Leader of Men: the ‘Masculine Christianity’ of Peter Orseolo, Doge of Venice

Image: Forbes

I recently posted a couple of pieces on ‘masculine Christianity’. One name that deserves to be better known in this regard is Peter Orseolo (928-927) – little known today but a role model in many ways.

His life reads rather like a novel. Adventure, intrigue, unusual twists in the plot, it’s all there. He was a nobleman from Venice and even as a youth had a reputation for strength. So, when Venice needed a commander to lead a fleet against the pirates who terrorised the Adriatic, they chose Orseolo – aged only 20. What’s more, he won a great victory, sweeping the marauders from Venetian shores.

In 976 there were riots in Venice. The Doge (the chief magistrate and ruler) was murdered and a large part of the city destroyed by fire. A strong and competent leader was needed, so whom did they choose? Peter Orseolo was made the new Doge and set about the huge task of reconstruction.

He showed himself a remarkable statesman and one of the greatest rulers of Venice. He made peace between enemies. He built hospitals and set up social programs to care for widows, orphans and pilgrims. He began rebuilding St Mark’s Cathedral, icon of the city.

Orseolo as a monk

Orseolo as a monk

Then, in September 978, at the height of his powers, Orseolo disappeared! Not even his wife and son knew where he was. An extensive search finally traced him to a Benedictine monastery in the mountains between France and Spain. Had he felt crushed by responsibilities? Perhaps, but he revealed later that God had been troubling his heart for ten years over the call to renounce everything to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Orseolo cut himself off from all his past life and achievements and put himself under the guidance of the abbot of Cuxa, dedicating himself to prayer. The fighter who had defeated pirates and political enemies now took on the harder conflict of dethroning self. The man who had ruled a city state now took a vow of obedience! It sounds ironic, but did not Jesus himself teach that true greatness lay not in lording it over others but in humbling oneself and becoming a servant? (Matthew 20:25-27)

But the lion did not altogether become a lamb! He brought to the monastery his fighting spirit, attracting spiritual brothers and sons by his steely determination and innate leadership charisma.

Prepare to Meet Thy Dome? Some Mediaeval Christian Attitudes to Baldness – and its Treatment

A Greek philosopher, 4th century BC

Synesius of Cyrene (died AD 414), was a North African aristocrat and a Neo-Platonist philosopher. He married a Christian woman and embraced her faith, in time becoming bishop of Ptolemais (in modern Libya). He enjoyed debate and, it appears, humour. In the latter vein is his short essay entitled Eulogy of Baldness. Aptly, a eulogy is a speech in praise, typically of one now departed!

He bills it as a riposte to Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40-115), a Greek orator, philosopher and historian who led a colourful life in the highest circles of Imperial Rome. He had produced an Encomium on Hair. An encomium was a celebratory speech. Here we read: After rising in the morning and praying to the gods, as is my custom, I attended to my hair. I happened to be in poor health at the time, and it had been too long neglected. Most of it had become knotted and entangled, like that which hangs about a sheep’s legs, but much coarser than this, for it is tangled with fine hairs.

What had led Dio to embrace grooming? Consideration of the importance of hair to human beauty and dignity. Homer rarely mentions anyone’s eyes (except Agamemnon’s), he reflects, while Achilles, Odysseus, Menelaus and more are specifically praised for their hair. Dio also considers those around him who love beauty and give their hair great importance, and who not merely give it serious attention but even keep a sort of reed in the hair itself, with which they comb it when they are at leisure… They think much more of keeping their hair clean than of sleeping agreeably. 

