A ‘Small Entrance’ into Orthodox Christian Sacred Music: Part Two – The Songs of Men

By Benedict Sheehan on July 7, 2012
  1. A ‘Small Entrance’ into Orthodox Christian Sacred Music: Part One -The Song of the Angels
  2. A ‘Small Entrance’ into Orthodox Christian Sacred Music: Part Two – The Songs of Men

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden – Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily

The Fathers of the Church teach that, before the Fall, Adam was like an angel. In his being, Adam was to be the bridge between the visible and the invisible creations — containing elements of both within himself — and was intended, through loving obedience to God, to raise up the visible and material creation to become a participant in the everlasting angelic hymn to the Creator. Thus, through Adam, there was to be one thunderous sound of praise in all creation, visible and invisible. But Satan, envious of what was to be Adam’s honored position — the one which he himself had formerly enjoyed — seduced Adam and his wife, Eve, into participating in his own rebellion against God. And how did he seduce them? By persuading them to seek beauty, pleasure, glory, and knowledge through the creation alone and not through their, and its, Maker.

Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You shall not die by death. For God knows in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree beautiful to contemplate, she took the fruit and ate. She also gave it to her husband with her, and he ate. [1]

Contained in this brief passage are so many of the aspirations of mankind, both the highest — to be like a god, to have perfect knowledge, to contemplate beauty — and the lowest — to avoid death, to eat, to entertain the eyes. And yet, though God would surely have given them all these things and so much more in due time, Adam and Eve chose to steal them for themselves in disobedience to God’s commandment, seeking their life instead from the material creation. And what was the result? The answer in Genesis is surprising:

Then the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. [2]

For the first time since their creation, and as the immediate result of the Fall, Adam and Eve are seen making something for themselves rather than receiving something that God has made. And why did they need to make something? Because they realized that they were naked — that is, they realized they were deprived of the grace of God which had hitherto covered them in warmth and beauty, both physically and spiritually [3] — and so they required artifice, however clumsy and inadequate, to cover their shame.

This event, I contend, is a watershed moment, for contained in it is the genesis of man’s ‘creativity,’ the birth of ‘man as maker,’ of the homo faber. And furthermore, I maintain that this moment, the moment of the Fall, also reveals the underlying meaning of why man first began to make: sensing his lack of divine grace — whether felt as an outward practical necessity or a more profound inward spiritual emptiness — man was driven to fashion for himself artificial ways to clothe his nakedness.


As we continue to follow the generations from Adam after the Fall we encounter a list of the descendants of Cain, who after having murdered his brother “went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod opposite Eden” [4]. In a state of profound estrangement from God, Cain’s descendants show us a proliferation of men who are identified principally as makers of things: Cain “built a city” [5]; Jabal was ”the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” [6];  Jubal ”invented the psaltery and harp” [7]; Tubal-cain was a ”smith and a manufacturer of bronze and iron” [8]. The Prophet Moses [9] seems here to particularly emphasize the fact that these early forefathers are to be known by what they made. Indeed, for many of them this is all we know about them.

The importance of this cannot be overstated, for it pertains directly to the work of liturgical musicians and to all liturgical artists generally. Contained in this list of forefathers and makers is the well-known figure of Jubal, who is held to have invented musical instruments. Jubal is listed here alongside other men who made things, useful things, and the reader is intended, I think, to take Jubal and his musical craft together with things like the building of cities and the manufacture of bronze and iron. In this context, the craft of Jubal is to be understood as something both purely functional and absolutely necessary for fallen human existence. Just as cities and tents are necessary for shelter, as livestock are necessary for food, as bronze and iron are necessary for agriculture and self-defense, so music is identified here as somehow necessary for the fallen state of man’s soul.

And is this not so? What immense power music possesses! From the beginning of history until now mankind has used music to ease his labors and to soothe — or inflame — his passions: work songs in the fields to pass the time and keep the work moving steadily; love songs and dances to kindle the flame of desire; laments to give an outlet for grief; ballads and epics to keep old stories alive and to create culture; songs and musical games to teach and entertain children; the list is endless. In the psycho-physical realm, music performs an irreplaceable role in helping mankind cover his fallen nakedness. It is a palliative, an aphrodisiac, an opiate, and it is useful in remediating the symptoms of man’s fallen condition.

