Concerning the Fact That Christians Should in General Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

In Christian Morality, there are two discourses which intensely focus on dance – “Discourse II:  Concerning the Fact That Christians Should in General Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing” and “Discourse III:  Concerning the Fact That Christians Should Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing at Weddings.”

nikodemos the hagiorite christian morality

In Discourse II, St Nikodemos the Hagiorite begins with Isaiah 5:11-14.  Dance is not isolated but placed in the following context:

 

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Behold what piteous cries the Almighty utters in deploring all who play instruments, all who dance, all who sing.  Woe, He says, and alas for those who rise from sleep in the morning to run to drink raki.  Woe to those who linger in taverns until the evening, for wine and raki will inflame them.  These people drink wine to the accompaniment of harps, zithers, drums, and flutes, but have no desire to pay heed to the commandments of the Lord; nor do they wish to give any thought to the works of God.  For this reason ‘My people will be enslaved, and many of them will die from hunger and thirst; for they neither know nor fear the Lord, and Hades has opened its mouth wide to receive them.’ {p 35}

Tupan, Tapan, Davul, Daouli is the two headed drum. The daouli player usually hangs the drum from a belt or strap over his left shoulder.
Tupan, Tapan, Davul, Daouli is the two headed drum. The daouli player usually hangs the drum from a belt or strap over his left shoulder.

The translators (Hieromonk Patapios, Monk Chrysostomos and Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna) included the following explanatory footnote:

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… it is important to note that in all of the passages that he cites from St. John Chrysostomos and other Church Fathers, it is not music as such that it is so harshly censured, and certainly not what would today be considered “classical” or “serious” music, but rather a more popular or vulgar kind of instrumental music that was typically played by persons of rather loose morals in socio-cultural contexts characterized by egregious improbity.  Such “vehemence against instrumental musicians is primarily explained by the association of musical instruments with sexual license, luxurious banquets, and the immorality of the theater” (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vol II, s.v. “Musicians”). {p 36}

Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians. It is written that as the musicians played at her wedding she "sang in her heart to the Lord".
Saint Cecilia is the patroness of musicians. It is written that as the musicians played at her wedding she “sang in her heart to the Lord”.

St Nikodemus outlines the “evils” caused by musical instruments and dances – idolatry (Exodus 32), perjury and cursing (Judges 20:47; 21:18, 20-21), bloodshed and murders (Matthew 14).  He further points out:

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And what other evil, my beloved, is not caused by dances, instruments, and songs?  By these are engendered adornment and beautification of the body, for those who go to the dance and sing, be they men or women, first adorn and bedeck the body with bright clothing and jewelry and then go forth.  By these are engendered the application of musk oils and other perfumes; by these are engendered disorderly and indecent sights of the eyes; by these are occasioned whorish sounds in the ears; by these are engendered shameful talk, jesting, and unseemly laughter, postures, and movements; by these are engendered carnal lusts and fornications and adulteries that arise in the heart (cf. Matthew 5:28). {p 38-39}

Opposite from the Magi sits a young shepherd boy plays music for his flock (Nativity icon detail).
Opposite from the Magi sits a young shepherd boy plays music for his flock (Nativity icon detail).

St Nikodemos goes even further in raising the bar (before beginning Discourse III regarding weddings):

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Now, what do some people say?  “All right, on other days one should not play instruments, dance, or sing.  But when there is a feast and a celebration, when Pascha comes and the days of Bright Week? What about Meatfare?  How, at those times, are we to display our joy? …”  But listen … feasts and celebrations of Saints are held for no other purpose than for Christians to assemble thereon, to hear the exploits of the Saints being celebrated, and as far as possible, to emulate the Saints themselves, and thereby receive piety in their souls, and in their lives amendment and rectitude. …

Likewise, Pascha and Bright Week are celebrated in order that Christians might be reminded that the Son of God, by His Passion, Cross, death and Holy Resurrection, redeemed them from the hands of the Devil, delivered them from Hades, freed them from death, and granted them resurrection and the Heavenly Kingdom; and that for all of these benefactions and favors they might thus be thankful to Christ, Who suffered, was crucified, died, and rose out of love for them. {p. 43-45}

An ancient Greek lyre.
An ancient Greek lyre.

