Earlier this month, I was invited to be a speaker at the Liturgical Music Institute on Long Island, a three-day intensive liturgy/music/spirituality conference. I gave two talks pertaining to hymnody, including a talk on St. Paul’s well-known (to music ministers, at least) references to “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
“[B]e filled with the Spirit, addressing one another [in] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” (Ephesians 5:19–20, NABRE)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16, NABRE)
According to Ephesians, a spiritual song is something that comes after being filled with the Spirit; in Colossians, it happens when the word of Christ dwells in you richly; in Ephesians it must come from your heart, in Colossians it is used to teach and admonish; in both, the spiritual song—and its partners, psalms and hymns—is used to express gratitude at all times.
As I researched and reflected on those psalms/hymns/spiritual songs, I discovered that the third term/category varies the most from translation to translation. Many/most translations use “spiritual songs” but you’ll also find “inspired songs” “songs of the Spirit” “sacred songs” and—probably my favorite, from the Orthodox Jewish New Testament translation—neshamah niggunim mi Ruach Hakodesh (soul melodies from the Ruach Hakodesh, the breath of the Holy One).
It seemed to me that there is something of a movement from specific to more general taking place in psalms/hymns/spiritual songs:
1) a psalter (not likely the psalms of David, perhaps an acknowledgment of Judaic roots);
2) hymns, to chrestus sung “as to a god” Pliny the Younger reported to Emperor Trajan;
3) neshamah niggunim mi Ruach Hakodesh, a broader, cover-all category.
So, what might be in that third grouping?
For us today, the numerous musically-set texts of the eucharistic liturgy and other liturgies and rites and devotions and prayers surely are spiritual songs. Outside the sanctuary, songs that spring up in the daily outside-of-church lives of the faithful fit here too, bringing a touch of the divine to the mundane tasks or events of life.
The Spirit spirals outward from our ritual sanctuaries to embrace much daily music: the lullaby hummed to an infant; the lengthy sigh of delight exhaled while turning your face up to the sun on the first warm day after a long, cold winter; that catch in your throat when you could finally hug a friend and end your months-long separation.
Simultaneously the Spirit spirals inward, into that sanctuary each of became in Baptism: a rosary prayed in petition gaining its own rhythms and pitches, becoming a chant all its own; the scripture verse repeated over and over trying to heal the grief, ask forgiveness, accept the diagnosis. In my talk, I even dared to propose that belting out “Copacabana” with the oldies station as you file choir music—even that can be caught up as a heart-song in the Spirit. All of these songs help us ready ourselves to return to ministry again and yet again, renewed by the Spirit who renews the whole face of the earth through myriad songs.
Harder, it seems to me, is to open my ears broadly and honestly to discern the song of the Spirit not only in my life, but in the life of the world around me. I struggled to hear the Spirit singing in the voice of the homeless teen outside the grocery store asking me to buy just a sandwich and a bottle of water for him. Would the Ruach Hakodesh sing in the voices of the young (and not-as-young) adults trying to learn to read with my assistance were I to volunteer as a tutor? It may be the case that the Spirit needs to spiral more deeply into my heart, so that my ears open more widely to hear the Spirit-song of the world.
There is a widespread, though not unanimous, view that Ephesians/Colossians were written by a follower of Paul, perhaps in his name while he was imprisoned. So on the matter of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (and how we are to sing them) for an interpretive lens, we can turn to First Corinthians, a letter undisputed in its authorship by the Apostle Paul:
“So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” (1 Corinthians 14:15, NABRE)
In this short passage, I think that we have the key to grasping that musical list given both in Ephesians and Colossians. It’s part of a longer section in which Paul is trying to guide his problem children in Corinth away from the razzle-dazzle of things like ecstatic speech (what we would refer to as tongues) or spontaneous street-corner prophesying when that razzle-dazzle isn’t grasped and interpreted so that the Good News of Christ might be proclaimed. Razzle-dazzle can never be the object, a thing unto itself, because then it turns into an idol: something that blocks, impedes, or stands between us and God.
This short passage is also a crucial key to our own week-by-week ministry. Not only are we called upon to increase both our spirit and understanding in ministry, but as servant-leaders we must empower our assemblies with both spirit and understanding.
Wherever, whenever, with whatever we do it, the psalmist’s command to sing the Lord, and Paul’s command to sing to Lord must lead us toward a song renewed and nourished by a deep and abiding spirit spiraling both inward and outward, toward a profound and enduring understanding.