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In some ways I’m a contemplative trapped in a husband and father’s body. I am deeply enriched by contemplative practices such as lectio divina, centering prayer, and the like, but fight a constant battle to work them into the natural rhythm of my life. Still, I am eager to learn about such practices and am always on the lookout for resources that can make them more accessible to “regular people.”
That is probably why I first picked up Cynthia Bourgeault’s audio book, Singing the Psalms, and I have found it to be a nice little treasure. Unfamiliar as I was with the centuries-long tradition of Christian psalm-chanting, it was a nice introduction to the practice for laypeople for whom the fullness of the monastic Daily Office was outside the realm of practicality. Now, this little CD (I first bought the cassette tape version) has been expanded into a new presentation of much of the same material in Chanting the Psalms. I am approaching this book from the point of view of a lay person elbow-deep in secular life and secular responsibilities to care for home and family, sleep when I need to, and get to work on time. I’m bringing a love of singing and a modicum of musical ability (certainly nothing to brag about) as well as an intellectual grasp of the Psalms and their interpretation and a basic familiarity with Christian chant gained from my previous exposure to Bourgeault’s audio book.
In her introduction, Bourgeault notes the powerful influence chanting the Daily Office at a local Benedictine monastery made in her spiritual development. Bringing this practice home, however, is another story. She notes that while other monastic spiritual practices (contemplative prayer, lectio divina, mindful work) have been successfully adapted to life beyond the monastery, the tradition of sacred psalmody has proven difficult to transplant. This, she says, is for two major reasons.
First, intellectually, many people are puzzled by some of the content of the psalms. Bourgeault writes,
The psalms clearly belong to an Old Testament spiritual milieu, and they are often fraught with violence, self-righteousness, and vindictiveness. There is much black-and-white thinking and demonization of the enemy. The teachings seem on a lower level than the teachings of Jesus. How can steeping oneself so intimately in this primitive material bring one to a higher spiritual level? (3)
The author will address these concerns head-on in a later chapter, and I will add some thoughts of my own when we get to that portion of the book.
The second reason psalm-chanting has proven hard to incorporate into secular life is practical: there is a steep learning curve involved. It requires a certain musical skill and therefore a certain amount of work to master. One does not pick up the practice automatically. Unlike many forms of chanting in other world religions, psalmody requires a full engagement of mind and emotions which may strike the beginner as “hopelessly mental and cumbersome” (4).
Bourgeault intends for this book to address both sorts of concerns, and hints that the Benedictine tradition of psalmody, spelled out literally chapter-and-verse in Benedict’s Rule, has a depth of spiritual wisdom to it that is more than meets the eye. She suggests in passing that chanting the psalms involves an “underground yoga” around the core elements of breath, tone, and attention.
As a side note, I personally find Bourgeault’s frequent references to yoga, chakras, and other non-Christian categories a bit off-putting, but not so much that I wouldn’t recommend the book. It is helpful for me to remember that yoga is cognate with yoke, with all that implies with respect to the Jewish and Christian connotations of putting on the “yoke” of a teacher or discipline. Traditional Christian psalmody is definitely a “yoke” I am eager to try on for size.
Next: Part 2
This story from the Chicago Sun-Times mentions “Nigerian warrior cries” as part of the procession of an Anglican church to its new worship space after formalizing‚ quite peaceably, the article suggests‚ a split with the Episcopal Church in the USA and alignment with the Anglican Church of Uganda. Douglas LeBlanc of GetReligion followed up on this strange detail, and learned the truth: what the reporter heard was not war cries but ululation, a form of vocalizing common in African worship and, it seems, in the American congregation described in the article.
The notice reminded me of the ancient Christian practice of “jubilation.” Eddie Ensley studied this phenomenon and wrote it up in Sounds of Wonder (Paulist, 1977). More recently, Janice and Richard Leonard rearranged Ensley’s material for publication as an entry in the fourth volume of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship (StarSong, 1994): “A Brief History of Jubilation” (280-308).
Jubilation is a spontaneous form of wordless vocalizing. The Fathers considered jubilation a natural response to supernatural grace‚ a form of prayer that even children could learn. John Chrysostom encouraged his people to jubilate: “It is permitted to sing psalms without words, so long as the mind resounds within” (On the Psalms). Augustine described jubilation as God praying through the believer when one does not know how to pray properly (cf. Rom 8:26):
Lo and behold, he sets the tune for you himself, so to say; do not look for words, as if you could put into words the things that please God. Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation. (Commentary on Psalm 32 [33 in Hebrew numbering]).
Jubilation was thus not considered the same thing as speaking in tongues. It was understood to be a learned behavior, even a spiritual discipline. It was common to find reference to the practice in Psalm 89:15: “Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance.”
Wordless singing exists in several secular forms, such as yodeling, “scat” singing, and “yo-he-ho”-type work songs. The ululating mentioned in the post linked above probably fits the category as well. Apart from the African practice of ululating, the closest religious parallel is probably what the African-American churches sometimes call “moaning,” an antecedent to spirituals. According to Bradford Keeney:
Moans are melodically dressed with melismas, having a unison and heterophonic tone, and are typically expressed in a slow and sustained manner. Surge singing is where the lead voice and congregation melodically and rhythmically decorate hymns with moans and vocal embellishments.
