Healed by song
Advent is a time of truth-telling and so I will tell you this: I have a horrible singing voice. But I love to sing—Christmas carols in their season— and throughout the year, the chants of Taize. I know that I feel more human, and more free of the burden of being human, after belting out in the safe space of my own car “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices.” For some, that specific narrative— and the way it has been played out in contemporary American culture— gets in the way of the hunger for God that is universal. This has led many to the divine practice of Gregorian chant, of which Taize is a form. Kathleen Norris speaks to this beautifully in a short chapter from The Cloister Walk called “The Gregorian Brain.” I’ve included it here, along with one of the most compelling and accessible Taize chants Veni Sancte Spiritus.
The Gregorian Brain
Recent neurological research has shown that in religious rituals from around the world, poetry is generally chanted with a pulse of between two and four seconds, a pulse that the researchers now believe to correspond to an internal system in the human brain. This system, epitomized by the traditions of Gregorian chant and plainsong in the Christian West, seems to help integrate the workings of the right and left hemispheres of the brain in processing information. As a contemporary monk has written, this may explain why “the ritual chanting of sacred texts contributes in a unique way to a profound, largely subliminal, absorption and engagement having many more dimensions than mere rational understanding.” It also might help explain the current popularity of Gregorian chant albums among people who have very little ritual life, or who have grown weary of what the monk terms “poor talkative Christianity.”
Monastic people have long known — and I’ve experienced it in a small way myself— that the communal reciting, chanting, and singing of the psalms brings a unique sense of wholeness and order to their day, and even establishes the rhythm of their lives. This is why they keep going back to choir, even though it may see monotonous. This is why Benedict termed the Liturgy of the Hours the “Work of God,’why Benedictines today still speak of it as the foundation stone on which they build all the other work that they do. Now it seems that their conviction has a neurological basis in the brain itself.
The scientists have also confirmed what Thomas Merton knew from experience, that “Gregorian is good, and it heals.” I know from my limited experience of singing chant that it fosters faith: I believe better and more thoroughly when I’m singing it. Like so many elements of monastic life, Gregorian is a matter of focus. It teaches us what we gain when we become simple, dependent upon the beauty of the unadorned human voice. It teaches us what we lose, in music, when we add a melody and a beat. It also fosters an appreciation for community. Gregorian can’t be sung alone: you need people who are willing to blend their voices in such a way as to sound like one voice. In practical terms, Gregorian makes you extremely grateful for the other people who are singing with you. When you hit a note feebly, making more a groan than music, someone else will cover for you. When the time comes, you’ll do the same for them. when you need to take a breath, someone else will keep going, making a continuous flow. The flow of Gregorian music reminds me of the pulse of ocean waves, steady and incessant, but never superfluous, a satisfying sound that may swell unpredictably before ebbing back in silence. It is a music in harmony with the body, and with the universe itself. It is also, always, praise of God.
Music is serious theology. Hildegard of Bingen took it so seriously as a gift God made to humanity that in one of her plays, while the soul and all the Virtues sing, the devil alone has a speaking part. The gift of song has been denied him.
TAIZE: Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)