Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Can Singers Do for Lent?

The lovers of chant have to be creative these days. This much we’ve discovered. The challenge is to find ways to share the love even in an environment where there are so many obstacles, so much misunderstanding of liturgy, an usual degree of musical illiteracy, and an entrenched musical culture in parishes that embed a strong bias toward the status quo of pop hymns instead of true liturgical art.

In every parish situation I know of, the moment of change comes when the chant advocates stop thinking of themselves as demanding something and starting thinking of themselves as servants of the others in the parish community and the faith generally. That’s when the ice begins to melt, the hearts open, people start listening, and progress begins to happen.

Service is the watchword here. It assures the pastoral staff and other parishioners of good faith. Having that frame of mind is good for the singer too. It has something to do with the willingness to make a sacrifice in order to achieve the goal. We need first to bury our own egos in order to see the the triumph of a music that is the ultimate non-egoistic art, the art that is not only directed outside ourselves but even outside the passage of time on this earth.

Lent is upon us -- rather suddenly it seems -- and I’ve been trying to think of ways to integrate Lent and interest in chant. In my household, we’ve usually sung night prayer with a great consistency than throughout the rest of the year. This practice has been made possible because of a wonderful book simply called Compline, as put together by Fr. Samuel Weber. It has the office of Compline for the full liturgical year with English and Latin on facing pages.

I highly recommend this practice as a lovely Lenten discipline. It will help you discover the Psalms as never before. Somehow chanting them in this way opens up the treasures to our hearts and minds - and more poignantly than merely listening on Sunday. The antiphons become part of your life in a beautiful way. It only takes 10 or 15 minutes but it offers great benefits.

I’ve been thinking of ways to expand on this model. The answer finally occurred to me this week. I was in a discussion with a mother of three very young children, one of which truly loves music. She would like to see a way to foster this interest. But like many people today, she doesn’t think she is a musician at all. She doesn’t think she can sing and it would never occur to her that she could lead any kind of sung prayer in her house.

I was listening to this scenario when it suddenly struck me. This is something that I can actually help with. This is something I can do. It wouldn’t take much time at all. I could swing by quickly on my way home from work or in the early evening, pass out the books, and just sing Compline with the family. They wouldn’t have to go anywhere. They could build it into the course of their evening routines. I would arrive and be gone again in a short 20 minutes, and repeat this as often as possible throughout the season.

At first the chants would be completely out of reach for them. They would be lost in the book. They would find the notation odd. They wouldn’t know how to repeat on their own anything that happened. That situation would be true for the first fire times, even the first week or longer. But after two weeks? Three weeks? The method would start to stick. The repeated parts would start to become familiar and memorized.

Think of it. By they end of Lent, what will the family take away from this experience? They will have forever in their hearts the sound of the Church at prayer. It will affect parents and children. It will give them a strong taste for the beauty of prayer. This will create in all present a special place in their hearts for this ancient tradition. They will have new ways to pray wherever they are. The Psalms will be implanted in their minds. For the children, they will carry this throughout their lives.

And all of this happens by giving up 20 minutes a day. That’s remarkable if you think of it. It really is like the loaves and fishes in the story. The singer is the apostle who has the food. The blessing is multiplied by Jesus himself and miraculously shared with others even as it does nothing to diminish the original contents of the basket.

I’m sharing this idea because I’m wondering if other musicians might consider doing the same thing as a Lenten discipline. If we all did this, many lives would be changed. If a choir dispatched singers throughout the parish into homes, many more people in the parish could come to love the chant and be supportive of it in the Mass on Sunday.

So I’m imagining a dream scenario here. Imagine that the pastor of the parish decides to make this a parish program. He first goes to the choir and asks everyone in the choir to learn to sing Compline in its most simple form. Then he asks each member of the choir to help this Lent by volunteering to go into homes of parishioners.

Once he has them committed to this idea, he announces to the whole parish that there is a sing up sheet in the back of the parish for any parishioner who would welcome a choir member to come to sing Compline in their home during the season. I suspect that there would be many people thrilled to sign up for such a service brought right into their homes.

Think of people at home with all sorts of issues and difficulties for whom a nightly sung prayer would be such a blessing. Maybe there is a problem with the kids. Maybe someone at home is caring for an aging parent. Maybe there are family issues that are putting strains on everyone. For everyone to come together for just a few minutes a day to sing the Psalms might bring a kind of heavenly peace to a household.

But most people believe that they cannot do this on their own. They need help. Members of the choir can help perform this service. It is also a way to give choir members practice in leading others in chant prayer. That can only improve their singing talent on Sunday.

This might seem like a small thing but it can have huge effects. If a dozen or so families in the parish accept this offer, they will enter the Easter season with a new talent and a new love for the beautiful art of sung prayer.

What’s more, this is a gift that musicians can give to their parish. Yes, it takes time. Yes, there are other things that one could be doing during cocktail hour. But the last years have taught chanting musicians something extremely important. The most important step toward achieving progress toward the goal of beautiful liturgical music is to show to others and yourself that the driving motivation is the same one that led tot he composition and perpetuation of chant: humility in the service of God.

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