But just as plowshares can be beaten once again into swords, so music can be converted from a tool into something more like a weapon. As homo faber ascends in his pride through technological achievement, subjugating more and more of mankind (and the rest of creation) to the whims and passions of a few, music has also tended to become in our modern age a technology by which man’s power over man might be extended. A list of such examples might begin more or less innocuously — television commercials and Muzak in stores, precisely calculated to befog our discursive reasoning so that we’re more inclined to buy things; radio in every office, factory, or car to smooth out the rough patches in a modern worker’s day and make him more content with his lot; earbuds in every ear, whether on the street, the subway, behind a lawnmower, or in the gym, which help shut out the clamor and drudgery of modern life; dramatic scores in every film, TV show, and online video, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) crafted to tell the viewer exactly how to react emotionally to every scene — but it ends on a more sinister note, with ”classical music detentions” in British public schools in which children are ”subjected” (their words) to classical music as a form of behavior modification [10], and even music as a form of psychological torture, such as was reportedly done during some of the infamous Guantanamo interrogations of terrorism suspects [11].


All that we have discussed so far — from the obvious benefits of musical artifice to the extremes of its destructive uses — all may be summed up under the heading of secular music: the music invented by mankind in response to his loss of divine grace and as a product of his fallen necessities and passions. Such music, however useful, beneficial (in a worldly sense), or inevitable it may be, stands in utter contrast to the heavenly archetype of music in the singing of the angels. There, love and devotion towards God are the sole aim, while here, man and his passions — whether exalted or base — are the main object of concern. In distinguishing secular music from sacred music in this way, I am not speaking of accidental qualities or mere differences of intent — i.e., that music becomes sacred or secular simply by being used in a religious or non-religious context, as some maintain — but I am making an ontological distinction. Sacred music is the singing of the angels, while secular music is all that mankind can produce as a result of his estrangement from God.

The question that now presents itself is, how to bridge the gap? If there is, as a result of the Fall, an ontological divide between the songs of angels and men, how can we men ever hope to offer fitting hymns to God? This dilemma has afflicted mankind since Adam and Eve first wept outside the gates of Paradise, lifting up their voices in the midst of a silent sea of spiritual darkness. However, in the last lines of Genesis 4 we see the beginning of a resolution. After the firstborn Cain, in imitation of the ancient serpent, had murdered his younger brother out of envy, Eve conceives and gives birth to Seth, saying:

‘God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed.’ As for Seth, to him also a son was born. He named him Enosh, and he hoped in the Lord God and called upon His name. [12]

In the person of Seth, so the Church Fathers teach, mankind is given a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ, the new seed, and of His victory over death. From Seth, a new line is born in Enosh — Abel having no seed, and Cain’s sons being cursed — who is a type for all those who have been born of Christ through Baptism. And now, for the first time since the Fall, we see it written that someone ”hopes in the Lord God and calls upon His name.” This, I contend, is the beginning of the restoration of sacred music in mankind, and a foreshadowing of the Church’s liturgical worship.

For Orthodox believers, therefore, the answer to our dilemma is clear: the ontological divide between heavenly and earthly song is overcome by Christ’s Incarnation and the rest of His saving economy. By participation in Him through Baptism and the mysteries of the Church, mankind receives once again the grace necessary to lift up his spiritual voice in harmony with the angels. Without this purifying, illumining, and perfecting grace afforded us through Christ’s Body, the Church, the songs of men will ever be in discord with the pure hymnody of the angels, contaminated as they are by passions and by our fallen self-centeredness. Without grace true sacred music is impossible for mankind to achieve. As the Lord says, ”Which of you by worrying [i.e., by your own anxious exertion of effort] can add one cubit to his stature” [13].

However, simply receiving grace is not in itself sufficient for us. An ascetical struggle to retain and to multiply the grace that we receive is also required, and herein lies the real work of the church singer. I spoke about this some in the previous chapter, but there is another dimension to the struggle that must be identified: the work of acquiring discernment. For all of us human beings, a life lived in the passions and experienced wholly on the psycho-physical plane comes without any effort at all — it is our ”default mode” by virtue of the Fall. However, a spiritual life in communion with God comes about within us only by intense and bitter warfare against our fallen nature, the ”old man,” with the constant help of divine grace. The same holds true in music. A psycho-physical experience of music that thrives on the movements of the passions — whether high or low — is something very easy for all of us to attain. But a truly spiritual experience of sacred music, whether one is a conductor, a singer, or just a listener, takes arduous ascetical labor to achieve — prayer, fasting, study, practice, watchfulness over the thoughts and emotions, holy fear, love.

