Last Friday, I ran to the service of Lauds, leaving the house a little later than usual and feeling disturbed about something that I couldn’t shake. I wanted to just “wall off” for a few minutes while I went to the service, but the thought went through my head: “Don’t harden your heart.”
I threw on my robe, checked the page numbers in my service book, and hoped I wouldn’t be late. As I sat down, the words of the opening antiphon leapt off the page: “If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” The tune started, and I found my spirit lifting.
This particular antiphon is chanted every weekday at Lauds during Lent, giving us this message every day. What amazed me was that as I saw, and heard, this antiphon again for the first time this year, it was like hearing the voice of an old friend say my name after not having seen him for many months. There was no condemnation, but rather a hopeful sound that I would welcome again in my own ears and heart.
This is one of the most beautiful aspects of chant — its return! In the annual repetition of this antiphon, it has become part of my own spiritual life. This can be and is true for any chant learned, repeated, and savored — it will become part of you in unexpected ways and unimagined moments — even when running late to a service!
Last Sunday, I chose the path less traveled. That is to say, I refused to walk around, behind and through a building to get to my destination. Instead I followed a shorter path. Shorter, but ice-covered. With turtle-like steps, I wobbled atop a good three inches of frozen water. I sometimes wonder where memories come from. Not scientifically, but, why-and why now? My twenty-five yard journey from one door to the other stirred “the memory pot.” As a child, I lived in awe of my older sister and her best friend. We grew up country in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. They often took their younger siblings on adventures, and in the winter dare devil sledding and ice skating on Hettenbaugh Creek topped the list. One very cold night, we built a small fire on the bank of that creek, and skated beneath a star-laden sky. It was magic created, not digitally or by a list of gifted people whose names are read at the end of a movie. It was melded creation and courage, grounded in trust that we were loved and watched over. No foolishness, mind you, but neither was there doubt we would return home frozen but victorious.
One of the ways I have often known God to talk to me is through other people, and at often unexpected moments. Last Tuesday, in the middle of a physical therapy appointment for my back, the therapist said rather plainly, “if your back starts to hurt doing an exercise, the answer here is not to push through the pain.” This was sort of a side-bar comment in between sets of exercises as she gave me the next set of instructions. Inside of me, everything froze for a split second, and these words were emblazoned in my ears and minds-eye like a bright neon light.
Laying there on my back on top of the physio-ball, I immediately felt like these words were coming from God. As God often seems to be, His help was simple, clear…and unexpected! “The answer here is not to push through the pain.” Right away I knew this was God’s answer to a prayer I’d been specifically asking for guidance and clarity of direction on since early Monday morning. (The prayer request had nothing to do with my back)
Initially I was so excited I wanted to ask the therapist to: 1) please repeat what she had just said, 2) if there was any more to the message from God? 3) could she possibly answer a few more questions I have for the Almighty?! I’m sure she had no idea that she might have been speaking on behalf of God. Nevertheless, I still believe she was. I think God used those words to care for me, and to assure me once again that he is listening, and responding to our prayers.
All of the Proper chants for the first Sunday of Lent come from Psalm 91. In reading through them — from the Introit Antiphon to the Communion Antiphon –I was amazed that all of the texts focus on God’s love and protection.
Lent is a uniquely rich time for Gregorian chant. One notable difference between Lent and the other seasons is that there is a completely different set of Propers for each DAY, as opposed to each WEEK. Also, the texts for the Lenten chants are drawn from many different psalms and other Old Testament passages. What an incredible emphasis on God’s love and mercy for the beginning of Lent.
Psalm 91 also appears every night in the Divine Office of Compline. I find it so moving that that compliant has a long-standing connection with the season of Lent — times of physical and sometimes personal spiritual darkness. Psalm 91 bursts forth in both places, speaking of God’s love “covering us with His wings.” I believe this is one of the most beautiful and powerful moments in all of the Gregorian repertory, as it reminds us at the beginning of this season and every night before we go to sleep, just how much we are beloved of God.
