Gregorian Chant is For Radicals: Part One

In my last post, I made the claim that Gregorian Chant, and traditional sacred music, is “radical.” I said that it should be embraced by those of us with liberal, progressive, unorthodox, or even heretical beliefs, not just because it is a part of our shared Catholic faith tradition (which it is- and that’s reason enough, really) but also because of the inherent qualities of the music itself and the accumulated properties of its history and tradition.

This post begins a series of posts explaining what those qualities are and discussing why it is that this music should resonate in a particular way with people who could be described as theologically liberal, liturgically progressive, or heterodox in their beliefs.

Before that, it is important that I put a few things into context. Some of the comments and reactions I’ve recieved on previous articles about these subjects make me think that not everyone understands where I’m coming from or what it is I’m actually trying to say.

So, to begin with, here are few things to keep in mind…

  • I consider myself a theological liberal, in most cases. However, even inasmuch as I think my beliefs are correct/right, I don’t think liberality or progressivism (or any other particular worldview) is the only legitimate one within the Church.
  • Much like my friend Jeffrey Tucker, my strong belief is that sacred music is (or should be) essentially apolitical. That is- how you feel about something like women’s ordination (just for example) SHOULD have nothing to do with whether you think Gregorian Chant is proper to the Roman Rite, or that traditional forms of sacred music are better suited to public liturgy than are pop or folk based genres.
  • HOWEVER, the unfortunate truth is that, generally speaking, the champions of truly sacred music tend to be conservative. This is clearly not true in every case, and it would be wrong to assume the world of Catholic music is filled with only two groups of people- liberal folkies on one side signing petitions in favor of gay marriage while they listen to their David Haas CDs , and on the other side traditionalist conservatives streaming Palestrina on Pandora while they make angry comments on Fr. Z’s blog. Obviously, the reality is that there are many of us who find ourselves either in the middle of that spectrum, or off the narrow chart completely. But we know that many, maybe even most, of the people who would self-identify as liberal or progressive; the peace-and-justice, power-to-the-laity, why-aren’t-we-ordaining-women, get-rid-of-that-gaudy-gold-chalice kinda people; the people who talk about singing a new church into being… those people are not generally into Gregorian Chant, except perhaps as occaisional “mood music.”
  • I do not believe that the liturgy is the place to pursue agendas or hash out theological or ecclesiological disagreements. However- what I’m attempting to say in this article is that those agendas which could be called “liberal” are better served by traditional sacred music than they are by the music usually associated with them (folk music, faux-ethnic, pop/rock). It is my personal opinion that this point is NOT the primary reason one should do traditional sacred music. But it is still a worthwhile line of thought to pursue, for intellectual interest if nothing else. Also, if it helps convince even one of my fellow folkies to move toward a more traditional approach to liturgical programming- all the better.
  • None of this should worry or be considered an attack against my more conservative brothers and sisters. This article is not about how liberals are right. It is about how Gregorian Chant is right.

Well, that was a lot of preamble. No doubt some of my readers will still go out of their way to misunderstand me, but that’s going to have to be their problem, not mine.

And now, some content-related preamble:

As I started to write, I realized this was too much for a single post. So it is becoming a series (please, subscribe for updates so that you can stay involved with the conversation). It’s a little unbalanced to do so, but part 1 of the series begins with this post, starting exactly… right… now.

Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away

I grew up in a liberal, folk-Mass-singing kinda church. Like most kids, I wasn’t really aware that there were alternatives to the “style” of religiosity we practiced. But eventually, I began to learn that there were (more or less, for purposes of this example) two kinds of Christians. We, the super-cool liberals, believed in “building up the Kingdom here on Earth.” This was in opposition to the conservative view that was something more like “waiting for the reward of Heaven after death.” The obvious group in that second camp was the fundamentalist mega-church down the street, but it was also evident in the more boring, more conservative, more traditionalist (it seemed) Catholic parish in the next town over. We sang vibrant songs about Social Justice, and Change, and Helping the Poor. And we also actively participated in working on those causes. I continue to be amazed by my home-parish’s efforts in community work: they run a soup kitchen and a free clinic, provide shower facilities, help people pay bills and stock their pantries, advocate and demonstrate on behalf of the poor, protest at executions, visit prisons and hospitals, and bring the sacraments- from Baptism through to Last Rites- to as many people as they possibly can. That’s what I was taught it meant to be a Christian, and (it seemed to me growing up, and still today) that this particular vision of Christianity was, well… liberal. That is not at all to dismiss either the piety or ministry of those who call themselves conservatives. It is just that these things were, and continue to be, the focus of the post-concilliar understanding of Catholic life. We were taught that eternal life is not something we wait for in the next life, but something that starts now, in this life. We were taught that this, indeed, is what is meant by “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

And, of course, as liberal Catholics, we weren’t quite content to simply mumble through the Liturgy like those boring, organ-playing, slow-hymn-singing conservatives over at Our Lady of Perpetual Ennui. We lavished the liturgy, and its participants, with what we thought was beautiful and meaningful. Our Easter Vigil fire was a huge bonfire, lighting up the night. Baptisms were an abundant drenching of blessed water. Annointings at confirmation were not a slight daub on the brow, but a generous outpouring of Chrism Oil on the head (and shoulders and face and chest) of those who were being sealed with the most-generous gift of the Holy Spirit.