A splendidly hirsute Spartan warrior

Synesius admits the Encomium is “so brilliant a work that the bald man, in the face of its arguments, must be covered with shame.” Even so, he jumps to the defence of the follicly challenged. His Eulogy is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. Besides taking issue with Dio’s reading of Homer, Synesius makes points like these:

Wild animals are hairy; bald animals are intelligent
The most intelligent of all people, the philosophers, are all bald
A sphere is a perfect, even divine form
The glimmer of a bald head is a source of light

He includes a riotous account of a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia, where the Persians found they could seize a Greek by his long hair and beard and dispatch him with ease. Alexander was forced to retreat and set the barbers loose on his troops. Thereafter, the Persians, the campaign no longer proceeding according to their hopes, as there was no longer anything to hold on to, were condemned to struggle in armour against much superior adversaries.

A mediaeval tonsured monk

Quite where the tonsure, the shaved bald patch of monks, fitted into this scenario, I have yet to find out. ‘All things to all men’?

Fast forward to the 12th century and we find no less than Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), abbess, writer, composer, philosopher and general polymath, with things to say about baldness. In her On Natural Philosophy and Medicine she sees a link between male head hair and facial hair and male fertility – one of the first to do so. And as for male pattern baldness, she even lists a cure.

Take bear fat, a small quantity of ashes from wheat straw or from winter wheat straw, mix this together and anoint the entire head with it, especially those areas on the head where the hair is beginning to fall out. Afterwards, he should not wash this ointment off for a long while… When these ingredients are mixed as described, they will hold a person’s hair for a long time so that it does not fall out.

No doubt the sheer smell and unpleasantness would also have appealed to the contemporary love of penance and punishing the flesh?

 

Quaker Elizabeth Fry Overcame Depression and Left Her Marked on a Nation

From 2001 to 2017, her face was on every Bank of England £5 note. But who was Elizabeth Fry? She was born into a banking family in Norwich, England, in 1780. When she was 18, she heard a Quaker preacher and experienced a deep conversion to faith in Christ. She joined a Quaker assembly, where the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit was welcomed and valued. One day, a woman had a prophecy for her: “You are born to be a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.”

From that day onwards, Fry was moved to charitable acts. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday School to teach children to read. Marriage took her to London, and motherhood kept her so busy that after 12 years she lamented: “I fear my life is slipping away to little purpose.” How wrong she was!

Another Quaker minister told her of the horrifying conditions in the capital’s prisons. Fry went to the infamous Newgate jail to see for herself. She found hundreds of women and their children living violent lives in unsanitary conditions and sleeping on the floor without bedding.

Fry sprang into action. Immediate practical needs had to be met. She enlisted local women to make clothes for the children. She got permission to start a school for prison children. She founded an organisation of women who would visit prisoners, pray and read scriptures with them, and provide them with materials to sew and knit goods which could be sold to give them some income.


But more visionary action was required if lasting change was to happen. Fry took to spending some nights in the jail and invited members of the aristocracy to come and do so too, to experience at first had the inhumane conditions. Her brother-in-law, a Member of Parliament, also promoted her work in government circles. The atmosphere at Newgate changed so noticeably that Fry’s model was followed in other towns and even abroad. She became well known. She was the first woman ever to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, which led to a series of prison reforms in the 1820s. Queen Victoria admired her and made donations.

Fry’s work didn’t stop there. Even while raising 11 children and suffering from what today would have been recognised as post-natal depression, she established a night shelter for the homeless in London; campaigned for more humane treatment of orphans; raised awareness of the plight of newly-released prisoners with nowhere to go; began an outreach ministry to sailors and founded a school for nurses. It was nurses trained at Fry’s school who went with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea.

She was incensed at the transportation of women prisoners to Australia. The night before they left, there were always riots in the prisons. The women would reach Australia penniless and with dependent children, leaving prostitution as the only option for many. Elizabeth lobbied parliament and personally visited all deportees, giving them materials for making clothes on the voyage which they could sell on arrival.

UK banknote commemorating Elizabeth Fry

UK banknote commemorating Elizabeth Fry

Together with her husband, Fry also agitated against capital punishment. At that time, upwards of 200 crimes were punishable by death. After initial indifference in high circles, they gained the ear of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who met with them and started the process of penal reform.

