Assembly Talks 1: A Theological Cosmology

As  promised last time, I am watching each of the recorded presentations from last November’s assembly of the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church in the USA and posting my comments here, in hopes of starting a robust discussion going forward.

Continue reading “Assembly Talks 1: A Theological Cosmology”

The Assembly and the MCI

In November, the Byzantine Catholic Church in the US held an Archieparchial Assembly in Hillsborough, NJ. Unfortunately, I came down with Covid that week and was not able t0 attend. Still, I think the Assembly deserves some serious consideration, so I am going to be

  • Posting the text of my presentation here for discussion, and
  • Posting a link to the video for each presentation, every 2 days or so, along with my comments, and see what sort of useful discussion we might have!

The presentation below is also my roadmap for the MCI in the coming year. Please let me know your own thoughts and priorities!

All Creation Should Sing:
What our chant teaches us, and what our church singing can offer to a fractured and anxious world

Liturgical services sung from beginning to end by everyone present are a hallmark of our church, the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo and its daughter churches around the world, as well as the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. In this presentation, I will show how singing these services well, using our traditional plain chant or prostopinije, can bring us closer to God, build up our Church, and draw others to Christ.

Why all creation should sing

My title is “All creation should sing”… but why is that?  How does it happen? Let’s start with our baptismal symbol of faith, the Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of all things visible and invisible.

So God created the angels, and what we usually call the created world: rocks and trees, plants and animals, the heavens and human beings; this is the first point of our faith.  The second point, which we can observe everywhere, is that this creation has fallen away from God’s design; this is what we call the Fall, and it has left the created world fractured and anxious. The third and crucial point is that God so loved the world that he redeemed it so that it could become what he planned and intended from the beginning.

Now Scripture tells us that the angels constantly praise and adore God, but they do this entirely in spirit; they can’t bow, or sing, or dance before the Lord. Animals praise God simply by existing, but they do so (as far as we can tell) without words, and perhaps even without thinking about God; they simply are.

As for us human beings, we are (as we sing in our funeral hymns) composite living creatures, matter AND spirit, lofty and lowly alike. It is our unique privilege to receive both material and spiritual gifts from God, and use our bodies and our spirits to express our praise, our thanksgiving, our sorrows, and our joys to God.

And in fact this is what God asks of us! In the Scriptures, old and new, we are constantly encouraged to “sing to the Lord.”  In this way, we serve as a bridge, uniting everything in praise of God, and uniting ourselves WITH God, and the angels, and the created world. And we do this by… singing – singing, gathered in the assembly, the synaxis, the ecclesia, the Church.

So where does our church music come from?

It’s important to recognize that singing was ubiquitous in the ancient world, and in the early church; it’s hard to find any mention of liturgy in the first thousand years of Christianity that was NOT sung. In early Constantinople, where our Byzantine tradition of worship comes from, public services consisted largely of the singing of psalms, usually with refrains (like “Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us” or “Save your people, O Lord, and bless your inheritance”) along with litanies and prayers. At first there was a bias against new church-composed hymns, due to their use by heretics, but eventually the psalms were supplemented with specifically Christian hymns, usually written as poetry in Greek or Syriac.

Greek church singing often set successive hymns to the same melody; you can do this with poetry. How many people know “America the Beautiful”?  How many know the second verse? Third verse? But if I wrote out a dozen verses, you could probably sing them all to the same melody pretty easily. That is how Greek singing of troparia and other hymns worked.

When the Slavs adopted Christianity from Constantinople, they translated the Greek Scriptures and service books as exactly as they can, sometimes translating word by word. At first, they tried to make poetic translations that could use the Greek music as well, but after a century or so they appear to have given up, and used prose translations instead. To sing these, they gradually developed their own Slavic chants, based on Greek church music but adaptable to words whose accents fell differently in each verse – sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Thus we have the znammeny chant, named for the znamenie or “signs” that were written over the words to show where the pitch went up or down, or stayed the same, or used several notes for one syllable. Only the complicated music was written down, and by the 1600’s each local Slavic church had its own collection of chants, sometimes borrowing from one another. With influences from Europe, composed music and choir music became more common, and the melodies were written down in square notes on a four-line staff; this notation was used in our church into the early 20th century. Thus we have Kievan Chant, Novgorod Chant, Court Chant, and the choral music of Bortniansky, Tchaikovsky, and Chesnokov.

So what is the prostopinije I mentioned earlier, and how is it different?

