The Fathers and the Liturgy often use musical imagery to illustrate the co-operation and unity that must mark Christ's Church. Council Fathers, having reached theological consensus, are said to sing a hymn in unison. A vast choir, harmonious despite the many different voices of its singers, is a powerful and moving image of the unity of mind and heart Christians have prized from the beginning (cf. Acts 4:32).
Christian monasteries in particular seek to replicate the beautiful simplicity of these first Christians. Like them, monks live together and hold their goods in common; they devote themselves to apostolic teaching and to prayer and the Eucharist (cf. Acts 2:42-47). Above all, they strive for that unity of intent, purpose, and understanding so aptly summed up as "harmony." For our own small monastery, the word is particularly appropriate; we are, in fact, a choir.
Prayer is the essence of monastic life. It is the purpose of the monk's withdrawal from the world and his motivation for living together with other like–minded souls. Away from the world's many distractions, he is free to devote himself to contemplation, conversation with God deep within the recesses of his heart. At fixed hours he also stands to pray in common with his brothers; in our monastery the common prayer is almost entirely sung.
This prayer is liturgical — that is, a public work, undertaken on behalf of the people. It concerns the well–being of the whole world. Persistent litanies of petition for the needs of the Church, our nation, and the world, punctuate the Psalms and hymns of our Services. Singing the Lord's praises and begging His mercy on this world of ours, we know that this prayer is heard and that it is efficacious.
Again I tell you, if two of you join their voices on earth to pray for anything whatever, it shall be granted you by My Father in heaven.
Liturgical prayer is the most important function of this little monastery. The four or five hours per day we normally spend in choir constitute our noblest endeavor, our greatest benefit to the world. They also represent our closest connection with one another and our intimacy with God.
Our music mostly consists of simple traditional melodies, quickly learned by rote and then wedded to a great variety of liturgical texts. The texts, themselves, are often profoundly theological, offering rare insights into God’s truth. Singing them over the years helps us to internalize their content and make it strongly held belief rather than intellectual proposition. From right worship come theological understanding and knowledge of God.
The monastic choir is the bond of our life. Whatever our individual tasks and responsibilities, we all sing the Services; for some hours each day we are all gathered together in the temple, totally united in this holy work. The choir demands attentiveness, sensitivity, and great effort; the Services sometimes leave us drained and exhausted. Yet they also lift us up and restore the wholeness often fractured by the day’s cares. As our voices meld in the sacred chants, we are drawn out of our petty isolation and into a splendid oneness of mind and heart. In this unity we know we are not alone:
Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in their midst.
The Services are almost completely sung or chanted. There is much movement by the clergy — particularly in the Divine Liturgy — and the worshippers frequently bow and cross themselves, and sometimes come forward to venerate the Cross, the Gospel Book, or an icon. Visitors who strive to emulate these practices will experience a greater share in the spirit of the Service. However, they should not feel pressured to do so; no one will notice, one way or another, since everyone, people and clergy alike, face the same direction most of the time.
The Services also make liberal use of incense, and lamps and candles are lit and extinguished at significant moments. Occasionally there are anointing and distributions of non-Eucharistic bread and wine of which all may partake.
The formal prayer of a Byzantine monastic community possesses two distinct aspects: Eucharist and the sanctification of time.
The Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy, is the Lord’s Supper, the sacrifice of His body and blood, which He commanded us to do in memory of Him. Its origins are divine; it is Christ’s gift of Himself to us, our sharing in His continual offering of Himself to the Father. It is, thus, eternal and stands outside of time. Except for the assigned Scripture readings and commemorations, its form and texts change little and are contained in one slim handbook; though usually a morning service, it may be celebrated at any time of day.
All the other Services pertain to the sanctification of time, or the Divine Office. Those who join us for Great Vespers on Saturday Evening, experience but a small portion of the whole. When fully celebrated, it comprises Services at sunset, before retiring, at midnight, at dawn, in early morning, at mid–morning, noon, and mid– afternoon; its prescribed texts fill many heavy volumes. This great cycle is not specifically of divine origin, but rather is a gradually developed human attempt at fulfilling St. Paul’s injunctions to pray at every opportunity (Eph. 6:18) and without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17).
Though not entirely monastic in origin — Vespers and Matins, the Services at sunset and dawn, were celebrated in cathedral churches long before they entered the monastic schedule — it grew into its present form, which it had essentially achieved by the fourteenth century, in the monastic setting. Its simple beginnings may be found already among the earliest identifiable Christian monks.
The Desert Fathers were very concerned with heeding the Apostle’s exhortation to incessant prayer. Since they usually lived separately, their manner of observance was flexible and individualistic. Usually it involved the recitation of the Psalms — the Temple and synagogue hymns which the Church had inherited from its Jewish beginnings — perhaps interspersed with short prayers such as, Lord, have mercy.
Most of the early monks were illiterate, and they knew the Psalms by heart; they would recite them throughout the day as they went about their simple work of rope making or weaving mats. Many would recite the entire Psalter — all 150 Psalms — in a single day.
The Desert Fathers seem to have gone to the parish church for the Eucharist on Sunday and gathered together only one night a week for a Service during which one monk would recite psalms at length, while the others sat and listened, a manner of psalmody still employed in many of our Services today.
As monks came together in communities, the old individualistic ways proved unsatisfactory, and more formal arrangements developed so that the monks might pray together. Fixed times began to be set aside throughout the day for psalmody in common. In time, certain Psalms became associated with particular times — the Divine Office was being born.
It remains today essentially Psalmody; Psalms and Psalm verses comprise about half its texts. The rest is litanies of petition and blessings — which derive from cathedral services — and hymnody. In its hymns lies the true uniqueness and glory of the Byzantine Divine Office.
Some are very old, but most date from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. At first monks were suspicious of hymns, fearing they might overshadow, or even supplant, the Psalms. Eventually, however, monasteries became great centers of hymn writing. Many of the sublime contemplative and theological texts that today fill our service books first flowed from ancient monks whose names we can still recall.
God grant us hearts filled with joy and awe as we hear the Psalms of His servant David and chant the hymns of our holy fathers in faith some thousand years past.