find that our Church has passed through a period of weakness, when people became disinterested in the Church as a whole or were forced by circumstances to stay away from the Church. The few cantors who chanted them alone preserved the hymns in the Church. The whole scenario of a cantor solely chanting the hymns that the whole congregation should chant alienated the congregation, and made them uninterested in hymns – not just uninterested, but they did not understand the necessity of learning and chanting these hymns. Thus, the solution to this problem we see today would be to reverse the whole scenario: starting with the deacons, they should get together and learn the hymns of the Church, and praise together in unison. This unison will create an impression on the congregation who feel bored during the service, and when they see that there’s something they can participate in with the deacons – rather than a cantor who chants on his own, and the deacons don’t even participate – they will surely discover the joy of praising God through the Church’s hymns. They will praise with understanding, they will praise with love, they will praise the King of kings without ceasing.
D: I pray that this may happen in the Church universal!
T: May God grant us the strength and the will to preserve His hymns and pray them with understanding, by which all forms of boredom and weakness are abolished; by which we ascend up the ladder to the thinking of good thoughts, rather than the thoughts and feelings of boredom… The sweet melody of the hymns takes us up the ladder into the highest heaven, where we behold the Lord.
Part 4 – When excitement for music is at hand
D: Well, let me move on to a different topic. When the prophet David fought the Philistines, and got the Ark of the Covenant out of Baal-judah, we are told that “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (2 Sam. 6:5). My question now is very simple: why do we not dance and play all sorts of musical instruments in the same way as the house of Israel did?
T: My answer to that would be because of what Christ has fulfilled and sanctified in us in this age of grace, in the New Testament. But first, let’s look at the social life of the Jews in the Old Testament – they were a people chosen by God to be different from the rest of the world, but the life of the other tribes and peoples around them seemed attractive and interesting. For this reason, we read many times how the people of Israel fell into temptation, fell into worshipping other gods, because the manner of worshipping in these cults were attractive. For this reason, God permitted them to worship Him in front of the ark with musical instruments and dancing, with materialistic joy, since they were materialistic people who sought after anything materialistic.
D: But aren’t we also materialistic? I think that we would be doing the same thing as God did in the Old Testament if we had musical instruments in Church – it would keep many people away from the secular music of the world. Right?
T: In a certain sense you’re correct, but that is incomplete. I believe that using musical instruments is already permissible when chanting and praying spiritual songs, but when it comes to the hymns of the Church, it’s a different level altogether.
D: What do you mean by a different level?
T: Well, I usually think that spiritual songs, adorned with music, are the means of getting people out of this world and into the Church. But that’s only the first step. But note, I by no means think that spiritual songs are limited to “beginners” as such, since there are many who can pray and repent, praise and glorify God, and so on, through such good spiritual songs that are accompanied by music. But what I intend to say is that the use of musical instruments in the Church’s hymns are inappropriate, since the hymns of Church reflect the status of the Church, the status brought about by Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the status that makes us spiritual and has sanctified our bodies.
D: So, the fact that we don’t use musical instruments reflects the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
T: Precisely. Is not this what God said through Isaiah the prophet concerning the people of the Old TestamenT: “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Is. 29:13)? They were materialistic people who had to be encouraged to worship, and worship they did, but merely with external means – with their lips, with musical instruments, with dances. Today, with the grace of the Holy Spirit working within us, we are moved to worship by the Spirit Himself, and with our hearts we let our lips sing praises to God. We do not need musical instruments as the Jews did, since we have the Spirit within us, who guides us and sanctifies our senses. God in the Old Testament permitted musical instruments and dancing because the Jews easily fell away from worshipping Him and worshipped other gods in cults that had music and dancing, as I said earlier. But now, the Church is the bride of Christ, and we are members of the Body of Christ, and love God and one another. We are capable of avoiding the love of the world and the attractive worship of gods in the cults and religions created by men, since the Holy Spirit is within us. For this reason, there is no need for musical instruments or dancing in the liturgical worship of the Church.
