I have great admiration for those who fix broken things. Carrying a metal box filled with mysterious objects, they arrive prepared for any task. The Psalmist speaks of a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart, sacrifices that God finds acceptable. We’re also assured the Lord is near the broken hearted and delivers those who are discouraged (some translations say “crushed in spirit.”) So then, what’s in His tool box? I suggest the following:
Hymns of recollection and hope
Scriptures that inspire
A small prayer answered
A moment of solitude
A friendly interaction
A change in direction
We’re surrounded by God’s intervention. He’s in the repair business, eager to make us whole, and waits for us to recognize His presence.
As promised, here is another excerpt from the book Gregorian Chant by Father Andrew F. Klarmann. Why choose this particular passage? We have often spoken of the function and life of a Schola. But we have never really pondered together the role of the Schola director. Here are but a few of Father Klarmann’s thoughts:
“The director should not lay too much emphasis on the grace of the chironomy. At the final performance, it is the director’s duty to start his singers together, to keep them together throughout, and to bring them to the finish together. Any other instructions should be given them prior to their appearance and should be practiced during rehearsals. Furthermore, some directors execute the most graceful chironomy while the minds of the choir members wander and their eyes are fixed on some foreign object. Other directors need only to chironomize in a calm and unobtrusive fashion: the rendition is good because they have the attention of their choir. Whatever signs of direction are used, they are good if they are understood by the choir. An attentive, well-schooled choir needs very few of them.”
How aptly and succinctly stated! Our role as a Schola Director is one of education and guidance. Let’s take this to heart as we prepare for our next rehearsal!
I am forever looking at old books. If there is a used bookstore to be found, I will probably find it! Recently, I came across a wonderful “old” book (from GIA-1945) simply entitled “Gregorian Chant”, written by Father Andrew F. Klarmann, discussing all kinds of wonderful aspects of chant.
In reading through this book, I found a number of quotable “gems” which I will feature in this blog over the next few weeks. However, I thought a great point to start with has to do with the performance of chant in the responses found at Mass. Rev. Klarmann states that, “the reply et cum spiritu tuo should always be made in a steady, joyful voice expressive of the holy joy and lively faith abiding in the hearts of the faithful…the et cum spiritu tuo should follow immediately upon the Dominus vobiscum not unlike grateful replies which follow heartfelt greetings in our social life…Our meetings in God’s house should manifest every sentiment of joy and love.” (p.114)
What moves me about these remarks concerning the performance practice of chant is the complete emphasis on the spirit behind the words and why they are chanted in the first place. Spirit prior to technique – technique in service of the Spirit – chant in service to the text! This must always be our approach to the understanding of chant or else we place the elements of chant in backward order! How wonderful it is to discover these principles so beautifully espoused in a small, post-World War II book intended to teach the basics of chant!
Our scholas have just completed the recording sessions for a Gregorian chant CD to be released later in the year. Of course, much of the preparation for the recording involved chanting together.
However, a large portion of the preparation and, I would venture to say, the most important part, involved the time we spent together not actually chanting. All of us had agreed together that we would, individually, take the time to really study the text – even use it in our devotional time – before delving into the chant itself. Then, we met several times as a group to discuss what we had discovered in the text and then how the chant illuminated the text.
After concluding this process, our chant rehearsals changed dramatically. We had a new unity of spirit, thought, and expression that went far beyond the neumes – the chant had transformed into a living conversation between us and God. Did each of us think exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment? No. Were we committed to a shared vision of each work? Absolutely! And, even more amazing was that within the groups, we had greatly varied levels of cantors – many very experienced – some brand new!
Perhaps though what I found most moving was that at the end of the sessions, we actually found it difficult to tell each other goodbye. We had experienced something together that would not have happened without a shared vision of each chant and the conversation it helped create.
In his book “Listen with your Heart,” Cistercian monk Basil Pennington explains a lesson he was taught early in his spiritual journey. “The past and the future are other forms of self. God is now. God is the eternal now. In the past, we are off in our memories. In the future, we are off in our imagination. The reality in life is in the now. You find this in all spiritual traditions. What is being sought in the different methods of meditation is to be present here, now.”
For this Lent, one practice we are doing as a community is taking additional moments of quiet, of silence, in our daily Liturgy of the Hours services. Between each psalm in the main body of the service, we simply sit for one minute. This is meant to be a time of listening, and talking with God, interiorly, in the presence of other members of the body of Christ.
I do not sit still well! Every service I think, today I will quiet my mind and spend a whole minute straight listening to the Almighty. Soon, though, my mind drifts, the cantor stands and intones the next psalm. I’m rattled out of some train of thought wondering about how the day will play out, or wishing last night’s events had turned out differently.
