by Sister Fidelis
Sometimes it’s just really nice to have Ordinary Time. Nothing special or elaborate, just the familiar and routine.
At these times in the Church year I really enjoy the routine of singing the psalmody with the regular antiphons and modes that we’ve sung for years and years. There’s something calming or reassuring about taking part in a tradition much bigger than yourself, and while of course that also includes special feasts and celebratory chant, it seems like the day-to-day repetition of these chants must give them a certain special strength and solid grounding. I think of monks and nuns over the centuries rising early in the morning, or in the middle of the night, or stopping in their workday and singing these very same Psalms with the very same antiphons and it’s kind of amazing! At our community we go through the rotation of Psalms in one month. Benedict’s community did this in one week, and certain desert fathers are said to have sung through all the Psalms every day!
We can take for example the Antiphon for Tuesday Lauds, “Salutare vultus mei Deus meus,” paired with Psalm 43. Here is a mode VI antiphon beginning on the very same pitches as the actual psalm intonation itself. A simple melody, it begins and ends on the home-tone, fa, and keeps to the very narrow range of a fifth. In a straightforward way it states its message: You are my Salvation, Lord my God. The antiphon marries perfectly in its melody and text with the Psalm that follows, and the “naturalness” of this chant allows us to easily move into a state of prayer and focus on the message. I think it is “little” chants just such as these that have kept the solid foundation over centuries.
This is the text of this morning’s Gregorian chant hymn from Lauds for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, by Prudentius (4th-5th c.). This is a tragic event in the history of God’s people. It is also referred to as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The Wise Men reported to King Herod that they were searching for the infant king of the Jews. This threatened Herod. To protect himself against being supplanted by this infant, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. No one knows who or how many were killed, so the Church honors them as a group of martyrs. Augustine of Hippo called them “buds killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.”
Hail, flowers of the martyrs, whom, at the very threshold of the light of life, the pursuer of Christ destroyed, as a whirlwind would roses in bud.
You are the first victims of Christ, the tender flock of the sacrificers; pure ones before the altar itself, you play with palms and crosses.
Glory be to you, O Lord, who are born of a virgin, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, for everlasting ages. Amen.
By Sr. Fidelis
We begin and end the office standing. Standing is a sign of reverence to God. As shown in paintings on the walls of the catacombs in Rome, the early Christians used to pray standing, with their arms uplifted. Although less familiar to us, standing was, for many centuries, the usual posture for communal prayer, and it is still the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches. In the Liturgy of the Hours, following the antiphon and intonation of the first half of the first psalm verse, we sit for the psalm. We stand again after chanting the first half of the last verse of each psalm, and bow for the Gloria Patri. Through all of these gestures, we are, as creatures, paying homage to God, our Creator, and to his majesty, and thus the gestures carry a weight of meaning far beyond the actual motions we make.
By Faithful Friar
One of the primary functions of our “100 plus” foot Bell Tower is to signal our Community that it is time to gather together and worship the Lord. We are part of a centuries old stream of Church tradition, calling the people of God to worship with the tolling of bells. It is appropriate that the steady rhythm of our daily offices should be summoned by the steady tolling of a bell. Fifteen minutes before each service of Midday and Vespers offices (Evensong on Saturdays), a single bell is tolled 40 times.
It is said this tradition began in Monastic houses in the early centuries of Christianity, St. Martin of Tours perhaps being the first to build a tower with large bells, like our own, in the 4th century. As we grow with our own bells, I feel certain our commitment to this time-honored practice will root us more firmly in our calling to the worship of God.
Lent begins this week, with Ash Wednesday. We associate Lent with a time of both repentance and hopeful renewal. The life of our Lord Jesus becomes a model for us to contemplate in a deeper way.
The first Sunday in Lent often includes the Gospel account of Jesus being led into the desert, where we has tempted by Satan, and fasted for 40 days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry.
This story is aptly portrayed in the Gospel Canticle Antiphon, Ductus est Jesus. This Mode I antiphon sticks to the lower part of the Modal range throughout, only touching on the Reciting Note LA three times, and never ascending above this pitch. It gives the piece a sense of gravity and mystery. One thing to note are the quilismas (saw-toothed notes) on the word Spiritu. They give an upward sense of energy to the text.
“Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, that he might be tempted by the devil; and when he had fasted for forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry”.
By Sr. Fidelis
Last week I had the privilege of touring the magnificent Siena Cathedral in Italy, where there was an entire library off to the left of the main sanctuary containing chant books from the 15th century. The whole room was outlined with book after book of the most beautiful Graduals and Antiphonaries filled with stunning illuminations. The amount of beauty and detail in these jewel-toned miniatures took our breath away. But perhaps the greatest blessing for the two brothers and me as we went from book to book was being able to recognize and softly sing the chants that have become so beloved and familiar to us over the years. This wonderful experience made the sense of joining a living tradition of worship even stronger.
By Rachel Srubas
When the time comes for one of the divine offices to begin, as soon as the signal is heard, everyone must set aside whatever they may have in hand and hurry as fast as possible to the oratory. . . The essential point is that nothing should be accounted more important that the work of God. — Chapter 43, Saint Benedict’s Rule
A singular, demanding note,
the bell of disciplined devotion,
intervenes in the day. Didn’t I already pray?
What more is there to say, so soon?
You. Your name,
the ancient phrases of the faithful
fill my mouth. My mind,
the most defiant part of me,
lingers over what I set aside
to hurry to this work.
To aspire to ceaseless prayer requires me
to live as though you were my highest priority.
I say you are, yet I resist, internally preoccupied
while singing psalms so seemingly sincerely.
Help me. I’m a master of little but self-division:
my body is present, apparently, prayerful;
my attention, anywhere but here.
Find me and remind me whose I am,
what my deepest joy is,
why I need much practice
as well as your forgiveness.
Excerpted from Oblation: Meditations of St. Benedict’s Rule, published by Paraclete Press.
By Sr. Fidelis
I recently had the privilege of working with a small group of people for a day’s workshop on Gregorian Chant. We started with a brief review of some basics; the four line stave, the square notation, etc. After singing some simple chants, we launched into a more complex piece from the Graduale Triplex, and discussion ensued about the light hieroglyphics that appeared above and below the square notation. As I explained that these were the original neums from the early manuscripts, they were intrigued. I fortunately had included a snippet from an actual manuscript, and we were able to chant the opening of the piece straight from that. One woman piped up and said it was easier to sing from the original notation, than from the square neums. I then asked them, that judging from the appearance of the ancient neums, how did they think the chant must have sounded back then. They all agreed that it must have been light and speech-like, with places of emphasis. We also talked about the value of the square notation that showed us the actual note relations. We concluded that to have both…the “best of both worlds” so to speak, gave us the best possible way to study, interpret and chant these divinely inspired songs of prayer.