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Listen to Psalm 100.

Psalm 100
Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come into his presence rejoicing.

Know that the Lord is God.
He made us and we are his.
His own people, the sheep of his pasture.

Come into his gates, giving thanks.
Enter his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and bless his name.

Praise the Lord, for he is good,
His love endures forever
His faithfulness from age to age.

Doxology:
Praise the Father for his merciful love;
taste and see that the Lord is good;
give him praise in the Holy Spirit.
Generally speaking, monks seem to prefer their psalms in the form of a "psalm sandwich." If you can imagine a psalm, like the one above, as the "meat" of a musical sandwich, the "bread" on either side is a contrasting musical line known as an "antiphon." As in any good sandwich, the purpose of the bread is to help you get your hands around the contents, while at the same time highlighting the flavor.

Musically, the melody of the antiphon is usually a bit more complex and tuneful than the psalm tone itself, which is mostly sung on just one note. Another name for an antiphon is a "refrain." As in folk music everywhere, a good refrain will stick in your mind easily and keep singing itself inside you long after the song is over.

The text for the antiphon can be drawn from a versicle in the psalm itself, or it can come from a different psalm or from a different part of the Bible altogether. In any case, its function is to punctuate the psalm--to add a bit more depth and resonance--and to put the psalm in context. The antiphons generally will vary with the liturgical seasons. At Easter, for example, a time of great joy in the life of the church, if you were to go on retreat at New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur, you'd hear the monks singing Psalm 100, with the following antiphon surrounding it:

Be not afraid.
Go tell my friends to set out for Galilee.
There they will see me.
Alleluia.

[The beginning of Psalm 100 is sung again.]

Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come into his presence rejoicing.
The text for this antiphon--"Be not afraid, go tell my friends to set out for Galilee. There they will see me. Alleluia."--comes from the gospel reading for Easter morning. It is one of the first lines Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene shortly after rising from the tomb. You can see how the antiphon provides an effective and moving way to tie in the psalm with the theme of the day. "Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands" is now set in the context of the Easter resurrection message. That's the artistry of monastic psalmody.

Now let's imagine that we were singing this psalm at Christmas time. It's also a season of joy, but a different kind of joy; the Easter antiphon would be out of place. So in the same playful spirit that makes monastic psalmody so creative and fresh, let's imagine dipping into a familiar grab bag of our own to come up with a "customized" antiphon for Christmas day. How about the following familiar carol:

"Joy to the world, the Lord is come!"

[Beginning of Psalm 100 is sung again.]

Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come into his presence rejoicing.
Listen to how well they fit together; both thematically and musically, the psalm tone and our new antiphon "match":

[From the doxology of Psalm 100]

Praise the Father for his merciful love;
taste and see that the Lord is good;
give him praise in the Holy Spirit.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
From this simple, modern example, you can understand the basic principle of monastic psalmody. And this basic principle always stays the same, whether it's a question of the soaring Latin of Gregorian chant or the plain English of contemporary psalmody.

With these variable antiphons around the fixed psalm tone (the "meat" of the psalm sandwich), a subtle cross-referencing to the liturgical season--the time of the church year the psalm is being sung in--is always going on. Cross-referencing also occurs with other bits of scriptural texts or to the interplay between the Old Testament and the New Testament, which is particularly important to Christian contemplative consciousness. For better or worse, there is always a subtle contextualization at work in monastic psalmody, an insinuation that the yearnings expressed in the psalms find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

For those so attuned, you can tell where you are instantly in the liturgical year simply by the psalmody. Each season has its own color, its own textural and musical ambiance and the text and musical quality of the matching antiphons. For example, the haunting "Puer Natus" chant from the famous Chant album by the monks of Silos (the one that astounded everyone by hitting the top of the pop charts a few years back) proves itself to be, once you pare it down to the bare essentials, a classic psalm with antiphon. The "meat" of this psalm sandwich is Psalm 98: "Sing to the Lord a new song." The antiphon, "Puer natus nobis," is the well-loved Christmas text from Isaiah: "Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given."

Those who know their way around monastic psalmody will suspect--correctly--that what they are hearing is part of the monastic psalmody for Christmas day. It's a kind of hidden language that adds depth and subtlety to the overt proclamation of the scripture. Consider it a kind of secret language of the soul.

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