The Spirituality of Singing: It’s About the Heart, and Your Vocal Cords

April 24, 2020

By Patrick Kornmeyer


Pope Benedict once mentioned that St. Bernard taught his monks that, should they sing  the Divine Office poorly, they would fall into the regio dissimilitudinis (the “zone of dissimilitude”), an Augustinian phrase that referred to the saint’s own experience of sin. To be in a state of sin, even of having committed a single, willful venial sin, is to that degree to be unreal.

Different senses of “reality” must be distinguished. For a sinner to be “less real” than his saintly counterpart does not mean that he loses physical mass and density, but that he forfeits something of his human identity.

A natural analogy may help to make this clear: a bucket with a hole at the bottom is somehow less than a bucket. Something of the external shell of the bucket remains, but this particular bucket is unable to fulfill what it was made to do: hold water.

Human bodies require that they be in some way like buckets: they must hold water if they want to live. But man is much more than his body. The serpent promised to make our first parents like gods; in Christ, God became man—in the words of St. Athanasius—so that man might become God himself.

Not to be godlike, but to be God himself—called by the theological tradition “theosis” or “divinization” (not divination). This is the goal of the Christian life: theosis, becoming God. Notice that the Christian life is not about one’s personal salvation—rather, salvation is nothing other than theosis: becoming God. By means of the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist, man becomes “in-corporated” into Christ’s body, which is the Church (cf. Colossians 1:18).

“All things were made by [Christ]: and without him was made nothing that was made” (John 1:3). Therefore, to be united with Christ—in his Church by means of the sacraments—is to be fully and completely real since it is to be in union with the very source of reality. To remain separated from Christ—by sin or unbelief, which itself is sin—is to poke a hole in the bottom of a bucket, to clip the wings off of a bird, and to cut off the very branch you’re sitting on.

This is the meaning of St. Bernard’s denunciation of poor singing by linking it with sin: not that the quality of your voice is per se related to the state of your soul, but rather the divine harmony of creation is violated by the negligence which obstructs the creation of true, God-reflecting beauty. Christ himself is the “new song,” according to St. Clement of Alexandria, in whom is restored the original harmony of all creation, including man, within and between itself and with God.

Some of the earliest Christian artwork takes up the image of Orpheus, the mythic master of music in the Greco-Roman imagination, who was able to melt the hearts of olympian and infernal gods alike in order to rescue his beloved Eurydice from Hades. Unfortunately, however, after a game-losing fumble at the eleventh hour, Orpheus loses his bride forever, and ends in the same way as all pagan epics.

The early Christians saw in the ultimately tragic Orpheus a type of the triumphant Christ, by whose song God would be truly glorified and reconciled to man, a song which has the power even to harrow hell, understood not as the hell of the damned but rather of the limbus patrum, the “hell” of the just who died before Christ and were awaiting his resurrection in order for the gates of heaven to be opened. “Sing to the Lord a new song,” the Psalmist frequently bids us.

Flannery O’Connor, a renowned Catholic novelist, was fiercely critical of most Christian literature because of its substandard artistic merit. It is true, she says, that God can extract good even from the worst of circumstances. O felix culpa! Does this, however, mean that we can offer God garbage, expecting him to do the work that we are too lazy to do ourselves? O’Connor here unites with St. Paul, who says, in not dissimilar circumstances, “By no means!” Such is presumption of a particularly despicable sort.

What does this mean in the concrete? First, do not feel obligated to like the saccharine  and distasteful images of Our Lord or Our Lady that are unfortunately all too prevalent today and hardly evoke anything approximating true devotion. Similarly, do not feel the need to like every “Christian” song that you hear, simply because of the pious “lyrics,” as if a pig in a mitre by that fact could convoke an ecumenical council. God is worth more than third-rate imitations of second-rate secular forms of art, worth more than jingles and ditties that wouldn’t make the cut for a commercial advertising jelly doughnuts.

The worship of God is a serious, even deadly business. Don’t believe me? Read the story of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), who were struck dead because they played fast and loose with the liturgical rubrics. Or consult the case of Korah and his followers (Numbers 16), whom the earth swallowed up because they sought to usurp the priestly prerogative of Moses and Aaron. If further proof is needed, consult John’s Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) to see the divine liturgy portrayed as a battlefield, in a war “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). It is not in vain that the ancient Stowe missal chose to label the Institution Narrative in the Eucharistic Prayer the Periculosa Oratio, the “Most Dangerous Prayer.”

Hopefully now it is understood how St. Bernard could connect poor singing to sin. To offer God our hand-me-downs and afterthoughts in the presumption that “good intentions” are sufficient is a sure sign of not having sufficiently good intentions. It is true that sometimes good intentions really are sufficient. It is often in external failure that God’s power is most strikingly made manifest. Nevertheless, while God is honored by faith that he will be merciful toward our mistakes, he is not honored by presumption.