By Faithful Finch
A couple of weeks ago, I got stopped for speeding. I was so caught up in my thoughts of what I needed to accomplish and the happenings that had just occurred, that when I saw the lights on the police car, I thought he was going after someone else!
The humorous thing about it, is that the Lord had just been speaking to me about living in the present. I had been reading the scripture where Jesus was teaching in the house, and it was so crowded, no one else could get in the door. A paralyzed man had friends who cared about him so much that they decided to find another way to get him to Jesus. They dug a hole in the roof and lowered him down.
Jesus stopped everything he was doing, and made time for the man in need. That was the present need, and Jesus wasn’t concerned about anything else.
I miss the present because I’m either caught up in the past or worried about the future.
I didn’t get a ticket from the police that day, or even a warning, but I did receive a lesson.
I am blessed to be working on an international Symposium on Ecumenism and the Arts occurring in 2017, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, in four countries and six different cities. I have been asking the Lord to give me the vision of the significance of this event in our time.
The world situation is certainly more dangerous than at any other time in my lifetime, and maybe ever, with the capability of a nuclear holocaust. And yet, we have recently had a reconciliation brought about after 1,000 years – that of the encounter between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. “Finally! We are brothers,” the Pope exclaimed. Seemingly, this meeting took place because of the persecution of Christians worldwide. One Orthodox cleric said, “We need to put aside internal disagreements at this tragic time…”
So hopefully in these dark days with the rise of secularism growing, the light of Christ will shine ever more brightly – that we might all be one!
One of the beauties of chant is that it teaches through sound. It is difficult for most of us to realize, without considerable effort, what life would be like if we could not read — it seems unimaginable. Yet, in the centuries when many of our most ancient chants were newly composed, only the educated minority could read. So, in an effort to teach the chant, composers often united certain sounds with certain texts or seasons. In this way, through repetition, people started to learn things such as the seasons of the church year, feast days, etc., through association with sound.
However, these composers did not just wake up one morning, get out their “catalog of modes” and say, “today, I shall compose in Mode II.” The definition and categorization of modes actually came after the chant already existed. It was a subtle skill they employed which was based upon a sense of using particular sounds to evoke or underscore certain emotions, thoughts, or ideas.
The image below is actually a chart with simple, modal descriptions of some of the great music theorists and composers of the last 1000 years: Guido d’ Arezzo (11th century), Adam de Fulda, (15th Century) and Juan Espinoza (17th Century). If you look at these descriptions and then take a look at some of your favorite chants, you might find you have a fresh perspective of some pieces that you know quite well!
Image Credit: Mode Chart copyright Community of Jesus, Inc, 2014.
Last week, I had the privilege of co-teaching a chant seminar in Barga, Italy. Though thrilled to be involved, I felt some concern that the entire seminar would have to be taught almost entirely through a translator because I do not speak Italian! However, almost instantly upon my arrival, those concerns dissipated.
Our translator had taken it upon herself to study Gregorian chant! She had obtained a marvelous volume of music history that gave many details surrounding chant providing her additional vocabulary for the seminars. She loved it! Our preparatory meetings went quite smoothly largely because she had quietly taken this generous approach.
Likewise, there was an extensive range of abilities and knowledge among the participants who attended the seminars and the mass which we chanted on Sunday morning. Most of them spoke very little English. However, once again, there was such a level of enthusiasm and willingness to try everything that we offered, communication happened in ways that transcended spoken language.
Everyone’s attitude and willingness had a powerful effect on the success of the seminars. It was an extraordinary opportunity to experience this mutual love for chant in an international circumstance where the main language used was “a willing spirit.”
Recently I’ve come across a few writings of Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest executed by the Nazi’s for his outspoken faith and opposition to the regime. He seems to have been a bold man, with a very ecumenical heart. Something in his writing reverberates inside me, not with a sense of full comprehension, but with the sense that I’m being brought through a door that offers layers of wisdom and discovery. He wrote:
“A person can be rigid in many ways. He can have a one-track mind like the rich young man in the Gospel….This paralysis in the realm of things, this fixation about property, riches, gold, jewels, art, and good living was characteristic of the last century…..Even more dangerous is that inner paralysis which induces us to betray the fundamental laws of our existence. No longer “living to all truth, to all goodness” we pull up short, set ourselves apart, rest on our laurels, and lead the life of a pensioner. We no longer strain with all our might to achieve ideals, reaching for the stars. The command to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s mind, and with all one’s strength no longer has any meaning for us; we treat it as something handed down like a legend, something that has served its turn and can be thrown aside. All the truths have already been discovered, we think — no need to go to the trouble of looking for any more. The world has grown dumb–we no longer hear the underground rumblings as the secret forces collect their strength for the great fulfillment which can only be brought about by humanity’s conscious recognition and decision.”
If we wish, God has much more for us in life than, as Father Delp puts is, a retired “pensioner.” I hope I can discover some of the ways I’m rigid, and awake my spirit and heart to the “underground rumblings” of the Holy Spirit.