Prostopinije – “plain singing” or “plain chant” – is the liturgical chant of the Byzantine Rite Slavs of the Carpathian highlands. It is a complete chant system – that is, it provides melodies for practically everything that is to be sung in Byzantine Rite services. While it has borrowed some melodies from its neighbors, these aren’t terribly obvious; nothing like Russian Orthodox music where you might have several chants for one text, a znameny chant, a Kievan chant, and a Greek chant, for example. With a few exceptions like the major hymns of the Divine Liturgy, there is pretty much one melody to use at any point in the services.

Prostopinije is (relatively) easy for congregations to sing, and harmonize by ear; it adapts to all sorts of texts. It is related to Ukrainian plain chant or samoilka, though it sounds a bit old-fashioned in comparison, and slightly Westernized.  For almost two hundred years it has been sung in at least two languages, Church Slavonic and Hungarian, and so singers have learned to adapt the same melodies to different environments. All this gives it a real flexibility and subtlety.

The presence of a leader of song, the cantor, allows the people to sing entire services themselves, in dialog with the clergy, in the good order called for since apostolic times. The cantor chooses the melody (where there is a choice) and sets the tempo; the beginning pitch is usually based on the singing of the clergy, so there is a continuous musical thread through the whole service. The cantor is a specialist in church music, but not a soloist. In fact, according to our liturgical books, the cantor has two actual solos in the course of the year. (Does anyone know what those are?  At the end of the vigils for Christmas and Theophany, the cantor sings the troparion of the feast in the middle of the church, standing beside a lighted candle.)

In Europe, the cantor and the priest were often the best educated individuals in the village, and so the cantor often served as a teacher as well. Since early times, literacy in the lands of Rus’ was achieved by the study first of the primer or Azbuka, then the psalter or book or psalms, then the Chasoslov, or book of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours – but these books didn’t contain the changeable parts of the divine services, which were found in large books like the menaion and triodion, used by the cantor.

Around 1860, a parish priest named Popovich commissioned a book for his flock that contained all the texts and hymns for Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feasts. He called it the Velikij Sbornik, or Great Anthology. Using these books and their familiarity with prostopinije, under the leadership of experienced cantors, congregations could sing all the services for Sundays and feasts, from beginning to end, themselves, in plain chant. This ignited what has been called a “fever of congregational singing” which astounded even Orthodox travelers in the region – it was a true innovation, and one that united communities and led to even wider knowledge of church services through practical experience.

So what did these people, our forebears in faith, learn? What can our chant teach us?

Chanting teaches us to keep our attention fixed on God. We sing to God and the saints; we sing about God and the saints; and we sing to encourage each other. We hear about God, and experience order and delight.  Sometimes the “learning” part of the liturgy is emphasized, but the knowledge we gain from actually taking part in the services is experiential: the same sort of knowledge that comes from being in a relationship. Chanting teaches us to keep our attention on God.

Now, this isn’t easy, and we need to constantly re-learn it. It IS possible to sing words without reflecting on them or even meaning them. The more we internalize the hymns, the more we can mean them instead of simply executing them. A good place to start is by singing the beginning prayers: learning to sing “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, and mean every word. But singing these words can help.

Chanting also teaches us how to be a community. Good listening is vital to good singing; the ears are the most essential tool for communal singing. We should be listening to the clergy, the cantor, the people around us – and ourselves, comparing our pitch and tempo and timbre to those we are singing with, matching and blending and harmonizing. This can be as tricky, and as beautiful, and as fun as good dancing – not just with a partner, but with a whole ensemble, like old-fashioned stage musicals. It is learned by practice, and practically anyone can do it.

We not only learn to listen to one another, but we learn to take turns – leading, following, contributing our part. Sometimes a hymn is repeated, so we can sing it and then listen and meditate on it, or listen and then sing it ourselves. Our chant changes with the feast and the season, and in the regular cycle of eight tones. We learn the value of faithfulness, or those who come to every service, the voices of those who have travelled to be back with us, or those who have struggled mightily to be part of our community. We learn to recognize those who are missing, so we can pray for them and assist them.

Communities can implement choirs – a group of those who practice more difficult music, perhaps, for special occasions. These organizations can foster camaraderie and allow for more focus on music; they can also become a clique within a parish, or displace congregational singing, both things to be avoided. But our church has sometimes had thriving choirs, even multi-parish choir competitions, and this can contribute to respect and love for one’s own parish as well as beatify the services, if done with care. Not everyone needs to do everything in the parish, as long as all who can contribute are welcome!

