October 28, 2013
In previous posts, I wrote about monastic chant, how it’s different from traditional music in both rhythm and melody. It’s almost mystical in modality and polyrhythm – yet also in its simplicity. In chant there is no point and counterpoint; there are no harmonies. There is one melody and all the monastic brothers must chant it in unison.
Chant could be a powerful uniting factor within the brotherhood – if the brothers allowed it to be so.
I remember, once, I got into a terrible argument with Brother Simon. We were in the bell tower right before prayer. We had been ringing the bells, summoning our other brother monks to come to the church to pray. It was our evening prayer service then, Vespers, at 5:30pm. I had said something terrible to him and he yelled back at me. I deserved it, and worse, although I didn’t think so at the time. Yet the bells kept on ringing.
As their clangor resounded across the acres of forest and solitude and silence that encompassed the monastery, my brother monks were lining up in the cloister. They were standing in two rows. Then they walked from the abbey to the church along the sidewalk. Together they entered through a side door, together they walked along the side of the church, together they came around to the back and dipped their fingers in the baptismal font, and together they blessed themselves. The only sound was the shuffling of their shoes that echoed as though in a cave. And all the while, Brother Simon and I were stewing in the bell tower because of our argument. But when it was time, we silenced the bells and we joined our brothers. Together we entered the monastic choir stalls, together we opened our books, and together we chanted our invocation to prayer.
Yes we stood side by side. I was angry then that Brother Simon was beside me. Perhaps he felt the same. Our place in choir was out of our hands. Brother Simon had entered the monastery a few weeks ahead of me, so he was technically my elder brother. By monastic rules, I had no other choice: I had to stand beside him in choir. “Why must I stand beside someone I loathe instead of love?” I asked myself. “Why couldn’t I be placed beside Brother Cyril?” Brother Cyril was also Brother Simon’s junior by a two weeks but he was my elder by a week, right in between Brother Simon and me. But that would not happen because the monastic choir director, Father Adam, set Brother Cyril on the other side of the church, in Choir One, while setting Brother Simon and me in Choir Two. I thought that being beside Brother Cyril would have been better. I didn’t realize that that would have been an easy solution to a hard problem.
And the problem wasn’t my argument with my brother. Rather it was the mountain of my pride – my need to be right.
So Brother Simon and I were stuck together, even though we had gotten into a terrible fight and did not like one another right then. Even our presence seemed to irritate one another. I remember I used to feel that way when I was nine years old, about one of my siblings, my brother or one of my sisters. And here I was again, now in my mid-20s feeling as helplessly angry as I had in my childhood.
But the purpose of monastic chant only works if the monks know how to sing together. As I wrote earlier, monastic chant is meant to be sung in unison. All the brothers must sing together, on the same note, in the same rhythm. Without unison, there is only disunity and discord.
So my brother monks and I started to chant the first psalm. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Boy, was I in the depths of my own solipsistic whimsy at that moment – which wasn’t deep at all but incredibly shallow. My problem wasn’t that Brother Simon had bothered me, or that I had bothered him. Rather, I needed to be taken out of my own depths, which wasn’t all that deep – I needed to be yanked from the war raging in the shallow end of my ego. And our chant – the prayer of our brotherhood – had begun to do that.
You see: to remain chanting in unison, I had to listen to the brother beside me – I had to hear his note, I had to hear his rhythm, and I had to match both and remain with his chanting.
So in doing that, I also heard Brother Simon chanting: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Hearing this gave the words of the psalm an entirely new meaning. Now it wasn’t merely me calling out to God from the depths of a difficult place; but my brother was doing the same.
Nevertheless, the interior war of my ego – my desire to be right – would try to dismiss the fact that my brother was feeling exactly the way I felt.
The monks finished chanting the psalm and we moved on to the next. With my brother monks I chanted, “God listens to the prayers of the humble of heart.” Yes, I chanted this but so did Brother Simon. He and I were chanting in unison, yet I did not feel united with him: I felt better than him while I was working out in my mind how I could win our argument. I wasn’t being humble, even though I was chanting to God about true humility in prayer.
It was right then that I began to change. And I don’t believe that I was changing myself, but that I was being changed from the inside out.
As Brother Simon and I chanted in unison, I began to see that the humility of our brotherhood was in the harmony of our togetherness. The profundity of monastic chant is that its unison is absolutely nothing without harmony – the harmony of friendship, the harmony of brotherliness, the harmony of children of God struggling to be better men.
We chanted psalm after psalm, and canticle after canticle. We stood beside one another, we sat beside one another, we listened together to the Scriptures being read, and we prayed together to God – which is the principle purpose of being in a religion. It’s not about being right in an argument. It’s about trusting together that no human eye can see, no human ear can hear, and no human heart can know what God has ready for those who love in sincerity of heart – love God and love one another.
After prayer, later that night, I had no choice: Despite how I felt, despite some silly fear of being wrong or changing or seeming weak, I had to go to Brother Simon, and I had to say simply, “I’m really sorry for hurting you.”
For me, the monastic choir stalls were a glimpse of what heaven might be like: It might not simply be eternal mercy and justice and peace: It might also be me standing beside a brother I’ve so often failed to love.
I had the pleasure of meeting Becket while I was doing some personal soul-searching at St. Joseph Abbey. At the time he was a professing monk who had not taken his final vows. He has since left the monastery to become the personal assistant of the writer Anne Rice. In a recent conversation has given me permission to reprint his story as he is posting it on Facebook. I hope you find these installments as fascinating as I do