This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that I am. Not for what I have, not for what I’ve achieved or hope to achieve, but simply because I am. I am opens immeasurable possibilities: participation in a sunrise, interaction with a friend, an occasion for laughter (or tears.) Today I might enjoy beautiful music, lucky dip a scripture that fits just right, or encounter kindness when I least expect it.
All because I was, I am, and will be forever. All because God extended his arms and invited me in.
One of my favorite stories is told by the Venerable Bede about Hilda (Abbess of Whitby from 657–680) and the servant Caedmon, who herded the monastery’s cows. Caedmon kept to himself, and usually left a room when “the harp was passed” for singing and reciting poetry. One night he fell asleep among the animals and dreamt that a man told him to get up and sing a poem about “the beginning of created things.” He told Abbess Hilda, who was as amazed as Caedmon was himself with the poem. The Abbess brought him into the monastery, where he continued to sing and write poetry for the rest of his life. His poem is the oldest in the English language, and he is now considered the “Father of English poetry.”
I think of Hilda as a very wise woman, Abbess of several monasteries of men and women, who nurtured the gifts of all that were under her care.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.(Psalm 116:15)
All Saints Day is a celebration of the communion of saints—all those who have died in Christ, known and unknown. Like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, this feast honors everyone who has served.
The commemoration of saints began with the early Christian martyrs. Wanting to remember their slain brothers and sisters, churches began to celebrate a yearly remembrance of a martyr’s death. As Roman persecutions continued, and the numbers of martyrs increased, it became impossible to grant a feast day for each of them. So, as early as the fourth century, the church celebrated one day for all the martyrs, to ensure that all were properly honored. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel “to all the martyrs” in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome on November 1st. Since that day, November 1st has been the day that the western church celebrates “All Saints Day”—a celebratory and inclusive memorial, in thanksgiving for all the Christians who have gone before us.
November 1 is the Solemn Feast of All Saints – a holy day whose tradition dates back to the 4th century AD. In the earliest centuries it was celebrated during the Easter season and came originally from liturgies held in honor of the martyrs in those times. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory set the date as November 1 which in the Western church has continued up to today. In a number of countries it is still a national holiday and very much a part of life, with special services and family traditions.
There are many pieces of Gregorian chant connected with this Feast – Litanies, Masses, Propers, and Antiphons – too numerous to mention them all! One lovely and well-known Antiphon that has a connection with this day is “In Paradisum” a chant traditionally sung at funerals as part of the Mass for the Dead. It is a very simple piece, Mode VII, composed as a mainly syllabic melody with a clivis or pes interspersed at points. The lack of ornamentation draws our focus right to the text: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.” The melody lofts upwards from the very start and hovers in the higher range giving a heavenly sense. There is a sweetness and feeling of reassurance to the prayer being offered up for those who have now become Saints. Below is a link to this chant sung by Gloriae Dei Cantores schola members.
We rediscovered this treasure from last year — especially appropriate in the middle of this season of hurricanes, when so many are suffering, and are now preparing for the next storm. We continue to pray for God’s protection for all of those in the path of the storm.
The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of our goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats; I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good.
I have his promise; I am surely not going to rely on my own strength! I have what he has written; that is my staff, my security, my peaceful harbor.
The Feast of John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople
“If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”
“We must not mind insulting men, if by respecting them, we offend God.”
The saint we know as John Chrysostom, was not called Chrysostom (which means “golden-mouthed) until after his death. It was his golden-mouthed preaching and writing that made him a great teacher of the early church, but also caused him great personal grief. His feast day is celebrated on September 13.
As a result of his reputation as an orator, John was kidnapped from his church in Antioch in 398 and made the Archbishop of Constantinople, the center of the Roman Empire at the time. He accepted the position as the will of God, but denounced many important leaders (including clergy) in the city for their extreme wealth and corruption. His denouncements of Roman citizens by name led to his banishment more than once, the last resulting in his sickness and death in 407.
To put John Chrysostom’s life in perspective: Emperor Constantine issued his edict decriminalizing Christianity (the Edict of Milan) in 313. John was born in 349, just 36 years later. It was not until 380, when he was 31, that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. He became a deacon in Antioch the following year.
