Peace is Compline on Easter Sunday night with the Benedictine nuns of St Cecilia on the Isle of Wight. It feels as if we have been on an extraordinary and arduous journey since the introit Nos autem gloriari oportet announced the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday. Now the solemn Regina Caeli completes these days of commemorating Christ’s Passover, and hearing the sweet, serene sound of the chant of the nuns’ voices I fondly imagine that this is Mother Church singing us to sleep after all the activity with the assurance that we can rest now, for all is safe, home is won, and tomorrow all the same excitement will still be there.
I don’t think this is entirely sentimental. The chant is such an integral feature of the liturgy and is far more than just decoration or liturgical enhancement. I deplore the way that one hears Gregorian chant nowadays played for background atmosphere in Catholic school assemblies and French cathedrals like spiritual hotel lobby music. It is a particular language and register of prayer because it has never been anything else except prayer. Its melodies and cadences go back in some cases to the the time of the Temple. It is said, for example, that the solemn tone in which we sang the Passion was originally a Jewish funeral lament. Perhaps Our Lord heard the very same melody when he was performing some of his miracles of raising the dead. Even the possibility makes the hairs stand on the back of my neck when one sings it to lament his crucifixion and burial.
With the exception of the hymns for the Office, the chant is the plain words of Scripture being chanted. Yet paradoxically, precisely because it is the prayerful utterance of the word of God rather than an attempt to codify an emotional response to that word, the chant allows for an utterance which is always new and vital, and allows one to hear many profound emotions.
After several visits to the monastery for Easter, I tell myself I can now hear the massive difference in emotion between the Christus factus est of Good Friday and the Haec dies of Easter Sunday, even though they are generically the same measured Gregorian Chant. And Ad cenam Agni providi, the beautiful hymn for Vespers on Easter Sunday, has all the triumph and ecstasy of any victory song, though nothing about the rhythm or volume or attack is very different from any other chant.
When it is the Opus Dei of the monastery, when the chant is not just something executed beautifully but something which is the living, breathing heart of a monastery’s prayer as at St Cecilia’s, the chant begins to act on the heart in a way that is almost impossible to define. If I were to struggle to find a metaphor for it, I would say that it is as if you begin to synchronise your breathing to its rhythms. The world is in a kind of panic attack as far as prayer and interiority is concerned, and by being immersed in the chant gradually the rate of breathing is calmed and finds its equilibrium and begins to align itself to the prayer expressed it in the chant.
I don’t know whether this is physiologically true. I suspect that precisely because the chant is grounded in the idea of long, unbroken breaths, it probably act on its hearers’ breathing and heart rate. But I am certain it is spiritually true, that an alignment begins to take place. Precisely because the chant’s explicit intent is prayer rather than emotional stimulation, and because it has been prayer for centuries throughout the whole Catholic world, one is also attuning one’s breathing to that rhythm. Long before the current craze for yoga this tradition developed a mystical way of centring the heart on the word of God and a discipline of life which allowed one to focus on the divine presence in word and sacrament, and from drinking deep of this Spirit to bring forth sublime praise of the love which fills the universe and has a human heart which gives itself to become the home wherein our own can find rest.
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