There are several debates that have arisen amongst Christians of many stripes over the course of centuries which never seem to get fully resolved. (One reason for this seems to be schism: When a party of believers separates from the larger body of believers, it often reopens old “issues” or causes old arguments to be re-litigated. This is a major argument against schism.) One of these points of debate is the legitimacy of poetic hymnography.
The Church’s use of poetic hymnography was rather sparse for the first half-millennium of its existence. It is often thought that the Psalter formed the basic hymn-/prayer-book of the Church. But the use of psalmody was also, by later standards, sparse. The Church’s liturgy was fairly simple and conservative – not in the “free church” sense, but in that it did not yet possess the complicated rubrics and effusive repertoire that characterized the Church after the 9th century.
The rise of monasticism gave rise to the extensive use of the Psalter as the basic prayer book of devotion. Previously, psalms were used thematically, selected for their appropriateness to this or that celebration (e.g. Psalm 109/110 and the Incarnation; or select verses were used). With the development of the Divine Office of prayer-hours and coenobitic monastic life came the continuous recitation of the Psalter. Few, if any, hymns were sung in monasteries, with a general sense of suspicion toward singing.
Interestingly enough, it is within the monasteries later that the great flowering of hymnography arose and spread to the “secular” churches, to the delight of the faithful, since it added a wider musical and rhythmic palette to the long night-vigils. Enter the debate: to sing or not to sing; to use poetic hymnography or just the Psalter.
This debate has been repeated at various times in history, most notably among the Calvinist Reformed churches, which advocate using only the Psalter (in paraphrased, metered versions, I hasten to add, yet with deliciously beautiful French and Scottish melodies – the latter which have had an indelible influence on American folk hymnody and later popular forms of music). The Eastern Orthodox response was an unequivocal Yes to singing and poetry. A huge Yes, in fact. Singing was – is –seen as a tool, a thing of beauty, a way to “sweeten” the medicine of prayer and teaching and penitence. Poetry is seen as a way to elucidate clearly and forthrightly the teaching of the Gospel, which in the Psalter and Old Testament in general is given only in figure.
The great proliferation of poetic hymnography occurred in conjunction with the defeat of iconoclasm and the subsequent full-flowering of iconographic practice and theory (What an awful word!). Interestingly enough, the Church has always used hymnography to illumine her teaching. When Arianism was raging and using folk-hymns to disseminate its teaching, St. Ambrose countered by teaching orthodox hymns to his flock. In the Latin Church, a great flowering of hymnography occurred during the Middle Ages, when European culture was at a nadir and lack of education rampant. The Reformation was accompanied by renewal of church singing. The converse is also true: When the Church experiences decadence, it is often its music and poetry which is at the vanguard of its manifestation.
It is my opinion that this latter fact reveals the need for a balance between poetry and psalmody. The psalms and canticles provide the Church with her basic vocabulary. This is the language of our Hebrew inheritance and of the New Testament, for we understand Jesus – His life, Passion and Resurrection – “according to the Scriptures,” as St. Paul says. It gives us literary tools and guides (canons, if you will) for speaking of God and His economy of salvation, even as sacred icons are painted using a somewhat narrow language of form and color and expression. This helps, in part, to keep us from a banal and slavish literalism as well as over-fanciful allegorism and too-clever intellectualism. With such safeguards, there is room to believe when in a skeptical and critical age, and to think and ponder when in an age of credulity and easy answers. We speak of Christ and His saints and the great works of faith using the ages-old language and images of Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jonah. We add to them Joachim and Anna, Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Peter and Paul, James and John. But we don’t stop there, because life doesn’t stop there, meaning that God doesn’t stop there. We append Thecla and Dionysius, Polycarp and Ignatius, Cyprian and Martin, Nicholas and Spyridon, Anthony and Mary, Gregories galore, Innocent, Herman, Olga…
Often in church life, it has become normal to allow the great body of hymnography to suffocate the infra-structure of psalmody. But this must be resisted. The psalms and canticles, just as much as the pericopes and parables of scripture themselves, form our thought-life. Without knowing them in prayer and praise, we will soon lose our understanding of the hymns, too. Even as some have argued that the Church must breathe with its two lungs of East and West, so the liturgy must breath with its two lungs of scripture and hymnography.