In our last post, we explored the Christian concept of redeeming the senses. For Christians, it was not only the soul that was affected adversely by Adam’s fall; our physical senses have been weakened as well. Deprived of the presence of God in paradise, our senses have been divested of their faculty to perceive God’s presence in creation. In the context of Christ’s redemption of the world , the shared lifeworld of the church sought to facilitate a sacred space wherein our senses could be re-directed away from the carnal and the sensual and toward the eternally True, Good, and Beautiful, and thereby prepare our bodies for their resurrection and eternal life in the paradise of God’s presence.

In this post, I want to explore the transformative significance of Christian soundscapes. Given that Christians are referred to as the ‘called ones’ (klētoi, 1 Cor 1:2), who come to faith through ‘hearing the word of Christ’ (Rom 10:17), the acoustic or sonic dimension of human experience was profoundly shaped by Christianity. The Patristic emphasis on the power of words arose largely from the Greco-Roman tradition which stressed the art of rhetoric for an educated humanity. Both Plato and Aristotle recognized that the soul was deeply affected by the aural reception of rhetorical delivery. Hence Aristotle (On Rhetoric 1403b27-31) reflects on the loudness, pitch, and rhythm of the voice for an effective hypokrisis or delivery, one that puts the audience into an emotional frame of mind favorable to the orator’s case (On Rhetoric 1356a3, 14-16).

It was within this sonic world of rhetoric that a distinctly Christian soundscape emerged. This soundscape, empowered by the Holy Spirit, set the stage for what Patristic scholar Carol Harrison has called ‘transformative listening.’[1] Christian rhetoric, embodied in the sermon or homily, sought to awaken the imagination through sound, inspiring the listener not merely to hear but also to understand, to apprehend Scripture as it was interpreted in light of the Christ event. As such, the recitation of Scripture provided a map of the cosmos, recreated in Christ, which served as an aural foundation for reconstituting one’s life as a mimetic imitation of the virtues embedded in this sacred discourse. In the midst of a relatively illiterate populace, Christianized rhetoric had the power to reshape the sonic appetites and expectations of the general population.

It is within this aural context that a distinct sacred music tradition arose within the Church. Following the Pythagorean concept of the ‘music of the spheres’ where the entire cosmos is subject to the same laws of proportion that rule music, sacred music in the Church sought to awaken on earth the music of the heavens in order to transform both its music makers and perceivers into heavenly beings. Hence, Gregory Nazianzus (330-390AD) talks of the role of singing in Christian worship to unite both the Christian community on earth with the angels of heaven and thus exemplify the harmony of creation (Carmina 2.1.1.180). Maximus the Confessor (580-662AD) writes: “In this light, the soul, now equal in dignity with the holy angels … and having learned to praise in concert with them … is brought to the adoption of similar likeness by grace…” (Mystagogy 23).[2] Gregory of Nyssa, in a Christmas Sermon, conceived of creation as “the temple of the Lord of creation” that was sung into being, and it was this divine song that was to be echoed in the hymns of praise among God’s people but has been silenced by sin.[3] As a result of the work of Christ, however, people excluded by sin could now rejoin the liturgy of heaven and earth, and in so doing enter into the holy of holies to worship with the angels.
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The early church thus ascribed a highly formative significance to sacred music. Athanasius’ extended discussion of the psalms observes that singing was ordained to benefit the soul, “because as harmony creates a single concord in joining together the two pipes of the aulos, so … reason wills that a man be not disharmonious with himself, nor at variance with himself …” (Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretation psalmorum 27).[4] The facilitation of this inner harmony is a necessary constituent of sacred music: “Just as we make known and signify the thoughts of the soul through the words we express, so too the Lord wished the melody of the words to be a sign of the spiritual harmony of the soul, and ordained that the canticles be sung with melody and the psalms read with song” (Epistula ad Marcellinum 28).[5]

And so, the goal of music in the hands of Christians was to reveal reality to our senses by awakening on earth the music of the heavens, that is, the numbers, symmetries, consonances, and unities of the cosmos. While we can’t hear this cosmic music (in that we are too far and fallen), we do have access to the mathematics and principles of symmetry by which that music constantly sounds. This is reflected in the Greek word, symmetria, which means ‘beautiful.’ By awakening the music of the heavens on earth, we are able to embody such cosmic harmony and thus transform into heavenly beings.

In our next post, we will explore the significance of sacred sight in the realm of Christian art. Until then, can you think of ways in which you have experienced transformation through the music of the church?

[1] Carol Harrison, The Art of Listening in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] Quoted in Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship (London: T&T Clark International, 2007), 222.

[3] Barker, Temple Themes, 225.

[4] Cited in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 53.

[5] Cited in McKinnon, Music, 53.

Featured image credit: © 2011 Brian Smithson, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

This post is part of a series on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty promoting the release of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.