Hence the need for discernment. All of us who have any connection with music in the Orthodox Church must take it as an imperative to learn to distinguish between an earthly or passionate experience of church music, and a heavenly or spiritual one. They are not the same, but one who lacks discernment may spend a lifetime mistaking the one for the other.


[1] Genesis 3: 4–6 (Orthodox Study Bible)

[2] Genesis 3: 7

[3] As St. John Damascene explains, ‘[In Paradise, man] had the indwelling God as a dwelling place and wore Him as a glorious garment. He was wrapped about with His grace, and, like some one of the angels, he rejoiced in the enjoyment of that one sweet fruit which is the contemplation of God, and by this he was nourished.’ (On the Orthodox Faith, 2: 11). But after the Fall, as St. John Chrysostom teaches, Adam and Eve ‘being deprived of the grace from on high for the transgression of the commandment, saw also their physical nakedness, so that from the shame that took hold of them they might understand into what an abyss they had been cast by the transgression of the Master’s commandment.’ (Homilies on Genesis, 16: 5)

[4] Genesis 4: 16. According to the Orthodox Study Bible, the name ‘Nod’ means ‘one who wanders away from God.’

[5] Genesis 4: 17

[6] Genesis 4: 20

[7] Genesis 4: 21

[8] Genesis 4: 22

[9] The Orthodox tradition holds that Moses is the author of Genesis, as well as the other four books of the Law. It is believed that Moses received knowledge of the first things—the creation of the world, the generations from Adam and what they did, etc.—by direct revelation when he spoke with God on Mount Sinai.

[10] See Weaponizing Mozart, Feb. 24, 2010

[11] See The Pain of Listening, Jan. 15, 2010

[12] Genesis 4: 25–26

[13] Matthew 6: 27


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  1. Mark Powell on July 13, 2012 at 2:14 am

    Dear Benedict,

    Thank you for your essay. The first section especially though has been troubling me, because it could be argued (and it has been) that the impulse to create is something of the image of God in human beings, and not an outcome of our fallen nature. This does not mean that human beings always create the good, as the Lord God did in the beginning, but that humans creating is something God-given, an aspect that makes us distinct from the rest of Creation, both before and after the Fall. What we create, on the other hand, is not always uniformly good, as a result of the fall.

    It also seems that your essay implies that Adam and Eve did not live from or interact with the material world that God made for them, somehow subsisting from purely spiritual food; I suspect you may not have intended a sort of dualism to be part of your argument.

    Finally, on the last topic, it is difficult to judge what makes one musical idiom “closer to that of the angels” than another. Principally we hold to traditions passed on to us, and for modern Orthodox, that can mean a host of alternatives. For one person a certain kind of sacred music might be the highest expression of the angels and for another, the basest perversion.

    Mark Powell

  2. Benedict Sheehan on July 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Mark! I appreciate a careful reader. Let me respond to your three points in order.

    1.) I accept your criticism regarding this point — I was unclear in my presentation of man’s creativity. The point I am driving at is that the first instance of man as maker mentioned in Scripture is an immediate result of the Fall. However, you must be right that the underlying impulse to create is God-given and connected to the divine image within man. I am not trying to say that creativity itself is necessarily fallen, but I do think the fact that Genesis presents human creativity in such close connection with the Fall — and not once, but numerous times, as the generations from Cain devolve — should give us pause. Creativity is much vaunted nowadays as being universally good, and so I want us to check this against Scripture, and realize that creativity, when it is not connected to a life in God, leads man to destructive ends. I was (and still am) planning to touch on this subject — i.e., how creativity can be sanctified — quite a bit more in Part Three, but forgive me for not being clearer here.

    2.) If I understand you, I think you are correct in saying that a spirit/matter dualism was not intended to be part of the argument. However, I’m not totally sure where you think I’m creating such a dualism. Perhaps it is the line, “seeking their life instead from the material creation”? If so, I meant this to imply the material creation alone, apart from God, as I said in the previous paragraph. However, maybe this wasn’t clear.

    3.) As for your last point, this is very difficult to answer. On the one hand, I agree that, since the singing of the angels is above human experience and therefore impossible to precisely convey in human song, there are necessarily many modes of translating it, as it were. On the other hand, I do not agree that this makes it purely relative and open to opposing interpretations. I think Scripture and Orthodox tradition make a strong case for believing that the singing of the angels is something concrete, empirical, and accessible (by God’s will) to human perception.

