Qui cantat bis orat -‘He who sings, prays twice‘, to paraphrase that great and rather troubled theologian, Augustine of Hippo. Here at the College of the Resurrection, as part of our daily prayer, we join with the monastic Community every Sunday and every evening of the week for Evensong…
… this is not Anglican choral evensong such as one hears broadcast on the ‘wireless’ of an evening… that sort of high-speed harmony intoned on the grand organ and trilled out by a well-drilled band of child choristers: which is more of a spectator sport than a community evening prayer.
… no, this is monastic plainchant. The psalms are in English, but the antiphons and chants are at least 1000 years old, give or take a little reconstruction. They are sung in unison and the idea of the music is not to embellish or distract from the words of the ancient biblical texts, but simply to make the texts come alive.
The way it works is that the cantor leads the singing by singing the first part of the antiphon… which is a short refrain that comes like a bookend at the start and the end of the psalm… in words, it highlights a key theme in the psalm, and in melody, it gives everyone a clue as to in which ‘mode’ or mood the following psalm is to be sung.
For example the cantor starts: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart…
… and everyone joins together ‘- for they shall see God’.
Then the psalm begins, alternate verses intoned and modulated by the cantors and by the rest of the gathered people -in our case here, mostly monks and ordinands in training for the priesthood. But it’s not as straightforward as a jolly sing-song, nor as practiced as a choral presentation… it is restrained, and live, and really rather unpredictable… as everyone seeks to listen to everyone else as they sing… ideally sounding ‘of one voice’ as they pray… but also seeking to sing to the best of their ability… and sometimes one has to sacrifice the perfect notes in order to be kind and sing flat but stay together… it is a state of constant tension, seeking to sing to God beautifully and to stay united as a group… and the timing is just as important as the music… there is no real timing written into plainchant, the notes last as long as the words naturally do, with a little emphasis on certain words and notes… and they last as long as the group makes them last… it is rather like a prayerful game of keepy-uppy.
So we are led a little and we play our parts together… quieting our voices if needs be to blend, and raising them a little to encourage if the notes are lost and wavering. Above all, and whilst listening to one another, we also have to constantly focus on the words that we are singing, not just in our mouths but in our hearts, so that we can pray them.
For my entire first year as an ordinand, I was so humbled by the clear, ringing acoustic in the Upper Church, and so lost in the words, and the marks of the plainchant, that I hardly made a sound, I whispered in tune, seeking to sing with my heart and mind what I dared not voice with my lungs. Then it began to make sense to me… the words of the psalms began to be familiar, and the melodies less alien, and the one triggered the other…
… Then we were out of the grand, stone church for more than a year… we moved to a smaller chapel with no acoustic and I began to dare to voice the now familiar words and modulations, which more often than not seem to spring to my unconscious mind before my conscious mind has caught up -it is as though my soul knows what it is doing, the psalms are very familiar to it… but my mind is more sinful and cluttered, and inclined to get distracted. Now, back in Upper Church, where even the drop of a pin rings round like an angel losing his halo… we sing again.
Sometimes, when fellow cohorts in the ranks of ordinands elbow me in the ribs, or stand on my cassock… or sing loudly and slightly out of time in my ear… I feel like the most sinful creature on earth -competing in pettiness and irritability, with that legendary worship-leader: Lucifer … Why must life be so cramped, so abrasive and discordant...?
But other times, when new voices begin cautiously to join in the prayer, or when the music of the gathered people seems to blend so that it is as loving and intimate as though we were all drinking from the same cup; as though somehow we are both singing, and holding our breath in awe… then it is beautiful. The most beautiful prayers in the world -not our words, not our music, but God’s words, God’s music, and we are the instruments… giving voice to sounds that somehow seem as though they already exist, they do not belong to us, but to heaven.