From Archdiocese to Archabbey: Musings on Chant

I spent last week at the monastery of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana where I attended a workshop, “Bringing to Life the Word of God in Song,” with Fr. Columba Kelly, osb. For fifty years Fr. Columba has been faithfully studying Roman plainchant and making it accessible both by training others to bring this more than 1000-year old Latin patrimony to life as well as using his insights to foster the celebration of both the Liturgy of the Hours and the Liturgy of the Eucharist using his English-language compositions built on Roman plainchant. It was a great delight to learn from him and to come away with many resources which can bring additional beauty and dignity to celebrations of the sacred liturgy in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

In many ways Fr. Columba, like only a few others whom I have been blessed to study under and work with in my liturgical ministry, is a bridge between that Liturgical Movement which flowed toward and out of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and this present milieu in which I am called to minister. I suspect there are many in the pews, I daresay most, who would imagine that (and may even have experienced) some sort of gulf between plainchant (what many call Gregorian) and the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as if the former indexes in some way a pre-(or even anti-)conciliar vision of the Church called for by the latter. But this is far from the truth! What we know as the Liturgical Movement has its origin in the coming together of several key recoveries, the resourcement (turning back to the sources) of ancient texts and liturgies in the Christian tradition, which included the recovery of plainchant under Dom Prosper Guéranger of the Abbey of Solesmes, Belgium, and his publication of the Paléographie musicale in the middle of the 19th century. Again some might have assumed an unbroken continuity in chant from the days of St Ambrose’s hymns and St Gregory the Great through the Carolingian renaissance, the Cistercian awakening, Tridentine reforms, and right into the present age. But that simply isn’t how it happened. Plainchant as it was carried out around the turn of the last millennium had, since the sixteenth century, been eclipsed by other forms of music in the West and, consequently, was for the most part not part of the repertoire of sacred music. The insight Guéranger brought from his study of liturgical musical sources was a rather simple one, namely that the text, the sacred scriptures, are to be rendered intelligibly and that being able to understand the words was to privileged over ornamentation. Guéranger’s reconstruction of plainchant, coupled together with the later theoretical, pastoral, and historical insights of Odo Casel, Pius Parsch, and Josef Jungmann in Europe and the likes of Virgil Michael and Martin Hellriegel in the United States, emerged as the Liturgical Movement which resonated in every domain of the liturgy with the same kind of insights Guéranger’s scholarly recovery of earlier texts for the chanting of the liturgy as well as patristic homilies and other works about the liturgy. This Liturgical Movement shared the basic insights of Guéranger that with noble simplicity the text should take precedence so that the words, gestures, rites, and sacraments of the liturgy clearly spoke in intelligible ways to the faithful who, through their participation in the Paschal Mystery through the liturgy, come to be imbued with the true Christian spirit and encounter Christ in the ongoing salvation signified and effected therein (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14). Therefore what we see in the widespread interest in the recovery of plainchant is not—or at least cannot legitimately be construed as—seeking to turn back the clock, to reverse the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but rather what we see is a continuation of that insight that the text should be rendered intelligibly and beautifully, that the assembly should be formed to take on the disposition of and sing as Christ in the liturgy.

Our workshop with Fr. Columba focused on understanding and using the neumes—those little markings found in the tenth century manuscripts of such monasteries as Laon, St Gall, and Einsiedeln (the motherhouse of St Meinrad) and eventually included along with the four-line notation in the Graduale Triplex of Solesmes—not so much as primitive musical notation but as conducting notes for the precentor to guide his schola cantorum in properly executing the proper chants of the liturgy. These neumes give an interpretation of how to render the text based mostly, as Fr Columba reminded us many times citing his advisor and the progenitor of semiology, Dom Eugene Cardine, on the context of individual syllables within words (pre-tonic, tonic, post-tonic, and final) and of those words within the rhetorical context of the given antiphon. This is why, although we see certain motifs being repeated within the modal structure particularly in a given season such as Late Advent, each antiphon is fitted with a unique notation custom tailored to the text. In this way the rendering of the text in chant was meant to amplify the kind of experience, the pathos, explicated in each antiphon. Many of my fellow workshop participants were joining the workshop for the third, fourth, or fifth time which left me feeling a little behind the curve in vocabulary but also made for a great environment in which to rapidly learn. The material was not entirely unfamiliar to me, having had the opportunity to study the Paléographie musicale with Calvin Bower and Michael Driscoll in the Medieval Studies Institute while at Notre Dame.

