What Happens When We Sing to God?

“God inhabits the praises of Israel.” (Psalm 22:3)

The true nature of existence is best expressed as communion. Though we experience much of our life as unique individuals, the experience of all that is around us remains one of communion. In no way do we actually exist as an independent entity, somehow separate from our environment. We breathe the world; we eat the world; we drink the world; every cell of our body is itself composed of elements from the world; the bacteria in our bodies outnumber our cells and make our life possible. It is only through a modern force of habit that we restrict our consciousness to a kind of individuality: an awareness and a will. But this is only a consumer’s point-of-view – life reduced to economics. The fullness of life, inescapable even when unacknowledged, is the life we live in union with everything and everyone around us, and most especially in union with our Creating, Sustaining, and Life-Giving God.

It is interesting to me as I grow older, how my awareness changes. The questions that marked my days in my teens and twenties bear very little resemblance to those that mark my late sixties. Walking and breathing now seem like gifts, not always given easily. I have lately been battling with a back injury, such that each morning brings a question: “Will I be able to go for a walk today?” In the same manner, my years as a Christian have served to change my awareness. My walk is also a primary time of prayer. If I cannot walk today, what will my prayer look like? Over time, my awareness has been drawn more and more to the matter of communion.

St. Paul wrote: “Whatsoever you do, in thought, word, and deed, do it as unto the Lord.” I would add to that to not only do it “as unto the Lord,” but to do it with Him, through Him, by Him, and in Him. The creation itself is the very goodness of God made manifest. If we breathe, we breathe His goodness. If we walk, we walk on His goodness. If we eat, we eat of His goodness. And these facts are not anxillary – they are primary. What matters is our communion with God (and His goodness) in that it is our very life (whether acknowledged or not).

It is in light of this that I reflect on the observation of Psalm 22: “God inhabits the praises of Israel.” This is the same psalm that opens with, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” It is a strange juxtaposition. On the one hand, the Psalmist utters a cry of personal abandonment, while, two verses later, he affirms the sacramental reality of God’s presence within the sound of our songs and hymns. Of course, the contradiction is resolved when the speaker of the Psalm becomes Christ Himself on the Cross. It allows us to say without paradox that just as God inhabits the sound of our praise, so He inhabits the cry of our anguished abandonment. It echoes Psalm 139, “Lo, if I descend into Hell, You are there.”

Singing is something that (as a topic) I return to again and again. It is, I think, the most easily understood example of communion available to us. Our common voices raised in song offer a sound that is many while being one. It is a sound that reflects the truth of our being in a manner without equal. It is consistently part of the heavenly visions recorded in the Scriptures. It also serves to explain why, traditionally, Orthodox worship is sung from beginning to end.

The Divine Liturgy is “heaven come down to earth,” and is thus an example of the truth of our existence (as heaven is our “true home”). In the writings of some of the Fathers, the Garden of Eden is understood to have been a Temple where Adam and Eve served before God. In the Liturgy, we re-enter paradise and take up again that life for which we were created. It is also true that “heaven and earth are full of Your glory,” making paradise of all creation.

St. Maximus the Confessor described five fundamental divisions: uncreated and created: intelligible and sensible; heaven and earth; paradise and the inhabited world; male and female. All of these divisions, he says, will be reconciled and united in the age to come. In the Divine Liturgy, we stand in the age to come. The reconciliation of all things begins there. The created eats and drinks the uncreated and becomes a partaker of the uncreated grace of God. Through sensible things (wine, water, bread, oil, and such) we become partakers of the intelligible and noetic things. Heaven and earth are united as we become earthly angels and heavenly human beings. Paradise is opened in our very midst. The antipathies of male and female, as described in Genesis, are overcome in the Theotokos, in whom is fulfilled the promises given to Eve.

This Cosmic Liturgy is revealed among us in sacramental form, a foretaste of the age to come. The nature of the Christian faith is apocalyptic, that is, it is meant to be a revealing of that which is hidden – it makes known the “mystery hidden from all the ages” (Col. 1:26). The whole of it can be described as a song – one which we sometimes hear being sung – and one which we join in singing as well. This is a very rich image. First, it has a literal component in which we are able to “practice” the act of communion. Secondly, the practice of that image, carried forward, describes the landscape of our daily lives, lived as communion. Thus, St. Paul says:

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:17–21)

This is a description of our lives offered as a continual eucharist (thanksgiving). St. Dionysius the Areopagite, in his Divine Hierarchy, uses the liturgy as an image of salvation itself, drawing particularly on the structures and order seen in its “hierarches” (“holy orders”). In St. Paul’s admonition, this same principle of holy order is manifest as “submitting to one another.” This is Christ’s self-emptying put into practice in our lives.

If we think of music, we can see this submission very clearly. There is a key signature, and a rhythm. There are parts for different ranges of voices. There is listening to the voices around you so that your own voice can blend. There is the direction given that allows our song to remain cohesive. In contrast to this, the “music” of modern living is cacophany (literally, an “evil sound”). It is the noise of everyone’s private song, shouting and battling to be heard within the onslaught of our fragmented lives.

Oddly, the retail masters of our world understand a great deal about the liturgy of our lives. However, their liturgy is the song of mammon that tells us that existence and well-being are things that can be bought. Here’s an excerpt from a retailer’s guide on music in stores (you have, of course, noticed that we never shop in silence).

Research shows that music can influence what shoppers choose and how much they buy. A 2005 study revealed that people tend to spend more on impulse buys when pleasant music is playing. The effect was present even when people did not notice the music playing in the store, showing that music has a subconscious (yet very real!) effect on shopping habits. More interestingly, the type of music played can act as a trigger for specific purchases. Classical music, for example, has been found to influence shoppers to buy more expensive items. Scientists believe that it may be because classical music evokes feelings of high quality and elegance, and thus influences shopping decisions in that direction. If you run a high-class store, you may want to consider playing classical tunes as a backdrop to your customers’ browsing. In an often-quoted research published in Nature in 1997, researcher played various types of music in a wine store. They found that when French music was playing, people would buy more French wines; when German music was playing instead, people bought more German wines. Amazingly, the shoppers themselves were not aware that the music had had any influence on their wine choices. Is your music strategy designed to support your specific sales goals? (LS Retail)

It is apparently the case that we cannot opt out of the liturgy of life. The greater question, then, becomes whose song will be sung in our lives? It is God who sings the world into existence, whose angels sing with “unceasing voices,” and whose song is sung by rocks and trees and all creation. It is the greater song, indeed, the Great Song. There is an American folk song, written by the Baptist minister, Robert Lowry, in 1868. It is one of my favorites:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho’ my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

Sing. Listen. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Man is a musical composition.” Whose song are you?

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