The Sin of Satan
by Bernard Brandt
I was singing this last Sunday at St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church, in El Segundo, CA, and was taking part in our small choir, a quartet with Martha on soprano, Anne on alto, me on tenor, and Gabriel, our choir director, on bass. And I came nearer that day than I had ever done before in committing the sin of Satan.
Now, I’ve been singing in church choirs for most of my life: as a boy in a Gregorian chant schola, before things went kablooey in the RC church, and then as a young man and for the last forty years, in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Anglican, Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic church choirs. And let me tell you, I found a marked difference between Western and Eastern choirs.
In the West, my experience had been that we would do the standard four hymn sandwich, maybe an anthem or two, maybe a responsorial psalm, maybe a litany of the faithful, and just maybe, a sung dialogue between priest (plus perhaps a deacon) and choir. Basically, there would be enough time between ‘numbers’ so as to get distracted, or to be occupied with my thoughts.
Not so in Orthodox or Eastern Catholic choirs. There, the Divine Liturgy is a constant dialogue between priest, deacon, choir and congregation. I’ve figured that, counting all of the litanies, antiphons, troparia, kontakia, prokeimena, and alleluias, and the many fixed hymns of the Liturgy, there are altogether between forty and fifty different pieces of music sung in the course of any given liturgy.
When I first came to St. Andrew’s, nearly thirty years ago, my task was made more difficult because it was, alas, the custom for singers to come in when they felt like it, a custom probably started by the choir director of the time, who would often arrive at the liturgy about five or ten minutes after it had begun, even though she lived within walking distance of the church. What would usually happen would be that I and another fellow by the name of Frank Ryan would be there a half hour before the liturgy, and he would show me the music that we needed to sing that day. Depending on the circumstances, I would have to switch from part to part, or from melody, alto, tenor, or bass, as need be, when more choir members would arrive and the choral balance would shift.
As I kinda wanted not just to sing the liturgy, but to pray it as well, I got into the habit of learning all the parts of each piece, first reading them, then memorizing them, so as to be as little distracted and able to continue to pray as things changed. And, when I became the choir director there, and tried working at getting people to come to the church beforehand and to prepare, I found that knowing all of the parts, and being able to put them together in my head, was an excellent apprenticeship as choir director.
Fortunately, our present choir director is an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music (piano and composition), and has been involved in Eastern Christian choirs since he was a teen. Fortunately also, in addition to his own beautiful compositions, he is a master of preparing people to sing together.
So what usually happens is that the four of us get together a half an hour or so before the Liturgy starts at 10 a.m., and Gabriel walks us through the pieces that we will be singing during that rehearsal. If he has any doubts as to whether we remember the piece, we briefly go through that piece, and iron out any wrinkles. And because he does this with us, we are able to know what is expected, and are able to follow every nuance that he has in directing us.
This Sunday was perhaps the best service that I had ever sung at. Ninety percent of it I had already memorized. The rest, involving the stichera, aposticha and troparia for Forgiveness Sunday, had been read through. Our quartet had long ago figured out the balance necessary to sing each piece well. Having warmed up my voice, and having also finally learned how and why to balance vocal onset, to coordinate that onset with proper breath support, to tune the vowels, nasal and non-nasal consonants to achieve full head resonance, and to balance chest and head resonance, I was singing better than I ever had before in my life. Many in the congregation were also singing, and rather well. It was a joy to be there.
And then I was struck with the sudden realization: I was near to committing the Sin of Satan. This was the sin described in Isaiah 14, of the ruler of Babylon, and the sin described in Ezekiel 28, of the ruler of Tyre. And yet, though it described those human rulers, who in their arrogance decided to worship themselves rather than the Lord, throughout is the shadow of that Ruler of the celestial choir, who even in the Kingdom of Heaven, decided to commit that first and archtypal sin, when he chose to worship his own beauty and wisdom, rather than the One who gave him those gifts.
So, when I had descended the stairs of the choir loft to seek the blessing of our visiting priest, Fr. Stephen, and to ask the forgiveness of the other members of the congregation, I quietly asked our Lord to forgive me my sin against Him, and for His help in better resisting that sin. And I decided that part of the reason for my sin was that I had been resting on my laurels, and was not learning new things.
And I also asked the help of my friend, Steve, who happened to be there with his lovely wife, Christine. Steve is the head cantor at the nearby Byzantine church, the son of a cantor, and whose family has produced cantors for many generations. He probably has forgotten more about Carpatho-Rusyn chant than I will ever learn, and is one of the few still to remember and to use the old Slavonic. With Steve’s help, I might be able to learn something of the treasures of that tradition. And perhaps it will help me to keep from valuing my abilities, instead of worshiping our Lord.