He wasn’t a priest or a bishop or a hierarch or even a dedicated monastic. He was born to humble parents who may not have even been Christian. He was a deacon and a reader and a singer, but for part of his life, he had the worst voice in Constantinople and he couldn’t string two words together during a service. Yet today, St. Romanos the Melodist is regarded as the greatest liturgical poet of all time. So how did a humble deacon who cleared the nave when he sang, and who couldn’t compose a poem to save his life, become such a noted writer and singer?
Tradition tells us that St. Romanos loved music. He’d begun his liturgical career as a deacon in what we now call Beirut, but at some point, he ended up working in Hagia Sophia as a reader and singer. How he got there, we don’t know. We don’t know why he accepted the post, since he couldn’t sing, and he wasn’t able to compose hymns on the spot, as the singers had to do. It wasn’t because he thought he could sing, or improvise poetry – Romanos was very aware of his limitations, and he knew how bad he sounded, and how hackneyed and trite his compositions were. But for whatever reason, he lived in Constantinople and served to the best of his ability. The Patriarch may have had something to do with it, since he was very fond of St. Romanos for his simple faith and his deep humility. Perhaps he wanted to set an example for the other singers and readers, but if so, it mostly backfired.
None of them saw the humility and the clear, simple love of God that was so strong in Romanos. What they saw, and heard, was an awkward, hoarse, and off-key singer who tripped over his words and blushed continually during the services. The fact that the Patriarch paid him the same amount as the senior readers only added to their scorn and dislike, and they made Romanos’s life even more miserable than it was already.
Romanos wanted more than anything to be able to sing well. He loved God and the Theotokos and it was his greatest dream to be able to stand in Hagia Sophia and compose and sing a hymn glorifying God and His mother. One night, he got his chance. He was at the All-night Vigil on Nativity Eve, in 518, at St. Mary of Blachernae Church. The other readers grabbed him and shoved him into the middle of the church. “You’re paid like us,” they hissed. “So sing like us!” He stood in on the ambo, palms sweating, nerves all spark and fizzle, and, hoping and praying a miracle would happen, opened his mouth to compose and sing his hymn.
Various tales give different accounts of just how awful it was: some say his throat simply locked up and he couldn’t utter a single note, others say that he was the worst he’d ever been, actually driving parishioners out of the service with his horrible singing, and others relate that his mind simply froze: he couldn’t think of anything to say in praise of the wondrous miracle of Nativity. Regardless of the details, it’s pretty clear it was the worst night of his life, and he was unable to continue. He crept away and hid in shame behind the other singers.
Did he cry? I think he did. Sometimes that’s all you can do when the hurt is so deep and the shame burns so strongly. When everyone left, he prayed and cried more in front of the icon of the Theotokos. He cried so hard that he fell asleep in the church, until he seemed to wake up and saw a wonderful sight. The Theotokos approached him with a scroll in one hand and crouched down beside him. She told him to open his mouth, and when he did, she placed the scroll in it and told him to swallow it. He didn’t hesitate, but closed his mouth and swallowed.
He woke again in the morning – Nativity morning – feeling joyous and renewed, his mind teeming with wonderful phrases and marvelous words. When he arrived in Hagia Sophia for the service, he begged for the chance to sing. The Patriarch gave his blessing, and when the time came, Romanos stepped to the middle of the church, calm and collected. He didn’t quail. He didn’t feel the slightest bit of fear. He stood in the middle of the church, arms by his side, and opened his mouth. The words tumbled out on a voice that rivaled the angels for its purity and sweetness.
Tradition says that this, his first triumphant composition, was a much-longer version of the same kontakion we still sing on Nativity.
“Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One;
Angles with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with the star,
Since, for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!”
The Emperor, who was present for the service, was so impressed with the entire composition that he ordered it sung at every Nativity feast at the palace by the joint choirs of Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles, and it continued being sung every year until the 12th century, over 600 years!
Romanos used his gift for the rest of his life, composing hymns and kontakia for all the major fasts and feasts of the church, glorifying God and thanking Him and the Theotokos for their great mercy and blessings, and giving us all, through his miraculous talent, a share in the gift he was given.
For more information on St. Romanos and the poetry he composed, please check our reference pages.
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