Music and Mediation in St Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary ‘On the Inscriptions of the Psalms’

In his On the Making of Man, St Gregory of Nyssa likened the human body to a kind of musical instrument, played upon by the mind of man. In the same work, he dismissed as pagan the idea of man as microcosm. Yet later, in his dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory espoused precisely this notion of microcosm in order to express the mediatorial role of the human being between intelligible and phenomenal realms. Finally, in his commentary On the Inscriptions of the Psalms, Gregory brings together both his musical analogy and the notion of man as microcosm and mediator, synthesizing and expanding these tropes in a more broad-ranging vision of man’s place within the angelic and visible creation.

According to Gregory, “man is a miniature cosmos and contains all the elements of the great cosmos. And the orderly arrangement of the universe… is a diverse and variegated musical harmony which has been tuned in relation to itself and is in accord with itself and never distracted from this harmony even though a great distinction of essences is observed in the individual parts.” Man is both a miniature of this musical cosmos, and an image of the one who made it. Being microcosm, the harmony of the whole world is reproduced in man himself: “For just as in a fragment of insignificant glass it is possible to see the whole circle of the sun reflected in the gleaming part, as in a mirror, as though the smallness of what is gleaming contains it, so also all the music perceived in the universe is seen in the miniature cosmos, I mean in human nature… Even the instrumental equipment of our body, which has been artfully devised by nature for the production of music, proves this.”

Gregory likens the whole of the original creation to a dance and chorus, which looked to the one choirmaster, interpreting his song in harmony. Yet sin introduced disharmony, and removed human beings from this chorus. Only through Jesus Christ, and after trials of purifying hardship, are human persons restored to the chorus and the dance. Thus, the “cymbals” which close the book of Psalms (Ps. 150:6) – representing the final stage of spiritual ascent – indicate the unity of angelic and human natures in divine praise. This unity is accomplished through the work of Jesus Christ, who unites all things separated by sin and exalts human nature to a glory comparable to that of the angels.

The music which reflects the wisdom of God in creating the cosmos is expressed in moderation and good order. The concord of creation is a harmony of opposites which produces a hymn of glory to God. “The accord and affinity of all things with one another which is controlled in an orderly and sequential manner is the primal, archetypal, true music. It is this music which the conductor of the universe skillfully strikes up in the unspoken speech of wisdom through these ever occurring movements.” Such polyphonic music of creation is a pattern of intelligible meaning unheard by the senses, but discerned by the mind when it transcends the limitations of the flesh. It is this music, Gregory says, which the psalmist David heard when he described the heavens as declaring the glory of God (Ps. 19:1).

Human existence is a kind of music. The question is what kind of music – whether it is in accord with God and the nature of the cosmos or not. This question for Gregory has to do with the proper ordering of daily life. For Gregory, the good life is kata physin: in accord with nature. The Psalms also are a music in accord with nature. The Word of God “admonishes that your life be a psalm which does not resound with earthly sounds, but by sounds I mean thoughts, but which produces a sound from the upper and heavenly realms which is pure and audible.” Man’s life becomes a well-ordered psalm precisely through praying the psalms and putting into practice their divine teachings. The rhythms of their words and music heal the rhythms of human life, bring it to harmony and moderation:

In this singing nature reflects on itself in a certain manner, and heals itself. For the proper rhythm of life, which singing seems to me to recommend symbolically, is a cure of nature. For perhaps the very fact that the character of those who live virtuously need not be devoid of the Muses, unharmonious and out of tune, is an encouragement to the more sublime state of life. Neither must the string be drawn taut beyond measure, for that which is well-tuned certainly breaks when it is strained beyond what the string can bear, nor on the contrary must one slacken the tension immoderately through pleasure, for the soul which becomes relaxed in such passions becomes deaf and dumb. In all other matters we must tighten and relax the tension at the right time, looking at this, that our way of life in the customs may continue always melodious and rhythmical, being neither immoderately slack nor strained beyond measure.

As evidence of the healing power of music, Gregory cites the example of David’s healing Saul’s mental disturbance with song. This example, says Gregory, shows that the symbolic value of music is for the healing of the passions. This is not true of all music, but rather of sacred songs composed by those who are not “outside our wisdom.”

The goal of man’s life, however, is expressed not only in music, but music combined with words. “Psalm” for Gregory means music, whereas “song” means words with music: music whose meaning is made outwardly intelligible. “When we hear a song, we learn in an enigmatic way of the decorum of life concerning the visible world.” This, according to Gregory, would not be the case with purely instrumental music. Gregory associates pure “music” with speculative philosophical theory concerning the good, while “words” indicate the life of praxis. “The psalm of a song” (Ps. 92:1 LXX) indicates the combination of “music” and “words,” signifying the perfect unity of theory and praxis, thought and action, which is the Christian ideal. “‘A prayer with a song’ enjoins us equally to be zealous about our life first, so that nothing unrhythmical or out of harmony should occur in our daily pursuits, and then to approach God though prayer. Only if our life is in accord with David can we then have the boldness to “praise” God with a prayer like his.

This unity of thought and bodily life, of theoria and praxis, is related to man’s role of mediator. At the height of virtue and divine vision, of imitation of the invisible God, man nevertheless retains a bodily visibility, a face with which he relates to the visible world of men. The person who achieves the vision of God such as Moses enjoyed “stands as a kind of boundary between the changeable and the unchangeable nature and mediates, as it is appropriate, between the two poles. He offers supplications to God on behalf of those who have been converted from sin, and he transmits the mercy of the supreme power to those who need mercy.” It is precisely unity with, and imitation of, the changeless divine that tunes and orders the rhythms of this changing earthly life, making of it a harmonious music — in concord with the angels.

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Fr. Matthew Baker is a priest of the Greek Orthodox…
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