Father Athanasios Mytilenaios on Ecclesiastical Music

The following translation is a transcription of an audio recording of a homily delivered on 7 June 1981 by the late Father Athanasios Mytilenaios (d. 2006) on the fifth chapter of the book of the Revelation. It is the twenty-seventh of one hundred and three such homilies of which we have audio recordings, all of which may be accessed here (sixty-nine of which have been translated into English and recorded by Mr. Constantine Zalalas and can be found here, as can they be purchased in book form). Despite Mr. Zalalas’ monumental and blessed work to translate these homilies, I have elected to translate this selection on my own. Zalalas’ translations seem to have an eye for long-term systematic cataloguing of the Elder’s work, which is important. I suppose my focus is on also conveying with more immediacy the energy and personality of the Elder.

Fr. Athanasios Mytilenaios

It is perhaps worth noting that Elder Athanasios has been ‘discovered’ of late by some individuals who have taken selections of his copious body of work—in which he does indeed speak against things like Ecumenism, Jehova’s Witnesses, Zionism, Freemasonry—and present him as a bit of a hardliner, or at least call him to the aid of their own hard-line approach. In my opinion, this does a great disservice to the Elder. One need only listen to a handful of his homilies and pastoral talks with understanding and see that this man was far from a hardened conservative. He was often outspoken and direct, and was addressing many matters that were burning issues of his time (those mentioned above), and was speaking as a Greek in Greece to Greeks—meaning, we might find him a bit “politically incorrect” or lacking nuance in our own ears.

One example, however, of the nuance he actually did possess—he was immensely well-read in the arts and sciences—is in his approach to the liturgy of the Church. On one hand, he is outspoken against the currents of his day (and ours) that were itching to “renew” liturgy. This disposition manifests itself frequently in his homilies, and with great effectiveness. At the same time, however, if one listens to his homilies on the Divine Liturgy, it is clear that he is well-read in the scholarship of his day and would welcome legitimate corrections to the relevant liturgical texts.

The present excerpt touches on one such matter, that of the music of the Church. Father Athanasios takes the traditional Orthodox stance that instrumental music is absolutely unacceptable. Yet at the same time, he is not shy to warn his hearers about the dangers that can accompany even our traditional vocal chanting. In another homily from his series on Revelation (perhaps I’ll translate that one, too), in extolling the masterful heritage of the Orthodox “Byzantine” tradition, when it comes to music, he makes a nuanced statement to the effect that, while he considers Byzantine chant to be the highest expression of music in divine worship, he does not insist on it, since other nations may not have yet been properly exposed to it, and so his standard is rather one of solemnity (ἱεροπρέπεια) in ecclesiastical music. It is probably worth acknowledging that to a great number of Orthodox Christians in a North American audience, the Elder’s matter-of-factness that instruments have never been admitted into the Orthodox Church might seem bizarre, since so many of our own parishes have incorporated organs leading polyphonic choirs over the last century or so. But, of course, what he refers to is the standard, from which we are in aberration.

Included here is the corresponding audio file, of which the following transcript comprises minutes 16:10 to 26:20. To get an even better sense of the Elder’s presence and bearing, you may view video of one of his talks here (and notice that the church is packed). Even if one does not understand Greek, the audio and video give a sense of his comfort and dynamism.

“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song…”

Revelation 5:8-9a

Fresco of the scene set in the fifth chapter of Revelation. Dionysiou Monastery, Mt. Athos.1

AS WE SEE from this image of the Revelation, not only do the four angelic “beasts” [(i.e., the bull, the lion, the eagle, and the man)]—in other words, the Cherubim and Seraphim—worship the Lamb, but so do the twenty-four presbyters. In a word, it is the entire Church. We will see this extensively in the following chapters. At the time for worship, it was only the twenty-four presbyters who each held a kithara and a censer full of incense for offering—gold censers, golden bowls 2. «Φιάλη» doesn’t always mean something resembling a bottle, but simply “container”.

What is the kithara? [John] perceived that they held a kithara and a container of incense. The kithara is the instrument that accompanies the psalms. Indeed, in the Old Testament, we read in Psalm 32:2 “Give thanks to the Lord with the kithara” 3. “Exomologoumai” means to give glory—glorify God with instruments, with the kithara, without excluding vocal performance. The instrument simply accompanies the voice. And so, as we see here, the kithara will accompany the ode that the presbyters will chant to the One seated upon the throne, and to the Lamb. 

Beloved, the kithara is the symbol of doxology by irrational 4 creation, for it is an irrational object. What is the kithara? It is an instrument. It is made from wood and from metal or animal-gut strings, and so on; so, it is an irrational object. Thus, the kithara is a symbol of the doxology by irrational creation—we will see this as we continue—which accompanies the doxology of rational 5 creation. Which is the doxology of rational creation? That by the twenty-four presbyters. This is rational creation; we are rational creation. When we hymn God, and our hymn is accompanied by music, this means that both irrational and rational creation are giving glory to God.

Psalm 18:5 says, “their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” 6. Saint Paul uses this passage in his letter to the Romans (1[0]7:18) in reference to the Apostles. But in Psalm 18, it is not a reference to the Apostles. No, not that this is a bad interpretation! But it refers to creation—did you know this?—to the stones, to the grass, to the flowers, to the heavenly bodies, everywhere. “Their voice has gone out into all the earth,” it says, which is to say, “all created things speak and give glory to God”. How do these created things give glory to God? By their very presence. By the wisdom that made them. They all display their doxology to God.

