Author: Fr. John Trigilio


By Rembert Herbert

In order to understand the perennial appeal and importance of Gregorian chant, we must understand its function within the monastic culture. The monastic writers saw (as we do not) that in our fallen state we have no authentic "interior life." We look inside ourselves and we see fatigue, worry, and opinions, or perhaps (on a good day) enthusiasm, joy, and hope, and we know that all of these emotions are important to us; they are our life, our humanity. But even the best of them are what monastic writers call "the world." They reflect and respond to what is around us. They are not really "interior," but are the result of our having . And as St. Augustine put it, "All these seeming sources of worldly happiness are the dreams of sleepers." And so, according to the Fathers, we go through our lives in a noisy waking dream.

Monastic writers agree that in order to enter the life of prayer, the way of perfection, we must begin to resist these influences from the world. In order to have space for the Holy Spirit, in order for there to be enough silence that its voice can be heard, we have to become poor, empty of these images of the world. As St. Gregory writes: "Unless there is an ardent striving of the heart, the water of the world is not surmounted, that water by which the soul is ever being borne down to the lowest place." Monastic teaching associates with this "ardent striving" against the "waters of the world." The singing of psalms, especially, is recommended as a means of emptying the mind, gathering the attention, and opening oneself to the world of sacred Scripture. St. Basil writes: "Rising up from prayers [the monks] begin the psalmody...thus reinforcing the study of the scriptural passages, and at the same time producing for themselves attentiveness and an undistracted heart."

This understanding of the role of music seems to be in opposition to most of our current thinking, even about sacred music. Many of us love music precisely because it expresses feelings and stirs emotions. And there is unquestionably an important role for this kind of music in our churches. But what I am asking you to consider here is a special but vital case, the case of .

It is often said that the music of the chant is a perfect vehicle for its words, but from the orthodox point of view, that statement is not quite on the mark. Chant is not primarily concerned with the literal text, as the ancient monastic culture which created the chant was not primarily concerned with the literal text. Chant is concerned with the Word with a capital "W." That Word doesn't exist on the page; it exists only in the heart. So the chant is not based on a two-way marriage between words and music, but on a three-way relationship involving the words, the music, and the person. If we see that the purpose of the chant is to connect the text with the awakened intelligence of a human being, then we see that the standards we must apply are not those we are accustomed to seeing applied when we speak of the text/music relationship. We are not dealing with an art song by Schubert or Debussy. It is not necessary to make excuses for a musical accent which doesn't fall exactly where the text says it should, or for a musical phrase that doesn't quite match a verbal phrase. The music must accommodate the text in these literal ways, of course, and on the whole it does. But sacred Scripture in its living, symbolic sense places very different demands on the music than these. In fact, these demands of the spirit sometimes contradict the criteria of the art song.


The traditional name for a chant choir, of course, is , which is usually translated roughly as "school of singing." But from the point of view we are taking, it would be more accurate to describe a chant choir as a "school of speaking," in which singers learn to speak the text with a quiet mind, in simplicity, emptied of the world, and so with an awakened intelligence, with an active sense of the sacred Source of the text, of its life as the Word. It is this intuition of the Source which is essential, more essential than the literal meaning of any particular passage, since according to the Fathers, all sacred Scripture is one, and speaks the single message of its divine Author, which message is the cosmic love of Christ. Music, text, and singer become connected when the singer, even briefly, speaks or sings with this knowledge of the Source.

Listening is at the heart of this discipline of speaking. St. Bernard writes, "We merit the beatific vision by our constancy in listening;" and again, "Because the sense of sight is not yet ready, let us rouse up our hearing. The hearing, if it be loving, alert and faithful, will restore the sight." And St. Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on the line, "The heavens declare the glory of God," from Psalm 19, writes: "When the hearing of the heart has been purified, then will a man hear this sound."

