Lesson Seven: The Hidden Wisdom of Psalmody

Learning to sing the psalms.

For nearly 1,500 years, Gregorian chant was the universal language of Christian monasticism and psalmody. But after 1961, Gregorian chant was essentially shelved in favor of a move to vernacular languages as a result of Vatican II, the Great Papal Council. We've been in a period of great transition as monastic houses have worked to find and replace the ancient Gregorian chant tradition with something else.

Many people think that Gregorian chant and the Christian chant tradition are one and the same. That's not so; Jesus Christ didn't sing Gregorian chants, neither did the Desert Fathers nor countless others of the most powerful and profound witnesses to the Christian spiritual tradition. So, there must be something else, some deeper wisdom at the root of Christian psalmody. What is the Christian tradition of sacred chant? And how is it distinct from other traditions?

In Christian chant, neither the vibration itself, nor the music is sacred. Certainly Christian chant makes use of vibration as all chant does. But it is not primarily about sacred vibration. Christian chant is also not about the rhythmic, almost hypnotic repetition of a single prayer phrase or mantra--although the very popular Taize chant, named after a small monastic community in eastern France that began developing this new style of chanting shortly after World War II, works on this principle. This powerful new form of Christian chant resembles some of the more ancient traditions of Eastern and Sufi chanting. But it is a departure from the traditional understanding of Christian psalmody.

In Christian psalmody, you have to know and understand the words. You have to accept them into your heart in a very deep way. That's why, in fact, Vatican II instructed and gave permission that they be translated back into the vernacular languages, into English, French, Swahili, and all the languages in which people worship. The words are always primary in Christian chanting. If you don't know them, you may have a beautiful aesthetic musical experience, even a mystical high, but it's not the core experience available to us on the path of Christian contemplative psalmody. Singing contemplative psalmody is a matter of staying close to the meaning of the text, and being in it and with it.

It isn't easy, of course, to stay present to the Psalms without the mind wandering--it never has been. Way back in the fourth century, the Desert Father Evagrius wrote: "To chant the Psalms is a good thing, to chant the Psalms without distraction is an even better thing."

St. Romuald, in the 11th century, added words of encouragement that if the mind wanders, one must gently but firmly keep bringing it back to the psalm. The idea that one is always aware on some level of what one is saying and giving oneself to what one is saying is a key element on this particular path.

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