The Missa De Angelis and Rock of Ages – A Joyous Experience!
We experienced a beautiful funeral liturgy last week, singing Missa de Angelis, an array of gospel hymns, and two solos from Handel’s Messiah! What fun! This musical combination basically “said it all” about the lovely lady who passed away. One person actually noted to me that they “had never seen a chant Agnus Dei and Rock of Ages side by side.”
That comment made me think. We live in a time when the chant is being re-discovered, employed ever more and more in worship services, and is being made available to an increasing number of people. In the same breath, I would also say that we live in a time where there are a good number of folks looking back – looking for the music – the faith – of their childhood which was part of their spiritual formation. I believe I heard the result of part of that searching in that liturgy. The singing of Rock of Ages actually energized the mass movements, which, in turn, energized the communion hymns. All of a sudden, it was as though people had discovered that they could LOVE IT ALL!
I know that may not be a revelation for everyone, but I believe it is for many. Loving and understanding chant actually opens doors for understanding other styles of music but – more important – opens doors just for the understanding of text and music which has the ability to inspire and move the listener to pray. What an amazing experience!
For many years, music has been referred to as the “Universal Language” — speaking from “heart to heart.” Chant certainly has that quality.
On a recent trip to Italy, I found myself meeting delightful people–their personality simply gleamed through their smile or handshake. Yet, we had no pathway to communicate verbally. I only speak a few words of Italian, and the people I met, for the most part, spoke no English. However, part of that trip included chanting both the midday Divine Office and Compline. Many of those same people attended those services, along with our group from the United States.
What happened next amazed me. We opened our mouths to chant the Office, and suddenly we were speaking the same language and we actually knew what each other was saying. The week leading to these services had been both exciting and tiring, in part because daily communication posed problems that one never even considers at home. Yet, we were united in the same language of prayer and it seemed that for those minutes we chanted, we were united through the same language and music.
This is a very important aspect of Gregorian chant and one which, if we give ourselves to it, will lift us from our daily routine and bring us together with God through sung prayer.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the city of Barga located in the northern part of Italy. As part of that travel, our chant schola chanted the midday office and compline in a church which was constructed and then added to over the course of several centuries. Towering above us in this church was a 12th century wooden statue of St. Christopher, still bearing its own wounds from centuries of war and unrest made visible in the arrowheads still in its torso.
As we chanted, I was struck by the thought that when that statue and that church were new, it is quite likely that chants we were praying were also relatively new. We were actually chanting in the surroundings in which these chants first came to life! Listening in this extraordinary building, the acoustic “told us” the tempo to take, allowed us to hear and experience the building of harmonies which hung in the air like incense, and gave us a sense that this chant had been heard in this room many thousands of times. The span of centuries was instantly crossed as we joined our voices with those voices of chant from “back then” – when the voice of the church was much younger and yet full of all the years that it would carry through. It made me realize again that we have the privilege every time we chant, of joining instantly with all of those centuries of prayer.
We marched in a Memorial Day parade in Holden, MA Monday. We’ve marched it for a few years now and it’s a parade the whole band looks forward to. It’s almost more a liturgy than a parade – and rightly so – as we honor the men and women who have laid down their lives so that we have the freedom we have today.
For some reason I found this time especially moving. The parade route winds through the cemetery and we stop 5 times for a prayer, patriotic song by the Girl and Boy Scouts, a rifle salute and the playing of taps. When we got to our first stop, the honor guard called their men to attention and gave the salute and I happened to see a man on the sidelines. He was in shorts and a grey Army t-shirt, on a bike, wearing a black bike helmet. As soon as the men came to attention, he was off his bike and at attention, his hand to his forehead in a salute – and I think that’s what got me. This ordinary man, on a bike, had an internal response from whatever experience he’s had, that brought him to attention. And I wondered how many ordinary men and women on that street, maybe that we’d pass, had held the hands of a dying friend – or made it through boot camp with strangers who became brothers. Or, how many ordinary men and women in this town answered their phone (or their door) to the news they hoped they’d never hear. And I felt overcome with respect and gratitude and pride in our country that believes humanity is worth fighting for. God Bless America.
I saw a wonderful slideshow today that reminded me of how big the body of Christ is around the globe. While in many of our local towns and schools, religion is being pushed to the background, this Easter season it is good to remember that there are millions of Christians in every part of the world who are celebrating the beautiful mystery of Jesus’ Resurrection. Today there are so many streams of traditions, and ways to reverence, honor, and adore this blessed mystery. Traditions ranging from rockets being launched in Greece, to beautiful egg painting in Lithuania and Ukraine, festive Eucharists in Bambari, young boys baptized in St. Peter’s square, new-fires in countless churches, and candles lit everywhere: it’s exciting to see the myriad of ways that the world is once again proclaiming loudly, “Alleluia!!”