29th Sacred Music Institute Trains and Inspires
By Christopher Holwey, Chair of the Department of Sacred Music
The Sacred Music Institute (SMI), held this year from July 23-27 at Antiochian Village, has been getting better each year. I'm not being biased simply in my role as the Department Chair. Rather, looking at the SMI's progression from year to year, I see the quality of our instructors, speakers, and program, improving on an academic and spiritual level.
More than ever, this year our speakers were educated and trained musically and theologically, coming from many of our Orthodox jurisdictions. They helped our participants grow in the same way, musically, technically, vocally, and theologically, in their understanding of Orthodoxy and the sacred music of our Church. We learned the hymns of our Church with regard to our theme, "Pascha," and then we presented this music in a concert, utilizing the talents of our Sacred Music Chorale and our newly formed Byzantine Choir.
We also provided this spiritual and musical growth and education to our teens as well in our Youth Music Ministry Program (YMM). They were so excited to be there, they were beaming the whole time, even late at night. They asked us (not we of them) if they could pray Little Compline at 11:00 p.m.; and when they were done, they stayed afterward to sing more hymns of the Church, on their own! It was simply fantastic to watch them, to hear them, and to see their joy for the Faith.
How was the 29th Annual SMI and 3rd annual YMM Program this year? Simply glorious! I can only imagine how close this experience must be to being in heaven itself, with our bishops, priests, and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially this year, since we were singing the hymns of Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, and learning about all of its various services. It was a real joy to be with old friends again and to meet new ones from all over, celebrating, singing, praying, teaching, learning, laughing, and growing spiritually together in the Faith. People were very excited to be there, to learn more about chanting, singing in a choir, and being the director of the choir.
Our instructors and participants throughout the week all see the improvements to the SMI and YMM Program as well. I was encouraged to hear their positive feedback and to see how we are all learning and growing together, sharing our thoughts and ideas, and helping each other to become more than we ever thought we could be on our own, through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit working and moving in all of us.
One of our instructors, Ruth, summed it up best: "Tears fall down my face as I think of the many personal blessings I received this year at the SMI. ... I am lifted up to continue to work as best I can in whatever circumstances I find myself in my music ministry and along with my fellow musicians at my home parish." These same thoughts were expressed by many of our participants.
A highlight was listening to our Keynote Speaker, Bishop Anthony, who stretched our minds and hearts, leadings us to new understanding and spiritual growth. Ruth reflected on his address, saying that "he addressed us on the deep level of knowing who we are in the truest sense of the word, in our relationship to God. One of my favorite quotes was 'It's not good to run from the mystery you can't find.' We need endurance and patience to fight the good fight. We are a mystery to ourselves because sin clouds our perception. We need to understand 'where we came from, who we are, and where we are going' so we do not fall prey to the deceptions of secularism."
One of the great highlights of the week was when we honored Fr. Elias Bitar for all the many years of music, chanting, teaching, and friendship he has given to all of us at the SMI, in our Sacred Music Department, and in our entire Archdiocese. Our concert this year was in his honor, and afterward, we presented him with a photo album of memories from many of his past years with us. He then sang for us the Doxastikon from Vespers of the Dormition, the one that has all eight tones in it! What a joy! God grant you many years, dear Fr. Elias!
All in all, it was a most beautiful extended weekend. A tremendous THANK YOU goes out to Paul Jabara, who coordinated it all, and our wonderful staff of gifted instructors, who made it all possible. Thank you, also, to the staff at the Antiochian Village for your warmth and hospitality.
After being so inspired by all of the things that we were taught and experienced, it is now our responsibility to take that spark of Pascha back to our parishes, to inspire each of our parishioners, and even our priests and deacons, to glorify and praise our God in such a way that will inspire others in America to "Come and see" and experience for themselves the rightly-believing Orthodox Church of Christ. I look forward to being there next year, and so should you, to celebrate our 30th year, with even greater beauty and splendor, as we sing the praises of the God, our God, who has given us this most beautiful life.