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.
Listen for a moment to this small versicle from Psalm 70:
O God, come to my assistance.
O Lord, make haste to help me.
If you've ever been on retreat at a monastery, you will recognize this versicle immediately. Seven times a day as the monks gather to pray the Divine Office, the service begins with this psalm prayer--and like nearly everything in monastic tradition, there's a reason for it. Back in the early fifth century, John Cassian, one of the most important of the Desert Fathers, singled it out as the most powerful prayer available to us for our spiritual protection and transformation. Cleave to this verse like a shield and buckler, Cassian counsels, and all will be well.
But he's not intending for us simply to say it over and over and over again like a mantra, a focal point for a kind of concentrative meditation. This slight but important misinterpretation was introduced by the late Dom John Main, founder of the Christian Meditation movement, who saw in Cassian's words an authorization in Christian tradition of a meditation practice he had first learned from an Indian swami. But while catching Cassian's words, he missed the intent of these words, which Cassian goes on to explain very clearly in the next line:
"It is not without good reason that this verse has been chosen from the whole of Scripture [for]...it carries within it all the feelings of which human nature is capable. It carries within it a cry to God in the face of every danger. It expresses the humility of a pious confession. It conveys the watchfulness born of unending worry and fear. It conveys a sense of our frailty, the assurance of being heard, the confidence in help that is alwaysCassian says that this particular psalm versicle is so important not because it leads us to a state of meditative detachment but quite the opposite. It plunges us right into the heart of the human condition because it contains within it all the feelings of which human nature is capable.
and everywhere present. This is the voice filled with the ardor of love and charity. This is the terrified cry of someone who sees the snares of the enemy. The cry of someone besieged day and night and exclaiming that he cannot escape unless his protector comes to his rescue."
In other words, this psalm versicle and others with their various moods and colors, when absorbed contemplatively, furnish the images for the emotional states, experiences, and attitudes of the spiritual journey. They carry us through the various moods and feelings that arise in all of us as we embark on a spiritual path. They make those dark shadow places recognizable. And so the Psalms essentially become psychological tools--tools for the purification and healing of the unconscious. Herein lies the real key to the hidden wisdom of psalmody.