Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Chant thoughts

As I mentioned before, the next post was going to be related to chant and some connection of it to theology. In the end, it may sound trivial, but when feelings are getting hurt because one does not have a chance to chant or when people avoid going to chapel on certain days in order to avoid hearing a chanter, it is not as trivial as it seems. I think this is quite a good example of the little things that serve as stumbling blocks on the way to Christ - things that we, as servants of the Church, need to be mindful of. It would be easy to say that each one should search within his heart and focus on the prayer of the Church and her life as the Body of Christ when we gather together in prayer. But, in reality, it is not that easy. We all have failures, we may not be able to see our shortcomings, we may need help in overcoming them. And, if we stop and reflect on the meaning of being a Christian, being there to help in overcoming shortcomings is a defining part of our lives. How?

In the Orthodox Church, there is a lot of singing. Except for some prayers/psalms, just about everything is intoned or sung. At Holy Cross, there is a fair amount of time dedicated to the teaching of chant - six semesters of Byzantine Music are required of every seminarian. As is to be expected, some have an easier time of it than others. The question then is: how do you handle a vast array of abilities, knowledge, and sensibilities in a manner that is consistent with our identity as an Orthodox school?

One suggestion has been that, just as God welcomes everyone, we should also welcome everyone to chant the services. It would be easy to say that not everyone may be called to be a chanter. It may even be true (1 Cor. 12:29 may be somewhat relevant to this situation in regard to the different roles that we play in the community.). The problem with that is that it is often the case that priests have to do a fair amount of chanting once they are in a parish. So simply saying that one is not a good chanter and therefore should not chant is not really a viable solution - not when the priest's chanting is the object of the parishioners' scrutiny.

The simple answer then is: help them. Offer voice lessons, have ear training sessions, do whatever is needed to make sure the students can sing. To a certain extent, the school tries to do that, as well. However, in a 121.5 credit hour master's, it is almost impossible to devote any significant amount of time to that, when trying to make sure at the same time that the graduates of the school know their theology and how to apply it to everyday life. On top of that, voice and ear training can be some of the most frustrating and time-consuming activities. When I first started taking voice lessons, my teacher spent the first year (and part of the second) getting rid of my bad habits. And that was with a half-hour individual lesson each week. The ear can be even harder: unless you are gifted with a very sensitive ear, it is easy to lose concentration and to sing flat. All in all, to do it well, it takes more time and resources than this school has in the current set-up.

So is there a solution? I believe there is, but it is one that would require a community effort (I guess I could say the bearing of one another's burdens) as well as personal responsibility. I think the way to ensure that seminarians who graduate are able to chant/sing at a decent level is for those of us who are good at it to provide opportunities for those who want to become better. And just having one or two people do it will probably not be enough: the coursework is too time consuming for one or two people to be able to put in the required time. At the same time, the people who need help should want to do something about it (I've seen some impressive improvements from a couple of people in my year here, so it is possible to do something about it, even without much outside help). Otherwise, all the help in the world won't do any good. I think this would be a better example of theology in practice (as it involves both love and personal responsibility) than simply providing everyone with an opportunity regardless of the person's ability level at the time.

Will it happen? We live in an imperfect world, so I have my doubts. I will, however, try to get something started. So, if you're interested, tomorrow and Thursday after Vespers, we are practising for Sunday's Liturgy in the Holy Cross chapel.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Catch-up and one odd thing

The last few days have been rather hectic. Between studying for Greek, starting to put together the paperwork for ordination, and getting things together to finally apply for a green card, there has been precious little time left for anything else. I did have an interesting discussion with a classmate about the theology involved in various chant practices - hopefully that will be the subject of my next post.

Odd: Both my Master's and Ph.D. are from Notre Dame. The Master's diploma is in English. The Ph.D, a copy of which I only recently saw for the first time since I didn't bother telling them not to ship the diploma to Romania, is in Latin. Go figure.

Saturday, June 11, 2005


I occasionally help with Liturgy at two nursing homes. It never fails to strike a chord. One of the ladies who was brought downstairs for the Liturgy was crying during the service and especially so when she received the Eucharist. It reminded me of St. Simeon the New Theologian. My memory fails me whether he said that the priest should be in tears when he celebrates the Eucharist or that everyone should be in tears when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the spirit of that saying was manifested to me in the tears of one woman at a nursing home. I pray that when, God willing, I will be a servant at His Holy Table, I will have the faith and love I saw before me today.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Yesterday we sang "Christ is Risen" for the last time this year. It felt strange: I had gotten so enveloped in the Paschal period, that the thought of going to church and not singing the quintessential resurrectional hymn. So, my thoughts.

First, this year it was a renewed experience: I was back in an Orthodox environment for the first time in years. In previous years, I would meet Orthodox people on a scattered basis and greeting them with "Christ is Risen" was something I looked forward to. Here, I noticed myself slipping and I had to remind myself that we were in the Paschal period. As time went by, the habit started coming back, but it was a rather unexpected struggle.