Credit: 5070 – Music – Gregorian Chant mw.mcmaster.ca275 × 400
Greetings from snow-entrenched Cape Cod! I spoke to someone yesterday who still loves snow, in spite of our current situation. Me? I’m ready to move on. Weather-enforced “quiet moments” in front of the fire no longer charm. Gazing at drifts and snow engraved foot prints does not delight me. I’m a house-bound fire cracker waiting for a match. But I’m aware I need to accept what God offers, in whatever form it comes. I have edges in need of smoothing and a will in need of taming. Isaiah 40:4 tells usthat, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” If snow is the agent, so be it.
It’s a shame that lent has so many negative connotations. The introit Mass Proper for Ash Wednesday opens the liturgical season with these words:
“Your mercy extends to all things, O Lord, and you despise none of the things you have made. You overlook our sins for the sake of repentance. You grant them your pardon, because you are the Lord our God.” —Wisdom 11:24-25, 27; Psalm 57 (56)
For any of us who struggle with self-acceptance, what a wonderful time to lean in towards a merciful God who made no mistakes in His creation. I still have so much to learn about this God of love.
In his eloquent poem titled “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot finishes the poem with a beautiful prayer-like litany to the Blessed Virgin. As we start this penitential and joy-filled season, I hope that my heart will echo his poetic words.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden, Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto thee
I started to write this blog four different times this morning. I try to pray and meditate each week on some aspect of chant about which to write. Sometimes the ideas appear quickly and sometimes, like today, they did not. However, as I started over for the fifth time, I realized that the Kyrie chant from the Gregorian daily ordinary time mass was quietly going through my head. Very gently, this simple tune was repeating itself over and over. The chant itself carries a profound cry – “Lord, have mercy” and yet is no more complex than a nursery rhyme tune.
I wanted to share this with you for two reasons. One, it is often the simplest of chants which become part of our subconscious, just as children’s songs do, through both their simplicity and daily repetition. (You can find this Kyrie online and make it part of your daily prayers – see p. 56 of the pdf located at this link: http://media.musicasacra.com/pdf/kyriale-solesmes.pdf).
The second reason I wanted to share this with you is that the Lord was using the chant the entire time I had been trying to “figure out what to write.” I had not been listening. God had been singing an answer to my request the entire time but I was not settled enough to listen. This time, I believe, the Lord himself was chanting into my ears a message that He wanted written and that I needed for that moment.
In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus tells us not to be anxious. He reassures us he’s in control, and we have nothing to worry about. I’ve always found comfort in that concept, but I think its intent is more than to make me feel better. It really is a command and an important one, mentioned multiple times in the New Testament. Jesus knows what we can carry and what we cannot. When I allow my mind to dwell on all things negative, I become weak and ineffectual. I’m no longer a spiritual warrior, focused on my spiritual journey. Worrier or Warrior — it’s a daily choice.
Have you ever asked yourself honestly, does God love me? While the answer YES! comes quickly to mind, I know many times today I’ll ask myself this question and doubt. Over small worries, unfairness, fears — and over situations I don’t know how to handle, or am powerless to change — I’ll ask this question and doubt.
These words from Henri Nouwen’s well-known meditations on the story of the Prodigal Son are hopeful in bridging the gap of faith between knowing about God’s love, and allowing oneself to live inside of this love. Nouwen shares: ‘For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life–pray always, work for others, read the scriptures–and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?”
I’m certain I put forth much extra work to answer the wrong questions; extra efforts to “find God,” and to “know God” rather than simply allowing myself to be loved by him. Nouwen continues: “But if I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God’s love and discover that God’s vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch, but rather that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude.”
I have so much to be grateful for, all the time, every day.
I live in a wing of our Convent called “Elim”. It’s a Biblical name that means oasis, a shelter in the desert, a place of serenity and refuge. I’m fully aware that my personality brings daily chaos to the oasis, and that its godly purpose rests on fragile ground. One thing I can do is help create order and beauty in the space itself. I discovered an interesting verse, Psalm 93:5, that says: Your statutes, Lord, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days. It occurred to me that all places (and people) dedicated to God should be adorned with holiness. I’m not sure what all that means, but I do know that beauty in ordinary things is an important component.