A Universal Liturgical Language

A Universal Liturgical Language


“I will sing unto the Lord throughout my life, I will chant to my God for as long as I have my being. May my words be sweet unto Him, and I will rejoice in the Lord,” Prophet David prays. And the sweetness of Byzantine chant makes these words my own when they are brought to life by divinely inspired melodies.

Byzantine chant inspires its listener. Of course in the beginning, when the ear is not accustomed to the foreign sound of chanting voices, the foreign sound of voices keeping the ison like an organ key being held down, it will not necessarily induce joy. But to the accustomed ear few things are as moving as the sound of a choir praising the Lord with not only divinely inspired words, but divinely inspired melodies.

The Holy Fathers didn’t merely write hymns, but, as my chanting instructor Sr. Silouani likes to tell us, “they also wrote the tones, the melodies.” The eight Byzantine tones are themselves divinely inspired. The very melodies that still resonant off the walls and from the domes of centuries’ old Christian temples were the same ones the Fathers of old composed. What richness Byzantine chant has to offer us!

More impressive still – and beneficial to those of us who do not understand the services in their original liturgical languages – the hymns and melodies were composed in such a way that when certain words are chanted, like “sin,” or “evil,” whenever a word conveys a similar meaning to these words, the voice lowers or the melody changes, indicating the word to convey an undesirable meaning. Whereas, when the word conveys something particularly praiseworthy the notes may hit a higher pitch, or change into a more joyful melody. So many spiritual lessons are taught with these divinely-inspired melodies!

byzantine chant
Byzantine chant stirs and enlivens its listener; it uplifts the saint and humbles the sinner. It gives the faithful strength, and weakens the inclination to sin. The Fathers knew the power of musical instruments, and consciously chose to keep their presence from within Christian temples. Musical instruments induce passion, they enliven the listener in a different way than Byzantine chant does. The raw human voice chanting divinely inspired melodies is meant to lift up the soul, to elevate man’s higher faculties, and to calm man’s lower ones. Suffice it to say it’s not the kind of music one jogs to if one wants to have a particularly invigorating work-out. Byzantine chant reminds us that the soul contains the body, not the body the soul.

As a general rule music is inspirational. The various kinds of compositions that accompany liturgical services in the contemporary, worldwide Orthodox Church are beautiful. But are they as dispassionate, as spiritually powerful as Byzantine chant?

More importantly, Byzantine chant is a universal liturgical language. When we hear Romanians chant Byzantine – or Greeks, Bulgarians, or Arabs – we are able to follow along because of the common melodies. Byzantine chant unifies Orthodox Christian worship in the same way holy icons do. I don’t need to know how to read St. John Chrysostom’s name in a foreign language to know I’m looking at his icon, nor do I need to know how Romanians say “Lord have mercy” in order to understand what they are chanting. Byzantine chant universalizes Orthodox worship, it extends over boarders, past languages, and settles in the listener’s heart in a way no other melodies can.

Enriched by Byzantine chant, participation in the divine services enables us to experience the words of the hymns through the melodies. So that, “we who… chant the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity,” are able to, “lay aside all earthly care, that we may receive the King of all”, which is the goal of every Christian’s life.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Matushka Constantina Palmer

Matushka Constantina is the author of The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery - published by Conciliar Press - a collection of stories about experiences and lessons she’s learned from visiting and working alongside Orthodox nuns in Greece. It is available for purchase in paperback and ebook formats on Amazon and Conciliar Press' website. To see the book trailer go here.

Originally from New Brunswick, a quaint province on Canada's Atlantic coast, she currently lives in Thessaloniki, Greece with her husband, a deacon in the Canadian Archdiocese of the OCA. She recently received her Master's degree in Theology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her thesis was entitled The Theological Presuppositions of the Orthodox Iconographer According to the Canons of the Stoglav Sobor (Moscow, 1551).

She has been painting icons for four years, and has been drawing for an infinitely longer time. Her writing skills are a result of keeping a journal since childhood, and a wonderful Great Books undergraduate degree. She is also a student of Byzantine Chant, taught by sisters of a nearby monastery. It is a three year program of which she has completed two years.

To read more of her work or to see some of her icons, sketches, and photos from her travels, visit her blog Lessons from a Monastery.