Elizabeth’s motives in all these activities were avowedly Christian. Her faith was the centre of all she did. Quakers allowed anointed women to preach, and Elizabeth did so. It is said that her voice carried such emotion that hard hearts would weep.

Let us cleave to God in spirit,” she exhorted, “and make it the first business of our lives to be conformed to His will and live to His glory, whether prosperity or adversity be our portion, and though our years pass away like a brief tale. Through His unbounded love, the blessings of the Most High will rest upon us.”

Fry proved it. The prophecy was fulfilled absolutely. Called “the Angel of Mercy” in her lifetime, when she died in 1845 over a thousand people lined the way to her grave, to honour the passing of a truly great woman.

“Strange, Beautiful Things”: Instances of the Miraculous in the Early Salvation Army

Image: celestialgrace.org

Image: celestialgrace.org

Bramwell Booth was the first Chief of Staff of the Salvation Army and succeeded his father, William, as General in 1926. A year earlier, he published his Echoes and Memories (available as .PDF file here), a valuable collection of reminiscences going back to the early days of the movement.

One subject he covers is signs and wonders – manifestations of supernatural power. He clearly experienced plenty of them, but is careful to keep an open mind: According to Salvation Army Commissioner, Elijah Cadman, “Strange, beautiful things happen when God has His own way with a man or woman.” All my life I have been interested in what are sometimes spoken of as bodily manifestations, though I have had a considerable degree of misgiving.

One of the earliest instances of this happening was in the course of a mission to Cardiff by Robert Aitken. I was walking up the street one day when I saw Mr Aitken approaching. A number of men, on seeing him, flocked to the door of a public house and jeered at him as he passed, one of them offering him a pot of liquor. Mr Aitken turned sharply round and said to him in his deep voice, but with extreme tenderness, ‘Oh, my lad, how will you bear the fires of hell?’ At those words the man instantly dropped on the pavement. He fell like a piece of wood, apparently losing all consciousness for the moment. One or two people assisted him, Mr Aitken looking on, and presently there on the side walk he came to himself and sought the mercy of God, afterwards, as I learned, becoming an earnest Christian man.

Many people fell under conviction of sin on the street. Image: thefrickpittsburgh.org

Many people fell under conviction of sin on the street.   Image: thefrickpittsburgh.org

William Booth himself believed in God’s power – and desire – to heal, and in 1902 wrote a paper: ‘Faith Healing. A memorandum for the use of Officers of The Salvation Army.’  In this link, Emma Knights gives examples of physical healing recorded in the War Cry. In this piece, Robert Adams shows that healing conventions were being held by Canadian officers, one of whom records: “The deaf hear, the lame walk, and the leprous sinners [figurative rather than literal, we assume] are cleansed.” In New Zealand, officers were prompted in a vision to go and pray for a very sick woman and bid her arise in Jesus’ name, which she did.

Many instances of supernatural joy are recorded. One case from January 1878:

“William Corbridge led a Hallelujah Meeting till 10pm. Then we commenced an all-night of prayer. 250 were present. A tremendous time. From the very first Jehovah was passing by, searching, softening and subduing every heart. The power of the Holy Ghost fell on Robinson (he was a North Country pitman of especially powerful build) and prostrated him. Another man entered into full liberty, and then he shouted, wept, clapped his hands, danced amid a scene of the most glorious and heavenly enthusiasm. Others, meanwhile, were lying prostrate on the floor, some of them groaning aloud for perfect deliverance … It was a blessed night.”

Booth records a number of visions received by people who fell flat under the Holy Spirit’s influence (though he admits these were not numerous and that people seemed coy to talk about them).

One of these cases was a woman called Bamford, an Officer from Nottingham. After a visitation of this kind, which came upon her during an ‘All night of Prayer’ in which she lay for nearly five hours unconscious, during which time her countenance was most evidently brightened, she gave a picture of something she had seen, relating chiefly to the blessedness of the redeemed. It made a profound impression upon my own heart, and, I believe it afterwards helped her to win hundreds of souls for God, for she constantly referred to it in her work as an Officer.

