The easiest thing to do is to respond to specific passages of Alice’s two emails.
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.
The problem is not so much our time, although we often delay because we are preoccupied, but the issue of our not being the appropriate person to answer some of the questions we receive, and the Internet not being the appropriate place to solve intensely personal issues—not to mention that some of the issues raised in this and other emails are actually quite difficult.
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.
Spiritual direction, counselling and fatherhood have to happen face-to-face; they can’t happen—for a variety of reasons, including the lack of confidentiality in email—over the Internet. Admittedly it is hard to find a good Orthodox spiritual father at any time, and especially in countries that have only a minority Orthodox population. However, it is impossible to engage in a serious personal discussion by email: in the very nature of things there is a great deal of filtering that goes on so that it is very hard to get a sense of who exactly the stranger is who has approached you by email. This is true not only of Alice but of all our interlocutors who approach Orthodox Monk. We, Orthodox Monk, really do not feel that we are getting a full image of anyone who sends us an email. Perhaps a great saint with gifts of clairvoyance might be able to handle such a ministry but we cannot. Hence we discourage our blog readers from expecting us to guide them. Alice quite rightly and quite sensibly does not expect that from us but we want to say this clearly for the sake of all of our respected blog readers.
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.
As we understand it, in pagan times music was used in pagan rituals which verged on debauchery, apart from the fact that they were devil worship. Flute-playing was part of that. So when we see flute-playing in such a list as this we are really encountering an ancient attitude to pagan ritual. It might be similar today to consider what a pious Orthodox reaction might be to heavy metal with satanic lyrics. However, we doubt that playing a Bach partita on the violin is to be considered in the same light.
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.
It’s a little more complicated. While Roman Catholicism developed in a very legalistic way, especially in the work of Thomas Aquinas, and while Tradition is properly defined in the Orthodox Church as the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, we cannot completely relativize the canons. However, we can certainly look at what they were intended to accomplish when they were formulated and consider whether the same conditions obtain today. We personally think that in cases where there is not a serious moral issue—say, abortion—then a case can be made for flexibility in the application of the canons given different circumstances today. Certainly if there is a canon of Hippolytus that one should not baptize a music teacher (we do not know), surely today one would be flexible if someone approached for baptism who was teaching little kids to play the violin so they could play Bach.
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.
It is true that some things we understand better having entered the Church.
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?
We think that this is important. In the West, since the day of Thomas Aquinas especially, one thinks that there is only the intellect and the emotions. In the Orthodox spiritual tradition there is the intellect and the emotions and the heart as the spiritual centre of the person. In the West, if one is not intellectual he is emotional—in the good or neutral sense. In the Orthodox Church when one is spiritual he is not necessarily either intellectual or emotional. This issue crops up in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, since in the Orthodox Church the Fathers speak of bringing the mind into the heart there to practice the Jesus Prayer. In terms of Western received psychology this makes no sense whatsoever and can only be interpreted as an emotional or sentimental practice of the Jesus Prayer with a mental concentration on the region of the heart. But that is not what is meant. What is meant is that the person enters consciously into the heart as into their spiritual centre, not their emotional centre. Now the person who brings the mind into the heart does not cease to have an intellect and emotions, and these are harnessed to the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the spiritual centre of the person.
The connection between the sentiments, or emotions, and the passions is this. The passions are the emotions directed towards vice, not virtue. The goal of the ascetic is to purify his emotions so that his emotions are directed to the virtues not to the vices. For every emotional drive in a person, there is a virtue and there is a vice. Fallen man has his emotions directed to the vices; the goal after baptism is to work to direct our emotions to the virtues. This is called ‘purifying the passions’.
Now when we say that Western music concentrates on the sentiments or emotions, what we mean is that Western music does not appeal to the spiritual part of the person centred in the heart as described briefly above, but to the emotions. In particular, demonic music works on the emotions to direct them to the vices, whereas healthier music works on the emotions to direct them towards virtue, or at least towards a greater serenity or even an Aristotelian tragic catharsis. Spiritual music would work more on the spiritual part of the person, so as to harmonize with raising the mind to God, either through the services of the Church or through the Jesus Prayer, or through prayer in a more general sense.
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.
While this should be understood in light of what is said just above, it should be recognized that in its main outlines 19th Century Russian religious music was actually Western classical romantic music.
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 should make sense in light of what is said above. It doesn’t surprise us that changing the melodic scale of the flute would change the mood of the drunken crowd. That is what we would expect.
I’m 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).
We are not professionally qualified to address this condition.
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.
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.
This is quite true for the reasons given above.
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 something that should be discussed face-to-face with the priest.
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.
Alice quite sensibly does not want to rely on her own discernment, and God will respect her for that, but as we pointed out the Internet is not the appropriate venue; a face-to-face meeting with a priest is the appropriate venue. For that reason we cannot go into as much detail as a priest might.
We hope that all goes well in your life, Alice. May God bless you.