“Fr. Dimitri, you don’t want me chanting in the Choir! My voice is terrible.” “Fr. Dimiri, you don’t want me signing. I cannot read music.” “Fr. Dimitri, dogs howl when I attempt to sing.”
I hear this often when I encourage individuals to come to the Chanting Stand or the Choir to offer praises to God. These individuals feel self-conscious, afraid that they will be judged. In today’s culture of shaming, that is something to fear, and yet I tell them, “So what?! The Patron Saint of Orthodox Musicians had a tin ear. I then tell them the story of this amazing saint.
Below, please read the life of St. Romanos the Melodist as found on OrthodoxWiki:
The popular patron of church singers, St. Romanos, was born in Emesa in the latter part of the fifth century. Whether or not his Jewish parents converted to Christianity is uncertain; Romanos himself was baptized as a young boy and developed a great love for the house of God. When he came of age he served as a verger, lighting the lamps and preparing the censer. After moving to Beirut, he was ordained to the diaconate and assigned to the Church of the Resurrection. He had a rather mediocre voice, but his pure and simple heart was filled with love for God, and to assist at the church services gave him the greatest joy.
During the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (491-518), the young deacon moved to Constantinople. He led an ascetic life of prayer and fasting, but in his humility he thought of himself as being rather worldly. He had a special love for the Mother of God, and would go at night to pray in the Blachernae Church, which housed the precious omophorion of the Holy Virgin. The saintly Patriarch Euthemius loved Romanos for his many virtues, and paid him the same wage as those singers and readers who were more educated and more talented. The latter resented this and derided Romanos for his evident lack of musical and theological training. Romanos himself was painfully aware of these defects; he longed for a melodious voice worthy of leading the faithful in praising God.
It was the day before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity, and Saint Romanos was assigned to lead the singing that evening at the All-Night Vigil. He was responsible not only for the singing but also for the text of the hymns. After everyone had left, he remained in the Blachernae Church and tearfully entreated the Mother of God to help him. Exhausted, he fell asleep with his sorrow. In answer to his prayer, the Mother of God appeared to him in a dream. She handed him a scroll and said to him gently, “Here, eat this.” Romanos did so and awoke, overcome with joy and the lingering presence of the heavenly visitor.
When it came time that night for him to sing, Saint Romanos received the patriarch’s blessing and, vested in a special garment reserved for the principal singer, he stepped onto the ambo. He began to sing: “Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being . . .” The emperor, the patriarch, the clergy – the entire congregation listened in wonder at the profound theology and the clear, sonorous voice which issued forth. They all joined in the refrain, “A new-born Babe, the pre-eternal God.” Later, Saint Romanos told the patriarch about his vision, and the singers who had made fun of him prostrated themselves in repentance and humbly asked the Saint’s forgiveness.
It should be noted that the kontakion as we know it today—a short hymn honoring and describing a particular feast or saint— is only the prologue or proomion of a full kontakion which, at the height of its development in the sixth century, was a poetic sermon composed of from 18 – 30 verses or ikoi, each with a refrain, and united by an acrostic. When it was sung to an original melody, it was called an idiomelon. Originally, Saint Romanos’s works were known simply as “psalms,” “odes,” or poems. It was only in the ninth century that the term kontakion—from the word kontos, the shaft on which the parchment was rolled—came into use.
With the Nativity Kontakion, which has been dated to the year 518, Saint Romanos began a period of prolific creativity. Altogether, he wrote as many as one thousand kontakion, celebrating feasts and saints throughout the liturgical year. In the words of one scholar, Saint Romanos’s compositions successfully combined “the solemnity and dignity of the sermon with the delicacy and liveliness of lyric and dramatic poetry.”
Because Saint Romanos is commemorated on the same day as the feast of Protection, he commonly appears as a central figure in the icon of that feast, even though there is no historical connection (the event celebrated by the Protection icon occurred in the tenth century). Although in more recent icons Saint Romanos is depicted as a deacon standing on the ambo, Russian church musicologist Johann von Gardner points out that in the oldest icons he is more accurately portrayed wearing the short red tunic of a singer and standing on a raised platform in the middle of the church.
Saint Romanos is said to have composed more than 8000 similar hymns or kontakia (Gr. κοντάκιον, “scroll”) celebrating the feasts of the ecclesiastical year, the lives of the saints, and other sacred subjects.
My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, you must see now the great wisdom of the Church of Christ! “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It was not the powerful chanter in history who represents them all. Oftentimes, we witness something known as Chanter-Syndrome or Choir-Syndrome in which the individual is putting on a performance more for themselves than for the Glory of God or leading the people in psalmody. St. Romanos was nothing like this. He was a humble deacon who wanted to give Glory to God no matter what, even if his voice was terrible.
Therefore, do not be afraid to offer your voice up. Do not fear mocking. God receives your gift with intent it was offered and makes it beautiful and more sonorous in the choirs of heaven than any Opera Singer. On this day of his feast, let us be encouraged to lend our voices in worship.
Sing the “Κύριε ἐλέησον/Lord have mercy” with the chanters or choir even if from the pews. Make the Liturgy come alive for you by participating in it.
This Sunday is Choir Appreciation Sunday. Consider joining them! This Sunday is also the 62 Church Music Conference by the Metropolis of Chicago Choir Federation at St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church. Consider joining us along with Metropolitan Nathanael of Chicago as choir members from all over the Metropolis lend their voices into one Choir.
God bless you all through the intercessions of St. Romanos the Melodist,
Your servant in Christ,
Fr. Dimitri Tobias