I realize that there is no accounting for taste, and that beauty is a fairly subjective topic. However, I believe that Gregorian Chant is the among the most beautiful music in the world. There is certainly music that is more fun, music that may be more joyous, or has some other quality that is to be preferred or desired. But, having experienced almost every style of music in the world- from reconstructed Greek theatre choruses to Gamelan gong cycles, from steel drum bands to Indian ragas, from Beethoven to Lana Del Rey- I have found that there is no music as beautiful as Gregorian Chant, and that its closest rivals are also its closest companions: renaissance polyphony, Orthodox chant, Anglican choral music. Anyone has a right to disagree with me on this point, of course, but I would challenge those who do to spend a few days singing Gregorian chant, not just listening to it on CDs. It may never become your favorite music, but it is unlikely you will be oblivious to its beauty.

If, then, we are concerned with the business of building up the Kingdom of God on Earth, why would we not include this music of such deep beauty in our Earthly life and work? Following in the footsteps of Jesus, we do our best to lavish love on the world- on the poor, the downtrodden, the displaced. We pour out our energy, our time, and our money to provide food and shelter and comfort to those who are unable to provide it to themselves. And rightly so, for this is our call as Christians- to do for “the least of these,” the things we would do for Christ Himself. We are also right to understand that all of us are “the least of these,” and to act accordingly in love and service to each other within our communities. Because we know that we “do not live on bread alone,” we use the liturgy (as, I think, it was intended) as an opportunity to show God’s great love for us, and we do that by showing our great love for God and for each other- in the care we take with our furnishings, the richness of the bread, the sweetness of the wine, the generosity of our annointing, the prodigous torrent of baptism, the brightness of our flames, the sensuality of our incense.

Radical communities of love, like the one I grew up in, are in a constant process of growth and improvement- we know that we can never love as we ought. We have to learn how to love each other, we have to learn how to raise our children to love better then we do. We know that change is hard, that it involves sacrifice and pain- which we also know is a part of love. Therefore, I am continually heartened to know that a small, but growing, number of communities are adding such an important dimension to the love they show God and each other. Namely, singing the great love songs of the Church, to the Glory of God, and the comfort of God’s people.

The poor, the broken, the sick in body and soul need us; that it to say, we need each other. We are both nurses and patients in this Hospital of Sinners. Medical care? Yes. Advocacy? Yes. Financial assistance? Yes. Again and again, yes- the need is great and ever growing. But these people – us people – need also the comfort and peace of the ancient, beautiful songs. Do we also need rousing gospel tunes and inspiring praise choruses? Probably so- and I certainly wouldn’t suggest otherwise. But Gregorian Chant is one of the best gifts the Church has to offer, a “treasure of inestimable value.” It is exceedingly beautiful, it exudes peace, it announces and creates the Kingdom.

Let us pour out this gift, liberally and generously, on all who walk through our doors. Let us train well our tongues, so that we may sing to the weary a word that will rouse them. Let us not be frugal or conservative about how much art, how much beauty, we provide to the poor in spirit, the prisoners of sin, the sick of soul. Let us sing ecstatic love songs to the widows, to the orphans, and to God. Let us sing and sing and sing until we drown out the ugliness and despair of the music of this age. Let us sing until the music of the angels is heard loud and clear everywhere on Earth, just as it is in Heaven.


This post is part of a series on Gregorian Chant for Radicals. Please subscribe to this blog to stay involved as this series develops.

5 thoughts on “Gregorian Chant is For Radicals: Part One

  1. Adam,

    First, thanks for this series.

    Second, amen and amen to this: “I do not believe that the liturgy is the place to pursue agendas or hash out theological or ecclesiological disagreements.” I sing with a few different scholas and choirs in the area. I am sure some of my fellow singers in these groups are to my left, a few may even be to my right. But we are all together to sing to God’s glory and to offer our service to the people who come to worship at the chapels and parishes where we sing. In all of these groups we are being the best side of conservative (conserving/preserving the best of our heritage) and liberal (what we have freely received we are freely giving away). One of the groups I get to sing with on occasion is the schola amicorum, resident at the Cathedral, and that name really could fit for all the groups: we become friends through our shared effort on behalf of others.

    Of all the “new” music that was commonly sung in the 70s and 80s while I was in high school and college, the music I most liked was from the St. Louis Jesuits, and the reason was because it was so closely based on Scripture. And of course, the chant is the same, being mostly Scriptural quotations which are allowed to guide the music, so that the music begins with inspiration, inspires the very notes and has the chance to fill both singer and listener with this breath from God.

  2. My daughter and I are part of a choir that is under the aegis of a Benedictine monastery in a third world country. This basically means that you have about 10 amateurs who do their best to keep up with the choir director, who has no choice but to sing with us while strumming on his guitar, as no one knows how to play any other instrument. We also have a very good guitar player who is only 16, but seems to be more content playing Guns n Roses. The rest of the choir is made up of housewives and women who have to work all day. Our participation is more wishful thinking than anything, but our collective goal is to make beautiful music for God.
    My daughter was recently introduced to Gregorian chant. She began to cry because she said “Mom, we´re never going to sing like that!” I had to agree, but she has her heart set on learning Gregorian chant. We don´t have any places that have Gregorian chant in this country that I know of, so it certainly will be a challenge.