Chant teaches us to unite opposites.  In his recent book on the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, Father Jack Custer pointed out the many paradoxes that are reconciled in the words of this hymn. The same is true of our chant. One voice and many; men and women; adults and children – there are many ways to sing in alternation, or in call and response, that are entirely part of our parish. The use of children’s choirs is quite ancient in Eastern Christianity, and the alternation in singing between men and women has a long and beautiful tradition in our own church. Even the richness of elderly and young voices singing together can add a rich sense of universality to our singing.

We can also balance old music and new music, as the householder brings forth from his store-room things both old and new.  We do have older melodies which could be dusted off and used, such as the music for the dogmatika at Saturday evening Vespers, and the samopodoben melodies at Matins.  We have a long tradition of using many different versions of the Cherubic Hymn, and some parishes have particular local melodies which, if appropriate for wider church use, might be shared. At the same time, a core repertoire of music that “everyone knows” is invaluable for joint events such as eparchial pilgrimages.

In the matter of uniting opposites, a step up comes in restoring the singing of harmony in our plain chant. These harmonies need not be written out like choral music; in fact, our church has a particular tradition of extemporized or “folk” harmony which we would do well to make popular again. This requires even better listening skills, but it can be learned and should be more widely employed. At the same time, unison singing will always have a place, and can serve as a vital contrast, or for use where harmonization is too difficult to do well.

Finally, chanting teaches us to be joyful. Joy is the mark of a true Christian. In the fourth chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice always! I say it again, rejoice! Everyone should see how joyful you are. The Lord is near.”  Singing is words together with melody; remember I mentioned how we unite body and soul, word and emotion in a way that neither angels nor the rest of creation can quite manage? Words tell the story, melody shows the feeling. That is why music can raise us up, and why we use special music for special feasts – to remind us once more of what we are doing.

Our singing in common shows that the celebration belongs to everyone present; that is the special value of events such as pilgrimages, ordinations, and parish anniversaries. In gathering together and singing in common our praise, our thanksgiving, and joy, and yes, even our sorrow, we do something in the church that fulfills our particular role in the cosmos: the liturgy is the Church, being who she is.

In our singing, we unite the earthly liturgy with the liturgy taking place eternally in heaven. This is signified in the layout of the traditional Byzantine church: from Christ the Pantokrator or “ruler of all” in the dome, down through the ranks of angels and saints, to the people standing in the nave. As Father Robert Taft once said, the church isn’t fully decorated unless the people are there taking part. And over the sanctuary, we see the Mother of God, her hands upraised, as we send up our prayers and our praise to God.

So what can our church singing offer the world?

First, an experience of God, and knowledge of God. Remember that in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures, “knowledge” is not simply facts or book learning, but a real knowing of another person. This relationship with God employs everything we are: body, soul, and spirit; thoughts and emotions; our internal narrative and our place in the community. This is reflected in a chant in which the words, AND the feeling behind them, are important. Just as we present ourselves and express ourselves differently on different occasions, or for different purposes, we have different melodies for different purposes. But at all times, we are (or should be!) singing and celebrating with Christ, before the Father, in the Holy Spirit. In this way, we come to know God by doing.

Second, church singing offers the world an experience of community united in a common endeavor. We sing ALL the services together, and this required labor and learning – a sort of initiation into the community. We are united in listening and response, and this is open to everyone who enters the community. A particular role here is played by memorization; most of our hymns and chants are used regularly enough that they can be memorized, allowing us to sing from the heart.

One comment here: I thoroughly believe that the publication in 2006 of books with music was a necessary step for our church, and greatly improved our capability for common church singing. Now that the melodies we use, once so varied as to be divisive, are much more held in common, we can begin to at least consider returning to the use of books with just the texts of the hymns, which sometimes allow more focus on the words we are singing and praying – AS LONG AS the cantor truly knows and can lead the requisite melodies, and the people can follow the cantor. 

Third, church singing offers an experience of unity in variety. Our roles are all important, but they are not the same, and they may change with time. Yet everyone has a role to play, and (hopefully) a moment to shine. In particular, we always have room for more cantors, and ANYONE with the requisite skills can be a cantor. We have a long tradition of women cantors, especially since the introduction of English, and we have had serving parish cantors as young as twelve. At weekday services, it may be the case that no official cantor is present, and anyone in the congregation who knows how may step up to lead the people’s singing.  (Do check with the celebrant first!) We also have a tradition of the singing of reader services when no priest is available, and some of our parishes have endured years during which they faithfully sang Vespers and Matins under the presidency of a cantor, with the Eucharist celebrated when a priest could be present. We adapt and we learn.

