Singing the Psalms: How Music Harmonizes Your Soul

The human soul is a dynamic dance. Since we are the image of God, our own essence mirrors that of the Trinity. In the same way that the Trinity is simultaneously (and illogically) both one and three, the human soul is one undivided essence and yet it is a community of various parts. In the oneness of our being we are always in a state of complete harmony, however, in the multiplicity of our being we can often become chaotic and disharmonious.

In previous articles I have discussed the ancient idea used by the early Celtic Christians, as well as others within the church, of healing the soul by the application of contraries. You can learn more about that HERE. The application of opposites can be one way of bringing a chaotic human being into harmony with itself and God. However, it is not the only way.

The Christian tradition has used the practice of psalmody from its outset. It is something we inherited directly from the Jewish tradition. The singing of psalms was a practice which Jesus himself was familiar with and one which has remained and essential part of Christian spirituality up until today. In this article I would to share with you an understanding of how singing the psalms heals us from the perspective of Athanasius.

Athanasius is often remembered today for his influence on trinitarian theology and his attacks against the “heresy” of the Arians (those who followed the teachings of Arius). I put heresy in inverted commas because heresy is always in the eye of the beholder. During his life time, Athanasius’ most widely read work was his account of the Life of Antony, the most famous of the desert fathers and, at least according to some, the father of Christian monasticism. In this article, however, I will be looking at one of his lesser known works, his letter to Marcellinus.

In this letter Athanasius speaks about the psalms, the circumstances in which each psalm is to be recited, and the reason why the psalms are meant to be sung in musical harmony. He says:

“As in music there is a plectrum (think guitar pick) so the man becoming himself a stringed instrument and devoting himself completely to the Spirit may obey in all his members and emotions, and serve the will of God. The harmonious reading of the Psalms is a figure and type of such undisturbed and calm equanimity of our thoughts.”

For Athanasius, the singing of the palms is like a guitar pick and our soul is the guitar. By plucking the strings and creating harmony, the otherwise uninteresting piece of wood and string becomes a fountain of melody and inspiration. Without the pick the guitar never sings and in like manner our sacred music, which reverberates through our mind, body, and spirit, brings to life the holy instrument which is the human being.

There is an ancient idea about the music of the spheres, that the universe is sustained and given order by the songs of heaven. The angelic choirs communicate the will of God through their songs of praise and the reverberation gives structure and order to the cosmos. When we sing the psalms we join this ancient and eternal song and we align the universe inside of us with the universe around us. Just as the angel song gives order to the cosmos, the song in our hearts gives order to our souls – the inner universe. Psalmody brings us to a place of recollection.

The psalms contain the full spectrum of human emotion (or at least a good portion of it). As we sing the psalms they will sometimes speak in terms we are not comfortable with, seeking revenge against enemies and other such things. These parts of the psalter bring forth in us emotions which everyone struggles with. They illuminate and bring to the surface aspects of ourselves which might otherwise remain hidden.

When the psalms speak of destroying our enemies, they are speaking to emotions buried deep within all of us. The words of the psalms bring these emotions forth and the harmony of the music heals them. By uncovering the darkness within us and giving it expression, we are able to heal it and bring it into the light through the harmony of music. Athanasius went on to say:

“Just as we discover the ideas of the soul and communicate them through the words we put forth, so also the Lord, wishing the melody of the words to be a symbol of the harmony in a soul, has ordered that the odes be chanted tunefully, and the Psalms recited with a song…In this way that which is disturbing and rough and disorderly in it is smoothed away, and that which causes grief is healed when we sing the psalms.”

And so, dear sisters and brothers, if you ever feel like your soul is in chaos, like the various pieces of your person are in conflict with one another, then turn to song. Sing the psalms, some hymns, or your favourite pop song. When you bring the grief of your disorderly condition into the harmony of song you heal it. So sing with all your heart. Let the music pierce you to the depths of your being and draw forth from the hidden wealth of nature inside you a blessing for yourself and for everyone who hears melody. Sing with the angels and embody the will of God.

I have written a book called Psalter of the Birds which includes a large selection of historical Celtic poetry (and other texts) and arranges so that they can be chanted. Music and instructions are included. It also explores this idea from Athanasius and other insights into the spirituality of psalmody. You can purchase a copy from our books pages by clicking HERE.

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