D: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that musical instruments and dancing in the context of worship is not wrong, but it is no longer in use in the age of grace, since we are capable of worshipping in spirit?
T: Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. In fact, the Church Fathers taught us that God has sanctified our bodies through the Incarnation of the Logos, such that the best musical instrument used to praise God is nothing else but our very own body! While the musical instruments in the world are created by humans, and may certainly be used to praise God, nothing is greater, more magnificent, more worthy of praising God than the natural musical instrument made by God Himself – the human being. For this reason, you’ll find that in all the Apostolic Churches, all the hymns are – or once used to be – plainchant hymns; that is, they are chanted vocally and without the accompaniment of any musical instruments.
D: How true! I think that just the fact that we can praise God with our voices and with all our hearts, with understanding, with rhythm, and in unison, proves that humans are certainly the musical instruments created and designed to praise God.
T: Indeed, a heart that praises God through the hymns of the Church, the lips that move with love for the Creator of the universe, the mind that contemplates the mysteries of God through what He revealed to us, are all considered a “sacrifice of praise.” Praising through the hymns is a sacrifice of our own body, a sacrifice due to love, a sacrifice that rises up as incense to the Almighty, through which our sins are forgiven. In the Divine Liturgy, we always begin the Anaphora with the words “a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise,” because the Lord, by reconciling us with the Father, and having mercy on us in the New Testament, has permitted us to stand in the Church, reconciled with one another, to offer a sacrifice through our praises.
D: Well, if that’s the case with musical instruments, then why do we, the Copts, chant our hymns with the accompaniment of the cymbals and the triangle?
T: The cymbals and the triangle are percussion instruments. They are used to maintain the tempo of the hymns that we chant in the Church. So they’re not considered, nor are intended to be used, as accompaniment instruments, which are the keyboard, wind and string instruments.
D: But that’s not really how people use it anymore! I mean, there are some hymns that I can’t imagine chanting without the joy and excitement that the cymbals would provide with the words. The reality is that in many churches today the deacons really use them in a way that creates an atmosphere of joy and excitement. Personally, I find that it keeps one attentive and motivated to chant the hymns.
T: That is a sad reality, actually. However, the source of motivation and joy in chanting the hymns and praying in the Church should never be based on the excitement caused by the beats of the cymbals and the triangle! What if one day the cymbals and triangle were misplaced – are the people going to leave the Church because they find the praising boring? The motivation and joy should not be based on – or even arise from – the clashing noises that these instruments make, nor from the talent of the deacons playing them. In fact, the true joy comes from the giver of the gift of joy – the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who moves us to pray and glorify God. He is not just our helper in distress, but our helper in keeping us motivated to praise in the Church. We should never replace the gift of joy within us, which was given to us by the Holy Spirit, with the external and artificial joy that we could create by playing the cymbals and the triangle. Like I said, the original purpose of those percussion instruments is to maintain the tempo.
D: I’ve heard some deacons who would argue against this by quoting Psalm 150: “Praise God with the cymbals of joy.” Since the Holy Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, they say that this verse shows that the cymbals can be used to create the joy. To say otherwise, they think, is to argue against inspiration! What do you say to that?
