Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Music as Prayer

As those of you who read my opening post will remember, I sing in a civic choir in Boston called the Back Bay Chorale. This week, we're gearing up for a performance of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, which has got me thinking about music's role in my prayer life.

The Vespers is a piece that is designed to be sung throughout the vespers service on Holy Saturday and into the wee hours of the morning on Easter Sunday. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, everyone gathers for the all-night vigil about 10 or 11 PM, and it finally ends at about 4 AM. Then after church they have a huge feast to celebrate Christ's resurrection, including the congregation's traditional foods. One of my Greek Orthodox friends told me about chowing down on all her Greek favorites, then slinking home around 7 or 8 AM, exhausted. No wonder she usually spends Easter Sunday sleeping!

This concert is a real challenge because it is sung in Old Church Slavonic, which was a regional dialect of Greek used in the 9th c. CE to translate the Koine Greek of the Bible into a Russian equivalent (basically, it's a transition language that's dead except for liturgical use, like Latin). The letters don't look even remotely familiar, and some of the sounds are hard to make. Plus the singing is very athletic, and sits very high in the soprano part, so it takes a lot of energy to sing.

Even though it is a very difficult piece to sing, I love the Vespers movements' Biblical and theological themes. For instance, #9, "Blessed Art Thou, O Lord" tells the story of the women disciples who go to Jesus' tomb on Easter morning. The Tenor and Bass sections narrate how the women take myrrh and spices to the tomb, and meet the angel. Then the Soprano and Alto sections come in and sing the dialogue: "Women disciples, why do you weep? Behold the tomb and understand: the Savior is risen from the dead!"

I also love #6, "Rejoice, O Virgin!" It's the Orthodox version of the Hail Mary, but it uses an arcane theological term that has a lot of meaning: Theotokos, which means "Christ-bearer," or more  literally, "Birth-giver to Christ." If you read the Wikipedia page I linked to, you'll read about the Nestorian controversy. But what it won't tell you is that early Christian women were a big part of the support for understanding Mary's role as the bringer of God incarnate into the world (Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, ed. Kee). I love that this translation of the prayer uses Theotokos because this term came about due to women's participation in theological conversation in the 4th c. CE. "Virgin" in our culture today just refers to a state of being of an unmarried woman, but Theotokos sets Mary apart as a special woman chosen to do God's work. I've embedded #6 below, which is short but the most beautiful movement in the whole piece, I think.

When I sing these movements, it's very hard to get everything right: all the notes, words, rhythms, and the dynamics our conductor gives us. As I concentrate, though, I delve into the meaning of the words and how the music expresses them. Immersing myself in creating the music lifts my spirit and pulls me into a more earnest participation in the story of God's love for humanity. The ancient Church fathers and mothers who lived in the Egyptian desert called this "mindfulness." In other words, the more I concentrate on my activity and doing it well, the more I am focused on God.

Another Church father, Irenaeus of Lyons, once said, "Those who sing pray twice." I think he said this because singing requires mindfulness- attention to the task, to the faith expressed in the music, and to God. When I sing, I pray once with my lips and again with my spirit.

Are there any things that you do to focus your attention on God? If you don't have your own practice like gardening or painting, try really paying attention to the music and words of the hymns next time you go to church. When we pay attention to doing even the most mundane things, we can connect with God in the everyday.


  1. CF, this is really wonderful! and such a lovely history behind this more incredible piece of music. i can't wait for the concert and will endeavor to be mindful, accurate and prayerful.

  2. Lovely! I've always loved Irenaeus's quotation and agree that music brings us into closer relationship with God and each other, which is a sort of prayer in itself.

    You asked about practices that focus our attention on God: yoga is a beautiful Eastern tradition that helps me connect to God through its emphasis on compassion, nonviolence, nonjudgment, rejection of ego, surrender, and mindfulness. I often spend my savasana in a spiritually contemplative manner, which I find restorative.