Music and Theology: Saint Augustine meets Richard Hooker

There is an old Latin formula that is used to describe the relationship between worship and belief – lex orandi, lex credendi – which, roughly translates as ‘the way you pray determines the way you believe.’ ‘Prayer’ in this context, though it does not exclude private contemplation, refers primarily to corporate worship, chiefly the liturgy, which has always involved some form of music. Thus, music (particularly singing) is intimately bound up with belief, and one could say that they way we sing (at least in part) determines the way we believe.

Saint Augustine is often misquoted (by myself, on many occasions) as saying ‘he who sings prays twice’. The actual text referred to here is taken from his Enarration in Psalmum (Expositions on the Psalms), specifically his treatment of Psalm 72 (73):

For he that singeth praise, not only praiseth, but only praiseth with gladness: he that singeth praise, not only singeth, but also loveth him of whom he singeth. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.

Ennaratio in Psalmum, LXXIII

            Essentially what Augustine is saying is that the difference between regular praise in prayer, and that done in singing, is love, at least in its emotive aspect. In singing we cannot help but be raised up to a feeling of affection, and thereby love wells up within us. This fits well with something else that he wrote – ‘cantare amantis est’ or ‘singing belongs to one who loves’ (Sermon 336). Here the great Doctor suggests that the very practice of singing belongs to one who has a loving disposition – that to make the decision to sing in fact presupposes at the very least an orientation of the will towards love.

We can see then a spiral process, whereby one decides to sing the praises of the beloved (i.e.; God) because of a disposition of the will, but that even if this disposition is not accompanied by any feelings, the act of singing both confirms this volitional orientation, and also deepens it by marrying it to emotional currents associated with being in love, or of adoration. This dynamic relationship is characteristic of the mutual enrichment suggested in the lex ordandi, lex credendi formula.

Richard Hooker, in the fifth book of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, describes a similar connection between music and the affections, but this time with respect to music in general, and not just singing alone:

Touching musical harmony whether by instrument or by voice, it being but of high and low in sounds a due proportionable disposition, such notwithstanding is the force thereof, and so pleasing effects it hath in that very part of man which is most divine, that some have been thereby induced to think that the soul itself by nature is or hath in it harmony…

…The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible means, the very standing, rising and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea, so to imitate them, that whether it resemble us unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other. In harmony the very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves.’

The Works of Richard Hooker (1888), Volume II, pp.159-160.

            Hooker draws out a further implication of the response of the human soul to music here, when he suggests that ‘the soul itself by nature is or hath in it harmony’ – a profound recognition that our response to beauty, and in particular to music, is a kind of sign of our soul’s innate correspondence with the divine; that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and it is in listening to or performing music that the divine imprint upon our souls is most noticeably evidenced and confirmed.

Anecdotally speaking, it is something often found to be the case that when listening to music, or indeed performing it (and in performance, particularly during vocal or choral work), the listener or performer is somehow transported or ‘taken up’ into the music. This (fairly) common experience would seem to be what Hooker is talking about, and his suggestion that there is something in the soul that corresponds to musical harmony is backed up by this shared experience. This all of course rests on the assumption that there is something of the divine in musical harmony itself. I feel that this is a safe assumption to make, as beauty (and music does undoubtedly transmit that) is widely considered to be one of the ‘transcendentals’ that leads us to God, even being an aspect of the divine nature.

What I feel is the main import of Hooker and Saint Augustine’s words though, is that music, as a particularly affective aspect of worship, plays an essential part in our coming to know God. Doing theology is not just a matter of learning about the different divine attributes, or deepening our knowledge of God by engaging with Scripture and developing a clearer picture of Jesus, or extracting boundaries and definitions of the Faith from the basic data of Scripture and Tradition (indispensable as all these are). It is also about engaging the heart and soul, which include under their remit the affections or emotions, and whilst I certainly would not want to advocate a theology that placed too much emphasis on these features of our being, neither can they be neglected.

Theology addresses the whole person, which is why although in seeking to get to know God it is important to accrue knowledge about Him, what we do with our bodies in our worship (kneeling, making the sign of the cross, etc) can inculcate an attitude or disposition that also helps further and deepen that relationship; furthermore, it is due to our embodied natures that the physical nature of the sacraments is so important – ours is not a gnostic religion. Similarly, how our affections and aesthetic faculties are catered for during worship can help to deepen, enhance, or restrict our connection with God.

Again, I certainly do not believe (as some, alas, do) that having a highly developed aesthetic sense should be confused with ‘being spiritual’, or that having good music at a service is a substitute for sound doctrine; but it is vitally important that the whole person is satisfied and thus given every opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with God. A situation where the speculative intellect is convinced and rituals performed regularly, but where the affective life is left untouched, is one where the whole person is not being addressed, and so the entirety of the self cannot be given over to God. Thus it is vital that music be part of ordinary worship, and not just any music, but such that is spiritually edifying, that ennobles the soul and lifts it out of itself towards its Creator, so that (to return to the words of Hooker), the ‘very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves.

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4 thoughts on “Music and Theology: Saint Augustine meets Richard Hooker

  1. Thanks for this very interesting posting. For many years I have heard (in French religious communities) the tag attributed to St Augustine ‘if you want to know what we believe, come and see what we sing’. I just wonder if you or any of your readers would know the origin of that. It is cited by the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem in much of their literature but even they cannot find its origins. Thank you.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thank you for your comment. I am afraid I don’t know the origin of the phrase you mention, although it does sound very much like something Saint Augustine would have said! The general thrust of the statement is basically the same as that of lex orandi, lex credendi (‘the law of prayer is the law of belief’ – i.e.; the Church believes as she prays), which, interestingly enough, is a principle first alluded to by Saint Prosper of Aquiaine (390-455), who was a disciple of Augustine!

      What Saint Prosper wrote was actually legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (or ‘the law of praying establishes the law of believing’) but again, the principle is basically the same. Anyway, I think that, regardless of where and when this phrase was first formulated, the principle of prayer and belief being inextricably linked and mutually supportive is a foundational one that can be seen all the way throughout Christian history – read the earliest Church Fathers and you can see how important liturgy is to them, as well as how much of their arguments for doctrine are along the lines of ‘this is how the Church has always worshipped, and therefore doctrine x is or is not acceptable on the basis of whether it fits the pattern and content of that worship’.

      To return to Saint Augustine though, I would recommend reading a few of his homilies and discourses on the Psalms, as this principle is woven throughout his treatment of them. A good place to start would be with his homilies on Psalms 120-123 (the ‘gradual’ Psalms) and his commentary on Psalm 149. Hope some of this helps!

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