FINDING YOUR VOICE (Part I)
THE AKATHIST HYMN FOR LEADERS
by Frank Marangos D.Min., Ed.D.
“I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.”
Last week, Christians throughout the globe began their respective Paschal journeys. While Catholics marked the official start of their Lenten pilgrimage on Ash Wednesday, Orthodox Christians inaugurated their 40-day preparation for Easter on Clean Monday – a day set aside for “cleaning out” (eliminating) unhealthy food, thoughts, resentments, and habits from their homes, minds, bodies, and souls. Apart from inviting the faithful to a period of fasting, repentance, and introspection, the 40-day liturgical cycle concluding with the joy of Easter (April 16), can be used to help leaders develop their authentic voice.
Humanity hungers for the authentic voice of trustworthy leaders. Unfortunately, competing shepherds – political, economic, emotional, and spiritual – have often steered society in hazardous directions. As a way of helping interested readers to rediscover their respective voice, the next four commentaries of Frankly Speaking will focus on a variety of Lenten themes that encourage self-examination and reflection. In particular, emphasis will be given to the inspirational liturgical poem of the Orthodox Christian Church commonly referred to as the Akathist Hymn.
The Akathist Hymn is a devotional liturgical elegy that focuses on the cosmic impact of Jesus and His Holy Mother. Belief in the incarnation of God the Son through Mary, declared a dogma of Christianity at the Council of Ephesus (431), is the basis for referring to Mary as the Mother of God or “Theotokos” (Giver of God). As the veneration of Mary is a natural consequence of Christology, both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches provide various devotions, prayers, pious acts, visual arts, poetry, and music devoted to her. It must here be emphasized, however, that she is venerated as an intercessor and not worshiped as a co-redemptrex.
Chanted in four distinct sections during the first four Fridays of Great Lent, the Akathist Hymn is integrated into the evening’s Compline Service for the specific purpose of praising the virtues of the Blessed Mother. Composed in the Byzantine Empire’s imperial city of Constantinople during the 6th Century by Saint Romanos the Melodist, the Akathist Hymn describes how various scriptural personalities had their physical and spiritual needs satisfied through an encounter with Christ and His Holy Mother.
The Akathist Hymn extols the “opening of the mouth” in praise of the virtues and marvels of the Mother of Jesus, or Theotokos (“God-Giver”), as she is referred to throughout the poem. We do so by following the example of the Holy Virgin who is referred to in a primary hymn of the service as the “Champion Leader” and the “never-silent Voice of the Apostles.” Apart from expressing gratitude and praise to God, the Hymn’s 24 stanzas have provided worshipers throughout the ages an opportunity to examine their respective personal as well as societal dilemmas against the backdrop of Mary’s vital participation in the economy of salvation.
Voice is a central theme of the Akathist Hymn used by the hymnographer as a poetical cypher to disclose significant theological insights concerning both the merits of the Incarnation and the virtues of the Theotokos. Its alphabetical acrostic structure, therefore, should not be underestimated as merely a mnemonic device. On the contrary, the Hymn’s lyric arrangement conveys the very formula for the design of a doxological vocabulary.
Apart from the Holy Mother’s dialogical questionings, three voices can be delineated in the Hymn’s first section (stanzass 1-6): (a) celestial, (b) unborn, and (b) human. While the beginning of the Hymn introduces the celestial voice of the Archangel, the “praise” of the yet unborn John the Baptist at the occasion of Mary’s visitation is described as “songs of leaping” in the womb of his mother Elizabeth. Finally, Section One concludes by recounting how Mary’s husband Joseph discovered his respective voice of praise after his initial suspicions concerning his young wife’s inexplicable pregnancy were dispelled and replaced with joy by the Holy Spirit.
In order to make its content more understandable to the majority of Orthodox Christians in America, the Hymn’s ancient stanzas, originally composed in Greek, have been expertly translated and are commonly chanted in English in many local communities. Where applicable, parishes might also consider providing formal gatherings where participants can examine the ramifications of the Hymn’s deep theology. While not immediately apparent, one option would be to specifically focus on topics pertaining to leadership. Apart from gathering to enjoy the poetic beauty of the liturgical service, the mystagogical gatherings could provide the faithful with valuable opportunities to discern, reflect, and discuss the implication of the Hymn’s content for their respective vocational voices.
What does it mean to “find your voice”? Voice is the articulation of strongly held beliefs. It is the manifestation of character. It is the ultimate definition of the purpose of an individual’s life. Voice, like the word vocation, comes from the Latin root vocare. While work is one of the many ways that voice can be expressed, “finding” one’s authentic voice entails developing clarity of life direction. It is ultimately the full expression of a leader’s true self.
In his article, “Leading in the Knowledge Worker Age,” published in The Leader of the Future II (2006), author, and business professor Stephen R. Covey discusses the importance of leaders “finding their own voice” and, thereby, leading in a way that both models and inspires authenticity. According to Covey, “tapping into the higher reaches of human genius and motivation—what we could call voice—requires a new mind-set, a new skill set, a new tool set—a new habit.”
“The pathway to the enormously promising side of today’s reality,” insists Covey, “is the voice of the human spirit—full of hope and intelligence, resilient by nature, boundless in its potential to serve the common good.” Voice, for Covey, also encompasses the soul of organizations that will survive, thrive, and have a profound impact on the future of the world. “Voice,” insists the author, “is of unique personal significance—significance that is revealed as we face our greatest challenges and that makes us equal to them.”