St. Gregory the Great gives us a practical model for the singer of chant in his many descriptions of holy prophets and preachers, those who speak the Word of the Holy Spirit by listening to what is being said within them, and who therefore speak the Word, as Gregory puts it, "in its own voice," not in their own. By listening inwardly, and speaking only that which he hears spoken by the Spirit, the prophet feeds himself and his hearers with the manna of the sacred Word. As Gregory puts it: "Those prophets feed others by speaking, who are themselves fed by listening to that which they speak." For those of us who are not quite prophets, the chant is a discipline which points us in the right direction, which demands that we sing the sacred text while listening, both to other singers and to what we can hear within ourselves. If we are faithful, we too may be led to speak the text "in its own voice," not our own.

For a choir, the discipline of listening has a very practical basis. In the absence of a conductor, and ideally for chant there should be no conductor, a substantial level of listening attention is required just to keep the music from falling apart or bogging down. There are no external supports. But even at a practical level, the singers discover that this kind of listening sets something to work inside them which is more than practical. The mind is being led toward quiet and awakening even as the ear is being stretched.


As singers grow into this discipline of listening, of speaking the Word in its own voice, they begin to encounter the view of their own nature which I have called "orthodox." They come face to face with their wandering mind, and with the interference of fatigue, anxiety, distracting thoughts, and fixed opinions. Occasionally, though, singers find that in the exercise of listening, this noise slips away; for a moment, the choir is absolutely together, minute details of the text and music are crystal clear. The choir speaks with transparent simplicity. Even the body eases its tension and seems to participate in the singing. Something has changed inside; the intelligence of the quiet mind appears and puts everything into a new light. What was difficult becomes easy. As the psalmist says, "When I tried to understand these things, it was too hard for me, until I entered the sanctuary of God," or again, "Blessed be the Lord, for he has shown me his wonderful mercy in a fortified city."

On the basis of accumulated experience of this kind, singers begin to read the monastic Fathers with more interest and understanding. Such instructions as these from Richard of St. Victor begin to seem less remote, more understandable: "Let one who eagerly strives for contemplation of celestial things, who sighs for knowledge of divine things, learn to assemble the dispersed Israelites-let him endeavor to restrain the wanderings of the mind." Or this by Hesychius of Jerusalem: "The ear of the silent mind will hear untold wonders," or, from St. John of the Ladder: "Do not lose heart when your thoughts are stolen away. Just remain calm, and continually call your mind back." Singers also discover that the quiet mind absorbs everything in more vivid detail. As Origen observed, the spiritual senses are able to "examine the meaning of things with more acute perception." Likewise, one's sense of the life of the text becomes more vivid. As Origen again put it, "For of a truth, nobody can perceive and know how great is the splendor of the Word, until he receives doves' eyes-that is, a spiritual understanding.''

In this sense of the life of the Word, singers also begin to encounter the orthodox view of sacred Scripture; that is, the view of the monastic Fathers. Or perhaps more accurately, the singer's experience may raise questions which only that view of sacred Scripture can answer adequately.

I remember one evening years ago in Washington, DC, when this investigation into the chant had barely begun. The Schola was discussing a passage by St. Athanasius on the personal meaning of the psalms. One singer observed that he could understand to some degree what Athanasius meant, but, he said, "When I sing the psalms in the liturgy, I frequently feel something else that isn't like that, isn't personal somehow. It's different; it's up over my head somewhere, I can't describe it."

This singer, I believe, was talking about an experience of the Word as an action, not as words on a page. Monastic tradition points to many images in sacred Scripture for such an action. One of my favorites is this from the Song of Songs: "Behold, he comes leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. My beloved is like a roe, or a young hart. Behold, he stands behind our wall, looking through the window, looking through the lattice."

