I received a special gift this past week. I’m about as white, Anglo-Saxon as they come – Irish, Swedish, Scottish three generations back, but my friends have teased me about having some Russian Orthodox blood in me. Ever since visiting Russia with the choir in 1998, and then again with our youth group in 2002, I have hoped to go back someday. There is something about it that I love – a depth and history to the country and the people that just grabs hold of your heart. Especially in worship. I’ve never seen people so eager to be close to the Eucharist – so unconscious of the personal space that we Americans fight to preserve. They press in and past each other to draw close to the altar. And their music – impossible to describe with words how years of persecution and perseverance and love pour out in achingly beautiful harmonies.
So earlier this week, I happened to mention to a friend that I was wanting to pray the rosary, something I used to do as a teenager, but had lost my rosary years ago. The next morning she showed up at work and said “I have these two rosaries if you’d like to use one.” She handed me a red, knotted rope with beads and said “this one was blessed by the Patriarch.”
It’s been in my pocket and passed through my fingers since then. It helps find words for what’s in my heart.
I recently had the opportunity to work with an extraordinarily enthusiastic group of cantors in preparation for a full Gregorian mass. As we moved through our preparations and, ultimately, the mass itself, I was struck by their sense of awe of and responsibility for the chant and how it was presented.
Even though we only had two hours of preparation time together, we all mutually stepped into a legacy of chanted prayer that had long preceded us, and will last long after any of us walk on this earth. It only takes a moment of pondering that thought to realize that we were joining ourselves into a type of repetition. In this case, repetition which changes every time it occurs. A bit of a paradox — perhaps. But just as liturgical seasons repeat every year, so do those scriptures which inflame and inform them and by extension — the chants, which help illuminate those texts!
It was that understanding in which I found myself standing with that group of cantors — the joy of having known these chants and yet discovering new dimensions and how these chants would enhance this particular mass. As you spend time chanting, take the time to return to chants which you already know – see what new insight they give you.
In the early 1970’s, the Community of Jesus’ founders, Mother Cay and Mother Judy, would hold regular teaching conferences and bible studies. Thankfully, some of these teachings were recorded, and I enjoy listening to them to hear the voices and sayings of our Community’s Founders. On one tape I particularly like, the Mothers are talking about our need for Jesus. Mother Cay says in her calm voice, “It’s so relaxing to be a failure.”
This phrase makes me pause, giving me something to think and pray about. If you’re anything like I am, this lesson is so opposite of how I live. I strive to exhaustion to look good, to grasp at controlling my life and its surroundings. And where is Jesus is this striving? He’s usually waiting for me to ask for some help. The funny ironic truth is, when I can’t admit I’m a failure, when I can’t see that I’m a needy desperate soul always in need of help, in need of a Savior, then I can’t relax into His arms, into his care.
As the monks of Solesmes continued to gather and study ancient chant manuscripts, they were able to reconstruct the original melodies which had been changed and altered. The books of that day contained a lot of “heavy, square notes”, with no indication of rhythmic nuance. By the 1880’s, the Solesmes monks began printing chant books based on the ancient sources. As always when there is a change, there was great controversy over the “new” versus the old “plainchant”.
In 1903, Pope Pius X authorized the monks to prepare editions of chant for the Mass for the entire Roman Catholic Church. Along with the publishing of these books came a flowering of renewed interest in the chant, of teaching, scholarly debate, publishing, and recordings that spread throughout Europe and North America.
We owe much of the restoration of the chant to the zeal, vision, and inspiration of Dom Gueranger, the first Abbot of the reopened Benedictine monastery of Solesmes, France in the 1830’s. In the wake of the French Revolution, monasticism had come close to total extinction.Yet Dom Gueranger had a tremendous sense of call to re-claim what had been almost lost, and founded a monastic and liturgical revival that spread through France as well as other parts of Europe.
He charged his monks with the task of restoring the chant to its former beauty. This restoration consisted of two primary components: The study of ancient manuscripts and the development of a lighter style of chanting, as opposed to “plainchant.” This lighter style enabled the words to take on their true meaning, and the musical phrases recovered much of of their natural suppleness.
