“Really, Terry? Gregorian chant? I can wrap my head around a hymn like How Great Thou Art, but Gregorian chant? Its charm somehow escapes me. How’s a girl ever supposed to make a go of living in the modern age if she has to learn to appreciate Gregorian chant?”
Such were the thoughts that entered my mind as I reflected on entry #3 in Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. But I decided to soldier on. Perhaps I would learn something (which is always the proverbial apple on my personal tree of life). I would at least try. And after all, Gregorian chant isn’t something entirely new to me. It did intersect my life. Once.
Several years ago, I read a book by Kathleen Norris. I can’t even remember the title, but the content haunted me from the moment I first read. The author spent a month (or perhaps a year – I don’t remember the exact duration) at a monastery as their guest. I can remember being motivated to attempt the same as I was reading her book but I also remember brushing it off as an impossibility for me, a Protestant quite comfortable in her own very predictable denominational disciplines. But because I never forgot about Ms. Norris’ sojourn into what was then uncharted territory both for her and for me, when the opportunity presented itself three years ago to do the same, I booked myself into a local Benedictine monastery buried deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains for what promised to be three very long, very quiet days. As I hopped into my car and headed for the mountains that Spring morning, my stomach was doing somersaults. For me, an extrovert, spending three days alone in a monastery scared me. Who would I talk to? How would I survive the silence? Why hadn’t I thought to bring a friend along? The monastery had no internet and phone conversations would be impossible. Both the monastery itself and he area surrounding it was considered a dead zone. I anticipated (correctly, as it turned out) there would be no people with whom to interact. For me, three days of silence would be something akin to descending into a grave. But I had my computer. I would be able to write. There was some solace in that.
The journey to the monastery was serene. I enjoyed glorious views of purple mountain majesties, and even took some close-up pictures of a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep en route. Five bumpy hours after hopping into my car on the plains of Colorado, I pulled into my temporary home away from home. Late spring snows had left their mark on the mountain shadowing the monastery grounds. Greening grass was a herald of warmer days ahead. When I picked up my room key, I learned that folks staying in hermitage houses (like me), were welcome to attend early morning lauds and evening worship or vespers. I knew I wanted the full experience so I purposed to attend both, even though the morning service meant I would be walking by myself in the dark to a service that took place almost completely in the dark. I’d start with vespers, saving the dark morning service for a later date, and I’d drive the thousand or so feet to the monastery instead of walking. After all, it might be dark by the time the service was over. I remember hesitating as I turned off the car engine. What was ahead? As I opened my car door, two folks, a man and woman walked by. I followed them; they seemed to know where they were going. Within a few steps, we’d arrived at the doorway to a small chapel and were ushered into a small, sparsely decorated room with seating arranged in two circles, inner and outer. Waning sunlight trickled through the solitary stained glass window at one end of the room, forming mesmerizing images on the floor. The monks were seated in the inner circle, the visitors directed to seating against the outer walls. All that could be heard at first was the scuffing of soles as people made their way to their respective places, and the rustle of clothing as each man and woman took a seat. At last, even the scuffing and rustling ceased. All was completely still. But then, as light rises gently out of darkness, out of the silence, a single voice began to sound in tender adoration. For the next half hour, male voices rose and fell, sometimes in unison, sometimes alone. A quiet holiness prevailed. But for me, where there should have been peace, there was inner turmoil. I felt uncomfortable. This was not something I was used to. I had developed no sensitivities with which to appreciate the beauty of it all. Where was the raucous celebration I associated with worship? I remember asking myself what I was supposed to be getting out of what I was seeing/hearing? And I wondered if in my unspoken questioning, instead of just appreciating, I was breaking some sort of silent solemn law.
Terry Glaspey’s third entry in his 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know highlights the history of and the reason for the practice of Gregorian chant. But one doesn’t hear it sung on every street corner or on every station on the dial. It’s not at all “common.” When I read this third entry while riding in the car with my husband, Dave, I knew we had Gregorian Chant CD’s at home somewhere but once we got home, I couldn’t get the CD player to work. So I flipped on the smart TV and headed to Pandora. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Pandora has an entire channel dedicated to Gregorian Chant. And since I was determined to sit and listen to Gregorian Chant before recommending it to you, I spent the better part of the afternoon two days ago with Gregorian Chant playing in the background as I did my work. What follows are my momentary observations,
- As Terry states in his excellent book, “Gregorian chant is spacious, transcendent, and mysterious in its sound, and produces a calming and focusing effect,” and I concur. It is incredibly soothing. Even though I could not understand the words (they were all in Latin), I found myself relaxing and settling into a space that can only be described as “holy.” Whether that is because church is virtually the only place one hears Gregorian chant or for some other reason, I am not certain. What I do know is that I found peace and beauty in the simplicity of the chant.
- I found Terry’s choice of words compelling in his description of Gregorian chant. Spacious. Transcendent. Mysterious. All characteristics of beauty. All needed in 21st century America, where we seem to have lost sight of all three. When we are blessed by exposure to one or two or all three, we are changed. We are formed by something beyond our ability to fully comprehend.
- The great lack of English words in the chants made it difficult for me to understand Terry’s assertion that, “….those listening are invited to focus not only on the beauty of what is being sung but also on its message aimed at the heart of the hearer.” If I can’t understand the words, my appreciation of them will be challenged. So what is the solution? Translation of the original texts into English (the language of the people) or teach more people Latin. Both are viable options, I think.
- I found it interesting that Gregorian chant is so named after Pope Gregory, who actually had nothing to do with the creation of them. (If you wish to know more about the role he DID play, or how Charlemagne was involved in the dissemination of Gregorian chant, you’ll have to read Terry’s book.) History is so incredibly fascinating.
Did you get a chance to watch Dr. Leithart on Youtube over the weekend in anticipation of his new book The End of Protestantism? If you did, what role do you think liturgy, and Gregorian chant might play in a reunified church? I’d really like to hear your thoughts.
Whatever our path….whatever our journey…exposure to the past is important, and it seems to me it is especially important for Christians. We cannot cultivate what we do not know. We cannot understand that which we do not practice. How are you….how are we…retracing the ancient steps in order to form the future? This inquiring mind wants to know.
Next Entry: Ordo Virtutum by Hildegard of Bingen (It is an example of a particular kind of play. Who knows what it is?)