Exhaustion, Grace, Sons, and Chanting…Not Necessarily In That Order

My dear readers,

Forgive the incoherence that follows; hopefully it explains itself.

We celebrated Epiphany a day early for various reasons. I botched the early part of the Liturgy; all the changeables threw me off and I grew more and more flustered and kicked a stack of offering plates accidentally and also knocked over a stool by backing into it during one of the Litanies. Both incidents caused a loud crash. At last I stood on the slight platform in the back of the room that is the choir director’s stand, utterly bewildered by the question of where to put the Kontakion. After a long silence, Fr. G began singing the service from memory. The choir followed him until I knew where I was again, and from there it went quite well. Fr. G says not to worry, this is my learning year.

We had a new tenor who has perfect pitch. I sang to his voice whenever I could hear it and it was a great pleasure. People who sing perfectly in pitch have a certain resonance to their voices, however quiet, that is denied to those of us who know not wither we tend, musically speaking. It’s as if the pitches recognized by musical theory are more friendly to our terranian air than are the pitches in between.

The second part of the service, although it was completely different from anything I’d done before, went very well and it was quite beautiful although, tragically, I missed actually seeing the part where the cross is dipped in the holy water, symbolizing the baptism of Christ. I think I am going to have to talk to the choir about rearranging the choir platform so that  everyone is at a ninety-degree angle to the altar instead of them facing it and me standing with my back to it. I don’t dare do it on my own authority as I am the youngest and newest member of the choir despite being the director. Actual authority is more important than positional authority.

I also want to put the men on one side and the women on the other, which is normal I believe, instead of having the men in back. But first I have to have a few choir seminars and teach them to sing as a choir instead of as individuals, and to not be afraid of one another’s voices. A choir is not really a choir as long as the members are afraid of the other parts “throwing them off.” When I was in Scott Brier’s choir, he mixed us up so that I was standing with only one other alto, and I had two basses behind me and two sopranos on one side and tenors on the other. All fifty of us were arranged in this way. I learned to harmonize with and not against the other voices. It is, as I mentioned, one of life’s great pleasures.

The Epiphany Liturgy had a number of Old Testament readings about water, some of which are favorites of mine (“Ho! Everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come buy and eat without money and without price…”) and I realized how much I have missed hearing the Old Testament scriptures. They are technically a part of the Liturgy, I believe, but because of the length of the service they have been left out of parish Sundays in actual practice. At least, I read that somewhere but I don’t remember my source so I may be wrong. Maybe if I went to other services I would hear them, but the half hour drive somehow seems to make it impossible to do so in actual practice.

My poor Scottie was out doing snow removal from about 5:00 last night until about noon today. He did sleep from 12:30am to 3:30am, though, so that’s one sleep cycle and he won’t be completely depleted. But definitely he’s tired. And yet I’m feeling more tired than he is. I slept this afternoon until Johnny woke me up with a series of loud booms produced by kicking his bedroom wall, meanwhile screaming something he obviously considered quite informative but which I have forgotten. Scottie stumbled out of bed to let him out because I, strangely enough, was incapacitated by exhaustion and shock and I couldn’t seem to get up or even see clearly. Johnny gathered his bunny, bear, and two blankets, and leapt upon our bed, his tiny lean body vibrating with joy. “Good night, Mama, Good night Daddy!” he said, and laid down for all of a second and a half before leaping up and shouting “Good Morning!” Scottie told him to be soft with his Mama, so Johnny put his nose right against mine and murmurred “Nana, Nana, Nana, I want food-ah!” Until I laughed in spite of myself. Then he began leaping on me in triumph and Scottie pulled him off and then Johnny began asking Scottie for food. Eventually we got up but it took me about an hour to become functional. I write this because it’s not normal; it makes me curious.

Why I should be so tired I don’t know. I was talking all month about whether Johnny needs a sibling and maybe my body took that as permission to get pregnant, although all the signs say no. Or maybe my guardian Angel is telling me I don’t need any of that. The mysteries of the feminine physique are deep indeed.

