The first time chant roused my senses occurred on a 5 day Ignatian Silent retreat. I remember being entranced by the music—the repetition, the words, the rhythm. We were allowed to sing only for Mass and during the Stations of the Cross. It was a small chant from the ecumenical Taizé community that mesmerized me as we walked in the candlelit night from station to station. I remember singing it to myself over our winter break and in the weeks after.
What was this Taizé community? I researched Taizé online and, to my surprise, was bombarded with YouTube videos and hundreds of songs from the community located in the Burgundy region of France. I ordered two of their CDs online and soon listened to nothing else.
I grew more and more in my love for anything monastic: silence, routine prayer, chant, the Divine Office. I began starting my days with silent prayer, going to daily Mass and listening to chant rather than my usual list of Top 40 Hits. The music had a way of easing my heart, elevating my soul, transporting me to a higher world. I remember telling my bewildered roommate once as I got ready for the day, “You just don’t hear music like this anymore. This brings you to contemplate something bigger than yourself!”
I continued to intersperse monastic spirituality into my days throughout the rest of my college experience and thereafter. While in Paris the summer after graduation, I stopped into the Church of St. Gervais for evening vespers and got lost in the beauty of the chanting of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, an order which entered the old church in white robes that glimmered underneath the stained glass windows. From there, I spent a week at the Taizé community I had come to love. My spiritual quest continued that summer after I flew back to the United States and spent a month at a Benedictine monastery who chanted the Divine Office in Latin. The music became the breath and heartbeat of my prayer life, an easy medium through which I could converse with God. The chants enabled me to praise and thank God with phrases that frequently came straight from Scripture, giving me words often better than my own and breathing new life into Word of God.
Gregorian chant takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, whose feast we celebrate today. Though historians argue over his precise role in the history of chant, Gregory the Great has been named a Doctor of the Church—joining St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. Gregory, who entered a Benedictine monastery in Rome and eventually became an abbot, was the first pope to be elected from a monastery. During his life, he founded 6 monasteries on his estate. Though Gregory’s association with Gregorian chant is disputed, his love of the monastic life cannot be. (American Catholic)
I can’t help but connect with Gregory’s monastic background; and I understand his love of it. I spent much of my summer after graduation as a pilgrim or guest at several spiritual havens because my soul yearned to spend time with God amidst nature, the sacraments and routine prayer. The music and chant were the glue that held these beautiful pieces together during my journeys—adding an almost mystical quality to my prayer life. As a result, I learned what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “pray without ceasing.”(1 Thess. 5:17). The words of chant often stuck in my head, I learned how to sing, to pray, unceasingly without ever having to open my mouth. Chant has a way of ingraining itself into your very heartbeat.
We can learn much from the monastic life, which has guided thousands of men and women like Pope Gregory the Great towards holiness. By incorporating silent prayer into our days, we are better able to dialogue with God. I invite you this week to start or end your day with 5 minutes of silence in the presence of the Trinity. Rather than asking God for anything, try instead to simply thank, praise or accompany Him. Below is a link to one of my favorite songs from the Taizé community. May it help you in your journey towards praying unceasingly.
I have been taught lectio divina in the past, which I practiced fervently at one time and set aside as I pursued other spiritual interests. Lectio divina, though, has never been put together for me quite the way Fr. Chris Hayden (a New Testament scholar, author, and a priest in the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland) was able to do when I recently attended his seminar “Praying the Scriptures.” As a result, I have refreshed my own spiritual life and have reincorporated lectio divina into my spiritual repertoire. My point here is not to relay new facts but (as Fr. Chris would say) to rehearse what we already know – to cement who we are as a people who want to pray, who want to grow in the spiritual life.
Lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”) was not something new to Christians but flowed out of the Hebrew method of studying the Scriptures, haggadah, or learning by the heart: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut 30:14). While many Church Fathers stressed the prayerful reading of the scriptures, Origen is credited with the first use of the term “lectio divina” in the 3rd century: “While you attend to this lectio divina, seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures” (Epistle to Gregory 4). Traditionally, lectio divina is a Benedictine practice of praying the scriptures that consists of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating God’s Word in order to grow in our relationship with God. Saint Benedict first established it as a Monastic practice in the 6thcentury in which the four parts were not so much steps but rather moments prompted by the Holy Spirit. During the 12th century, the Carthusians formalized a scholastic approach (“the Monk’s Ladder”) of lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation/reflecting), oratio(prayer/responding), and contemplatio (contemplation/resting).
We distinguish lectio divina from reading the Bible for enlightenment or encouragement, which we may do individually or together as in a Bible study group, and from praying the scriptures in common. Lectio divina is a practice that uses thoughts, images, insights, and inner silence to enter into a conversation with God. There are varying approaches to lectio divina, but in reality, simplicity is at the heart of the practice. After Vatican II and the document Dei Verbum that encouraged lay people and priests to use lectio divina, there has been a resurgence in its exercise. When we read Scripture, we should be doing so not just as an intellectual activity but also as a means of gathering its intention and meaning for our lives. Lectio divina will transform you for transformation is at its core – whether you realize that transformation consciously or not, and whether you reflect that transformation visibly or not.
To appreciate fully lectio divina, we must understand prayer as a relationship between God and ourselves. Through prayer, we enter into the abiding relationship of unconditional love of the Holy Trinity. Three key underpinnings of our prayer life should be humility, heart, and listening. In prayer, we enter into humility, deflating our egos, realizing we are not God. Our humility helps us discern the true self from the false self. We continue to pray in order to break open our hearts to God, to realize what is going on inside ourselves for the heart of prayer is not what we get but rather what we become. We all know we should be receptive to God heeding the advice of Eli to Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:1-10), but many of us might prefer to tell God in prayer, “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” As anyone who has been successful with Christian meditation or contemplative prayer will attest, we need to make time and spaces for silence so we can listen.
What should we do, though, if our prayers seem to be unanswered? Fr. Chris offers five guides or reasons to continue in prayer (he admits, certainly, there is not just five, but I find the five he presented crucial) even when our prayer life seems to be in a drought:
Because we have the Bible, the living Word of God, our spirituality is not a set of speculations. The Bible is our story – our metanarrative. Our metanarrative unites all of our individual stories into a collective under the overarching theme of God’s eternal love. We find today that the separate designations of yours and mine drive our society; today’s society is certainly no metanarrative, no uniting of us all. Within the Biblical texts, however, we find our collective and individual stories in which we participate along with Christ in the Trinitarian love. We can break our metanarrative into four acts: Act I: The beginning; Act II: The Fall; Act III: Redemption; and Act IV: Fulfillment. Our story begins with life (the “Tree of Life” in Genesis) and ends with life (the “New Order” in Revelations as found in Christ.) We find ourselves living in the drama between Acts II and III, that constant struggle of our lives that tugs between our disobedience and our obedience as we reach for that time of fulfillment.
With this acceptance of the Bible as our metanarrative and our understanding of prayer, especially the reasons for continuing in prayer when our prayer life is dry, we can appreciate the power of praying the scriptures to transform our lives. Lectio divinabecomes, in reality, so simple.
Fr. Chris told me not to give him credit, but I must at least thank him for traveling to Great Falls, Montana, for sharing his joy of the faith, and for his stimulating way of presenting prayer, scripture, and the ancient art of lectio divina that inspired me to take a fresh look at how I pray the scriptures. I hope I have given him due credit by relaying the simplicity of lectio divina and its importance in helping us live out our shared metanarrative of God’s love.
With Fr. Chris’ inspiration, I renew myself to the simplicity of lectio divina, enhancing my spiritual life, and I pray: God help us live our story, our metanarrative, as we pray for our transformation in You, our destination.
Fawn Waranauskas teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on May 27th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online