St Athanasius: Do You Sing the Psalms?

Feast of St Isidore the Martyr of Chios

Athanasius_Square_3.jpgIT IS IN ORDER that the melody may thus express our inner spiritual harmony, just as the words voice our thoughts, that the Lord Himself has ordained that the Psalms be sung and recited to a chant. Moreover, to do this beautifully is the heart’s desire and joy, as it is written, “Is any among you happy? Let him sing!” And if there is in the words anything harsh, irregular or rough, the tune will smooth it out, as in our own souls also sadness is lightened as we chant, “Why then art thou so heavy, O my soul, why dost thou trouble me?” and failure is acknowledged as one sings, “My feet were almost gone,” and fear is braced by hope in singing, “The Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man can do to me.”

Well, then, they who do not read the Scriptures in this way, that is to say, who do not chant the Divine Songs intelligently but simply please themselves, most surely are to blame, for praise is not befitting in a sinner’s mouth. But those who do sing as I have indicated, so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them. So was it with the blessed David when he played to Saul: he pleased God and, at the same time, he drove from Saul his madness and his anger and gave back peace to his distracted spirit. In like manner, the priests by their singing contributed towards the calming of the people’s spirits and helped to unite them with those who lead the heavenly choir. When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrunment, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. And similarly, as it is written that “By the Spirit a man lives and mortifies his bodily actions,” so he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone.

So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise ant thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

—St Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus

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