This passage is only one many in which, according to the orthodox view, sacred Scripture is speaking to us about itself, about its own nature, and its own ways of acting within us. The variety of these images should give us pause, as if we are being told to be suspicious of any simple, one dimensional understanding of what the nature of this book really is. What we need most to understand, the Fathers seem to say, is a that this book is essentially a sacred, living Mystery, which acts within us in many different ways, and feeds each person exactly according to his condition and need.

The singer I mentioned a moment ago had had some experience of that Mystery, of something puzzling and different. A question had been raised: What is this? Such a question can point the way to an entirely new world and a new relationship both to sacred Scripture and to prayer, and to the Christian faith itself. It is a question which may point the way back to the contemplative tradition of the Fathers.

St. Gregory wrote that the struggle between Jacob and the Angel is an image of the contemplative life. He pointed out that Jacob encountered this angel as he was on a journey back to the land of his parents, or, as Gregory interprets the passage for us, a secular world, music, that is, the ancient chant, offers us what may be a guide for this journey. St. Bernard wrote that "In matters of this kind, understanding can follow only where experience leads." The singing of the chant can offer to us, as it offered to one singer in the choir on that particular occasion, at least the beginnings of inner experience of a traditional kind-a traditional way of seeing ourselves, a more "objective" way. From those beginnings, guided by the monastic writers, we may be able to regain the .


According to the Fathers, the life of anyone who takes up the way of perfection is double-active and contemplative. At its simplest, this duality corresponds to a practical division of activity into work and prayer. But the same duality is also understood in more subtle ways. Prayer itself, for example, has its active and contemplative aspects, its giving and receiving, doing and waiting. But at all levels, the contemplative aspect was considered more precious, for the simple reason that contemplative experience would be continued forever in heaven. In contemplation, man is able to experience eternity here, now, in this life. As Gregory put it: "The active life labors in the manner of our ordinary efforts, but the contemplative savors now, by means of a deep inner taste, the rest to come. It is by means of what we experience now, that what is promised becomes real to us. Or, again in Gregory's words, it is through contemplation that we "awake to the desire for heaven."

For this obvious reason, then, the Fathers believed that the experience of contemplative prayer was essential to the life of the monk. Perfection in the contemplative life, however, did not lie in leaving the active behind. Pure contemplation is not considered possible in this world. Perfection lay in finding the proper balance between the two, and from that balance arose a third condition which St. Gregory describes as "blessed." This balance can never be permanent, and so one must continually search for and rediscover it. When the balance is struck, the third element appears; when the balance is disturbed. it disappears.

One can understand the chant as an exercise in the search for this balance. The musical material of the chant contains elements of speaking-activity-and elements of quiet- contemplation. If we understand the articulation of the text as the active life of the singer in this situation, careful listening and watchfulness during the silence between the phrases of the chant or between verses of a psalm become the contemplative. Singers discover that these two are related, but there is no mistaking their different directions. The contemplative direction is clearly one of gathering in toward oneself, what the monastics call "recollection." St. Teresa described it as a turtle pulling into its shell. The active direction, the recitation of the text with enough lightness and simplicity to be responsive to its meaning, is clearly outward. Speaking the text with complete freedom demands a fine quality of energy. A tired singer has to find that energy. Sacred Scripture points us in its direction with the image of the leaping stag I mentioned earlier, and in other images of the active Word-as dew falling upon Mount Hermon, a shower upon the grass, or as oil poured out.

Singers discover too that each of these directions depends on the other. The feeling of recollection--- a sense of life in the silence-doesn't appear until a certain freedom and simplicity of recitation are sustained, and vice versa. But here too, the contemplative element is seen to be more important. . As St. Gregory wrote: The censure of silence is a kind of nourishment of the word ... we ought not to learn silence by speaking, but rather by keeping silence we must learn to speak."

What Gregory calls the blessedness of that perfect balance between action and contemplation, speech, and silence, is unmistakable when it is present in the choir. But it cannot be controlled. Its appearance is a gift, but a gift for which we must prepare. It is, the Fathers would say, a movement of the Holy Spirit.