During my week at Saint Meinrad Archabbey I was blessed to be able to join with the monastic community for their complete Horarium (schedule of prayer), beginning with combined Vigils (Office of Readings) and Lauds (Morning Prayer) at 5:30, the Liturgy of the Eucharist at 7:30, Daytime/Midday Prayer at noon, Vespers (Evening Prayer) at 5:00 and ending with Compline (Night Prayer) at 7:00. The large community and others joining in the liturgy sang beautifully and included, at one point, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, osb (Emeritus of Indianapolis and who once served as my archbishop’s bishop in Memphis). Though the schedule at Saint Meinrad was certainly more manageable than the one which accompanied my previous retreats at Trappist (strict Cistercian) monasteries, it suited well the needs of our chant workshop. It also gave me time to explore the beautiful campus of the archabbey, which was founded 1854 from the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln Abbey, itself founded in 934 on the site of Saint Meinrad’s witness of radical hospitality. In addition to the beautiful archabbey church, I was also blessed to spend some time exploring the artistic motifs in the fabulous Chapter Room, an area of monasteries not usually accessible to those outside the community. Several chapels on throughout the monastery also invite prayer including a Byzantine chapel. While walking the hallways I felt like I was surrounded by many friends, some whom I met for the first time. I happened to come across class photographs of alumni of St Meinrad including Nathan Mitchell, one of my liturgy faculty from Notre Dame, and James Sartain, now Archbishop of Seattle. Everywhere I turned artwork filled the walls, including many pieces by one of my favorite contemporary ecclesial artists and member of the community, Martin Erspamer, osb. Photographs of prominent African and African American saints and blesseds filled one hallway, doubtless inspired by another illustrious community member and scholar of Black Catholics, Cyrprian Davis, osb. There were several relics throughout the campus, including one of Saint John Vianney, which gave me the chance to pray with and be connected to my new home parish which also houses a relic of the Curé d’Ars. Right before departing I also connected with Kyle Kramer, with whom I had corresponded previously following his publication of A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt (2011). Our conversation was a great blessing as we each seek to transfer our stability and make sense of living into the vocations to which the Lord has called us. Knowing also that Saint Meinrad is itself the motherhouse of the beautiful Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California, where I was first introduced to Benedictine life as a school of prayer, surrounded me with even more friends and made my week feel even more like a homecoming of sorts.

Friday happened to mark the fifth and final day of a week long formation for high school youth in liturgical ministry, One Bread One Cup. I was invited to join in the closing Mass which, while of a different musical ‘style’ than that for which our chant workshop formed us, was a truly beautiful experience of full, conscious, and active participation of the youth in the liturgy, mystagogical preaching by Fr Brendan Moss, and a dignified experience to which I hope to be able to send some youth of the Archdiocese of Seattle in 2015.

The conclusion of my week at Saint Meinrad on Friday, July 11, concluded with the solemnity of Saint Benedict and all Benedictine saints (since most Benedictines still also honor the original date of the transitus of Saint Benedict on March 21 as well). The solemnity of the celebration was palpable, with incense and a procession of the whole community, a homily given during the Mass, a particularly spectacular vocalist filling the role of cantor, and a superb organ solo to accompany the dismissal. It was a wonderful reminder of the principle of progressive solemnity by which “pulling out all the stops” is set in relief as it were against the sturdy backdrop of a regular (ruled, regulated) life. It was also a great send off for me as I bid farewell to the hospitality of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and returned to the Archdiocese of Seattle in order to continue to elicit within the faithful an ever deeper participation in Christ through the rich celebration of the liturgy.

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