Second, the departure from the Paschal period was a sudden reminder of the abnormality, if I may use the world, of the world. Within the Paschal period, illumined by the Resurrection, I felt at home. There was a joy and peacefulness that pervaded the services, even at those times when I was at my most tired. But we are not there yet. We still live in the world; we still have to deal with the consequences of the fall; we are still called to share in the work of Christ and to transform the ourselves and the world. At some point I read (it may have been in one of Fr. Schmemann's books, but I am not certain) that the kingdom of heaven is present (thought not fully) in history because of Christ's incarnation and resurrection. History is being led to the kingdom. It sounded strange: it 'fit' within the theology of the Church, but I couldn't see it. I think that is beginning to change: this year I could feel the joy of the Resurrection as a window into heaven; a glimpse of the heaven that is among us.

Finally, there is the Church of Jerusalem, where "Christ is Risen" (if my memory serves me right) is sung every Sunday. In a way, I wish I were a part of that. Then again, maybe there is something to be said the reminder that comes with only hearing that part of the year: we are not there yet.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Originally uploaded by magdalainn.
Just one of the privileges of having a campus in a wooded area. I thought I'd turn this opportunity into a "Caption this!"

My entry: "I'm not a turkey, I'm a dog, I'm not a turkey, I'm a dog..."

Monday, June 06, 2005

Summer thoughts

Well, as my wife details over in her corner of the internet, we have been busy moving things around in our apartment. I discovered this morning that the living room now echoes when I sing - but she probably shouldn't find out about it :)

The Liturgical Greek course is proving very helpful. This morning I found myself understanding about 75% of the epistle as I was reading it. Of course, there's still a long way to go, especially in terms of vocabulary, but it's nice to be able to look and see progress. Tonight we have a Vigil for St. Panagi (19th c. Greece), whose relics we have in the chapel. That should provide me some extra practice with reading/chanting Greek.

As a side note, our Greek professor has been taking the time to discuss the conotations of a number of words in the text (petitions, prayers, psalms). It makes for a much deeper understanding than merely knowing the 'dictionary meaning' of the word. Another helpful aspect is the Greek tendency to express concepts by adding prepositions to root words - in addition to learning the meaning of the word, this provides a look into the origins of the concept and how it was understood in relation to other words in the language. Quite enjoyable.

Among the three activities hinted at above (Greek, chant, apartment rearrangement), my time is pretty much exhausted. As is this post.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Time can be a fascinating subject; so much so that it easily turns into an obsession. There is no time, I have no time, how do I make time for... It can easily be a vast emptiness, with no guideposts, an expanse into which getting lost is much easier than staying the course. From the earliest times man has tried to find markers and guideposts for time. Obviously the celestial bodies were the most clear choices to mark time - the sun marks the day and the moon and the stars the night. Lunar calendars have existed for thousands of years. But right now my thoughts keep coming back to the day.

Genesis tells us that there was evening and there was morning, day one. Leaving aside that this was before the creation of the stars, to the Judaic and Christian traditions, this has always meant that the day starts in the evening. The two events (evening and morning) became some of the Church's main markers in the sea of time: Vespers, the first and last service of the day, marks the evening, while Orthros/Matins marks the morning. I tend to see this as the Church saying "begin and end the day with prayer" and "begin and end your work with prayer." Being at the seminary has afforded me the opportunity to enter into this cycle of services, to daily draw strength and hope from the morning light and from the evening light. It is a wonderful privilege.

Another line of thinking that I have been trying to pursue refers to what seems to me to be a strange dichotomy in the time of the Church. From early times, two ways of keeping time were used in paralled: the Semitic (sunset to sunset) and Roman (midnight to midnight). Today, the liturgical time of the Church follows the Semitic way of counting days. For most, however, the fasting calendar follows the Roman way. There are other examples where the two calendars mix in strange ways (Holy Week being perhaps the most striking).

I cannot help wondering how this dichotomy came about. My thought I had goes back to the old issue of church attendance. If one attends services on a daily basis, the markers in the ocean of time are firmly set: the prokeimenon comes and brings with it a new day. If one is not present, there is no marker; no reminder that, by the Church's reckoning a new day is born. In this case, it would make sense that a new day would start - for all practical purposes - in the morning. This all makes for a strange tension between Church time and 'regular' time. It really struck me at Forgiveness Vespers, at the start of Great Lent. Half-way through the service the lights were turned out, the covers were changed, it *was* Lent. Having been at the service, having experienced the change, it was impossible to go home and say "Oh, I think I'll have one last hotdog." At that point, for me, Lent had started, with all that it implied.

Of course, there are many other, more important issues to discuss. This just happens to be the venue of my thoughts for the day.