And here we are brought back to that first principle of the chant with which we began, because it is by this movement of the Spirit that the singer is able to listen with a quiet mind, find a deeper intelligence, and hear the text speak with its active, symbolic life, in its simplicity, in its "own voice." Then, for that moment the "school of speaking" has done its work, and briefly, as Gregory wrote, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in the singers, and the "bit of error which was in the jaws of the people is destroyed, and [we] have a song like the voice of a sanctified assembly."


For the singers, the active life is represented by the articulation of the text, and the contemplative by listening in silence. In order to practice this discipline with chant that is musically more complicated, singers must know what to do with the different kinds of musical material contained in the repertory. That material is commonly divided into three categories: chant, which includes recitation using psalm tones and other formulas; chant, in which a single syllable may be embellished with a long musical phrase; and chant, which is a mixture of syllabic chant with words which are embellished slightly, with perhaps two, three, or four notes per syllable.

I would like to regroup this material by considering the syllabic and neumatic chants as one category, and adding as a third a kind of material that is usually overlooked in musical discussions-silence. In any discussion of the chant, silence should be considered part of the music, and we must understand its significance and know how to handle it. Silence is most audible in the recitation of psalms, after the mediation and after the final of the tone in each verse. And the singing of psalmody is both basic training for all chant, and the area in which the culmination of the art lies. But for now let us simply say that it is in the recitation of psalms that the search for balance between speech and silence, action and listening, really begins.

Corresponding to these three categories of musical material, we have three kinds of musical activity-recitation, melismatic singing, and listening. We have already understood something about the roles of recitation and listening, but what about the melismas? I would propose that melismatic passages act as a kind of meeting ground between silence and speech, a kind of bridge between the two, which can act as a guide to help us locate the authentic voice of recitation. It is as if the melismas show us how to be still while we are in motion, help us find exactly the right kind of energy. If we are to discover this character of living stillness in the melismas, we must sing them not as classical phrases, or as a string of choppy, percussive pitches but as a succession of still moments, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, as if the singers could stop and remain forever on any pitch, at any time. The musical line must have no forward motion, no drive.

A choir which has begun to discover the contemplative balance of the psalmody will at first find the more complicated chants daunting. They will find that the stillness of psalmody seems to be ruined by these neumes and melismas, by too much musical difficulty. But as the singers gain experience and learn to orient themselves more simply toward the musical material, they find that a deeper, stronger voice for the text begins to be audible. The difficulties in fact begin to serve a positive purpose. The choir then is able to return to the psalms with a better understanding of the entire process.


Perhaps we begin to see from this short description that there is a systematic, practical way to teach the chant so that its contemplative character is taken into account from the start. We don't know, of course, how this was done in the early Middle Ages. Our choirs in New York make no claim to have rediscovered the authentic practice of ancient monks. But I think there is no need to make such a claim. Exactly what method we use is not as important as what our aim is, and what our understanding is of the chant's nature and purpose. Whatever method we use, our technical means must fit the character of our contemplative ends. That is what is important. There can be no such thing as working on technique first, and working on the "music making" later. From the beginning, the aim must not be beautiful music, but the stillness of the prayer of the Word. Chant is not to be sung as an artistic performance for listeners, but as inner preparation for the singers.

What we need, I think, is a second Catholic Revival, a new Oxford Movement, which will recover the comprehensive spirit of the Fathers which has been almost completely lost today. With that spirit we must recover a working understanding of the orthodox view both of human nature and its possibilities, and of the sacred character of Scripture. Such a revival might begin with serious study, in a few places around the country, of the ancient discipline of contemplative prayer and of the place of sacred Scripture, liturgy, music and the writings of the Fathers in that discipline. Through such study we might begin to reclaim what was called in early times "the way of perfection." what St. Gregory called the "way of our spiritual parents," the way on which our father Jacob encountered an angel.

This article appeared in the June 1995 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061.