Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Romanos, whose account is found in Volume 4 of the series.)
Saint Romanos Melodos
The many great gifts that God has lavished on man since the dawn of civilization have given us men such as Leonardo da Vinci, the left-handed artist of many talents, and William Blake, a gifted poet, artist, and visionary, but seldom has there appeared a man whose gift for musical composition has been coupled with an equally gifted voice. It is doubtful that Handel could render vocally any part of his Messiah as beautifully as he wrote it. This was the case in the early sixth century, when church music was the only sound of any consequence, of a man named Romanos, whose inspirational gift of composition was beautiful but his voice was, unfortunately, quite harsh.
Born in Emesa, Syria, in the latter part of the fifth century, Romanos entered the service of the Lord as deacon of the Orthodox Church of Beirut, Lebanon, a city caught in deplorable conflict and which has commanded headlines in more recent times, but which in the day of Romanos was at peace. Inasmuch as the liturgy of the Church is enhanced by the sound of a good voice, Romanos found himself at an extreme disadvantage because, no matter how hard he tried, his voice was not only rasping but atonal as well. He made up for this shortcoming with his gift for composing sacred songs which stamped him as a hymnographer without equal.
In 486 Romanos was transferred to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Constantinople, solely on the merits of his creative ability and certainly not because of the manner in which he sang his compositions. Whenever his voice was heard in the service, the congregation did not have to look to see whence the sound emanated because only his voice could produce such an inferior monotone. His defective tone was overlooked by the Church Fathers not only because of his creative talent but also because of his steadfastness in his efforts to glorify the name of Jesus Christ. No harsh tone could disfigure the image he projected in the name of the Savior.
Romanos had resigned himself to a fate that was destined to be much less than he had hoped for, when one night there appeared before him in a dream the lovely vision of the Virgin Mary, who gently told him not to despair. Blessing him with her right hand, she held forth in her left hand a short scroll. Romanos awoke in a state of purest ecstasy for which every Christian hungers. He forthwith took himself to the church and ascended the pulpit with the scroll in his hand, thereupon bursting into a glorious song of praise, known as the kontakion, which then meant a sermon in verse; today it is a synonym for an abbreviated hymn.
Romanos could not believe what he heard. His voice had been transformed from the raucous to the lyrical, and he expressed his joy in even more song, delighting in the sweet tone he was now able to produce. After some moments, he retired to his room to offer prayers of thanksgiving to the Virgin Mary for having given him the gift for which he had so earnestly prayed and with which he would sing the praises of the Lord for the remainder of his life.
On the following Sunday, the service commenced as usual. When it came time for the voice of Romanos to be heard, the participants steeled themselves for the accustomed cacophony that would ensue, but when the stentorian tone rolled across the church like the sound of a heavenly angel, the stunned listeners stood transfixed.
When he had finished, the confused priest signaled him to continue and once again the resonant voice reverberated in the house of God, and then it dawned on one and all that a miracle had occurred, and they joined in a prayer of thanks for this display of the power of God.
Now hailed as the “Melodious One,” Romanos died on October 1, 510, and with his last breath offered his classic Christian hymn. “The Virgin today brings forth the all-powerful, and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable. Angels give glory with shepherds, and the Magi journey with the star, when for our sakes was born as a young child, He who is from eternity, God.”
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.