  3. Tell your daughter that she CAN learn to sing like that- you ALL can.
    It is so much easier than it seems.

    And 10 amateurs?! That sounds perfect. (I have a choir of only 8 amateurs, and they sing Chant beautifully.)

    Would it be helpful to point you in the direction of some free resources online for learning how and what to chant?

    Also- where are you located? – Is Mass in English or another language?

  4. “I do not believe that the liturgy is the place to pursue agendas or hash out theological or ecclesiological disagreements.”

    How does this fit with the principle that “the law of worship establishes the law of belief?” It seems to me that if one wants to alter the Church from her received constitution, one does literally have to “sing a new church into being”; for if one keeps on worshiping in the received way, one will tend to practice a received religion and believe the theology received through the liturgical texts and practices. If one wants the religion to be an immanent expression of the believing community (or, for that matter, of the individual believer’s ideas!), it would be prudent to not emphasize tradition at the expense of evolutionism. So, for instance, if you believe that God established the Church on the rock of St. Peter and gave to the Church of Rome the charism of eternal fidelity to immutable and sacred tradition, such that the Pope, when acting as universal and immediate shepherd, always interprets sacred tradition faithfully and truly, you will probably be more likely to continue to pray the prayers that speak of the Pope as ruling, pastoring, and governing the flock of Christ. If you think that the constitution of the Church comes through the religious sensibility of the people over and above the interpretation of tradition offered by the Pope and the rest of the magisterium, you might prefer to alter these prayers to have an immanent or democratic feel.

    Similarly with the altar. If you believe that the Mass is an expression of divine worship wherein the priest offers a sacrifice to almighty God for and with the people, you will be more likely to wish to maintain the tradition of priest and people facing a liturgical east; and, conversely, if you think of the Mass as a communal meal, the work of the people, a celebration of the worshiping community, you may wish to create a circle between the presiding priest and the worshiping community, where everyone can see each other and participate together.

    Chant too reflects theology. Certainly the texts are either scriptural or ecclesial compositions that are chosen to reflect a received faith– though we all know that we can sing Gregorian Chant about turkeys on Thanksgiving or what animals do on farms, if we want! Yet, more than that, Chant reflects a theology about spiritual worship. In chant, the human voice takes precedence, the text and the words are never drowned out by instrumentation. Chant is usually dominated by the text so that it can be said correctly that chant is verbal decoration of a text. But sometimes chant breaks out into jubilation (the “jubilus”) and begins to sing a praise beyond words. Whether a chant is a preeminent example of reasonable worship, or whether it transgresses into a realm beyond words, chant is always expresses a conception of spiritual worship that holds up the voice as the highest expression of spiritual worship sound can produce, placing it above instruments of every kind. We could attempt to make a lot of distinctions between “Appolonian” and “Dionesian” worship, between the power of music that appeals to passions, animality, and sexuality, causing reason to give way to them, in comparison to music that seems to lift up the human passions into a share in the spiritual and divine. But no matter what phenominological examination we do, it seems safe to say that those who think of passionate, emotional experience in Church as essential to “experiencing God” will, at least at first, have a difficult time approaching chant, because its full power is in moving the mind more than it is in stirring the gut, the heart, the blood. In this regard I can say that I know Catholic Charismatics, both young and old, who would have difficulty with Gregorian Chant precisely because its lack of metered rhythm, or simple melodies, or repeated choruses, or emotionally charged lyrics, or passionately provocative instrumentation is less suited to produce in them certain types of experiences. And their theology is based on experiential encounter with God.

    No matter how we slice it, praxy and doxy are intertwined. It is not in the least surprising to me that doctrinal traditionalists tend toward traditional orthopraxy, whereas doctrinal modernists tend toward worship dominated by a zeitgeist.

  5. I am of the opinion that leading people into a relationship with God through the gateway of the Beautiful will have a greater impact than trying to shape minds directly via propagandistic new-church singing-into. Two generations now of liturgical and political activism has only caused the Church to get more conservative.

    Besides- how am I to be sure that my opinions are right? That my theology is right? That my view of what liturgy is or should be is right?

    Of course, I THINK I’m right- but that’s hardly comfort. Everyone thinks that.

    So advocating direct liturgical action on behalf of a specific point of view seems (to me) a dangerous path.

    Rather- I advocate for the tradition of the Church, what Chesterton called “The democracy of the dead,” trusting that God has been, and continues to be, revealed within that tradition. (My gushing about the beauty of certain kinds of music is the best I have to offer as far as why I believe that God is better revealed in traditional music instead of music we just made up yesterday.)

    I would rather rely on tradition to lead us into a relationship and experience of the Holy Spirit, and then let the Holy Spirit bring all of us into the truth. (Whether that happens to be what I currently think is the truth, or not).

Comments are closed.