T: I would say that they are mistaken. A proper appeal to the inspiration of the Holy Bible would ask us to delve into the spiritual meaning behind the literal words! Anyway, if they wish to be very literal, they should not deliberately ignore the rest of the Psalm. Why are they not using the rest of the instruments mentioned in Psalm 150 for praising God, and which altogether would create a great atmosphere of exciting hymnology? But no, we do not take the whole Psalm literally, and we actually limit our use of instruments in accordance to what the Church has allowed us to use – namely, cymbals and the triangle, which are percussion instruments to be used solely for maintaining the tempo. Also, what does “cymbals of joy” actually mean? In a very literal sense, cymbals do not have emotions, and they do not express emotions. So the cymbals themselves aren’t the cause of “joy.” In other words, the Psalmist is trying to indicate something else by the statement “cymbals of joy.” St. Clement of Alexandria tells us that there is a spiritual meaning behind the words of the Psalmist:“the tongue is the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips” (St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, II:IV). The same was said by Eusebius of Caesarea, the first historian of the Church: “We, however, maintain the Jewish law inwardly… and it is upon a living psaltery and an animate cithara and in spiritual songs that we render the hymn. And so more sweetly pleasing to God than any musical instrument would be the symphony of the people of God, by which, in every church of God, with kindred spirit and single disposition, with one mind and unanimity of faith and piety, we raise melody in unison in our psalmody” (Eusebius, In Psalmum, XCI:4). See also what Evagrius of Pontus sad:“The musical instruments of the Old Testament are not unsuitable for us if understood spiritually: figuratively the body can be called a cithara and the soul a psaltery, which are likened musically to the wise man who fittingly employs the limbs of the body and the powers of the soul as strings. Sweetly sings he who sings in the mind, uttering spiritual songs, singing in his heart to God. The cithara is the practical soul activated by the commandments of Christ. The tympanum is the death of covetousness through goodness itself; the dance the symphony of rational souls speaking in unison and avoiding dissension. The strings are the harmony of the balanced sound of virtues and instruments. The instrument is the church of God, made up of contemplative and active souls. The well sounding cymbal is the active soul, fixed upon the desire for Christ; the clangorous cymbal is the pure mind made live by the salvation of Christ” (St. Evagrius of Pontus, Selecta in Psalmos, XXXII:2-3, CL:3-5). So, in short, we are not supposed to praise God with the artificial, man-made instruments such as the cymbals, but to praise Him with the natural cymbals, with the human body and spirit.
D: I now think that I agree with what you said. The joy is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which moves us, the true musical instruments, to truly praise God. But now I would like you to comment on what some people do with the hymns of the Church: some people chant the hymns in such a manner that seems pleasurable.
T: It is good to hear the hymns chanted in a pleasurable voice, and it is worth noting that music in general provides the feelings of joy and pleasure – that is, this is the aesthetics of music. Perhaps it is for this reason that allows us to praise Him through hymns. But attaining the feelings of joy and pleasure shouldn’t be the aim of chanting or listening to the hymns. They are supposed to be means to an end – for the aim is to raise our spirits beyond the aesthetics of music towards praising God, who is Spirit, in spirit and in truth. In fact, there was a point in the history of the Coptic Church that hymns were about to be banned. The idea arose within the monastic community. Abba Silvanus of Scetis, for example, thought that hymnology could lead to pride, so he taught that monks should not pray with hymns – although he thought that laypeople outside the monasteries could use hymns to keep them in church. It is said that Abba Pambo, also, began a large attack on hymnology. However, I think the Church now came up with a best solution: moderation in everything is the key! Instead of the extremes of using hymns for pleasure on the one hand, and banning hymns altogether on the other hand, we should practice moderation in our chanting and make sure that our aim is to praise God.
D: But how can we put that moderation principle into practice?
T: We should try to focus on praising God, and notice that whenever we begin to care more about the pleasures of the music, we should stop and pray to God to help us from falling into sin. St. Augustine once said that in Church he began to be moved with pleasure with the singing in the Church, and he noted it as a sin: “Yet when it happens to me to be more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally, and then I would rather not have heard the singing” (St. Augustine, Confessions, X:33). How much more should we try to focus on what we chant to God, rather than fall into the sin of pleasing ourselves with the music?
D: Yes, I realize now that moderation is the way of avoiding the sin of misusing our musical heritage. We should, as you said earlier, be moved by the Holy Spirit and express our prayers through hymns that come from our hearts.
T: Indeed, our hearts and our tongues unite when we chant our prayers in hymns. Our own human nature is musical, and we express ourselves through music. Let us, then, use our Coptic hymnology in such a manner that we make it our own through the Holy Spirit’s work in us, and that the joy and comfort of the hymns comes to us also through the Holy Spirit. Let us truly live in the Spirit, and be guided by the Spirit in our liturgical worship in the Church. Let us, as Christ taught us, worship and pray, adore and praise, the Lord our Saviour and our King, in spirit and in truth.