Recalling the words of the Prophet Amos, St Nikodemos warns Christians:

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…so you, by your instruments, dances, songs, carousals, brawls, and fights, and the other evils that you commit on Feast Days and Pascha, compel God to cry out that He loathes and no longer desires such celebrations and that He abhors such feasts [Amos 5:21].

If God, on account of the sins of the Hebrews, hated and no longer wished to listen to the Divine songs that they chanted and the sacred instruments that they played in His Temple, and in spite of the fact that they chanted those songs and played those instruments to the glory, honor, and majesty of His Holy Name on Feast Days – for He says:  “Remove from me the sound of thy songs, and I will not hear the music of thine instruments” (Amos 5:23) – if, I say, He loathed those things, how much more, and incomparably more, does He loathe and abhor the diabolical instruments that you Christians play on Feasts, not to the glory of God, but to the glory, honor, and pomp of Satan? {p 47-48}

 russian-bellringers

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My Christian brothers and sisters, do you wish truly to rejoice and be glad on Feast Days, on Pascha, and in the pre-Lenten periods?  Do not play instruments; do not dance; do not sing songs.  No, rather chant some Troparion or hymn that you know, to Christ or the Panagia.  Chant “Christ is risen”; chant “The Angel cried” or “It is truly meet.”  Thus does the Apostle James enjoin Christians to do, saying:  “Is any merry? let him sing psalms (James 5:13).”  That is, whoever has joy and a happy heart, let him sing a psalm, not a song.  If you act in this way, God blesses your table; if you act in this way, the Angels of God stand beside you and guard you.  If you act in this way, your eating and drinking, your observances of Feasts and pre-Lenten periods, are all done to the glory of God, as befits Christians and as the Divine Paul enjoins, saying:  “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

Regarding Discourse III:  “Concerning the Fact That Christians Should Not Play Instruments, Dance, or Sing at Weddings,” St Nikodemos begins based on the words of St Paul (cf. Hebrews 13:4).  St Nikodemos writes:

 

Fr. Taxiarches (TX) hitting the Talanton with a Athonite rhythm.
Fr. Taxiarches (TX) hitting the Talanton with a Athonite rhythm.

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[St Paul] also taught us that Christian weddings should not be characterized by any disorderliness or impropriety, but should be dignified, orderly, and honorable, and not honorable in a general sense, but in every way. …Let marriage be honorable in all, not just at one time, but at all times:  before the couple are blessed, when they are being blessed, and after they have been blessed.  Let marriage be honorable in all, not in only one way, nor in only one place, but in all ways and places:  in food, in drink, in clothing, in Church, in the home, at the table, and everywhere. [p 59]

And David and the children of Israel [were] playing before the Lord on well-tuned instruments mightily, and with songs, and with harps, and with lutes, and with drums, and with cymbals, and with pipes. (II Sam. 6:5)
And David and the children of Israel [were] playing before the Lord on well-tuned instruments mightily, and with songs, and with harps, and with lutes, and with drums, and with cymbals, and with pipes. (II Sam. 6:5)
St Nikodemos cites three reasons the Church calls marriage a “Mystery”:

  1. because of the unity in love of the souls of a man and a woman;
  2. because marriage is a type of the spiritual union of Christ with the Church…
  3. because marriage contains Divine Grace within it, as do the other Mysteries. [p 60]

and outlines how “instruments and dances are contrary to the properties that characterize the Mystery of marriage.” 

