We have had a bit of a correspondence with Alice the violinist from Manhattan, our interlocutor and friend in Back Beat and Back Beat 2. As we have pointed out, Alice is most definitely not Alice and she’s definitely not from Manhattan. We have delayed replying to her because of the delicacy of the issues of personal health that she raises in her emails below. However, we think that we are now in a position to reply to her. Her emails also follow on from our previous posts since they again concern issues in converting to the Orthodox Church. We will again post the emails—edited for grammar, syntax and style—and then reply in the next post.
Subject: From the classical musician who wrote to your blog
To: Orthodox Monk
Thank you again for your answer. I was very relieved and happy to hear your wise words and I am very grateful for you for answering my questions. If you still have time to help me in my journey I would be most grateful but I understand completely if this subject has taken too much of your time.
I know that one of the reasons that I have thoughts that music is somehow sinful and does not lead to God and maybe even leads people to idolatry, is that I am not yet a member of the Orthodox Church. Because of that I have no one to rely on in regard to questions like this. It would really mean a lot to me if I could find some spiritual father who could help me with my spiritual life. But this is a question of me, not of you I suppose.
As you probably understand, the Internet is full of all sorts of stuff and sites like this list of the passions by St Peter of Damascus, where ‘flute-playing’ is listed as one of the passions. This does not make me feel comfortable in the least. There are also other sayings of Saints and Church Fathers against ‘secular’ instrumental music. As I wrote to you before, I think that this is due to the fact that in the time of St Peter of Damascus flute-playing was something quite different from flute-playing in our time. The same probably goes also for other famous sayings of Church Fathers condemning instrumental music. But of course I am not sure of this. I read that some Canon of Hippolytus even forbids the Church to baptize a music teacher(!) but nowadays I think, as you wrote, that music is even thought of as something good (or maybe it’s better to say ‘good music is even thought of as something good ’ where what is good is a matter of spiritual discernment, just as you wrote). I think this is because music has changed, not because Tradition has changed. Tradition has always been the same (‘Music that arouses passions is bad whereas music that calms and soothes us and perhaps draws us nearer to God is good’). The only thing I’ve understood is that in Orthodox Church the Tradition and the Holy Canons are not understood in legal terms but more as a guide to Christian life and ascesis. I hope I have understood this correctly. I might also answer to this that I might possibly understand this better as a member of the Church. But as I said, I don’t know and maybe this is something I would want to study more.
As for my questions, if you have time I would like to ask you what the difference is between the sentiments and the passions. You wrote about the sentiments, how we Westerners are used to thinking of Christianity as being only about the sentiments. Are emotions and passions the same thing?
I quite often have the feeling that good music can teach us a small bit of truth. It is not the Truth but it can at least maybe lead people closer to Truth.
As Fr Seraphim Rose of Platina wrote, music can warm the soul; as St Barsanuphius of Optina wrote, ‘When you have children, teach them music. But of course real music—angelic music, not dances and songs. Music assists the development of spiritual perception. The soul becomes refined. It begins to understand spiritual music as well.’ I also think that Theophan the Recluse also said things similar to this. Of this, however, I am again not fully sure.
Perhaps I am not totally wrong in thinking that this means ‘good music’, which nowadays (maybe not at the time of Fathers?) can also be instrumental music or songs not specifically composed for liturgical use in the Church. The exhortation of St Basil to young men concerning Greek literature comes to mind as it says ‘There is also good music that David, the Sacred Psalmist, used.’ Tradition also reports that Pythagoras, by changing the melodic scale of the flautist that was leading a merry-making, changed the mood of a drunk crowd so that they became ashamed and went back home. (Quotations not exact but in my own words since I don't have the source here at the moment)
This is a very big question in my life and has been for quite a number of years already and, as I wrote before, I have never got an answer that fully satisfied me. This is maybe except for your answers and some quotations I've read from Elder Porphyrios (who said that music is good but spiritual chanting better, if I understood right) and Seraphim Rose and some Optina Elders. That the answers don't satisfy me, I think, can be also due to pride and thinking that I know better than everyone else.
I am the most grateful for you for letting me write these words to you. I don't remember whether I told you before but I suffer from panic attacks and from depression and I see a therapist for that condition. I know that one of the reasons behind all these doubts is that condition. That and a promise I once made to God, during one of my first panic attacks, that if this terrible feeling goes away, I will do for God anything He wants me to do. For this I am at the same time both afraid (for not doing what He wants from me) and not afraid (since I trust that He will lead me if I try to find His meaning for my life).
As for the last paragraph, I don't think was absolutely necessary for your blog and maybe these kind of things would be more suitable for confession than writing in email since I understand that your blog is more of common things than questions concerning spiritual health of people.
I just wanted to say that so that I can be honest. I am not crazy and I hope that you will not worry about me; I just hope that maybe someone like me and with questions like me, will find at least some answers while reading your lovely blog.
Thank you once more and I honestly hope that I have not been of a trouble to you.
Best regards from Manhattan,
Subject: From the classical musician who wrote to your blog
To: Orthodox Monk
Thank you once more.
Yes, I am a violin player and teacher here in Manhattan. I’ve been playing chamber music all my life and I’ve been a teacher for a number of years.
When I wrote to you about suffering from panic attacks and depression, if it somehow is needed or helpful for your answer, I really don’t mind if you mention it. I just meant that perhaps that is not what your blog is all about if I’ve understood rightly. I had the feeling that your blog is more about issues that are of a more universal type than personal problems such as my health. Of this I am not sure of as well. Of course it would be of greatest help if you can help me with that question as well but as I mentioned it most certainly is not something that I ask from you.
What I was trying to write in that rather messy ending of my email was that it may help you to understand why I am being almost obsessive about this matter of music. I want to write both that I really respect your answers and that I don’t keep on asking the same questions again and again because of distrust or disbelief or, even worse, lack of respect. No, it is because of my problems.
Still, at the same time I have the feeling that somehow it is because of pride that I won’t give up thinking all the time about music and questions about its dangers in regard to my becoming a member of the Orthodox Church and in regard to my wish to get a bit closer to God. I sometimes feel that if even God Himself were to say to me that no one is going to tell me to stop being a musician and a music teacher, I would not believe Him. This is actually the feeling I get when I pray for God to help me [that no one is going to tell me to stop]. But again, I am not sure about the answers I receive in prayer and for that reason I seek outside assistance on the matter. My prayer answer is a feeling I get that somehow my place in the world is in music. For that I seek to find help from the Church, to find trust and not to get lost in my own thoughts and feelings.
That I don’t really trust anyone, I think, is pride and for that I seek help from the Church. Maybe some day I will find at least some trust again. Maybe that is what the ascetical struggle is about.
Again I’m sorry for writing to you such a long and personal message. It is just as I’ve said that I don’t have any spiritual father to write to and the monastery is so far away from Manhattan that it would be hard to get there. That is also because I work as a musician all the time including weekends and I really do not have much time, which is most certainly not good. Maybe some day.
I am the most thankful to you,