Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

Six long-gone years of piano lessons hardly qualify me to write about music of this caliber. You can learn far more about its technical excellence and its place in the traditions of great music from the notes provided here.

I am able to write about it as a human being.

I converted to Orthodox Christianity as an adult. My decision rested, among other thing, on the numerous moments in which some expression of the faith, whether in liturgy or theology or age-old tradition, aligned perfectly with what my own life has taught me about being human. There is something intrinsically, almost primordially real about this Christianity. It is worship for the intellect certainly, but for the heart also, and all five senses. I treasured these moments, and still do. To me, they constitute glimpses into the essence of things. The veil is thin, praise God, and permeable.

Listening to Sheehan’s liturgy, even in snatches, is an encounter with this wholeness, this PERSONHOOD. Almost unbearably beautiful. Nothing left empty, no fragment of attention or feeling withdrawn. Dear God, let us never forget how to make such music. Layers of meaning, of spirit, grief, revelation, transcendence, and peace enfold me. Even if my lips are still, I am singing.

It fascinates me to experience this liturgy as a physical phenomenon. My brain loves this music. My body is wired to respond with euphoria. Why is that? There is science for this, I know, but I also know that the natural posture of a human being is eucharistic. Everything that has breath is created to praise the Lord. This music, made solely with human voices trained by years of patient effort, is a breath offering. Air, lungs, sinew, intelligence, all the facets of the human instrument produce the sound, and the human instrument and its soul respond because this is a manifestation of our nature. It is our selves rendering up our truest identity to the God who gifted us with this magnificence.

You should buy a copy, of course, either directly from Cappella Romana or on Amazon, both because it’s beautiful and because it’s important. Inches from your face at this moment, via the same device you’re using to read this post, you can find horrifying evidence of disaster in the world. Corruption, oppression, greed, unreasoning rage, and perversion of every kind. It’s not even worth arguing that people are sometimes the worst problem this world has to offer. That’s why you need this music, and that’s why it’s important to support this music. We need to hold on to the better things, to the glory for which we were intended. We need to remember that this music exists, and we need to remember how to make it, and we need to keep on making it. We must grasp it with both hands, and never let go.

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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