We had a very interesting talk in our schola rehearsal concerning the nature of the Advent II Propers for Eucharist. It seemed that the chants were not just gently speaking to us, but rather, yelling to us to pay attention! No matter whether it was the introit with its bold declamation of, “People of Sion, the Lord comes to save the Gentiles,” or the Communion antiphon Jerusalem surge with its musical command that Jerusalem should, “Stand up!”, the opening of each chant says it all:
Many of our chant schola members either have teenage children or have worked with them and everyone seemed to agree that these chants sounded like they were addressing “sleepy teens” who just didn’t quite want to get up for school!
Though it may sound funny, that imagery worked! Everyone immediately understood and the chant swept into an entirely new life and sound! Amazing it is that chant is so profound and simple that it can touch the most commonplace areas of everyday life while speaking of the God’s truth and love!
Yesterday I spent most of the day travelling on a rather stifling bus from Bamenda to Yaounde, Cameroon’s capitol. After a good nine hours, I arrived around 5:30 pm, the dirt and dust having settled visibly on me.
I was greeted at the bus stop by the niece of my Pastor friend with whom I would be staying, telling me, “We’re going to Church.” What?! Really?! I say to myself, glancing down at my disheveled habit. What I thought I needed was supper, washing up, and an early night.
The service was well underway by the time we arrived, complete with a lively band and choir. It was a great time of praising God and I didn’t even check my watch!
What I needed and what I got, was a great chance to give back to God my thanks for the ways I have seen Him personally watch out for me. I felt less tired than when we began.
I just returned from a weekend “Chant Retreat” in Barga, Italy — two days of sharing together, preparing for Advent. Once again we experienced the incredible way in which this prayer can unite us in spite of language or cultural barriers. The retreat was held in both English and Italian, but really since all the chanting was in Latin we shared that common ground.
We began by singing the Salve Regina. Everyone in Italy knows this piece by heart, and no matter what their current connection with God or the church, singing these words together seems to bring a feeling of family. After this we studied some basic points of Gregorian chant, learned the De Angelis Mass and a Vespers service. Another wonderful point of meeting was that so many in Italy still have this Mass in their childhood memory so when we sang it in church that Sunday, the priest and much of the congregation joined right in!
Unlike many of our retreats in the US, the Italians were more interested in being together than studying and in that way it was a nice time of community as we learned, explored, listened. One of the poignant moments was just listening to some chants about Mary and “coloring” as we listened. No heady brainwork — just letting it wash over us as prayer.
It seems we all came away from the time renewed in some way and though we gained some knowledge about chant, it seemed to be more about experiencing the life it can give as we spend time with it — a good thing to ponder as we begin Advent…
I recently had the gift to care for my Mom as she was dying. It was amazing to go through the experience with her, that she went about with such faith, grace and trust. The process of dying and preparing for heaven unfolded before my very eyes.
As I was clipping her fingernails, the memory of her clipping my fingernails as a little child came rushing into my head and overwhelmed me. Yes, roles certainly do reverse. I realized in that and other simple acts, she was letting go, and beginning the process of looking toward her journey home. As she continued in that journey, her trust in God and in others grew. Gradually she lost her ability to walk, and talk clearly, and if she said a word or a sentence, we would be listening with baited breath, as a parent would with its baby’s first words. It was almost like she was gradually changing to be more child-like so she could be “born into heaven” on the other side. It seems like death is something that we struggle with because we are so afraid of the unknown and of letting go. When I thought of that, I remembered I had filed a poem my Dad had written twenty-six years ago that was similar to that very thought:
When We were Born, and When We Die
When we were born, we also died
To life, as seen and lived inside
Our mother’s womb, where safe and warm
We’d lain protected from the storm,
And from the threat of living life outside.
When we were born, we kicked and cried,
Resisting change and terrified
Of life, unknown, upon this earth.
To us, ’twas death instead of birth,
We could not see a door was opening wide.
As so it is, that when we die,
We’re also born to life on high.
No foe is death, a friend is she:
Opening the door, she sets us free.
Gone fear and pain, as to our Lord we fly.
The organ has been called the voice of the church. The bells are an exterior voice of the church, and are considered part of the worship. The bells are rung to call people to worship, in times of praise and celebration, in times of mourning, and when members take vows.
Recently, a peal of bells was rung for the first time in over two years in the Northern Iraq town of Bartella after they recaptured it. Bartella was once home to thousands of Assyrian Christians who fled after the Islamic State seized control as part of a lightning blitz in the area.