The phenomenon is also described as “a kind of blissful rendition of a song, often mixed with humming and spontaneous melodic variation.” It is a form of spontaneous, joyous praise that builds on other musical expressions.
From the fourth to the ninth centuries a particular form of liturgical jubilation would begin with an improvised flourish on the final syllable of “alleluia” and might continue for up to five minutes of wordless singing. Other ancient and medieval sources describe jubilation as including such phenomena as hand clapping, cooing, dancing, and even what modern Pentecostals might call “holy laughter.” Although this custom is not explicitly attested before the fourth century, it may correspond to New Testament references to “spiritual songs” (Col 3:16) or “singing in the spirit” (1 Cor 14:15). Some even suggest the origins of jubilation go back to synagogue practice (Donald P. Hustad, “Music in the Worship of the New Testament,” The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol. 4 (StarSong, 1994) 192).
Most church music of the patristic era was of an improvisational nature. This applies not just to jubilation or other forms of “spiritual song,” but to improvised psalm-singing and hymnody as well. Ensley (283) quotes L’encyclopédie de musique to this effect:
The first Christian authors … describe the rich, exuberant coloraturas sung without a text and the alleluia songs as overwhelming melody of joy and gratitude sung upon the inspiration of the moment. A large number of the melodies that have come down to us still have traces of improvisation.
The spontaneous, improvised form of early church music is underscored by a passing reference in Tertullian to the practice singing at an agape meal: “After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing ….” (Apology 39, emphasis added).
In this light, John Chrysostom described singing in worship as a charismatic experience, with the church cantor as a “prophet” and music a form of “prophecy”: “The prophet speaks and we all respond to him. All of us make echo to him. Together we form one choir. In this, earth imitates heaven. This is the nobility of the church.” (Ensley, 283).
technorati tags: jubilation
How do you picture the Red Sea crossing from the book of Exodus? If you were making a movie about the Exodus, would the parting of the Red Sea (or “Sea of Reeds” if you prefer) look like something clearly miraculous, in the style of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments? Or would it look like something with a natural cause or causes; something that, if one were inclined, could be chalked up as an incredibly fortunate coincidence for the Israelites?
I’m not talking about whether God parted the sea. I accept that as a given. What I’m talking about is this: assuming that God was the ultimate cause of the sea parting, is it acceptable to propose that there may have been secondary causes involved? Before you answer, take a look at a couple of passages from the book of Exodus. First, from chapter 15:
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. (Ex 15:8)
This may well be the earliest layer of Old Testament tradition about what happened when the Red Sea parted. It involved a “blast” of God’s “nostrils.” Is that figurative language for wind? It would seem so, since two verses later, describing the fate of Pharaoh’s army, we read, “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them…” (Ex 15:10).
Exodus 14 gives us the prose version:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:21)
Once again, and here quite explicitly, God is depicted using a secondary cause‚Äînamely, a “strong east wind” blowing “all night”‚Äîto part the Red Sea. But what if we didn’t have these details from Exodus, but instead were left with Psalm 78?
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap. (Ps 78:13)
There’s nothing about a “strong east wind” in that verse. If that were all anyone had to go on, it would be natural to presume there was no secondary causation in the Red Sea parting: God did it “directly” in a strictly supernatural manner.
If the report in Psalm 78 were all we had, I can imagine some Christians getting very upset that anyone would even suggest that, just perhaps, something like a strong wind were involved in the parting of the sea. Wouldn’t such a theory diminish the sovereignty of God? Is it a devious way of denying that God performs miracles?
Well, some people might very well propose the “wind” theory of the Red Sea crossing with exactly those motives, but that doesn’t mean the theory is invalid. On the contrary, since we do have Exodus 14-15, we can categorically state that the “wind” theory is precisely how God did it!
It seems God usually keeps a low enough profile that, if we really want to, we can find alternative explanations for his mighty deeds. Isn’t that the story of Elijah? He finally heard the voice of God not in the wind or the earthquake but in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Ki 19:12). We may wish for burning bushes, angelic visitors, or theophanic earthquakes, but they are few and far between.
Isn’t that the story of Jesus? The Bible says he cast out demons. The Pharisees argued it was only because he was in league with the devil himself (Mk 3:22)! Scripture seems fairly clear that, even if we see a miracle with our own two eyes, it’s still no guarantee that we will accept it as “proof” of anything. Here is some wisdom from one of my former teachers, Dr. Harold Songer:
To label an event as a miracle requires faith in God because a miracle is more than a mysterious unexplainable wonder. A miracle is God acting in history outside of what would be the expected outcome of events, and this event which is not understandable by natural explanation is perceived as God acting. A miracle is then a faith understanding and does not compel belief. The miracles of Jesus did not force all the observers to believe he was God’s son (Mark 3:22). The disputes about the credibility of miracles are not, therefore, confined to the modern or scientific age; and the Christian need not be surprised that what she or he attributes to God will be assigned by others to unknown or other causes. (“Miracles,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 579 [emphasis added])
When it comes to miracles, it is often the case not that you have to see in order to believe, but that you have to believe in order to see.
Lord, open our eyes to notice when you pass by.