By the 1850’s, Solesmes monks were copying chant manuscripts from all over Europe. By carefully comparing manuscripts containing the ancient neumes to manuscripts containing lines and notes, they were able to determine how the chant would have been sung in its original form. This on-going work was the first step in attempting to re-claim the origins of the chant — a search for truth that continues to this day.
I would like to beg you….as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday, far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
I read this letter by Rainer Maria Rilke and it reminded me of one of the founders of our Community, Mother Cay Anderson. I was only 6 when Mother Cay died, so what I know of her is mostly through other people’s stories.
Sometimes I’m discouraged in my walk as a young Christian, feeling like I still wrestle with many of the same questions, doubts, and unbelief that I had when I first became a Christian. When I feel this way, a Brother likes to remind me of a saying that he had been taught by Mother Cay. She would encourage him by saying “it takes a lifetime to come into Christ.”
I find the combination of these two ideas comforting. Rilke’s notion of living your heart’s questions now, and Mother Cay’s encouragement to not be too impatient with yourself.
Each of our lifetimes is vastly unique, but I dare say that each phase of our lives is equally necessary, the good times as well as the difficult times. Hopefully in the end, each question we wrestle with will come together to make the whole person we are becoming.
On Sunday I marched in a festive parade honoring the 200th anniversary of a traditional textile mill and factory town in southeastern Massachusetts, fittingly named Millbury. For the hours I was in Millbury, it felt like a national holiday, bands, floats, kids playing, antique cars, lawn-chairs, balloons, grills, vendors and more….all the makings of a celebratory parade. In our increasingly hectic and instant-access 21st century lives, it’s easy to feel like we don’t have time to stop and celebrate – to rejoice and honor events big and small, past and present in our lives. We should plan to take time with our friends to celebrate important events like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or any other milestones. Daily we need to take time to thank God for His blessings to each of us; for as Psalm 118 says, This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The American artist, Andrew Wyeth, once said that he preferred the winter and fall because you “can see the bone structure of the landscape”. An astute observer of nature and humanity, Wyeth infused his portraits of the land with the invisible human drama of those who had lived on the land — their stories, like their bones, lying just below the surface.
The woods near where we live strip down to scrub pine and bare branches bristling with lichen this time of year. Tramping about in them, I take stock of what the winter reveals: cocoons and seed pods waiting for spring, ravishing red branches in the bracken, and fresh green water plants clinging to the edges of the kettle ponds where the ice melts back. This simplicity, this winter austerity, is refreshing as I struggle to slough off the tinsel and soft tissue of the old year.
This is a particularly special and significant week for our monastic community, because it is the week in which novices, and simple professed members can make their professions.
The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus states, “Though in its essence Christian discipleship is a vocation common to all believers, the vows made in a monastic life give that discipleship a distinct form.” The next page continues on to say, “Following centuries of monastic tradition, membership in the Community of Jesus is built upon three primary vows: obedience, conversion, and stability.”
Hearing these professions serves as a reminder to me of the life-choices I have committed to in this particular place. I think it can also serve to remind all Christians of their daily choices to follow Christ. Each morning I’m given anew the choice to step into the endless stream of the unceasing love, mercy, and creativity of God. The choice is mine to reject — or to wade forward on faith: the opportunity is always newly presented. Many days I have to remind myself to re-choose this discipleship, to choose to believe in God’s promised goodness as a backdrop for my life today.
I read a book recently whose author had written Acknowledgements which went on for several pages. I read every word of this seeming excess. Not only were the author’s friends and colleagues, whom I had never heard of, enumerated there but the author also included a whole host of philosophers, theologians, artists, and saints with whom I am familiar. These mentors and models constitute an incredibly rich spiritual heritage; a heritage I share. These are people in whose company I feel both very small and very tall.
I imagine this crowd, both the living and the dead, spread out like a vast army of souls journeying to be with God. I see each one carrying a light as they travel the highways and the by ways, the high roads, the low roads, the detours, the switchbacks, the wrong ways and even the dead ends. Some of this company bare great lights and others carry only small ones. As I stare after them I realize that there is nothing else I want to do but grab my little flash light and run after them all because I can not bear the thought of being left behind.