St. Matthew’s Church had had the crosses removed from the steeples and the bell tower and the religious statues defaced. What a joyous occasion to be able to ring the bells after reclaiming the town.
Some of the sisters in my Convent are members of a choir. I’ve noticed that they hear things that I don’t—the singing of a bird in the distance, the vibrations of a jackhammer, someone clearing his throat. It’s not that I am hard of hearing; it’s that my ear is not trained to listen in the same way. One choir member told me, “We have to listen acutely to the other singers so we can blend.” Listening is part of the spiritual life, too. It takes practice to listen interiorly for God’s direction. This explains to me why some people seem to hear so clearly. They have trained their inner ear through habitual prayer. I find this encouraging. No one (including me) can really say, “I can’t hear God,” and stop there. But we can say, “I haven’t listened hard enough, and I’m going to keep listening until my ear is trained.”
This past Sunday morning I went to the sisters chapel early for some time before the Eucharist service. While I was sitting there, a young man walked in and headed straight for the altar. With a bag in hand, he knelt there to pray silently. After a time, he got up and left, leaving behind his bag in front of the altar which I could then see held a bewildered looking hen, clucking at her strange environment. The only words spoken were between him and God.
I thought about it for quite some time, thinking that for this young man, this was certainly a sacrifice and perhaps all he could give.
A gift given from the heart is not too small for God.
We often hear the phrase “chant is so peaceful.” Certainly, many chants do have an inherent sense of peace about them. But not all of them — sometimes the chant demands our attention, insisting that we stand up and listen!
Last week, the communion antiphon at the Church of the Transfiguration began with the text “Amen, dico vobis.” Translated, that means “So be it, I say to you.” These words of Jesus are not set to a gentle recitation but rather burst forth on a trumpet-like motive that leaves no room for doubt that we need to listen to Jesus’ words that follow.
All week, I found myself “hearing” that trumpet motive from other times of the church year. In fact that same sound occurs in the communion for Pentecost — “Factus est repente de caelo sonus” (A mighty sound came rushing out of Heaven); the introit for Christmas Day mass — “Puer natus est” (A boy is born unto us); the procession for Palm Sunday — “Hosanna, Filio David” (Hosanna to the Son of David), to name a few. In moments, I had been taken through much of the church year, reminded by a simple musical motive of the Kingship of Christ.
This year I had the opportunity to live with and care for one of our Community members as she was dying. As she turned her face more and more towards heaven, I saw some simple but profound changes in her and am realizing as I process this experience that I have much to learn from her.
I noticed three big changes, and I think they are interrelated. The first change is that she became so grateful for the smallest things. There was a sincere “thank you” for any kindness or help that was shown. The second change is she found beauty in the ordinary. Obviously, there is beauty everywhere if we take the time to find it, and appreciate it. It was overwhelming to listen and look when she found beauty in the blue of the sky or in a fish jumping in a lake.
The third change was most incredible. I watched her change from a woman of apprehension and concerns into someone at peace who trusted God and those caring for her. She knew God’s love.
I believe as I turn my face towards His heavenly light, I can make the choices of being grateful and finding beauty, so in turn, I can trust Him in His love.
Last week at the feast of All Saints part of our ringing band at the Church of the Transfiguation rang some plain courses of Stedman doubles for the very first time to help celebrate the day with special ringing. Plain courses are the basic pattern of a method without having any calls from a conductor to swap individual bells onto different tracks in order to extend it. The Stedman pattern (“method” – technically a “principle”) is one of the most ancient compositions in English change-ringing and is also considered among the most pretty or tuneful. Our rendition may not quite have reached that level, but it’s a start (literally)!
Ringing for All Saints put me in mind of being stationed at our community’s mission house in Barga, Italy last year (Villa Via Sacra, whose purpose is to house and host outreaches in sacred art and spirituality). All Saints — Ogni Santi — is a huge feast in Italy where families unite to honor their dear departed with the most elaborate floral displays in all their cemeteries. And as one might expect the campanelli (bell ringers) in Italy’s churches have developed special and elaborate ringing traditions for it as well.
I was privileged to do some simple ringing with members of the Barga band in the belfry of its main church (Duomo) near the villa. It is a venerable tradition over there, and every church small or great has its gruppo campanile. Attached is a video showing my 2 Italian ringing teachers Christian and Franco performing their style of All Saints ringing in the Duomo campanile. With all of life’s uncertainties it’s good to find oneself in a stream of tradition. And hopefully the ringing itself can encourage others!