Athanasius: Singing as a Spiritual Discipline--great article


This is a link to one of the best articles I've ever read in Christianity Today, and I hope that many of you will read it and find it interesting and encouraging.

The article is based mainly on the teachings of Athanasius, who taught that "singing is a spiritual discipline, an important practice in Christian spiritual formation and a means of growing in the life of the faith."

Often here on CAF, people state that they don't sing during the Mass, and give various reasons. One of the reasons I see most often is that "they don't sing well and they don't want to bother other people around them." Others state that they don't find the songs and hymns acceptable.

This article will challenge those thought patterns.


I like the article, Cat.
Now can you send it to every pastor and RCIA leader in the nation? :slight_smile:

…In the fourth century, the church father Athanasius (293–376) articulated a different understanding of singing. It includes self-expression, but Athanasius believed singing is centrally a spiritual discipline—an important practice in Christian spiritual formation, and a means of growing in the life of faith

…In singing, the truth of the Psalms is drawn into the depths of one’s being rather than out of the depths of one’s being…

…For Athanasius, the first virtue of the Psalms is not that they allow me to express my emotions. Rather, singing the Psalms makes it possible for me to express Moses’ or David’s emotions as my own (“as if they were his own songs”). Singing is first of all an act of imitating. I take another person’s words, another person’s declaration, on my own lips and into my own heart. For Athanasius, singing begins as impression rather than as expression…

P.S. Isn’t it amazing that we are still learning from and being inspired by our spiritual leaders from so so many centuries ago?


Good article. I have always felt that singing was a conduit between the earthly realm and spiritual realm, because with certain music that I sing, I am brought to this spiritual ecstasy which is like no other earthly feeling in the world.

Too often, I've heard people say (including myself) that they don't want to sing out as a congregant at mass because they don't want to be viewed as "showing off" or have been told that they are "too passionate" when they sing and should tone it down. Honestly, I think that is such a wrong way of viewing singing, even though I've been guilty of it myself. People should sing with passion and with gusto, even if they don't sing well and even if there will be people who will wrongly judge them because of it. One person I know is an older gentleman and sings out because he was tired of not hearing anyone sing even after they were invited to sing. So, he sings out hoping that more people around him would sing, yet he has received criticism for doing what everyone else should be doing.

Now, sometimes, one needs to listen more than sing to receive the spiritual nourishment that they need. I know that sometimes I need this. Sometimes it's because I might be too tired, sometimes it might be because I am hurting too much to sing and to just listen provides just the right kind of spiritual nourishment that I need. Sometimes, because not all music is equal, the music is just so "out of harmony" with my spiritual needs that to sing would actually put me out of sync with God. It would and has created a "dissonant soul" rather than a "harmonious soul" in tune with God, as described in the article... and what a wonderful way of describing it.

In general, though, I do think singing the mass, rather than singing at the mass would be such a good exercise in developing that harmonious aspect of our spiritual lives.


Interesting Points, and Athanasius is my favorite Saint.

Sarabande, you've given me a lot to think about. Sometimes I just love to stop singing and to listen to the singing. One of my piano students is a boy I met because at 7 I could not believe the passion, and joy, he had while singing the Gloria. Ohhhhh that we would all sing with the joy that children have when they sing. :)


Thank you, Cat.


I like to sing, and I do sing at mass (although not the melody; I usually improvise a bass line), but my voice has deteriorated over the past few years, and it hurts my throat to sing above a sotto voce. Now I do my real singing through my ocarinas and my euphonium. Pity there’s no place for those at Mass.


[quote="Cat, post:1, topic:329418"]

This is a link to one of the best articles I've ever read in Christianity Today, and I hope that many of you will read it and find it interesting and encouraging.


Thank you so much!!!!!! :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :thumbsup:

This article is the first time I've seen someone put into words what I've always sensed in my heart. Now I know I'm really not that weird after all :)


I sympathize with this. My husband suffers from acalasia, and it truly hurts him to sing for more than a few measures. Yet, he sings as much as he can. I hope you continue to sing quietly as long as you can. There are a lot of people in nursing homes who can’t sing at all. :frowning:

But this response is to remind us all that people don’t have to sing to be actively involved in the congregational singing. Just opening the hymnal and nodding along with the words is fine. Having an “engaged” facial expression is great.

