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Friday, December 01, 2017

On Retreat at OSH: #1 Monastic Chant.

Some things I’ve re-learned about monastic life: #1 Chanting

I haven't been on a retreat with my sisters at the Order of St. Helena since they moved here to North Augusta, SC from Vail's Gate, NY. That's 9 years. That's a long time. Too long. 

My spiritual director, Sr. Cornelia, has died in the meantime. I will visit with her tomorrow at her gravesite, but she's already let me know of her presence here. 

It has taken me longer than I thought it would to get back into the rhythm of a community life of prayer. I mean, not so long ago - okay 9 years ago - I used to spend one weekend a month with them - from Thursday night to Saturday morning. 

I was actually at the point where I knew my way around their Breviary (inclusive language, check it out) and could actually join in chanting some of the psalms and hymns. (Check out Compline here.)

I've found that I've had to spend the past twenty-four hours relearning some things I thought I'd never forget. Like riding a bicycle. Turns out, that's not so. 

So, I've been reflecting on some of the aspects of religious community life and thought I'd share them here.

This first reflection is on monastic chant.  

These are the initial steps to re-learning how to chant the psalms and prayers:

First, remind yourself that chanting is not singing. Let me say that again: Chanting is NOT sining. (I confess that it drives me crazy when I hear people "singing" a chant. Worse when they "croon".)  

It's chanting. And, it's Anglican at that. It's ancient and proper.

Unlike Buddhist chant which can come from the head or throat or chest, chanting comes from a different, deeper part of your diaphragm – from a place of truth and authenticity.

It’s breathing with sound – music.

It’s praying with music – notes.  

It's setting the words of your prayer to rest on the musical notes from the breath and beat of your spirit to be lifted and carried and floated to the heart of God. 

It changes the way you process your thinking about words because you hear them differently. You hear words differently because they don’t just come from your head, but from your heart and your lungs and your soul – and because you are chanting them with others in rhythm, you are paying closer attention to the words and the meaning.

And then, there’s that little asterisk at the end of the first line of the psalm. It’s there to remind you to pause. Listen. Let the words sink in deeper than just letting them remain on the surface of things so that your prayer may be set free to float to the heart of God. 

It's a paradox, I know. I don't know how it works, I only know that it does.

Remind yourself that chanting is not the means to an end. It doesn’t take you anywhere necessarily, but helps you appreciate where you are - right here, right now - so you can take the risk and let yourself go to where you need to be – or, follow where you believe God wants you to be.

So, now close your mouth and your eyes and open your ears and your heart. Listen for the beat of your heart. Then, listen for the sound of your breath. Then, listen to the sound of others chanting. Feel the rhythm and vibration of the sound in the chapel.

When you are ready – and even if you’re not but you’re ready to risk – open your mouth and join others in a single soft note. Now, open your eyes. Look at the music. Follow the note up and down the page with your eyes (and, if you want, your fingers) while you listen to others.  Join in on a note here and there. Do this as quietly and softly as you can. 

Don’t worry. It takes time and lots of practice.

Years, actually. 

I’m beginning to remember but no where near ready to join in yet. I’m sure I won’t be by the end of the weekend. And, even then. Which is perfectly fine.

As the sisters say, even the learning process is a form of prayer.

Indeed, I think it may be one of God’s favorite kind of prayers - especially when you're just learning.

Learning how to chant is not just an esoteric religious exercise. Chanting has many practical applications in our daily lives. 

Imagine if everything we had to say came from a different, deeper place of truth and authenticity.

Imagine if we opened our ears and listened to others first before opening our mouths.

Imagine if we joined in – meeting people where they are – before trying to be heard or take over the lead. 

Imagine if we never took over the lead but led by joining in where people are.

Imagine if you paid attention to little things - say, just as tiny as  an asterisk - so that you could listen for the larger, deeper meaning of things rather than just staying on the surface.

Imagine if the means were the end – that the life was not the destination but the journey.  (Or, as James Taylor sings, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”)

And, imagine if we could better appreciate the present moment, where we are – right here, right now – and all the people in the room, all connected by beat and breath, all giving glory to God in the very same room.

How might our lives change? How might we change the world?

Sr. Faith Anthony says that to live the monastic life is to earn a PhD in love. "You learn how to love and how to be loved," she said. 

Just think about that for a minute. Breathe through those words. Let them sink in. 

Well, years ago, I designed a T-shirt that read:

On retreat with the sisters of the 
Order of St. Helena.
Warning: These are professionals
Do NOT try this at home.

It just looks and sounds like a bunch of nuns chanting in the chapel, right? 

There's so much going on in that chapel, such intense spiritual energy and focus and yet such an easy, gentle, floating, serene sound.  

Here's what a believe: convents and monasteries are one of those "thin places" described in Celtic spirituality. It's a place very close to "the veil" between heaven and earth. 

I've become convinced that chanted prayer places a protective sound barrier around the "thin place" which lets prayers arise and keeps bad energy from entering.

I'll tell you something I had forgotten: It really is not as easy as it looks.

But, when you do come to the convent and stay with the sisters on retreat? Oh the things you will learn and the places in the heart you will go.

Here's an absolutely glorious antiphon for Advent, used as an O-antiphon beginning December 16th. O Virgin of Virgins is an Anglican addition, used on December 23rd.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither was there any like thee before thee, nor shall there be after:
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

1 comment:

David said...

"It changes the way you process your thinking about words because you hear them differently. You hear words differently because they don’t just come from your head, but from your heart and your lungs and your soul – and because you are chanting them with others in rhythm, you are paying closer attention to the words and the meaning."
Yes! Yes! Yes!