Today we celebrate the feast of St. Gregory the Great. There aren’t all that many Saints we label with “the Great”, but this man’s love for the poor and his powerful ability to stay true to the faith despite being elevated to the Papacy rightly earned him the title. He was immensely fond of the term “servant of God”, and the term has often been used by clergy ever since.
Perhaps what he is best known for is what we now call Gregorian chant, or plainchant, one of the great treasures of the Church. Now in honesty, we aren’t really sure what role he played in its development, but it bears his name nonetheless.
I adore chant, and if I am going to be honest, I think its reduced usage in liturgy to be one of the greatest losses of the modern age. I do not think I am over-exaggerating here. I know that in our modern age we love our acoustic guitars, pianos and our 4/4 time that moves like our heartbeat, but nothing brings a person out of the secular world as clearly and as decisively as a choir of human voices singing praise to God not in rocking rhythms, but in the freeform song of the heart. The sound alone moves the soul to another kind of life, another way of being.
I’m in no way trying to put down or dissuade the many musicians who dedicate their time and talent to enhance the liturgy by bringing their talent to bear, and I have often been amazed at the level of practice, dedication, and devotion to serve the Lord that musician have demonstrated. Mass without song feels so empty, that it’s no wonder that the Church in the GIRM calls a serious obligation to have music on Sundays and Holy Days. They do a great service to the Church, and I am always sad at the Masses I go to without music. There can be no doubt their love of the Lord pours through their music, and they uplift the hearts of their congregations.
At the same time however, I cannot help but notice that time and again, the Church has called us to come back to Gregorian chant, and we have not listened. The same GIRM that tells us how important and vital the musician’s role is, at the same time calls us to reawaken our love of chant.
“41. The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other kinds of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.” – General Instruction of the Roman Missal
So I have two suggestions to help you to become more familiar with chant.
First, if you are a musician for your parish, consider singing just one part of the Mass in chant. Choose a simple part that your parish can begin to latch on to. (Don’t forget to ask the pastor on this, I don’t want to get you in trouble!) Maybe go crazy and sing it in (gasp!) Latin! Sing the Angus Dei, or the Sanctus. They are short, easy to learn, and chances are, most of your congregation already knows them. It’s a fabulous way to reintroduce this treasure.
Second, if you are not a musician, add some small chant to your prayer life. For example, I like to chant a Marian hymn right after my night prayers. Here is a great post from blogger 1Peter5 that will sing them, give you the words, basically set you up to be a chanting master. These are exactly what I sing every night. The quiet lulling sound and gift of my heart to the Blessed Mother always sets me at ease before I lie down to drift into endless slumber.
Most of all, don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Chant is meant to be the song of the people, not a performance. Throw away all the soundtracks you have of deeply complex polyphony done by monks with incredible musical dexterity. While beautiful, plainchant is simpler, more organic. Don’t be afraid of it.
Sing to God. And ask St. Gregory to pray for you. After all, in the words of St. Augustine,
“Who who sings, prays twice!”
The two books pictured above are Ignatius Press’ “The Office of Compline (English and Latin Edition)”, and “The Mundelein Psalter” I love them both so much, I thought I’d give you a link! I use the Compline as my night prayer-book, and I used the Mudelein Psalter to learn to chant my Liturgy of the Hours. It has the complete text for morning and evening prayer, the hours required of deacons.
The Angus Dei is from a chant book that is no longer in print, but it is usually found in any standard missal.