On September 8 we celebrate the Nativity of Mary, a feast that was established as early on as the 6th century. Once again we have a collection of beautiful hymns, antiphons, and Propers, all written very specifically for this day. The hymn for Lauds is especially lovely: O gloriosa Domina, taken from the second half of a larger hymn written by Fortunatus in the mid 500s. The four verses used at Lauds have many wonderful descriptions of Mary: glorious Lady; gentle one; door of the high king; shining gate of light….
The melody of the hymn has a very simple and gentle feeling. While it covers a range greater than an octave, it moves largely in step-wise motion or leaps of a third. The second and fourth quarters of each verse have a lovely cascading pattern of pedes and clivi rippling from re to sol and landing finally on the home-tone, la.
It’s amazing to think of this piece being sung annually on this date for close to 1500 years. Several sources state that it was the favorite hymn of St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), that the song was always on his lips, even on his deathbed (Catholic Encyclopedia).
Here below is a visual sample of the first two verses as well as a recording of Gloriæ Dei Cantores Men’s Schola singing the hymn (from the CD, The Chants of Mary).
The Feast of the Nativity of Mary (or Mary’s birthday) has been celebrated on September 8th for at least 15 centuries.
We know this because of “Romanos the Melodist,” a Jewish convert to Christianity from Syria in the late 5th century. He became a deacon in Constantinople, the center of the Christian faith at the time.
There is a story told about Romanos that he felt very inadequate when it came to music, and did not like his own voice. When he was asked to lead a special service, the All-Night Vigil, he pleaded with the Mother of God to help him, and fell asleep in his prayers. He dreamt that Mary came to him with a scroll, and said, “Here, eat this.” He woke up full of joy, and the next night, at the All-Night Vigil, he sang with such a strong, clear voice that everyone was amazed. After this he wrote many hymns, including one for the Feast of Nativity of Mary on September 8th, which is how historians date this feast.
This last week in preparation for Pentecost we practiced “Veni Sancte Spiritus” at our weekly chant class. By now this sequence is familiar to everyone in our Community and feels like an essential part of the celebration. Sometimes called the “Golden Sequence”, the text dates back to the 13th century and has been attributed to Pope Leo III, or maybe more likely Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1228.
While the poetry of this hymn is quite developed, with an interesting rhythmic and rhyming pattern, the music is quite simple, enhancing the text. There are 5 different musical phrases, each repeated twice. The piece covers a large range (more than an octave), with many of the phrases moving in scalar motion from top to bottom or bottom to top. For the most part we see syllabic writing with a few duple or triple neume patterns which gives a feeling of strength matching the powerful message: Come, Holy Spirit!
The overall visual shows a constant rise and fall to the extremes of the range in long phrases, and we also see large leaps of a sixth or even an octave at several of the cadence points. The prayer unfolds in a similar way: the rise and fall of a prayer calling to the Father, Son, and Spirit to console, refresh, cleanse, bend, melt, guide, all leading toward heavenly joy.
As we come to the Feast of Pentecost, the last of the principal liturgical feasts before returning to Ordinary Time, it seemed a good moment to reflect on the “Three M’s” of chant: Mode, Motive, and Meaning. As we have often discussed, mode and motive in chant marry for a primary purpose — illumination of scripture. A particularly potent example of this is the Pentecost Communion antiphon: Factus est repente (Suddenly, a sound from the sky).
Just as we heard at other liturgical times of heraldic entry (such as Puer natusest on Christmas Eve or Hosanna Filio David on Palm Sunday), Factus est repente opens with a resounding leap of a perfect 5th. In fact, it drops back down the same distance before leaping up that same 5th and then up another 3rd creating a composite leap of a 7th — a quick and striking way to grasp the entire range of this mode. What better way to speak of this “mighty rush of wind” hastily bridging the gap between Heaven and earth?! Then, the chant almost floats downward in conjunct flow, in strong contrast to the opening leaps. Perhaps this seemed the finest way of showing the descent of the Holy Spirit into the room where the disciples were sitting. In balance with the opening, a swirling melodic rise underpins the concluding scripture, “they all spoke in various tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The onomatopoetic sounds of this text describing the arrival of the Holy Spirit take on musical gestures, leaving almost indefinable imagery in our spirits.