Unlike most of the great traditions of sacred chanting, which rely on the rhythmic, almost hypnotic repetition of a single prayer phrase or mantra, Christian psalmody is fast-paced and mentally demanding. Rather than stilling the mind, it floods the mind with images and emotions, and it requires a compassionate engagement with the meaning of the words themselves. The immediate experience of this may be that the chanting feels less ecstatic, more "cerebral" than in other sacred traditions. But below the surface, quite a lot is happening.

Contemplative psalmody works at the level of the archetypal imagination. While some of this work--as we've seen in earlier columns--has to do with the integration of the shadow and the healing of the personal unconscious, its real power lies in the awakening of the unitive imagination.

"Unitive imagination" means the ability to think with more than just the linear mind: to engage those faculties of intuition, sensitivity, and creativity that lie deep within our psyche and support a "wisdom" way of knowing. Another way of describing this full-spectrum thinking would be "thinking with the heart."

Like all the Western religions, Christianity is a religion of the Word. But that Word is a unitive Word; a heart-word. It does not yield itself up easily to a linear, or cause-and-effect, way of thinking. At the literal level, those elements in the tradition, such as the Virgin Birth or the mystical body of Christ, make no sense at all. But to the awakened, unitive imagination, they become precise roadmaps of the path of inner transformation, increasingly transparent by the light of inner illumination.

While St. Benedict may not have had terms such as "archetypal unconscious" and "unitive awakening" at his disposal back in the sixth century, his intuitions in this regard were very keen. His "school for the Lord's service" (as he called the monastery) was in essence a total-immersion program for the awakening of the unitive imagination. And the backbone of his curriculum was psalmody.

Seven times a day, according to the Rule of St. Benedict (and once at night), the monks were to gather in the chapel to sing the Divine Office--short devotional services based on psalmody, scriptural readings, and prayer. Benedict named this Opus Dei--"The Work of God"--and considered it the supreme occupation of the monk.

Around this great trunk root of the Divine Office, the other parts of the monastic day were arranged: manual work together and time alone for study and reflection on the scripture, a practice known as lectio divina--"divine reading." The strategy was to set up a dynamic tension between the words of scripture deeply and prayerfully ingested and the circumstances of daily life. Gradually, in this creative tension between being and doing, the monk's life and the living Word of scripture would become more and more intermeshed, until finally they merged completely in the monk's own awakened heart.

During the seven years I lived alongside the monks of St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, I had many opportunities to experience the subtle genius of this monastic art form. Day by day, night by night (sometimes half asleep), as I would join the monks for the Divine Office, the Psalms were quietly insinuated into my being--almost like a steady intravenous drip of little images and petitions: "Like the deer longs for running water, so my soul longs for you, O God (Psalm 42)"; "Oh Lord, open my lips.... My soul longs for the Lord more than the watchman for daybreak (Psalm 130)." During Advent, I particularly looked forward to one Psalm in the night office with its antiphon: "With joy you will draw water from the fountain of salvation," set to a beautiful, lilting melody.

The music greatly heightens the staying power of the words, of course, as anyone who has ever sung in a choir knows. The tunes carry the words down to a deeper level where they are always retrievable--unlike passages simply committed to verbal memory, which tend to fade over the course of time. You will remember the words of something you remember the tune to; the tune will bubble up out of the unconscious when something touches or stimulates it, then the words will gradually fill in.

One dismal snowy evening in early December, I was down at the pump house struggling to replace a broken hose that had shut off the water up at my house. Three or four tries, icy water up to my knees and on my hands, trying to prime the old pump. At last it took; the pump hummed into life, and the pressure gauge started climbing. And suddenly out of nowhere, I found myself singing that little antiphon from the night offices: "With joy you shall draw water from the fountain of salvation." There I was, muddy and frozen, but suddenly my struggle with the pump briefly found itself in a larger context, and my laughter was for more than just a day's work well done. For a brief moment, I belonged to a story greater than my own.

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