From the Silence of the Soul United with Christ, to the Silence of God in His Glory
Dear friends of the Association Pro Liturgia,
I am happy to deliver this message of encouragement and gratitude to you on the occasion of your General Assembly. With assurance of my prayers for the intentions that are dear to your hearts, I would like to take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude to your president, M. Denis Crouan, and to each of you for your determination to defend and promote the liturgy of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite in the Latin language, even despite obstacles that stand in your way in this undertaking. This defense must not be mounted with weapons of war, or with hatred and anger in your hearts, but to the contrary, "Let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." May God bless your meritorious efforts and ever make them more fruitful!
I would like us to reflect together on one of the essential elements of Gregorian chant, namely sacred silence. At first it might seem paradoxical, but we shall see that if Gregorian chant, which you defend and promote with so much zeal, has great importance, it is due to its indispensable capacity to draw us into the silence of contemplation, of listening to and adoring the living God. From the silence of the soul that is united to Jesus, to the silence of God in his glory: this is the title of this brief message that my friendship and support extends to you today. In fact, we shall see that Gregorian chant and its splendid visible raiment, the illuminated manuscript of the liturgical book, is born out of silence and leads back to silence.
Gregorian chant rests on two inseparable foundations: Sacred Scripture, which is the basis for its texts, and cantillation. It is well known that from the shadow of their cloisters and their silent meditation on the Word of God, Benedictine monks in the course of the centuries developed, for the needs of the prayer of the Divine Office chanted in common, a cantillatory phrasing for each verse of the Bible that had to be proclaimed, beginning with the Psalms. What they did was to cloth the most holy Word of God, so delicate and subtle to the ear and eye, those double doors of the soul, with the very humble dress of a modal melody at once simple, elegant, and refined, and that respects the rhythm of the prosody. The ear, and also the eye, I said. For in fact, the monk chants and contemplates what he sings: from the first medieval manuscripts to the incunabula of the early Renaissance before the advent of printing (the Gutenburg Bible appeared in 1455), Psalters and Antiphoners, then Lectionaries and Gospel Books were progressively covered with ornaments and illuminations. The ornate letters used for the titles of works and principal divisions took on a great variety of forms: Gothic ornaments, crests, initials in gold...They depict characters of that age as diverse as the laborer, the artisan, the minstrel, the lady of the manor spinning wool at her wheel, but also plants, fruits, and animals: birds of many colors soaring toward heaven, fish sporting in the nourishing tide of the river...The hall where the monk-copyists worked was called the "scriptorium." Like Gregorian chant in the slow and patient course of its genesis, the work of the copyists was a fruit of their silent meditation, for they were required to work in silence and in intimate contact with God. This is why, lest they should be disturbed, only the abbot, the prior, the sub-prior, and the librarian had the right to enter their room. The librarian was charged with giving them what they had to transcribe and furnishing them with all the objects they might need.
And thus, to pray is to sing, to make the vocal cords of the heart speak: a monastic prayer that always begins in the privacy of the cell and continues unabated into the abbey sanctuary. Only the quality of each monk's silence and personal prayer can make the community's prayer deep and sublime. It is thus a prayer that has become eminently communitarian and unanimous, pronounced in a loud voice, with full lungs, during eight hours each day: an exhausting labor, but one that regenerates and sanctifies...This praise is the Gregorian chant that mounts up to the altar, to the stone of the Holy Sacrifice. The Catholic liturgy thus unfolds in a very slow dance, like that of King David before the Ark, throughout the whole interior space of the Abbatial Church, between the columns and down the length of the nave. It leads the chant to stroll as if in procession, making a majestic round about the altar...In front of the altar of the Holy Sacrifice, after the offices of Vigils or Compline, before returning to his cell where absolute silence reigns, the monk remains alone, on his knees near his stall, his hand sometimes placed on the misericord, as he contemplates the Cross. In fact, the Gregorian chant we find in the illuminated manuscripts is actually the heavenly liturgy, identical to the one that is represented, prefigured, accomplished, and actualized here below in the monastic liturgy, a genuine anticipation of the real presence, visible, tangible, and substantial, of the invisible Reality par excellence, of the Lamb standing as it were slain. A silence where God lets himself be seen in the flashing rays of his Glory through the beautiful rituals of the liturgy of the Church on the road toward her consummation. In fact, in a number of abbeys, such as Sénanque, Bonneval, or Quimperlé, the crucified Jesus appears sovereign even in his crucifixion. He is represented not as? dead but with his eyes open, not naked but clothed in a royal vestment, like Christ the Pantocrator in Byzantine art. The Crucified and Risen One embraces the whole universe in a grand gesture.