Bramwell and William Booth (a miraculous growth of beard?)

Bramwell and William Booth (a miraculous growth of beard?)

Interesting to note is the response of the Army’s leaders to such manifestations during a service: While never opposing or deprecating such experiences, we took care to have the people receiving them removed from the public gathering as soon as it was possible. This rapid removal from the open meeting was a wise thing. It effectually prevented any vain or neurotic persons from drawing attention to themselves.

 

Worship and Musical Instruments in the Church: the First Millennium

Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite and how, while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.

The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny (see my last post) uses the same Latin phrase, carmen dicere. Does this suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.

We could usefully bring in Augustine of Hippo here, who in the 4th century described church singing in Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise (without instruments) and accepted dancing, though only “in line” (not free expression). For more on this, see Laura Hellsten’s piece, Dance in the Early Church.

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines Image: artship.org

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines    Image: artship.org

Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome, also 4th century, wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.

Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is possible evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed by some to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.

f5112-b-bruggs-d7-99r-kyriepaschale

One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Communion or Eucharist, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapë, the ‘love meal’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when a number of the Apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.

In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:

‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’

The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.

It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.

An early medieval organ

We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. William J Stewart (in this link)  assembles an array of patristic statements against instrumental music in the church; for example, Tertullian declares instrumental music to belong only “to the entertainment of heretics.”

There is some debate over a date for the arrival of the earliest church organs. Tradition has it that Pope Vitalian I introduced an organ in the year 666, but there is no supporting evidence, ecclesiastical or secular, for what would have been a monumental event. Primitive organs certainly existed in the 8th century, for Charlemagne was sent one by the Caliph and had it installed in the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. Even so, it is unlikely that the first organs accompanied the singing; rather they had their own bespoke ‘slot’ in the worship service. Scholarly opinion (see the overview by Brooks Cochran here) veers towards the 10th century as the start of organ accompaniment to singing – and it created considerable division between purists and modernisers (see Wayne Wells’ article here). Even in the 13th century, Aquinas declared “Our Church does not use musical instruments.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia concludes: “For almost a thousand years Gregorian chant, without any instrumental or harmonic addition was the only music used in connection with the liturgy. The organ, in its primitive and rude form, was the first, and for a long time the sole, instrument used to accompany the chant.”  [Vol. 10, pg. 657]

Postscript

I ought to mention the following quotation, which appears on many a worship website, always attributed to Augustine of Hippo.

I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance, which demands everything: health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.
Dancing demands a whole person, one who is firmly anchored in the centre of his life, who is not obsessed by lust for people and things and the demon of isolation in his own ego.
Dancing demands a freed person, one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.
I praise the dance. O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.

This discussion at historum.com reveals the true author at Georg Götsch, a German music teacher active in the early 20th century, particularly in the German Youth Movement. He refers the quotation back to Augustine, but without reference. It would be hard to reconcile the sentiments of joy and buoyancy with the bishop Hippo who wrote: “It is better to dig or to plough on the Lord’s day, than to dance. Instead of singing psalms to the lyre or psaltery, as virgins and matrons were wont to do, they now waste their time in dancing, and even employ masters in that art.” (8th sermon)

 

 

Hymns and Canticles: Various Sources of Early Christian Singing

The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.

They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.

The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:

Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.

Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.

The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:

He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.

Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:

For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).

For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).

 

 

Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots

The 1st century traveller and writer, Philo, describes the singing of the Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the Jewish diaspora based around Alexandria.

“They rise up together and … form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.”

Jewish liturgical singing took two forms: antiphonal and responsorial. The first is what Philo is describing: the division of singers into two groups in such a way that they are separated from each other; for example, to the right and left sides of the central aisle in the building. They then sing alternate parts, one side starting, the other responding.