Right now Johnny is taking a rock for a walk around the living room in his stroller. I’m picturing his imaginary sibling in the rock’s place and wondering whether the benefits of Johnny having someone to play with would actually outweigh the devestation of giving birth, nursing, trying to take care of two small children at once, and the possibility of Johnny’s maiming said sibling for life before he was two years old.

Have I mentioned lately how adorable Johnny is? The more he terrorizes me, the more I dote on him. It’s pathetic. I just had more portraits taken of him, without his baby curls this time.

Old Blue Eyes Himself
Old Blue Eyes Himself

He’s really a good sweet kid, and as he is now sitting naked on the sofa experimenting with a clutch of D batteries, I figure I should go. There really wasn’t any point to the this post and for that I aplogize. Thanks for sharing my life for a few moments, and may God enrich yours with his grace and with every blessing. He’s a good God, and despite the failings of the flesh I seem to see that more clearly these days. As Fr. G says, the point of Orthodoxy is not to feel but to be. I don’t think it’s possible to change in one’s being without “feeling”, that is, sensing, something. But I think I know what he means. You cannot evaluate your spiritual progress on the basis of your emotions. The raging of the old man will part like the waters of the Red Sea before the least command of the Savior, and to someone who is seeking him that command seems to come just in time. And suddenly you find yourself doing the thing you thought you couldn’t and you wonder, “Where did that come from?”

Someday, as I promised Selena, I am going to do a video about chanting. I still don’t know that much about it but I think I’ve found out just enough to get someone started.

In the meantime, try singing the words of Psalm 23 all on one note. Except, at the end of a phrase go up one note or down one note, depending on the feeling that you sense in the phrase. (If you get used to this, you can try going up two notes or down two notes at the end of the phrase, this sounds much prettier.) Then return to the starting note and use it for the next phrase. Keep repeating this all the way through the Psalm. Sing without bellowing or pushing – just softly and gently let the sound come out. Use the normal rythms of speech. Stand before your icon or if you are not Orthodox and do not have an icon, stand anyways and look out the window or at a cross or something that will remind you who you are singing to. That is enough to start, and it is a much better way of reading the Psalms than simply sitting with your Bible on your knee. You can chant your daily prayers as well. Fair fortune!



  1. Thanks Alana, I enjoyed this post very much and will have a go at 23rd Psalm in the manner you suggest. Providentially, this is the Psalm I had just decided to use as my main tool during my next labour and delivery (10 weeks away, God willing) so I’m very glad you suggested it! I agree that singing harmony is one of life’s very sweet pleasures.


  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. Kiss the little one for me.

    Selena, my prayers go with you into the ordeal ahead. Also, if you know music then I’ll just tell you that when I chant this way I like to start on G, go up to A and B or down to F Sharp and E. In other words its the alternation between the major sound and the minor sound that seems to give the sounds enough depth to carry these words at least in a basic way.

    Do you sing in the choir at your church?


  3. Alas no. Heavily pregnant, 4 small children at home, and a husband not yet interested in Orthodoxy, I can barely even get to liturgy. When I can do so, I attend an English liturgy at the Russian parish, and apparently nobody sings along with the choir. Unfortunately for everyone else in the parish, as soon as I learn the songs I will be unable to restrain myself.

    Having only just begun singing my prayers and Psalms, I guess I don’t need to tell you (but thought I’d mention it anyway) how dramatically it changes my prayer times. I read somewhere, “He who sings prays twice” – who wrote that? So true.

    Thanks Alana!


  4. Oh, I completely understand. And yes, it’s funny about the Russians (I go to a Russian parish, too) that the choir is more separated from the congregation. The Antiochian parishes (in my experience, but maybe this applies more to convert-dominated parishes) seem to see more involvement from the congregation. I think it’s going to be one of those things that will change in the next generation. Between the enthusiasm of us converts and the increased efforts of all Orthodox to educate our children in the faith if we want to keep them in the Church, I think the bulk of people attending Liturgy 20 or 30 years from now are going to be more aware of what’s going on and more involved. At least I hope so.

