Why Reading in Church Should be Unemotional

Priest Andrei Chizhenko explains:

Photo: Vladimir Montyan. Voznes.ru. Photo: Vladimir Montyan. Voznes.ru.

We recall the words of Russian playwright Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov’s (1795-1829), Woe from Wit: “Don’t drone like a sexton. Read it with thought! With feeling! With correct emphasis!” This aphorism has caused the Russian intelligentsia to ridicule church reading and grin ironically about it for centuries. However, this sarcasm is unjust and goes against the ancient, 2,000-year-old rules of church reading. And people who demand emotion from a sexton display their ignorance of liturgical life and the principles of reading liturgical texts.

Genres are very important in art and they should not be confused. To put it more simply, a genre is a certain style in which a work is composed and characterized by a certain goal and means of achieving this goal. There are always three goals in art (again in a very primitive sense): to make people laugh, to scare them, and to make them cry. According to these principles, artistic expressive emotions are chosen to attain these goals. Together with the author’s talent, intelligence and effort, all of this taken together forms a certain work of art, composed in one or another style. This applies to declamatory (rhetoric) art as well.

In church reading, it is completely different. The Church never tries make people laugh or cry, or to frighten them; Her aim is to make our path to God as easy as possible: As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3:4-6).

This is why the word of God must be expressed with purity of sound, clarity of speech, and the articulation of each syllable; a church reader must not impose his personal emotions on the people praying in church. A reader is expected to become only a tympanum (drum) and psalter playing divine melodies. Any theatricality in church, whether it be reading or chanting, always grates on people’s ears and distracts us from the main thing: from humbly and sincerely hearing of the Word of God. It is the Word of God (and not ourselves) that will work the mystery needed for a human soul, and will cleanse our hearts.

This is why during the Old Testament period, a middle form between reading and singing in Jewish synagogue worship was developed, the academic name of which is “cantillation” (“I sing in a low voice, faintly,” from the Latin). Professor of the Kiev Theological Academy Mikhail Nikolaevich Skaballanovich (1871-1931) in his book, The Explanatory Typicon, wrote the following on cantillation: “The introduction into synagogues of so-called cantillation, which is something between reading and singing, is loud reading during which some syllables are more or less lengthened.” This is the practical experience of the Church, which has achieved harmony in the sense of concord between clearness, clarity of sound, non-emotionality, and pleasantness to the ear. The Church still uses this form at services.

Of course, this does not rule out the necessity for the church reader to perfect himself and to upgrade his skills. First, he must live a pious Christian life himself and treat the sacred texts with love and reverence. Second, he should constantly deepen his education in liturgics and Church history because the Psalter and other sacred texts abound in these facts. Third, a reader must study Church Slavonic [or the higher form used of his native language used in liturgical texts.—O.C.] assiduously, so that he will understand what he reads. Fourthly, it is advisable for him to do exercises for his tongue, facial and mouth muscles and ligaments before services, so that his voice could sound as clear as possible and his words could be articulate and easy to understand.

And naturally it is necessary to adhere to “the golden mean” concerning the rate at which a service is conducted (this largely depends on the priest, deacon, senior chorister, or choir-director). On the one hand, we should not read or chant too slowly and dolefully (then the service “fades” and becomes oppressive for the congregation); on the other hand, we should avoid doing it too hastily, when words and singing blend into one unintelligible and monotonous buzz of voices.

Each reader, chorister, choir conductor, senior chorister, deacon and priest must live according to the words of prayers themselves; they should live spiritually so that the arrows of prayer shot from their hearts might reach everyone else’s hearts. It is important not to communicate our emotion to others, but with God’s help, to discover the life of these sacred words in ourselves—the words that mysteriously unite man and God in a human soul.

Joseph Bell1/4/2017 8:52 pm
Church service books are written grammatically. The punctuation is there for a reason, to make the reading understandable. There are commas and periods. There is sentence construction containing ideas, and underlying themes. Without the grammatical pauses, and nuances of inflection, a reading can become unintelligible. Therefore a balance needs to be striven for, one that avoids emotional interpretation, but also avoids mumbling or mechanistic droning. The "golden mean" applies not only to the speed of the reading but to the articulation and presentation as well.
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