Covey suggests that voice is a combination of mind, heart, body and spirit. According to Covey, “voice is the pathway to greatness,” and is the overlapping of the four parts of humanity’s nature: body (PQ), mind (IQ), heart (SQ), and spirit (PQ). When these components overlap, insists Covey, leaders discover their Life’s true calling. Voice, consequently, lies at the nexus of talent, passion, need, and conscience. Authentic leaders engage in work that taps their talent (mind), fuels passion (heart) that rises from a great need in the world (body), that they feel drawn by conscience to meet (spirit). Therein, according to Covey, lies a “leader’s voice and their soul’s code.”
According to Covey, the development of voice entails answering four important questions within an evolving 4-step process. While the first question seeks to categorize what a leader is good at (mind-focused inquiry), Covey insists, that the leaders should also recognize their passion, what they love doing (heart). The subsequent two questions in the process respectively focus on the identification of personal and/or societal needs (body) and life meaning/purpose. In short, instead of promoting self-serving aspirations, authentic leaders should advance need-based agendas that their conscience directs them to pursue. These visions, according to Covey, verified, guided and reinforced by the inner tone of spirit, define a leader’s authentic voice.
The Akathist Hymn, examined through the lens of Covey’s 4-Step Process, yields valuable insights for leaders interested in having their vocational concentrations – their respective voices – confirmed and fortified by the Grace of God. Using the “Never-Silent Voice” of the Theotokos as a guide, such leaders can effectively utilize the Lenten cycle to undergo a deep transformative experience.
The following Matrix integrates Covey’s 4-Step Process with select stanzas of the First Section (Stanzas 1-6) of the Akathist Hymn. The Matrix can be used to facilitate private and group leadership discussions concerning the discovery and use of an authentic voice.
Like Covey, management expert Peter Drucker emphasizes the need for leaders to discover and use their authentic voice. “Today’s leaders,” Drucker warns, “must stop trying to be like others, but rather adopt their own style.” In his Harvard Business Review article “Managing Oneself,” he outlines a process for cultivating such a personalized voice. To do so, like Covey, he recommends that leaders come to a better understanding of themselves by answering the following foundational questions:
- What are my most valuable strengths and most dangerous weaknesses?
- How do I learn and work with others?
- What are my most deeply held values?
- In what type of work environment can I make the greatest contribution?
Finding voice is the same for an organization as it is for an individual. Consequently, the institutional Church, like its liturgical members, must nurture the vitality of its authentic voice. When Her faith-based leaders rise to address the culture, they should make certain that their message coincides with the Church’s interpretation of God’s Word and Will. Like the men of Issachar, “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32), the Church must be an effective voice to the culture that recognizes societal conditions and uses its Spirit-empowered Voice to help its members transform the world in the most effective of incarnational ways.
In his noteworthy article, entitled “The Nature and Use of Power in the Church” (2013), Norte Dame University professor Richard P. McBrien discusses the importance of the Church’s Voice in contemporary society. While he insists that the Church “is not an ordinary institution,” it should nonetheless, use its voice to facilitate the redemptive presence of God. Consequently, McBrien bemoans scholars that endorse the notion that the Church should only deal with ecclesiastical matters, and not interact with societal institutions. Alternatively, he insists that the Church is intertwined with society and therefore has an abiding obligation to use “proclamation . . . to lovingly exercise its authority, influence, and power.”
History is replete with ordinary individuals who became the voice of God to their generation. At the appointed hour and time each faithfully responded to God and, thereby, became His voice to the people they were called to guide. Through this evolving process, God’s Voice developed into their voice. “They spoke,” insists Jesus, “as one having authority and not as the Scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 7:29).
King David, one of Israel’s most distinguished Old Testament leaders, lamented his nation’s auditory spiritual dysfunction. Using his Psalmic voice to express God’s displeasure with their spiritual deafness, Moses wrote, “My people would not heed My voice. Israel would have none of Me” (Psalms 81:11). In other words, “If you would but listen to me, if you would trust me enough to open your mouths so I could fill them, nothing would be too difficult to overcome. Just open your mouths,” pleads God’s Voice, “trust and obey Me.”
To faithfully provide an authentic voice to the current generation, faith-based leaders must accept God’s invitation and humbly open their mouths to God. Unfortunately, due to social pressures, political correctness, and postmodern secularism many are reluctant to do so – fearing the consequences of employing their leadership associated with God’s message. However, like the denominations to which they belong, their voices should be heard in the community where they live, encouraging the weary, listening to the troubled, and ever ready to serve.
In 2015, three policemen and two firefighters from Spanish Fork, Utah, heard a mysterious voice that permanently changed the course of their lives. While responding to a report of an overturned car in the Spanish Fork River, the officers all heard an adult voice crying, “Help me!” When the five responders flipped the vehicle over, they were astonished to discover an 18-month old toddler named Lily still strapped to her car seat – alive! Unfortunately, her mother, Lynn Jennifer Groesbeck, had not survived the accident.
Authorities said that Lynn died when her car hit a cement barrier at the end of the bridge before it rolled over into the icy water. Unfortunately, the crash went unnoticed until a fisherman saw the wrecked car and notified police. Miraculously, the child was still alive after spending 14 hours underwater in the freezing river. Surprisingly, seven of the rescue workers on the scene had to be treated for hypothermia.
When asked, the officers had no explanation for the mysterious voice that appeared to come from inside the car. “I don’t know what I thought I heard,” said one officer. “I’m not typically a religious guy. But it’s hard to explain . . . it was definitely something. Where and why it came from, I’m not sure.”
If they are to discover their authentic voices, leaders must first discern, then faithfully consent to the Voice of God. Like the Spanish Fork responders, authentic leaders will follow the example of the Theotokos and faithfully heed God’s invitation to serve humanity’s needs through the effective stewardship of their minds, bodies, hearts, and souls. As members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, such leaders will enjoin their collective voices to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit and proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. In the end, such leaders will give Voice to the only Shepherd that can resurrect humanity from the icy streams of spiritual silence – Jesus Christ.