If I have taken the liberty of recalling briefly the origin of Gregorian chant and its visual medium, the illuminated manuscript, it is to allow us to observe the criteria par excellence of liturgical chant: it gushes out from the silent contemplation of the mysteries of Jesus on this earth, the Incarnation and the Redemption, and leads us into the silence of adoration of the living God, the Most Holy Trinity: the Father sitting on his Throne of Glory made of jasper–a shining and transparent color–and sardius–a purple color–, surrounded by the rainbow of God's fidelity; the sacrificed lamb haloed with the uncreated Light, He who alone is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise; and the Holy Spirit, spring and river of living water rushing from the Throne and the Heart of the Lamb unto eternal life. This criterion, which as we have seen prevailed during the slow, progressive elaboration of Gregorian chant, is the ultimate key that admits us into a profound understanding of the exceptional and incomparable place given to it by Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's constitution on the sacred liturgy, in the often-lauded paragraph number 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." This eminent, even primary place is not only due to its historical precedence, but above all to the Church's recognition of the unequaled intrinsic value of this chant, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which constitutes the model for the development of other forms of music and liturgical chant. Later, the same number 116 speaks precisely on this subject: "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".
Let us take one example: rhythm. It is clear that the syncopated rhythm–which consists of starting a note on the weak beat of a measure or on the weak part of a beat and continuing it on the strong beat of the following measure or on the strong part of the following beat– so typical of contemporary music, especially of commercial music, ever since the appearance of jazz, is little suited to meditation that leads from silence to adoration of the living God. Someone who does not perceive this is likely already tainted by this blindness and deafness that are a result of our immersion in a profane and secularized world, without God and without faith, saturated with noise, agitation, and barely-contained fury. Therefore, musical rhythm tends to disclose an undeniable reality: the presence or absence of contemplation. In other words, it is symptomatic of the manner in which liturgical singing flows or does not flow from silence and prayer.
In fact, there exists a "body language of silence" and the rhythm of liturgical song? is this body language: silence as a condition of the Word. The Word of God, that is, and not the loose verbiage produced by one who walks after the flesh, and thus silence is a condition for authentic liturgical singing: "In the beginning, God made the heaven and the earth...": It is out of the interior of silence that God speaks, that he creates the heaven and the earth by the power of his Word. Further, the Word only takes on its own importance and power when it issues from silence...but the opposite is equally true in this case: in order for silence to have its fertility and effective power, the word must be spoken out loud. St. Ignatius of Antioch adds: "it is better to be silent and to be than to speak and not to be." Hence the "sacred" silence prescribed by the Church during the holy liturgy. "At the proper times all should observe a reverent silence," as Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms (no. 30).
Liturgical chant is there to make us pray, and in our day its primary objective, even before leading us to meditation and adoration, is to soothe the inner maelstrom of our passions, of the violence and divisions between the flesh and the spirit. Rhythm is therefore a very important, even essential element of our pacification, of this inner piece that we recover or acquire by hard labor, in tears and toil. Syncopated rhythm breaks the silence of the human soul; rising from a strident and discordant melody, it comes against us like an aggressor, to tear apart our soul with axe blows and leave its pieces scattered all about, panting, in tatters. This is the suffering that so many faithful express when they come out from certain Masses, using words like "scandal," "boredom," "suffering," "desacralization," "disrespect," etc. Yes, it is a genuine assault, a violent intrusion, a break in to the house of the soul, the place where God entreats with his creature as a friends speaks with a friend. Our contemporaries are right to be concerned about human rights; they should also reflect on this violation of an essential right: the soul's right to privacy and its unique and ineffable relation with its Creator and Redemptor.
Now, I affirm that certain forms of music and chant heard in our churches run counter to this elementary right of the human person to encounter his God, because it disturbs the interior silence of the soul, which breaks like a dike under the force of a mudslide. For this reason I do not hesitate to protest with insistence and humility; I beg you, if a form of singing breaks this interior silence, the soul's silence, that you give it up now, and restore silence to its proper place! In this domain the responsibility of bishops, priests, and their collaborators, in particular in parishes and chaplaincies, is immense and crucial, both from the point of view of choice and selection of liturgical songs based on the criterion that we have presented, and with regard to the formation of seminarians, novices, and of course the faithful as well. Many of these people feel more and more the necessity of a strong liturgical formation, in particular choir directors, choristers, musicians, and members of liturgical groups that are often responsible for the choice of liturgical music under the direction of their parish priest. To tolerate just any sort of music or chant, to continue to debase the liturgy, is to demolish our faith, as I have often recalled: "Lex orandi, lex credendi."
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