Question 040.

Can song really be counted as prayer?

Singing is proper to one in love… Jubilee is a sort of sound which means that the heart wants to give birth to that which cannot be uttered.  And who deserves such jubilation if not the ineffable God?  And ineffable is that which cannot be said or even touched.  What remains if not jubilation in that the heart opens itself to a wordless joy, and the joy increases beyond the limits of the spoken word.

from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger.


There is a certain mystery to song:  

First, song seems to be woven into creation.  Mathematical principles, and thus the principles of physics, can be expressed musically and musical expressions can be expressed mathematically.  This woveness was known to the accents, to the Pythagoreans and their belief in the musical harmony of nature arising out of numbers, to the medievals and their celestial music of the spheres, to modern physicists and the vibrations of string theory bringing about the material universe.  It is a demonstratable metaphysical principle that song is somehow part of the nature of reality and an epistemological principle that information about reality is conveyed to us through song.

Secondly, it can be noted that song arises from the experience of joy in a creature.  From the buzzing of bees, to the howling of dog, to the songs of whales, communication changes to become less “spoken” and more musical to convey happiness, pleasure, completeness, and joy.  In the rational creature that is man, the hights of his joy are not uttered forth in any speech other than song.  The joy of the heart cannot be contained by logical speech, nor purely rational speech, but begins to find its utterance in the poetic via the rhythm of harmony between ideas and phonemes of a particular language.

What can bring more joy to a creature than its encounter with its Creator?  How does creation respond to its Creator in these instances?  The angelic orders, in their first encounter with God burst forth into song: when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. (Job 38:7) Material creation responds to God by singing: the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Is 55:12) Throughout the scriptures, from the Psalms to the great canticles of Miram, Canticles, and Zachariah, man’s response to God’s saving actions has been that of song.  When Christ comes, Mary sings (Luke 1:46-55), John the Baptist sings (Luke 1:44), and the angels and shepherds sing (Luke 2:13, 17).  Those baptized into Christ are instructed that when they gather together that they should converse with each other about the joy of their hearts through song:  addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart. (Eph. 5:19)  At the end of the world, when all is recapitulated in Christ when the fullness of joy will be complete, all will be a never-ending song: Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ (Rev 5:13)

Further, in the encounter between the those that reject God, we find that the hearts of the damned in the anthesis of joy utter forth disharmonious wailing – the anthesis of song’s harmony: they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matt: 13:41-42)

Perhaps most mysteriously is that God Himself responds in the encounter between Himself and man by song: The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zep 3:17)


Nun On A Violin, Friedrich Kaulbach, c. 19th century