All too often, people don’t even bother to look at the hymn, and the expression of the face seems to communicate that they are receiving a painful medical procedure.

And even when children have been taught to sing with enthusiasm, when week after week they see their parents, grandparents, or any adults standing mute and often surly (at least, that’s how it appears to the children) during the Mass, the children eventually begin to imitate their elders, and that’s how this deplorable practice of Catholics not singing becomes entrenched.

I really hope this article helps people on CAF from both camps (singers vs. non-singers) to realize that singing is not just a “Protestant innovation.” The article was immensely helpful to me personally.

BTW, its’ really hard for an organist or a pianist to play a hymn with all our heart to a mute congregation. It’s like trying to break through a steel wall with a stick. :banghead:


I agree with the first part, but I don’t think we should assume that a person is not being engaged in a positive way due to a person’s facial expression. There are plenty of times when I’ve heard such a gorgeously sublime piece of music that I close my eyes and I know that my face probably doesn’t look like I’m happy. In addition, there have been times when I’ve been in a performance either actually performing it or being an audience member, seeing people’s faces and thinking that they were not enjoying the concert/recital - looking like they were going through a painful, medical procedure, only to discover afterwards that they were completely moved and touched by the performance. So, my point is not to assume anything just by what we see.

I do agree with this. My parents always sang at mass and I followed suit. My sister and brother, didn’t, though. :frowning: But we do have to understand that the culture of not singing at mass isn’t a new one. If you’ve read “Why Catholics Can’t Sing”, you see how entrenched this idea of not singing at the mass is within Catholicism - especially in the U.S. - and it has been like this for generations long before Vatican II, even before Vatican I, if you take into account the Irish Catholics who came here during the potato famine. It can be a very difficult habit to break. Older people I know have told me that in the 40s and 50s, boys were never allowed to sing in the choirs. Only the girls. The boys were expected to be altar boys. So think about the generations in which boys and men were basically taught that you don’t sing at mass… that it was only a “girl-thing”. It’s no wonder you hardly see men and boys sing at mass today.

As a cradle Catholic, I can tell you what I thought when I saw hardly anyone singing at mass. I never thought they looked surly. I just thought they didn’t like singing and that was ok since not everyone likes to do the same thing. People not saying anything during the responses always seemed strange to me, but when I learned more about the history of our Church and the mass, it occurred to me that the older generations perhaps did not get into it as much because they grew up with the EF mass where you really didn’t say or sing much. Then you had the generation underneath of them who grew up with the EF and came of age with the OF and some still kept to their old ways and then it got passed down to the generation ahead of me, then mine and subsequent generations. The Church is not fast with things and neither are her people. When you’ve been doing things one way for thousands of years, it’s going to take a while to change. I mean, I still hear the same older people at mass say the old responses and prayers and I suspect I’ll hear them until they die out and these younger ones become adults.

True, but historically-speaking, the Protestants were the ones who have always been known for their singing-congregations. Certain kinds of Catholics (like German Catholics) were known for it as well, but many other cultures within the Catholic faith were not. It was often always left to the choirs to sing… not the congregation… especially when we only had the EF. Again, generations of doing something one way and now trying to change it up. It can be hard to break an extremely old habit.


I do. My wife can sing out, and even with me singing sotto voce, she and I are usually the loudest ones in our quadrant of the congregation.


BTW, its’ really hard for an organist or a pianist to play a hymn with all our heart to a mute congregation. It’s like trying to break through a steel wall with a stick. :banghead:

As a former Pentecostal and SoBap pianist and music minister, I can dig it, although there usually wasn’t any problem getting those congregations to sing. I haven’t mentioned this, but bless you for your hard work in learning to play the organ. Even if sometimes it does feel like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time :stuck_out_tongue:


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