Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Gregorian Chant: The Melodic Voice of the Liturgy

I have asked a dear friend of the Q Continuum to write specifically on Gregorian Chant. Bob Adams and I have been friends for over 25 years and he has taught me volumes on the subject. Enjoy the read!

Dialogue Between God & Man

As Deacon Q has been showing us throughout this week, the Liturgy can be described as a dialogue between Man and the Divine. Outside of the The Sacrifice, this can be found in no better way than in the plaintive song of the Beloved giving voice to the poetry of the Lover. This beautiful intermingling of Heaven and Earth is designed to raise our hearts and minds to Him and to leave us panting for more. Sadly, too often the music that we find at Liturgy, instead of raising our hearts and minds to Heaven, leaves us gazing only at ourselves. It is for this reason that the Church in her wisdom has established for us norms for music so that we don’t lose sight of the purpose of worship. And it is for this reason that the Church, in her Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, gave us these specific guidelines:

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.

There are many reasons why, in my opinion, Gregorian Chant is the greatest model of music in the Church, but I want to focus especially on one particular aspect: Chant as dialogue.

Many people mistakenly believe that Chant is just something the choir (schola) sings while they just sit and listen, and when the schola is finished they go back to praying. In actuality, if the priest ever sings a part of Mass and the congregation responds in song, that too is Chant. We could talk about Propers and Ordinaries and all those kinds of things, but I really want to focus on this sung dialogue between the priest and the people. Nowhere else (outside of Communion) is such a close intermingling of the Bride and the Bridegroom to be found. When the Bridegroom sings, the Bride responds in kind, showing her unity to Him. It is like two lovers who are so close that they are breathing the same breath, their hearts beating in unison. It is one of the expressed purposes of Liturgy that Heaven and Earth meet at the eternal moment of Christ’s crucifixion and death: the Bridegroom giving up His life that the Bride may have new life. At times the Bride weeps at the cruelty hurled at her Bridegroom, and at other times she rejoices that now she and the Bridegroom may finally be one. This is what song, and most especially Chant, does for those who see with the heart and mind of the Church. It allows the Bride to enter into that sacred, unchanging time and give her all to the One who has given His all.

Song can move the heart and mind like nothing else, and it reaps rich rewards for those who not only sing with their lips but who can enter into that moment and be with Him “who so loved us”. While Chant can be sung in English, we should not be afraid of it if it is sung in Latin. Many times have I asked young people listening to music what they find so appealing about a particular song. Many of them say that, even though they don’t know the words to the song, they like the way the music makes them feel and it helps them tap into that inner part of themselves that they can’t get to by themselves. As strange as a comparison between modern music and Chant might seem, Chant too can tap into those inner parts of ourselves. Even if we don’t understand the Latin, song has a way of reaching into us and drawing us out. I would even go so far as to say that this is one of the reasons why the young people are returning in such numbers to this music. The sense of the sacred and the sense of the Divine is so palpable when the Liturgy is chanted that it moves us in a way that having it simply spoken may not.

I challenge you, find a church nearby where the priest chants his parts, he may even chant them in Latin. Find such a church and just listen. Take a step back. Hear the priest, hear the people. See if you can hear the dialogue. Do so and your life may never be the same.

One Response to Gregorian Chant: The Melodic Voice of the Liturgy

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