Saturday, July 01, 2006

Gregorian Chant and other thoughts

Peace to you in Christ!
Well, I survived the presentation at the regional convention of NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians). We had a terrific group in our chant workshop, which I co-presented with Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville.

The interest of our presentation is that the two of us are students of the earliest manuscript traditions. The efforts at interpreting the rhythmic markings of tenth and eleventh-century notation have given rise to a new style of interpretation that emphasizes the text in a way that the more popular "Solesmes method" cannot. So in one way, we are quite traditional in that we are doing chant, the musical form that enjoys 'pride of place' in the liturgy, according to Vatican II, drawing on the teachings of Pope Pius X and others. On the other hand, our interpretation is pretty radical.

It is always good to return home. I would like to share one other observation about monks travelling in the hopes that it will interest you.

On the road, even with some persons who know me fairly well (Fr. Anthony and I have been friends since I did my seminary work at St. John's), it is quite a bit easier to be cheery, nice, energetic, helpful and so on. The pace of the convention was such that even though I was fairly tired from the terrible thunderstorm on Sunday (and the major fire down the block that apparently was everywhere on the news), I rarely noticed my fatigue. So many exciting things to do! And of course, it is not that demanding to be relatively patient and kind with people whom, after this week, I may never see again.

Our cloistered community life, seen in this light, is quite demanding. We make efforts to slow our life down, remove external stimulations, and keep ourselves with the same people, so that our love and patience may grow very deep and authentic roots. I often assert that this stability is one of the most important things that monks have to offer today. Few people really understand this dimension of our lives. Fr. Columba Stewart, also of St. John's, once tried to describe it to a lay faculty member at the college there: imagine eating all your meals with the rest of the faculty, as well as praying, sleeping and sharing finances with them!

Another effect of the slow pace in the cloister, in contrast to the hectic one outside, is that we monks don't accomplish much. In this day and age for men especially, this is a form of crucifixion. Quite often we are viewed as eccentrics: not harming anyone, and so we are not in danger of being shut down, but not of much use either. I imagine that Jesus occasioned similar comments. "Who's this thirty-one-ish guy with no job, no wife, and no connections?" One can heard the snide edge to the taunts of the scribes as Jesus hangs on the cross. "This guy, the Son of God? Yeah, right!"

So I am grateful for the opportunity to share something of our life, in terms of chant, with those who may profit from it. But the desert, as Thomas Merton put it, is where the monk longs to be: barrenness, silence, and self-emptying.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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