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Now, if it were perhaps good and lawful to play instruments, dance and sing at Matrimony, which is one of the seven mysteries, one must be permitted to play these, to dance, and to sing songs also at Baptisms, Chrismations, Ordinations, and the other mysteries. But because Christians play instruments, dance and sing neither when they are baptized, nor when they are chrismated, nor when they commune, nor when they receive priesthood, nor when they confess their sins, nor when thye are anointed with oil, therefore, when they are married, likewise, they must neither play instruments, dance, nor sing songs. For, if instruments were to be played and dances and songs were to take place at weddings, then it would be necessity follow either tht Matrimony is not a mystery like the other six or thqt playing instruments, dancing, and singing would have to take place also at the other six Mysteries, since all the Mysteries are alike. Therefore, it does not behoove Christians to play instruments, dance or sing songs at weddings. (p. 64-65)

 

Fr. Nektarios Moulatsiotis ("Free Monks" pop music band)
Fr. Nektarios Moulatsiotis (“Free Monks” pop music band)

After discussing the use of the crown in the “marriage” service, St Nikodemos states: 

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So now I ask you, my Christian brothers and sisters, to tell me the truth:  Is it right for a couple that is blessed and crowned in marriage… to arrange for music, dancing, and singing at their wedding?  Are they justified, who have heard such blessings, such holy words from the Priests who blessed them, in sullying their ears once more with unclean and indecent songs?  Is it right for them, after they have stood in the Holy Church of God and sanctified their feet, to defile them again with diabolical dancing?  In a word, is it right for them, having communed that same day of the Immaculate Mysteries, not to keep pure all of their bodily senses and all of the senses and powers of the soul, for the sake of the joy, the honor, and the sanctification that they have received?  Again, is it right for them to see the immodest sights of musical performances, dancing, and other improprieties, or to do anything immodest at all? [p 70]

Instead, St Nikodemos exhorts Christians to follow the guidance from the Sixth Ecumenical Synod in Laodicea which “enjoins them to lunch or dine on these occasions with decorum and propriety.”

In addition to Old Testament references, St Nikodemos expounds upon the raising of Jairus’ daughter to explain further the reasons behind the prohibition:

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Follow me, and let us go to Jerusalem.  Have you arrived?  It was here that a young girl died, and her father, who was called Jairus, came to Jesus, beseeching Him woefully to go to his house and resurrect her.  The most compassionate Jesus Christ, showing sympathy for his affliction and plight, went to the house.  However, He saw great commotion there and the flutist playing their flutes and pipes, not in order to bring joy, but to arouse grief by the dirges that they were playing; for the historian Josephus says that it was the custom at that time for the Hebrews to summon musicians to their dead in order to play dirges and thereby to move people to tears.  St John Chrysostomos says the same thing in his interpretation on the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew [Homily XXXI].  When He saw them, the Lord did not wish to enter Jairus’ house; no.  He bade everyone to go outside.  After they had left, it was then that He entered the house and, taking the girl by the hand, immediately raised her up by the almighty power of His Divinity… [p 75]

"and when they raised their voice together with trumpets and cymbals, and instruments of music, and said, Give thanks to the Lord, for [it is] good, for his mercy [endures] for ever:-- then the house was filled with the cloud of the glory of the Lord" (II Chronicles 5:13)
“and when they raised their voice together with trumpets and cymbals, and instruments of music, and said, Give thanks to the Lord, for [it is] good, for his mercy [endures] for ever:– then the house was filled with the cloud of the glory of the Lord” (II Chronicles 5:13)
At this point let each person reflect on the difference between the flute-players and musicians at today’s weddings and those of olden times.  For the latter played in order to stir up laments, sights, and tears, which are not harmful to the soul, but actually beneficial.  Today’s musicians play at weddings in order to provoke joy, laughter, dancing, and singing, which are harmful and injurious to the soul.  Those of olden times, when they played their instruments made the house in which they were playing a house of mourning and grief.  When today’s musicians play, they make the house in which they play a house of inebriation and sin. … As Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the banquet house” [ Ecclesiastes 7:2].  All of this notwithstanding, our Lord did not enter even into the house in which those musicians were playing; it was, rather, after they departed that He entered … [p 76]

Praise him with the sound of a trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp. Praise him with timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the organ.  Praise him with melodious cymbals: praise him with loud cymbals. (Psalm 150: 3-5)
Praise him with the sound of a trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp. Praise him with timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the organ. Praise him with melodious cymbals: praise him with loud cymbals. (Psalm 150: 3-5)
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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.

Bouzouki_tetrachordo

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).
  3. mus-mss