The Divine Liturgy as Mystical Experience of the Sound
This is a very long post, which I will break into two parts. First part: the divine liturgy as mystical experience of the sound. Second part: the positive impact of the sounds of the divine liturgy THE DIVINE LITURGY AS MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE of the sound.
The above is a much shorter version of my talk at Ignite Toronto in 2016, where I discussed this topic in terms of both the experience and its social impact.
As I said at that time, we are living in an age where people’s lives have increasingly become shaped by digital technologies. In addition to being a great way to connect with other people and thinking about things like art and music, technology has enabled us to create new forms of worship and prayer that go far beyond mere church attendance or religious observance. For example, one stream of devotional practices is attentive listening for sacred sounds — especially those created by music — during times when one may be acutely conscious of quietness around them or feel spiritually distracted by everyday activities like work or work-related tasks (just think about how many times you have heard someone quietly sing while you were working on something). Our ability to listen attentively to these sounds has been a major way we have come to understand ourselves and our world. In recent years, the quality of our prayers has also been improving as well; churches have come up with sophisticated ways to make their worship more effective and meaningful without losing their sense that they are an assembly that is sharing communion with God (which is something very few people do today).
This degree of attentional awareness literally seems like magic: what does it feel like for God to be in front of us? How does it feel for Him to speak directly into our ears? What if He were saying things we could actually hear? The answer is obvious: it would be magical!
As much as I love hearing these sounds from God’s mouth, what if someone else was saying God’s words instead? What if we were able to hear exactly what He was saying but were told only through the lens of someone else’s words? Would we still feel as inspired as we would if His voice were flowing from our own mouths? Would we then still be able to feel His presence so strongly? What if God had taught us how to meditate on Him through some kind of audio recording instead? Would you still be able to get so close your heart felt beat-by-beat?
The Meaning of Music in the Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy, or the “Sabbath prayer” in Greek, is the most sacred of all the services that commemorate the holy week of lent. It is a time when Christians gather together to celebrate, rather than to do work. After all, there is no work in heaven as there is here on earth. But what are they doing that they are celebrating? Well, it turns out that the answer is music!
The worship of God in this service begins with the Chant (or “song”) of praise. This chant consists of not one word but many songs: hymns and psalms, etc. In fact there are at least twenty different chants used during this service. Each one tells a story of God and his saving power — as portrayed by an artist or musicians who have been commissioned to give an account of these events in song form.
These stories include a host of amazing scenes from history and even some from legend that have been retold with music (which isn’t something you will be able to find on YouTube). Furthermore, we can all find songs about Jesus Christ himself, which are spoken by the priest during certain parts of this service (those songs being sung by the choir throughout most parts).
From each chant comes forth a musical theme; and so it goes through several changes over time — moving from one sound to another — until it finally reaches its climax at the end. There are three main themes that recur throughout many centuries:
The heavenly hosts sing praises before the Lord: The angels sing praises before Christ; Saint John appears before Christ; Christ with his twelve apostles sings praises before his risen body; The Father singing praises before Mary and her soul, as she embraces her Son; St Michael singing praises before Christ; The patriarchs sing praises before Christ; Saint Peter singing praises before Jesus after his resurrection: And finally at His return to heaven we can hear angels singing their praise again…
And so it goes through several changes over time: moving from one sound to another — until finally it reaches its climax at the end… …the three main themes that recur throughout many centuries: The heavenly hosts sing praises before the Lord: The angels sing praises before Christ; Saint John appears before Christ; Christ with his twelve apostles sings praises before his risen body; The Father singing praises before Mary and her soul, as she embraces her Son; St Michael singing praises before Christ; The patriarchs sing praises before
Theology of Sound
I’ve been writing about the sounds of the divine liturgy for a while now and was happy to see that I finally received some feedback on my article on the theology of sound.
The piece has been sitting in draft mode for quite a while now, but it’s finally time to write it up. I’ll be updating it frequently over the next couple of months, so it should be worth revisiting at some point. But there are a few things that I want to address before we begin:
First, let me point out that this is *not* meant as an attack on any sort of religious practice (or belief) or institution (or even anything). I just happen to find sound more interesting than other forms of human communication.
Second, if you know about any religion or organization, please let me know! There are a lot of people out there who claim to speak on behalf of God — in fact, some people are claiming that they do so almost exclusively through accoustic devices and the full range of human speech is not enough for them. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that God could use sound as well; after all, God created everything!
