Athanasius of Alexandria, writing Marcellinus,* a deacon in his church, explains how suitable the psalms are for the different states of the soul:
If the point needs to be put more forcefully, let us say that the entire Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and of the truths of faith, while the Book of Psalms possesses somehow the perfect image for the souls’ course of life. For as one who comes into the presence of a king assumes a certain attitude, both of posture and expression, lest speaking differently he be thrown out as boorish, so also to the one who is running the race of virtue and wishes to know the life of the Savior in the body the sacred book first calls to mind the [passions] of the soul through the reading, and in this way represents the other things in succession, and teaches the readers by those words. . . . (14)
He continues along these lines,
Therefore, since the arrangement of the Psalms is of such a kind, it is then possible for the readers (as I said before) to discover in each one the stirrings and the equanimity of the soul appropriate to them, just as they can discover in relation to each the type and teaching. And it can be learned, likewise, what one says to be able to gratify the Lord, and by what sort of expressions it is possible to make amends for himself and to return thanks to the Lord. All this is to prevent falling into impiety on the part of the one who speaks strictly according to such phrases. For not only because of deeds, but also because of idle speech, we are obliged to render an account to the Judge. (15)
In what follows, Athanasius offers several examples of Psalms that help the believer speak to God appropriately in different situations. But what about the tunes? “It is important,” Athanasius replies, “not to pass over the question of why words of this kind are chanted with melodies and strains.” Some “simple” people believe that the psalms melodies exist to please the ear. “But this is not so”:
For Scripture did not seek out that which is pleasant and winning, but this also has been fashioned for the benefit of the soul, and for all number of reasons, but especially on account of two.
First, because it is fitting for the Divine Scripture to praise God not in compressed speech alone, but also in the voice that is richly broadened. . . . For thus it will be preserved that men love God with their whole strength and power.
The second reason is that, just as harmony that unites flutes effects single sound, so also, seeing that different movements appear in the soul–and in it is the power of reasoning, and eager appetite, and high-spirited passion, from the motion of which comes also the activity of the parts of the body–the reason intends man neither to be discordant in himself, nor to be at variance with himself. So the most excellent things derive from reasoning, while the most worthless derive from acting on the basis of desire. . . .(27)
In other words, music gives men more strength to praise God, and fitting melodies united with text represent beautifully the unity of the tripartite soul. Therefore intelligence should drive singing the Psalms:
In order that some such confusion not occur in us, the reason intends the soul that possesses the mind of Christ, as the Apostle said, to use this as a leader, and by it both to be a master of its passions and to govern the body’s members, so as to comply with reason. Thus, as in music there is a plectrum, so the man becoming himself a stringed instrument and devoting himself completely to the Spirit may obey in all his members and [passions], and serve the will of God. The harmonious reading of the Psalms is a figure and type of such undisturbed and calm equanimity of our thoughts. For just as we discover the ideas of the soul and communicate them through the words we put forth, so also the Lord, wishing the melody of the words to be a symbol of the spiritual harmony in a soul, has ordered that the odes be chanted tunefully, and the Psalms recited with song. . . . (28)
Those who do not recite the divine songs in this manner do not sing them wisely. They bring delight to themselves, but they incur blame . . .. But when they chant in the way mentioned earlier, so that the melody of the phrases is brought forth from the soul’s good order and from the concord with the Spirit, such people sing with the tongue, but singing also with the mind, they greatly benefit not only themselves but even those willing to hear them. . . .
Therefore the Psalms are not recited with melodies because of a desire for pleasant sounds. Rather, this is a sure sign of the harmony of the soul’s reflections. Indeed, the melodic reading is a symbol of the mind’s well-ordered and undisturbed condition. . . . For thus beautifully singing praises, he brings rhythm to his soul and leads it, so to speak, from disproportion to proportion. . . . And gaining its composure by the singing of the phrases, it becomes forgetful of the passions and, while rejoicing, sees in accordance the mind of Christ, conceiving the most excellent thoughts. (29)
*Athanasius, “A Letter of Athanasius, Our Holy Father, Archbishop of Alexandria, to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms,” in Athanasius: The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1980), 101-29.