    Take for example the story of the origin of the Trisagion Hymn [http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2008/10/origin-of-trisagion-hymn.html], or the story of the origin of Axion Estin [http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/06/revelation-of-hymn-axion-estin-by.html].

    It is clear from both of these examples — and many others besides –that the singing of the angels is something that humans can learn, albeit imperfectly, and can transmit in musical tradition. Now this is not to say that an actual melody must necessarily be enshrined in the tradition as the only angelic way of singing a hymn (though in Byzantine chant, this sometimes actually happens). Rather, I am saying that in Orthodox tradition, where actual experience of the heavenly realms is an ongoing reality in the lives of holy people, there exists a sort of mysterious criterion by which melodies may be judged — over time and with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit — whether they are in accordance with this experience. (Read Andrew Gould’s essay on the synthesis of the liturgical arts.) Am I making sense? The point is that human sensibilities are not the standard by which angelic song is discerned to be present or not in a given musical idiom, but rather it is the saints’ genuine experience of heaven, and this experience preserved in Orthodox artistic tradition, that constitutes the standard. Though certain details of execution and style may differ from culture to culture and from epoch to epoch, I think there exists at the core of the Orthodox musical tradition a living and concrete connection to the singing of the angels.

    Forgive me — I am struggling to express something that I may not ever fully understand, so I hope you will bear with me!

    • Tanya Penkrat on July 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm

      Dear Benedict

      I think I understood your point of humans as creators. On the one hand for fallen humans, creativity is indeed a God-given gift to help man cope in this fallen world. But as all gifts, it can be directed to greater and closer association with God or it can lead to arrogance and human pride leading away from God.

      On the foundational level creativity in this fallen world, is a compensation or a pale substitute for creativity within the Creativity of God that Man was supposed to be part of. Saints, who DO participate in the Creativity of God via their life in Christ, end up not needing the gadgets fallen man creates, as he is able to move through time and space, heal, provide food, heat, knowledge and other human needs through the gifts and creativity of God. In other words, our physical limitations that we try to overcome through our creations could easily be overcome through sanctity.

      • Benedict Sheehan on July 22, 2012 at 11:32 pm

        Beautifully said, Tanya! I agree completely.

  3. Jonathan Pageau on July 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Dear Benedict.

    What a wonderful article. I am very attuned to what you are saying and am wondered a bit. I am in fact working on my next article for the OAJ on the subject of the Fall, the garments on skins and human activity as a reaction to the death. I was intending to use the very same image you have used from Palermo! The subject of the Garments of Skins is a less known aspect of patristic writing but in my opinion is very key to understanding the contemporary world. Panayiotis Nellas has written a wonderful book on the subject called “Deification in Christ” (published in English by SVS) that I highly recommend to anybody interested in the arts or human activity in general and their role in the deification of man. I can understand the criticism you have received, because it is a bit disturbing at first to see the role of the Fall in human creativity, but the key can be found in our our most known Paschal song… “Christ had risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”, that is deification occurs when death is turned against itself, flipped over and transformed into light. And so we should not fear to find death at the origin of human creativity. In the mystery of God’s plan, just as the thorns that resulted from the Fall were placed as a crown on Christ’s head, so our garments of skin will be changed into glory through the grace of our Lord.

  4. Benedict Sheehan on July 22, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Thank for your eloquent comment, Jonathan. I expected that you, of all people would really grasp the significance of what I’m trying to say here. I read your article, The Recovery of the Arts, and realized that we were both exploring similar territory. I am quite familiar with Nellas’ book and admire it very much — but thank you for reminding me of its applicability in this case. I will have another look at it. As for your point about the Christ’s overcoming of death being the key to the redemption of human creativity, I am totally in line with your thinking. This is to be, in part, the subject of my next article. I look forward to reading your future posts!

  5. Eugene Fitzpatrick on July 25, 2012 at 12:58 am

    This is a very gripping article. I have heard before from priests that mankind’s creative engery is not always used as it may have been in Eden. Arrestingly, when one considers the continual and virtually limitless creative ways in which man invents ways of doing evil, our wholesale lauding of creativitiy seems patently unbalanced. Thank you for this series.

  6. epiklesis on September 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm

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