For most of my students, singing is a means of expression—a way of drawing out what is in us (the ex in expression). Athanasius very nearly inverts their reasoning: The first and most important outcome of singing the Psalms is impression. In singing, the truth of the Psalms is drawn into the depths of one’s being rather than out of the depths of one’s being.
Athanasius explains that “in the other books [of Scripture], those who read … are relating the things that were written about those earlier people.” Imagine an ancient preacher reading to his church the story of Moses and the burning bush. As the story is read, there are two separate actors: Moses, and the preacher, who is reading about Moses. In this sort of reading, Athanasius says, “those who listen consider themselves to be other than those about whom the passage speaks.”
On the one hand is Moses, who is worshiping; on the other hand is the congregation, who is listening to the account of Moses worshiping. In contrast, Athanasius says, consider the Psalms: “He who takes up this book … recognizes [the words] as being his own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he himself were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs” (my emphasis).
For Athanasius, the first virtue of the Psalms is not that they allow me to express my emotions. Rather, singing the Psalms makes it possible for me to express Moses’ or David’s emotions as my own (“as if they were his own songs”). Singing is first of all an act of imitating. I take another person’s words, another person’s declaration, on my own lips and into my own heart. For Athanasius, singing begins as impression rather than as expression.