Surely Pennington’s time-honored wisdom is something wonderful to be practiced by our 21st century minds. It’s a challenge to trust enough to let go of our anxieties and control towards the future and equally a challenge to stop saying “what if?” or “I should have, or could have, done this or that.” Christ tells us that His burden is easy and light. If, with our hearts, we can grab hold of being present in today’s moments to this “eternal now,” perhaps we can experience the bliss and freedom available in the reality of Christ’s love.
We tend to look at self-denial and Lent very negatively. Often I think I must give up another bad habit or tackle some self-punishment to feel like I’m being more holy and sacrificial.
I think it is a great tool of the devil to get us Christians to fall into this trap of self abasement. Are we not made in the image of God? He is wonderful, full of beauty, majesty, mercy, and things innumerable. This image of God is present and available in us all.
A friend recently told me about an exercise she had been given once. The exercise was: every day, for one week, to write 10 different positive things about herself. She said it was helpful, but surprisingly difficult and painful. Self-denial may be painful, but it is only to allow for an increase of this wonderful God inside us.
I’m trying to approach this Lent differently. In this season set aside for repentance and changing one’s direction, rather then commiserating over all the terrible parts of myself, why not try to see what I can add to my life this Lent instead of what can I take away?
Practice. From the time I was a 6-year-old child taking piano lessons, I wanted to know how I could sound like Beethoven quickly. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t another way other than daily practice. There isn’t. And I’ve been learning recently that practice applies to spiritual life as well. We don’t just hit the ground after birth with a disciplined life and daily relationship with Jesus all in place. It takes practice.
I’m discovering places that my lack of practice has left my spiritual muscles weak. Especially in the daily act of turning to Jesus with everything. Too often I get stuck in my own thoughts which never give me the best answer. Stopping my mind and turning to Jesus takes practice. I understand how downhill skiers must feel crashing and tumbling until they can make the turn on their feet. But in the practice, we make progress.
And I know God sees it. I was praying this morning, and having spilled out everything I wanted to say to God, I asked, “what do you want to say to me?” I opened up Echoes of Eternity, the devotional by Rev. Hal Helms. I laughed out loud when I read the last sentence of today’s reading: “Do not delay in coming to Me in every situation you face — prayer will make a difference, but it must be practiced.”
Sitting in a cold sports arena in northern Massachusetts during a high school winter percussion rehearsal is not exactly where I might be inclined to think about chant. But, as I was listening to the marimba and vibraphone warm-up, I was struck by the fact that the exercise was actually a modal exercise — Mode V in fact. The kids playing that exercise find performing a piece on a chant mode just as normal as a major or minor scale!
All of the members of this winter percussion group attend the service of Lauds every morning so, just like the percussion instruments they so enthusiastically play, the chant is something that has come to be a part of them and their everyday experience.
Listening to them play, you can tell that they have developed a sense of how to breathe and “speak” together and that has come at least, in part, from their daily attendance of the Divine Office. What an inspiration it is to hear and see the dedication of these teenagers as they work so diligently in preparation for their upcoming shows. Anyone who has been involved in the arts knows that much of what is required is consistent determination — daily working at the craft — just like our work as cantors. It makes me wonder if, the next time we are at Lauds, if I will see the faces of these young people and be reminded of that Mode V keyboard warm-up — one more great example of chant as part of everyday life!
Someone recently suggested to me that I read The Practice of the Presence of God by Br.Lawrence. I’m embarrassed to say that in years of seeing it on a bookshelf, I’ve never picked it up. Br.Lawrence was a monk in the seventeenth century. He received a revelation of God at age eighteen, and from then on, his whole life was devoted to the love and service of God. His words are so simple and yet so challenging.
Everything he did, was in the midst of a loving conversation with God and all for his pleasure — including years working in the monastery kitchen where washing pots and pans became a source of love and revelation from God.
I find myself clinging to his words with all the hope I can muster as I struggle to bring God into that place in my own life.
“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
by Cantor Chant and Christmas: Reminders of our extraordinary heritage
I don’t know that there is anything quite like the Genealogy which is chanted on Christmas Eve or the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ which many of us were privileged to hear on Christmas Day. Each one reminds us of thousands of years of lineage leading to the birth of Christ and by extension, our salvation. Each reminds us that God had Jesus’ birth in mind for centuries before it came to fruition. However, it’s the reference to events – such as the Olympic games – and to the everyday people who were part of the line of David and ultimately Christ himself, that I find most striking.
I had the privilege of cantoring the Genealogy this year, and found myself “washed over” by the sheer enormity of time and life represented in each name as it came and went. The chant itself seemed to take these names and events and simply lift them from temporal time to eternal time. I remember thinking as I left the ambo that I had just taken a very unique journey and I did not want to leave it.
As we give ourselves to the practice of chanting, I would challenge all of us to find that same “journey”. Whether a Kyrie, one of the propers, or a Litany, let’s work to discover the journey on which the chant would take us inside of the scriptures which it so beautifully serves.