• Paul Damon

When Listening to Gregorian Chant

“When listening to Gregorian chant, we become aware not only of the blended voices of the monks, but also of an almost inaudible echo, an additional dimension of depth to the music. It is the sacred, transcendental quality of the melodic lines, chanted in a high-ceilinged oratory, that many find so appealing about Gregorian chant. And it is this depth dimension that is so much like the now dimension of time. For now does not occur in chronological time but transcends it. Here, time is not conceived as running out, but as rising like water in a well, rising to that fullness of time that is now. It is to that centered, present living in the now that chant calls us.”[1]

What a wonderful proration to begin this essay. Gregorian chant is magical and transcendental, and I mean to write about it in that way. My first encounter with chant, other than the short-lived popular culture version, was in a small stone church in Giverny, France. I was alone in the church and sat down to soak up the atmosphere. A chant recording was playing softly with monk’s voices accompanied by a stringed instrument, an instrument I’ve never been able to identify, and I was taken with the chant in a way I have since sought to somehow relive. Somehow that experience moved my soul and I found a palpable sense of composure and restoration. And yes, the architecture of the church played a part, as did the cool darkness of the interior contrasted with the blistering sun outside. Some of the windows were stained glass and there were frescoes painted on the altar walls. The building fairly screamed refuge. And then there was the chant, never overpowering or too loud, but always there to be heard if you listened closely for it. Like salt added to a cuisine dish as a catalyst for all the other flavors, the chant was the finishing touch that brought the building to life. Like a magical incantation, the chant blew life into the secrets embedded in the stones and walls.

At home I awaken while it’s still dark. I light a candle and put Gregorian chant on the stereo. I watch the sun rise and transport myself back to a stone church with voices coming out of the walls and all those miles and kilometers just melt away. The sun always rises, the record always ends and I always blow out the candle. Until tomorrow.

[1] Steindl-Rast, David and Sharon Lebell. Music of Silence: A sacred journey through the Hours of the Day, 1998. p.2 Seastone, an imprint of Ulysses Press, California.

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