Third, this article isn’t meant as a comprehensive treatise on theology (although there are several points here that are getting heavily referenced). Instead, what we’re going to do is look at two different ways in which sound can affect us — and how those effects can vary depending on our context. First up is the theology of sound itself: what exactly does God want us to hear? Second is how that theology can influence how we communicate with each other using different methods — and ultimately how we act with each other in various contexts. These two aspects might seem like unrelated topics in isolation but when they come together they can have major impacts on all sorts of things; they aren’t mutually exclusive at all and there are many ways in which both might come into play at once — which means you could end up spending quite a bit of time reading about each topic separately before you get anywhere near these two ideas. And yet…I think these two ideas actually have significant overlap and you should still consider them interrelated when considering them as parts of one larger whole (which would make more sense if I explained what “theology” actually is).
So: What exactly does God want us to hear? Well firstly, he wants us to hear his voice! The
The Sonic Reality of the Liturgy
There are so many great liturgical liturgies — the Mass is an obvious one, but the Church also has a lot of other great sacred music such as Gregorian chant, plainsong, and the Eucharistic Liturgy.
I’m not going to say it’s all bad (there are plenty of places where it’s beautiful and powerful), but none of it is necessarily “supernatural” or even “supernatural-sounding.”
Our ears are wired to hear consonants, rising and falling tones; the resonant sounds of silence; the murmurs of sacred music; an awesome choir singing to God.
We can be fooled into thinking that because we aren’t hearing these things while we listen to our favorite songs or watch a football game we aren’t listening with our full attention (our brains focus on what we hear and not what we don’t). But when you have a liturgical liturgy as a background sound (which this blog does) you will discover that there are definitely some good reasons for why our brains really do go wild over some of these sounds — even if they don’t form words.
In fact, there are a lot of reasons for why humans love sacred music so much — at least in my book. And this blog is about them.
Studying the Role of Music in the Divine Liturgy
I believe this is a topic that I’ve written about before, but it is still worth repeating here. It is one of the most important aspects of the liturgical experience, and yet it has been largely ignored by music critics.
The objective of the Divine Liturgy (the service of Holy Communion) is to give thanks to God and to share in his presence through the communal participation of all Christians in a miraculous act of worship.
The result is a mystical experience, where the souls of Christians are united with Christ and are admitted into his presence through an encounter with the sacred, not through their own efforts or abilities.
Music plays a key role in this mystical experience because it penetrates deeper into our consciousness than any other non-physical element available to us. In fact, one might say that music is “mind” itself and that no other medium can convey what music does for our souls: it makes us feel closer to God than any other thing we could experience – including prayer (and prayer alone).
As such, music’s contribution to our mystical experience should be recognized as an important aspect of its role in the Divine Liturgy. However, without being fully understood by academics, listeners have unwittingly served as a conduit for some people who have too much time and energy on their hands who have failed to realize that they serve as a counterbalance to those who understand music better than they do. As such, I would like to propose three questions about music’s role in liturgical services: 1) Are there any logical reasons for why we should listen to certain types of music during liturgy? 2) What are the practical implications for how we listen to certain types of music during liturgy? 3) What are some musical styles which communicate certain messages best?
This is a summary of my talk at the UX Conference in Stockholm, which was held on the same day as the UX Summit in London. I believe this is a good example of how to be an optimist when it comes to the value of design and user experience. In Stockholm, we have an amazing church that has been built entirely out of stone for hundreds of years. In London, we have a building entirely made out of plastic for thousands of years and we are just getting used to it. But our buildings are not any more beautiful or magical than the stones that were once employed to build them.
The point I want to make is this: if you want value from your product, it is not enough to spend time designing things that look like they are doing what you say they do; you need to take some time actually being present with people and listening to them talk about what they like about your product — because that what you will be making work for them.
It’s not as simple as copying something else and assuming it will work for everyone else too; nor does it require making sure that everything on your site works well with every device or operating system either. It requires active listening, because only then can you judge whether what you designed works for anyone who uses it.
If you can provide long-lasting value even though there is no guarantee users will come back again and again, then your design will have served its purpose — which should be enough motivation by itself.
I’m going to leave this one open-ended because I think there’s a lot more interesting ways to think about design and user experience than I’ve ever encountered before (and enough room left here for further developments). These findings may help us all come up with new ways of looking at these two fields and start thinking creatively instead of optimistically!