This has continued in Christian worship ever since, not so much in congregational worship, but rather by the choir. Many a well-loved anthem has the two parts marked decani and cantores, indicating that, in the past, a group of church deacons would have sung one part, and a group of chosen cantors (singers) the other.

Responsorial singing is similar, involving the priest or a perhaps a solo cantor singing an opening line and the congregation in unison singing the reply. Anyone who has been to a traditional sung service, for example in the Anglican church, will be familiar with this.

Priest: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Priest: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

A choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

The Old Testament book of Psalms really came into its own here, as not only did it allow the congregation to take God’s word directly on its lips, but also the very verse form made for successful breaking down into statement and response (as in the above example). Even where it didn’t, a congregational reply of “Alleluia” or “We bless Thy name, O Lord” did just as well. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century, refers to response singing of psalms in the church at Rome.

One thing that surprises me with early Christian worship is that singing praises does not appear in the list of things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42, namely the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayers. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, dated c.155, describes a Christian worship service. The emphasis is on ritual (baptism / ablution and Holy Communion), not singing.

This all seems oddly at variance with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to address one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord [Ephesians 5:19]. A very musical response indeed! The context is primarily the believer’s personal devotional life. But not exclusively: “addressing one another” can only mean a context of corporate worship.

We know that Jesus and the Twelve, before they went out to the Mount of Olives, sang a hymn [Mark 14:26]. But what, and how? Many Biblical scholars believe it would have been one of the so-called Hallel series in the Book of Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113 – 118. It was common practice among the Jews to chant these holy songs at the Passover table. Did they sing it responsively, their ‘Rabbi’ leading and the disciples responding? We shall never know for sure.

Why Sing Hymns? Insights From Some Early Church Fathers

A subject that fascinates me is Christian hymns. In many Western churches today they have largely been supplanted by choruses. Yet there has been a price to pay.

In the introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote this about hymn singing: A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.

It would seem that, for the first Christian centuries, believers sang their hymns without stopping to analyse the process. One of the first who did was John Chrysostom (347-407). In his ‘Exposition on Psalm 41’, he points out that music is an integral part of the human condition: To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep.

Mixing this innate sense of music with the power of words is, Chrysostom continues, a powerful vehicle, affecting the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer.

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.

In words very relevant to today’s i-pod culture, Chrysostom warns that there are bad words and bad music too, and these can similarly affect the human soul. “Those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker.” That is why, he maintains, the devil is keen to fill the mind with dirty things through music.

From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.

 

d490b-notescolor1Another early Church father who understood the ‘why’ of hymn-singing was Basil of Caesarea (†379). In his Discourse on Psalm 1, he writes:

The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.

The first Christians understood the need to confess spiritual truth aloud: not just to ‘believe in your heart’, but also to ‘confess with your lips’ [Romans 10:9]. Or in Basil’s words, to impress doctrine more deeply on their souls. For this they had a clear and obvious model: the Jews. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple and to attend synagogues. It was therefore inevitable that Jewish methods of performing music were incorporated into Christian worship.

In particular, the church continued to use the book of Psalms. Basil again:

Now the prophets teach certain things, the historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorialises history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings.

In other words, if it is important to confess God’s truth aloud, then how better than to sing scripture. Not only is there no risk of emotionalism or error, but also the addition of music aids the memorising of the words.

To be continued…

 

The Evangelist Prince: the Short Life of Kaboo (Samuel Morris)


Prince Kaboo was born in 1873, son of a chief of the Kru tribe in Liberia, Africa. When only in his teens, he was captured in a skirmish with the Grebo tribe, who used him as a pawn in extracting tribute. He was regularly whipped and tortured, and the Kru had to deliver a present every month to keep him alive. If they defaulted, Kaboo would be buried up to the neck, his face smeared with honey, and the ants would eat him alive.

