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A Capella Music

[Ancient Faith Radio; September 13, 2007]

In early June I went to Los Angeles to speak at a conference at Pepperdine University that was on a fascinating topic; it was about a capella church music. I didn’t know this, but Pepperdine was established as a Church of Christ school—Church of Christ being a flavor of Christianity that is extremely Bible-based, very conservative in many senses, and in fact, they say the three things that make them different from most protestant churches is that they have weekly communion, they baptize by full immersion, and that everything in their worship is sung without instruments, it’s all a capella. They say they do these three things because that’s the way the early church did it, and of course as an Orthodox visitor to the campus, I was delighted to say, ‘Yeah, that’s the reason we do it too.’ We certainly agree that that’s what the early church did.

So the Provost of Pepperdine, Daryl Tippens, had this wonderful idea to bring together Christians who had an a capella worship practice from all around the country, from all different backgrounds. So we had people doing Gregorian chant, we had the Capella Romana and the Boston Byzantine Choir, representing Orthodox worship. There were the Shape Note Singers, a kind of Appalachian a capella singing, some gospel singers; we just had the whole array there.

And I was honored to be invited there to give the opening talk, so I was thinking, ‘What can I say about a capella music?’ One of the things that came to mind was, why music? What is the purpose of speaking in song, rather than just speaking in prose the truths of the faith, or the impulse to worship? And I think one of the reasons has to do with, in a preliterate society, the need to remember things. If you live in a world that is full of books and writing and you are able to read, then the demands on your memory aren’t that great; you can just go look things up. But in an oral or a preliterate society everything’s just vanishing away from you all the time. So preliterate peoples get very good at knowing how to memorize.

A couple of years ago I read a fascinating but difficult book titled, Orality and Literacy, by Walter Ong. And in his chapter on psychodynamics of orality, he examines the difference between being in a completely preliterate society and being in one where people are reading. One thing he said is that the sound is always vanishing away; you can’t examine a sound. If you examine an oscillogram, you’re actually using your eyes; but you can’t examine something with your ears because sound is always fleeting. There’s something a little mysterious or a little bit ghostly about it.

And when it comes to important things, things that you must remember and that must be passed on to the next generation, there are some tricks that people in preliterate cultures have. One is they repeat things. Another is they make up lists, set things up in a list where there might be synonyms, something repeated twice in different words, or opposites expressed in lines that are parallel to each other. We see this all through the Psalms. And you use alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, some familiar formulas, like, ‘As the Lord my God lives.’ I kept seeing that formula over and over while I was translating the Gospel of Mary for my recent book, The Lost Gospel of Mary. So you see, there are all these various things that people do; and you can remember it from your own childhood, that when you learned the ABCs, you weren’t literate at that point, so you had to learn them by means of a song, a song that had rhythm and rhyme and you could repeat it over and over, and it’s buried in your memory and it will be there for the rest of your life.

One of the interesting things another one of the speakers said, Dr. Everett Ferguson, who is a Church of Christ professor emeritus at Abilene University, he brought out a couple of pages of quotations from church fathers about singing and worship. From that he tried to deduce how they did congregational singing, and what he found was that it looks like what they were doing was mostly responsorial singing. That is, a leader or a chanter would sing something out and the people would repeat the line. We do this in the prokeimenon of vespers, you know. Then the chanter would sing something different, or sing a paragraph, and then the people would sing that same line again; they can remember that one line. Sometimes it’s like call and response; that he sings a line and then they sing it back, and he sings something different and they sing that back, but it would still be called responsorial.

The other kind of singing, which doesn’t begin to show up until maybe the fourth century, is antiphonal; which is you do one line of the Psalm and the people on the other side of the room do the next line of the Psalm. You pretty much have to be able to read in order to know what’s coming up next.

When my husband was on Mt. Athos at some of the churches there, he saw that a particular monk would be appointed to run back and forth from one small group of chanters to the other, carrying the book, so that they could look up what the next line was. Today you can afford printed books, but in those days it was all hand-lettered; you would just have that one precious book and you would have to run back and forth so that both groups of chanters in an antiphonal setting would be able to do it.

The main thing about putting things to music, though, is how deeply it gets embedded in memory. And I know my husband has seen, probably every pastor has seen, occasions where they’ve been at the bedside of someone who is at the doorstep of death, who perhaps had senility or Alzheimer’s and had forgotten almost everything, who was no longer responding to outside influences. And yet if somebody standing there begins to sing a hymn, they will join in. It’s as if the memory of things that are set to music remains with us forever after.

And when I think about that, I think about how much junk there is in my song memory bank. How many stupid jingles from TV commercials, or stupid songs that were on the radio 30 years ago, it’s just stuck there alongside a whole lot of better stuff, and I wish I had a way to go in there and delete; put some things in the recycling bin.

Last November, my spiritual father, Father George Calciu, died. He was 81. He had been very alert, very bright, and very joyous right up until the end. He had experienced a lot, endured a lot in his life. He had been in Communist prisons three times in Romania, including the terrible prison of Pitesti where they developed and perfected the art of driving people crazy, of brainwashing. He was an extraordinary man; just indomitable and joyous and courageous and wonderful to know.

So at the end of his life, his doctors gave us a chance to say goodbye to him and then they increased his medication, and they said, ‘He probably will not be able to hear you from now on,’ as we waited for the end to come. And some people were standing around his bedside on those last days and they began singing the akathist of St. George. And of course Fr. George loved St. George very much. And I was told that he didn’t open his eyes but he began to sing along. He began to sing along with this akathist that was so familiar to him, and they said his right hand jerked up as if he was going to try to make the sign of the cross.

We repeat a lot of stuff in Orthodoxy; we repeat gestures, we repeat songs, we repeat melodies. And I hadn’t thought before about how this is engraving itself so deeply in our memory that when we reach the end of life, if we are experiencing senility or Alzheimer’s or are far removed from those who love us because of medication or some other cause, that nevertheless, to begin to sing a song can pierce right through that fog. It can reach us and bring up to the surface the worship and the love of God that’s embedded in songs that are already kept so deeply in our memory.

So that makes it seem even more important to go to church, doesn’t it? To attend worship as often as you can and to sing along with those songs as much as you can, because that’s the bag we’re packing for the last journey, the last thing we’ll take with us is those songs. So you want to be careful that you pack some really beautiful and really true ones, for those last days.



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