Three Evils are Born from Hedonistic Melodies (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, as a general rule, monastics are only allowed to listen to Orthodox Christian chanting for music. Some monastics may have blessing for classical music and Greek Kalanta, but in general the only music put on a monastic’s iPod is Byzantine or Znamenny chants (polyphonic choirs are frowned upon). Due to temptations to listen to worldy music, monastics have alarm clocks without am/fm radios. Though in some monasteries, monastics have been known to steal am/fm radio clocks from the guest houses.

In one monastery, a monk stole a cd/radio player from a Mexican work crew doing the drywall. As they were in a monastery and did not even suspect a monk stole it from inside the cab of their pickup truck, they suspected and accused an Ecuadorian stonemason crew. Violence almost erupted and an ethnic division occurred. It wasn’t until much later that it was discovered that this monk stole it. Though disciplined harshly, this monk was allowed to remain in the monastery due to his father being a priest at one of Geronda Ephraim’s nunneries. It is said that the Abbot was debating putting a spy camera in this monk’s cell to monitor him because he did so many sneaky things there and hid many of these things when going to confession.

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Generally, the only time monastics are exposed to worldly music is when they go to a doctor’s office, shopping for supplies, or if they eat out at a restaurant like Red Lobster. Monastics are usually counselled to focus on the prayer and try to ignore or block out the music. Many times the songs a monastic hears while out of the monastery will come back to mind during their personal vigil or Church service. Years ago, a nun under Geronda Ephraim went grocery shopping with her Gerondissa. An Elton John song came on the radio and the young novice nun started singing along. The Gerondissa slapped her right there in the grocery store and told her never to do that again.

The following article is taken from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 97-99

A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels (Hardcover)

Three Evils are Born from Hedonistic Melodies

The second sense is that of hearing and one must be careful to guard it from corrupt melodies, which are composed for pleasure and which pour out the sweet honey of sound unto the ears. It seems to me that there are three evils that come from such melodies:

1. these hedonistic and worldly songs tend to weaken the manly and proud bearing of the soul so that it becomes effeminate and lethargic as it listens to these sweet sounds.

2. these sensual songs tend to fill up the mind with the many passionate images which they describe.

3. let us suppose that even if the persons doing the singing are not seen—and especially when these may be women—nevertheless the songs themselves are capable of impressing the imagination, moving the desire of the heart and drawing out an asset from the soul.

This is why St. Basil taught us: “Do not submit your souls to corrupt melodies that come to us through the ears. Many passions that enslave us have been caused to grow in our natures by this sort of music.”1 St. Gregory the Theologian in one of his paschal homilies said: “Let us not have the flute played to our hearing.” And in his Iambic Poetry he wrote, “Block your ears with wax, and foolish words hear not, nor pleasant songs or thrilling melodies.”

Odysseus & the Sirens | Greek vase, Paestan red figure krater.
Odysseus & the Sirens | Greek vase, Paestan red figure krater.

It may appear to us like a myth (even though I now hear that seaman of today do this) when we hear that the cunning Odysseus of old shut the ears with wax to avoid hearing the sweet and hypnotic voices of the Sirens. It is true however that metaphorically speaking one who is prudent must block his hearing from receiving such effeminate melodies which eat away at the soul like the deadly Sirens of the passions. This is the reason why Xenocrates instructed the young to wear a sort of covering over their ears in order to protect their ears from hearing hedonistic and improper conversations.

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At this point I recall an improper custom that is connected with worldly weddings. After the couple has been blessed and the people have sat at table, the bishop or priest being present, it is customary during the course of the meal for musicians to come and play musical instruments and sing songs. I regard this custom improper and unbecoming for Christian people. This is why from earlier times certain regional synods have decreed certain canons2 against such practices, emphasizing at the same time that Christians ought to celebrate their wedding soberly and piously, avoiding everything that does not befit their way of life. In keeping with these canons, the clergy are to encourage the people to avoid extreme worldly manifestations at the wedding feasts. In fact they are required to depart from such feasts when the people refuse to heed their pious counsel.

Bird at St. Anthony's Monastery (February 2015)

After the hedonistic sounds of human voices and musical instruments, one must also guard his ears against similar sounds from birds, such as parrots, nightingales, finches, canaries, and other song birds [Note: Geronda Ephraim kept song birds in cages in the old Gerontikon. Other monasteries keep song birds, too]. The same holds true with the barking of small dogs, which are often cared for at great expense in the homes not only of the laity but also of the clergy [Note: The German Shepherds at St. Anthony’s Monastery remain outside and are used as guard dogs]. I hope and pray that you will avoid the vanity of such things and if you now have such animals in your home, please see to it that they are taken away [Note: The cats at Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are kept around mainly to eat mice and other vermin that infest the monastery grounds. The exotic aquariums are kept because they are beautiful and watching fish is relaxing. The goats and chickens are kept for food purposes and the monastics are advised not to develop attachments to them]. It is truly improper and scandalous for Christians to see and hear in the home of the bishop or priest the sights and sounds of dogs and birds, where in fact they ought to see and hear only what is modest and reverent. People who keep such animals at home often become so attached to them that they love and care for them much more than they do for rational human beings like themselves [Note: This is why Geronda Ephraim has banned his monastics from petting the monastery cats and other animals—it cultivates an unmonastic affection. Monastics who pet cats usually have to do 50 or more prostrations for their disobedience. Fr. Gerontios was known to throw the cats in the air for some reason]. This extreme situation is confirmed by the Emperor Honorius, who was more concerned about the well-being of his parrot called “Rome” than for the actual city of Rome itself, as reported by the historians. Moreover, various ambassadors of foreign countries living in Rome kept dogs and cared for them as if they were their very children. This prompted Caesar to ask the humorous but ironic question: “In their countries do the wives bear children or not?” Man in his irrationality reaches the point of keeping even poisonous and deadly serpents.

One of the cats at St. Anthony's Monastery (AZ)
One of the cats at St. Anthony’s Monastery (AZ)

There is also the bizarre practice of becoming attached to certain trees and plants. Historians refer to a certain Roman emperor who became very fond of a certain myrrh-bearing Arabian tree, which he kept in a special room by the sea. He not only cared for it and nourished it, but hung garlands of flowers over it. A similar story is told of Xerxes the king of Persia who so loved a certain oak tree that he used to decorate it like a bride with fine garments, ornaments, and jewelry. He even placed royal crowns on its branches and watered it with precious perfumes and waters. One might say the decorator of this tree was actually more insensible than the tree that he was decorating! [Note: the monasteries that do get Christmas trees for their gifts do not decorate them as elaborately as the above examples. Often it is just Christmas lights, ornaments and some Orthodox or Greek traditional stuff. The gifts for the monastics are placed underneath and opened after the monastics awake from the 2nd sleep after the Vigil/meal. By New Year’s Day, the tree is usually disposed of].

Christmas Tree Lights along the pathway at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)
Christmas Tree Lights along the pathway at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

NOTES:

  1. Address to the Young Men.
  2. The Synod of Laodicia, Canons 53, 54: “That Christians attending weddings must not jump about or dance, but must eat or dine in decent manner, as becomes Christians” (53) and “That members of the Priesthood and Clerics must not witness spectacles at weddings or suppers, but, before the actors taking part in theatricals enter, they are to rise and leave” (54).
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