One night, there was a blinding flash of light, the ropes fell off him and a voice said: “Kaboo, flee!” He ran into the jungle, travelling by night and hiding in hollow trees by day, until he reached the capital, Monrovia. Here he found work and was invited to church. Hearing how Saul of Tarsus was converted through a blinding flash of light [the Bible, Acts 9:3-19], Kaboo was astonished at the similarity to his own story, and gave his life to Christ. At his baptism he was given the name Samuel Morris.

After two years, hungry to receive training and to be empowered to preach the gospel, Kaboo was sent to America. He worked his passage, being badly treated by the ship’s crew, but a number turned to the Lord through his witness. Samuel Logan Brengle, an early leader in the Salvation Army, recounts what happened next in his book When the Holy Ghost is Come:

“The brother in New York to whom he came, took him to a meeting the first night he was in the city, and left him there, while he went to fulfil another engagement. When he returned at a late hour, he found a crowd of men at the penitent-form, led there by the simple words of this poor black fellow. He took him to his Sunday-school, and put him up to speak, while he attended to some other matters. When he turned from these affairs that had occupied his attention for only a little while, he found the penitent-form full of teachers and scholars, weeping before the Lord. What the black boy had said he did not know; but he was bowed with wonder and filled with joy, for it was the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Christian children in Liberia praying today Image: Christianexaminer.com

Christian children in Liberia praying today Image: Christianexaminer.com

He arrived in America aged 18 and was referred to Taylor University, a Christian foundation in Indiana. When the principal asked him what room he would like, Kaboo replied: “Give me the one that no one else wants.”

Kaboo’s simple godliness affected everyone he met. They often heard him calling on God in his room (he called it “talking to my Father”). He took every opportunity to witness to others, but his heart still yearned to return to Liberia with the message of salvation.

It never happened. In 1893, aged 20, he contracted an infection and died. The President of the university made this statement: Samuel Morris was a divinely sent messenger of God to Taylor University. He thought he was coming over here to prepare himself for his mission to his own people; but his coming was to prepare Taylor University for her mission to the whole world. Many of his student contemporaries volunteered for missionary service, to keep alive Kaboo’s vision and to work towards his dream.

A life’s work accomplished in just four years as a Christian! Behind this we can see the meeting of two crucial elements: a clear and powerful divine call and what the university President called Kaboo’s sublime yet simple faith in God.

Taylor University have produced a cartoon format life of Samuel Morris. There is also a short film, A Spirit-Filled Life, available (in poor quality) on YouTube.

The First Christian Social Entrepreneur? Basil’s “New City” at Caesarea

An early representation of Basil, perhaps at the Basiliad

An early representation of Basil, perhaps at the Basiliad

In popular usage today, the term “entrepreneur” seems to mean little more than someone who started their own business. The term is much wider, however, and history reveals a noble line of social entrepreneurs, many of them Christian.

According to this article, a social entrepreneur ‘is usually a creative individual who questions established norms and their own gifting, spirit and dynamism to enrich society in preference to themselves.’ We’re talking about a blend of philanthropist, visionary, business thinker and ‘go-getter’ – and for a Christian, a strong faith.

Christian social care is as old as Christianity itself, of course.  The Bible states that caring for widows and orphans is foundational to godliness (James 1:27). Perhaps the first instance of a more visionary enterprise was Basil the Great‘s Basiliad in 4th century Caesarea.

This was a ground-breaking philanthropic foundation where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge. It was staffed by monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people.

In his funeral address for Basil, his great friend Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus, said: Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy… where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. Oration 43, Available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers)

This ‘New City’ was the culmination of Basil’s social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a priest and a bishop.

Image: thegreathospital.co.uk

Image: thegreathospital.co.uk

This line continued primarily through Christian hospitals, only really broadening to other areas with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. As poverty increased and health deteriorated through the factories, a window of opportunity opened for Christian social entrepreneurs. Suddenly prison reform, schools for poor children, cooperative societies, trustee savings banks and suchlike were big on the agenda, and gifted Christian men and women stood up with vision and application to see them through.

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