    Last night I was talking to a woman who grew up in my parish. She said that they used to have Sunday School during Liturgy when she was a child. The teacher was harsh, and they were taught how to behave in church but they were not allowed into church. After she graduated from Sunday School she attended Liturgy with the adults. She said that Sunday after Sunday she would simply sit and look around during the service enjoying the sounds but knowing very little about what they meant. When she joined the choir not so long ago she finally started to see how the Liturgy is put together and be more aware of what it says.

    I’m starting to think about inviting everyone, choir membor or not, to rehearsals.

    I think as God brings this influx of converts into the Church we are finding that paradoxically there’s this amazing treasure preserved for us, and at the same time, the people who have so faithfully preserved it often know too little about it. That’s a double edged sword though. I suppose a priest would say that we converts want to know all about Orthodoxy but for many of these people Orthodoxy simply lives within them.

    And that’s true as well: I’ve begun to notice that even when it seems the congregation is silent, often there are timid people throughout the nave who are singing very softly along.

    However, we are talking about having Sunday School again (I loathe the very term but it’s what they are calling it) however this time it’s going to be a short time of instruction for children after they take communion. None of us wants our children to be gone during Liturgy: whether it’s living Orthodoxy or understanding Orthodoxy, sending them away doesn’t help anything.

    Besides they borrowed Sunday School from the evangelicals, what did they expect? (And how many times am I going to beat this drum?)

    Yes, the prayers reveal their depths when treated with music. (I’m glad you are finding the same thing, it tells me this isn’t just my little hobby horse.) Your quote says it all; I don’t know who said it but these things sort of float around the Church like common property, don’t they?


  5. So many nice things in this ‘letter.’ I am so happy to hear that you are learning choir directing! It will be good for the choir and good for you! I love singing, myself. I love singing in the choir. Singing or chanting gives access to the heart in a way that reading doesn’t.

    Almost everything I know about the services I learned from being in choir and both reading the words and having to know what comes next. I have only directed once – and that because no other director could be there – and thought with gratitude of the sacrifice our directors make… they don’t get to let their minds wander very much during a service, and mine seems to wander all the time. On good days, it wanders ‘inside the fold,’ so to speak, but still, so hard to stay focussed on just one thing at a time and still be ready for the next thing coming up.

    Also, my prayers for your tiredness, and whatever it may mean!


  6. Another comment about Christian education for children on Sundays…

    Firstly, the liturgy is for the whole family of God, and I think more and more churches are understanding that we don’t subtract the children from liturgy – it *is* their Christian education. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good use for the opportunity of giving instruction to them in a group setting. And, there are some really, really nice materials to use now that are really Orthodox, and not ‘adaptations’ of other materials or just teaching Church Behavior. I think that when children are old enough, they like to be in little groups together and to have short lessons just for them. We have just started doing that a couple of years ago, because we finally have enough children to support the effort.


  7. Thank you, Beth. I am enjoying the choir. My musical ability has mysteriously improved since I started and I’m never nervous whilst singing in Church, something that is not true elsewhere. So I feel assured that God has given this task to me.

    Well put. “Gives access to the heart” – that’s a good phrase.

    I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m against the Sunday School idea. I think instruction is very important. I just feel strongly that as you say, the Liturgy is for us all. Also, which is my own peculiar concern, that we not use evangelical terminology. Terminology, I believe, carries with it a weight of tradition and meaning, and when the tradition is alien it harms people. Why not come up with our own term for something that will and should be different from both the historical and present-day evangelical practice of Sunday School.


  8. Here is one of my favorites – top of my list:
    Blessed is the Kingdom by Elizabeth Jacobs, found at Light and Life Publishing:


    It is an Orthodox children’s catechism, for ages 6-12 – teacher’s books, and pupils workbooks are available. I love this one – it was truly a pleasure to teach it.

    I would also recommend The Divine Liturgy for Children, a book and workbook combination for elementary students: http://store.orthodoxed.org/product_info.php?products_id=89

    Other resources are available from these sites:

    There has been a lot of effort to provide exactly what you have said – materials really for Orthodox children. And the availability of information on the web has made it a lot easier for parish volunteers to find resources than it used to be. I hope this will be useful for the mom you mentioned.


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