Once, Linnaeus, the father of botany, was walking through the fields with his cane. He was a very faithful man and a great scientist. He was of the mind that everything offered its sacrifice, its love, its doxology to God. And as he walked, he lightly tapped the grasses and flowers—the daisies, the chamomile—and as he tapped them with his cane, he said, “Be quiet, be quiet! You have deafened me with your voices!” This is it. Their voices have gone out into all the world!

So, do you see that irrational creation and rational creation glorify God? And harmoniously so!

However, let no one say to me “Then, why have we not introduced instrumental music into our worship?” In other words, “Why don’t we have instruments as part of our worship, just as in the Old Testament, where they used musical instruments in worship, as do Roman Catholics?”

This is a matter that lately has become a hot topic, since some churches in Athens and elsewhere recently attempted to introduce musical instruments. They attempted.

I want to tell you the following, beloved, that the Orthodox Church never introduced instruments—despite their existence in the Old Testament, and despite what I have just spent time explaining to you, and despite us having this image from Revelation. The reason is as follows: instrumental music drifts into to the realm of the thymele. “Thymele” means “theatre”. So, when we say that instrumental music drifts towards the theatric, we mean the form of divine worship is directed by this.

Would you like an example? The music of the West, which is what we hear on the radio being referred to as “classical” music, which was written by many different great composers, who are in every way remarkable from the perspective of technical beauty—entirely remarkable!—everything they have written is so worldly that when someone begins to see worship in the context of its Orthodox form, sincerely I say to you, that music seems odd. It is not just that it feels inadequate, it is odd. 

My beloved, I won’t hide from you my own personal experience. I loved classical music. I loved it very much. Yet today I find it very insufficient. It doesn’t bother me to listen to it. I am not saying I don’t want to listen to it once in a while. The so-called religious classical music of Bach, or of Palestrina, or of someone else, who wrote liturgies, Mendelssohn, and the rest—whoever has written such things—beautiful, amazing masterpieces and oratoria: Theatrics. With sopranos and altos and baritones and everything else—purely theatrical.

The human soul, when it begins to understand with certainty and to feel compunction from the mystery of the love of God and of worship, forgets all these things. It does not desire them.

Perhaps some of you understand these things I am saying to you, but perhaps not all of you.

Yet, as regards music, and as regards vocal music, I need to tell you that there is also the danger of slipping so that vocal music—what we call “Byzantine” music—becomes the focus and not a means for the elevation of the faithful.

Sometimes we listen to this music only for the cantor, for the music itself. I’ll tell you, once a chief cantor—I won’t tell you his name, naturally—was chanting in a church in Athens years ago. He had been invited to chant because he was a good musician, he chanted very well, and he chanted with much skill. At a certain point, a voice was heard from the congregation: “Aman, Pasa mou!”8

Beloved, if we reach the point that while we are present for worship and say to the cantor “Aman, Pasa mou!”—forgive me, I’m saying this so you will understand what I want you to understand—it means that such a person is being entertained! If someone wants to be entertained in worship, well…well, then we no longer have worship. I believe this unequivocally.

There is the Penthekte Council in Trullo, with its seventy-fifth canon, which tells us the following—I am dwelling on this because this is an attempt for us to have some understanding in our worship:

Those who chant with attentiveness and compunction, let them chant. Let not disorderly and inappropriate cries be used.9

St. Nikodemos of Mt. Athos makes an interpretation of this in The Rudder, and I will read an excerpt for you:

What are those things that are ‘inappropriate’ in the Church? The interpreter Zonaras judges them to be ‘womanish melodies’, ‘warblings’ (that is to say, the many teretisms, and the extravagant variety of melodies, which incline to whorish songs)…

—“whorish songs” 10 here means “theatric”—

…Therefore, the present Canon prescribes that these things be left out of the Church, and that those who chant offer their psalmody with much attention to God, who sees into the secret places of the heart, that is to say, into the noetic psalmody and prayer that takes place in the heart, rather than in outward cries.

This, my beloved, is what St. Nikodemos says in his commentary on psalmody.

Notes

  1. http://agiabarbarapatras.blogspot.com/2010/04/blog-post_5045.html
  2. φιάλη
  3. «ἐξομολογεῖσθε τῷ Κυρίῳ ἐν κιθάρᾳ»
  4. ἄλογη
  5. ἐλλόγου
  6. «εἰς πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ἐξῆλθεν ὁ φθόγγος αὐτῶν καὶ εἰς τὰ πέρατα τῆς οἰκουμένης τὰ ῥήματα αὐτῶν»
  7. Fr. Athanasios mistakenly says chapter eleven in the audio recording.
  8. To try to translate this expression would lose its effect. It is an idiom of the rebetiko subculture of Greece, sort of like “Groovy!” or “Right on!” or “That’s hot!” or “That’s lit!” or other such popular expressions have been used in their respective eras as an enthusiastic response to musical performance.
  9. He is paraphrasing.
  10. «πορνικὰ ᾄσματα»