“Faith is love, and therefore it creates poetry and music.”
Benedict XVI, catechesis dedicated to Romanos the Melodist
Singing is a major occupation of the monks, whom the Rule of St. Benedict ceaselessly calls and calls again to come into the choir, seven times a day and once a night. It does not matter whether someone is present or not in the church nave, listening to them: for the monks sing God, and the monks sing to God.
Singing God is as old as the Bible: music was part of the service of the priests and Levites in the Temple of Jerusalem, and King David poured out his heart before God on the harp. We find in the psalms some remnants of musical indications, which for the most part have become enigmatic today.
The early Christians transposed this liturgical use of music into their respective cultures. The oldest texts testify that they gathered at night and "sung to Christ as to a God."
Singing God is an action purely gratuitous and full of noble uselessness. When the echo of the Office's last notes has faded away into silence, everything reverts to its previous state, as if nothing had happened. No trace is left of this demanding and ceaselessly repeated work. Musical notes do not pile up, no one would even think of measuring their accumulation.
But God listens to them with attention and tenderness.
The Christian mystery is that of God's eternal Wisdom, who comes and dwells in the world she has created with order, weight and measure, so as to save man from the disorder he himself brought into this world by his own sin.
From the earliest times, the liturgy, in order to take man beyond himself to encounter God, has turned away from bewitching melodies and obsessive rhythms that lead the mind to be engulfed in an intoxication of the senses, and thus to irrationality and excess. The liturgy has elected a music constructed in harmony with the supreme order of the cosmos, and carrying a meaning that elevates the heart, a music that “without abolishing the senses, elevates them, merges them with the mind”.
This music developed in different styles: "whereas in the East, Byzantine Christianity remained faithful to the tradition of monodic vocal music, in the Slavic regions, probably under the influence of the West, monodic chant grew to polyphony [...].
In the West, traditional psalmody reached such a perfection in Gregorian chant that it has become the permanent model of reference for the musica sacra."
Cardinal Ratzinger, The Celebration of the Faith
To modern ears, accustomed to the splendours of classical polyphony or to enthralling rhythms, Gregorian chant may at first seem very austere in its bareness; and the ancient and surprising modality of its melodies, coming from a distant past, seems very insufficient to occupy during a whole lifetime such long moments in a monk’s day.
Yet, these melodies are the cornerstone of our Western civilization's entire musical edifice.
From the very first centuries, the Church has had to guard herself against excesses of refinement and aestheticism, but also against a Platonic spiritualism that would have wished to ban any religious use of music.
For "Christian spiritualization is not simply an opposition to the universe of the senses, as the mysticism of Platonism is, but a journey towards the Lord who is spirit (2Co 3:17 ; cf. 1Co 15:45) ; that is why the body is included in spiritualization."
Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of Music
Gregorian chant, in the simplicity of its monody, very quickly appeared as a half-way house that allowed music to enrich words with what they could not say on their own, without art stifling words, as it were. The monasteries have jealously and exclusively kept it, so that it has always been possible throughout the centuries to come back and draw there inspiration for Christian music. It is from this living tradition that the prayer of the monks to this day still borrows its choral form.
If Gregorian chant is an angelic chant, so to speak, the monks who lend their voices to it are indeed men, with all their limitations. Moreover, a choir of monks is not a choral society, a group that would have gathered on the criterion of a special attraction for singing, and of certain vocal and musical competences.
A monastery simply brings together men who have heard God's call, and who strive to sing together, in the great diversity of their musical gifts and abilities,
in moments of weariness as well as joy,
throughout days, years, and their whole lives.
Ancient monks, faced with the same difficulties, were nonetheless aware of the perfection demanded by divine praise, and took seriously the verse of the psalm: in conspectu Angelorum psallam tibi – in the presence of the Angels I will sing to Thee (Ps 137:1), considering that they had to "pray and sing to unite themselves with the music of the sublime spirits, considered as the authors of cosmic harmony…"
« … St. Bernard of Clairvaux used an expression from the Platonic tradition handed down by St. Augustine, to pass judgement on the poor singing of monks, which for him was evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance. He describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the “zone of dissimilarity” – the regio dissimilitudinis. [...] He shows there that the culture of chant is also a culture of being, and that monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty.
Benedict XVI, Address to the Collège des Bernardins, 12 September 2008
In recalling in his Rule that monks sing in the presence of God and His Angels, “Benedict certainly wanted to tell the monks that they should reflect on the fact that the Angels are silently present in the choir, that they hear, and that the song must be such that they can hear it.
But we also sing with them. We should thus “incline the ear of the heart”, understand from inside, so to speak, the song of the Angels, tune ourselves to it and sing with them. This "singing together" then naturally includes the whole community of saints of all times and places."
Benedict XVI, Address to a delegation from the Regensburg high school of music, Castelgandolfo, 28 September 2007.
There is but one liturgy, on earth and in heaven; and if the singing of the monks must be such as not to disturb the harmony of the Angels and Saints' singing, this daunting demand then has a counterpart in the fact that the monks' singing is, as it were, raised and redeemed by that of the Angels and Saints.
When hearts are truly given to God and seek His glory, the imperfections and deficiencies of this earth's humble monastic singing become purified by the angelic praise into which this singing is merged.
Servants of the Church's prayer and of her contemplation of Christ's mysteries, gladly overwhelmed by the beauty of what they are to sing, monks may well take as their own motto St Paulinus of Nola's exclamation:
"There is for us but one art, which is faith, and one music, Christ."