But above all, church singing can offer an experience of joy. There is an ecstasy – that is, a “standing outside ourselves” in singing together well.  United with the angels in the presence of God, we learn freedom from passions and anxiety because we are part of the song that is sung before the throne of the Most High, as described in the Apocalypse of John:

“The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones. And they sang a new hymn: ‘Worthy are you to receive the scroll and break open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom of priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.’ I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.’ The four living creatures answered, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshipped.” (Rev. 5:8-14).

 So how do we get started?

As members of the body of Christ, sing – regularly, and as much as you can. Saint Paul tells us to address one another in psalms, and hymns, and sacred songs, but we have to start by remembering that we CAN sing. Sing things you remember from church when you’re alone, or even caring for small children; sing children’s songs or folks songs, show tunes – anything whose content is not objectionable. (In the same way that singing hymns, even by rote, can help bring us closer to God, singing bawdy, rude, or wicked lyrics, even if we “don’t mean them”, is unlikely to build up our life in Christ. Words DO matter.) But pick something worth singing, and sing!

Next, really listen to the singing in church, follow the cantor, and try to blend with and support the singing of those around you. Memorize some common hymns, such as the Sunday troparia or the fixed hymns of the Divine Liturgy, and try singing those. You will probably find that once you sing the first few words, a surprising amount of what follows may come automatically. Once you can sing a hymn from memory, stop, and sing it slowly to yourself while thinking about the meaning of what you are singing. Treat them, in a sense, like Scripture: don’t just rip through them, but savor them and make sure you understand the words you sing.  (If you hit something you don’t understand, ask your priest or cantor!)

If you think you “can’t sing” – even if you’ve been told you can’t sing – find out how anyway.  There are people who are truly tone deaf, but they are quite rare. The Metropolitan Cantor Institute has online classes in singing open to anyone in our church, with online games that develop your ability to discern and sing musical pitches. There are also introductory classes that teach the basics of Byzantine liturgy, and how to serve as a church reader, all free. Take advantage of them!

Finally, come to all the services at your parish and make them a part of your life, then take what you’ve learned out into the world. (By the way, the world begins for us in the narthex or vestibule of the church; just as the sanctuary represents heaven and the nave the Church, the narthex is the gateway between the Church and the world that needs to hear the Gospel. That is why the pre-baptismal ceremonies, and the engagement service, are performed in the narthex.)

What about cantors?  As cantors you should be doing all these things, AND learn all you can about our services – the cantor is a traditional teacher of our church culture – and all you can about our chant and how it works. (See the handout for some suggestions.) Make sure to always prepare for each service; walk through the music and know your part. I recommend that the cantor always check with the celebrant before each service, and ask his blessing. Welcome newcomers to the church, and make sure they have what they need to take part. Train your assistants and your church readers well, and plan for a cantor or cantors to follow after you!  The Metropolitan Cantor Institute materials and classes can help here, too. 

At the parish level, we all have a responsibility.  From time to time, look deeply at your parish’s liturgical singing and see what if anything it needs.  (If nothing, rejoice!  But as Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky of blessed memory once directed, if after two years the people are not singing with a cantor, that cantor should be retired!)

Next, consider putting together a history of your parish’s musical culture. (Watch the MCI blog for ideas.) Invest in whatever it takes to improve your parish singing, because this is one of the first things that newcomers AND returnees notice. Make it your goal that in church, everyone sings.

Finally, as a Church, we have work to do.  More than fifteen years after the promulgation of the Divine Liturgy, we still have plenty of work to do to provide better material to parishes. The Seminary Press can serve as an ideal focus for this as it has in the past.

Good singing has to be experienced before it can be imitated. As a church, we should be able to point to examples of liturgical and musical excellence, variety, and beauty. In the coming year, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute plans to create a weekly curated stream of audio and video highlighting services and singing that show off the best we have to offer. We invite every cantor and parish to suggest contributions to this stream.

The Church can also do more to foster local and regional singing classes. These have largely been on hold during the pandemic, but there is no reason a large parish or a deanery could not hold local classes on liturgy and music for cantors and parishioners. If there is interest, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute could facilitate local classes, including multi-day “boot camps’ for new cantors.

We can also do more to integrate chant into Eastern Christian formation classes for youth, as well as adult education.

We can (and should) establish a contact list of cantors across the church, both for internal communication between cantors, and to assist pastors in finding help to meet their parish’s needs.

Finally, we as a church should consider emphasizing more formal expectations for serving cantors, such as some form of cantor certification – not as a requirement for service, but as “setting the bar” of what a trained cantor should be able to do. We cantors need to up our game to serve the Lord in this ministry, for the good of our Church.

I thank you for your time and attention, and I hope this will enable you to sing a new song this weekend and upon your return home.   I welcome your questions, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.