Plainchant Lessons for Civil Discourse
Katherine Krause, oblate
Editor's note: Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica write a weekly column titled "View from the Mount" in our hometown newspaper, the Atchison Globe. One of our oblates wrote this column, which appeared in the Sept. 24, 2016, edition of the Globe.
If you’ve never chanted with a monastic community, it is quite an experience, a little like attending a rock concert in a foreign language: the beat is familiar, the energy is good, but there’s a sense of clarity missing because you don’t know the language.
The sisters invited me to join in their prayers immediately, but before I could chant the Psalms, I needed to learn how to use my voice in a new way. I had to be taught how to enter into their conversation with God. The lessons I received are helping me re-learn how to use my voice well. Here are four highlights from those instructions that are returning to me lately.
- “If you cannot hear the person next to you, you are singing too loudly.” Not only is this important for chanting, it is an excellent guideline to live by. At the root of this practice is the central Benedictine value of humility, the “right seeing” of the world in relationship to oneself. When we begin to understand that we exist to serve the world and not the other way around, we are on the way toward the humility that looks more like Jesus. This can begin in our everyday interactions, including in how we speak to each other. What if, in this election year, we attempted to practice this way of speaking? Sure, a few cable network pundits would be unemployed, but for the rest of us, it might be an amazing way of coming to understand that perhaps we are not so different or separated as we seem. This would require me to live the belief, however, that each and every person next to me is worthy of being heard.
- “Be present to the words coming out of your mouth.” How often do we pop off a quick and perhaps thoughtless comment? How often do we react to others, when the world around us is aching to be received and responded to? Do we even know the difference anymore? To welcome the world as Christ, as St. Benedict admonishes us, there must be a presence and quality of silence in the words we speak. We can speak blessings or curses, life or death. The choice is ours, and we need to remain present to that choosing.
- “Don’t hold on to the note once it’s sung.” There is a real skill in being able to let go. Unlike modern music that seems to hinge upon hitting and then holding on to impossible notes forever, plainchant makes a true sound and moves on because the song is always continuing and the music is carrying us onward. This is a perspective we could stand to hold right now, whatever the notes that have sounded in elections, decisions, events. While we strive to be present to what is happening, we must also welcome what is yet to be and remain available to the Spirit of God to join in that chorus.
- “The goal is to sing with one voice.” When monastics chant, the practice a living memory of God’s people, remembering what the Gospel sounds like when everyone is in it. As we make our way forward through these times, we need to find and engage practices of sacred memory that sing back to us the deeper truths of who we are as people and re-envision who we want to become. When is the last time you were moved by a coming-together of people? Where do you experience a sense of community? Think about how you can extend that to include others. These are the kinds of peacemaking strategies for which our souls cry out. Each of us has the power and the ability to do this.