“It sounds kind of sad,” the little girl said.
It was sad. I was in a classroom full of middle schoolers. We had just
learned to sing a very simple Gregorian chant, a setting of the
Sanctus. And despite the fact that this was a Catholic school, neither
the music teacher nor any of her students had ever sung even the most modest chant melody before.
I was reminded of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and particularly of
the deep and abiding sadness that permeates his tales of Middle-earth. In those tales, ages and ages have come and gone, and the remote histories and legends of the earliest times are largely forgotten. But the Elves were the keepers of the legends. They were the stewards of the ancient wisdom and lore that linked generation to generation back to the very creation of Middle-earth…back to the time when the earliest peoples had spoken and lived with the Valar, those mighty angels and servants of God Himself.
Tolkien’s Elves were immortal, and so they were, as such, natural
guardians of history and wisdom. But Tolkien modeled these mythical
beings after the Benedictine monks of Europe. The western monastic
tradition, which began with the Rule of St. Benedict, spread throughout Europe during the Dark Ages. And in those times, as the
Roman Empire crumbled and western civilization was overrun by waves of conquerors, all ancient lore and wisdom was gathered by the monks and preserved. And the prayerful temple music of the ancient Hebrews was remembered and modified to suit the celebration of the Catholic Mass, becoming what we know today as Gregorian chant.
Music is one of the greatest gifts of God to man. And ancient melodies
that were sung by our forebears have an immense power; they can
connect us palpably with our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers, and on
back through the ages. And when we sing these ancient melodies, we
mystically join our voices with those ancestors, making audible the
very communion of saints…that spiritual and earthly choir that
cherishes what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful.
So why does no one sing Gregorian chant anymore? One could argue that it’s too “old fashioned”, or that a capella singing is too difficult
for average folk, or that no one wants to sing in a foreign language.
But I think chant is scarce for a different reason. I think it’s
because, as the little girl in that classroom said, “it sounds kind of
We modern folk want diversion. We want bubbly songs that make us feel good. We want nothing that reminds us of pain, of loss, of suffering. And as a result, worship in many churches these days is little more than (often bad) entertainment.
But, as anyone who has ever truly suffered will tell you, pain,
sacrifice, and loss are often necessary for growth. There are things
in life that are sad: people are hurt; families are destroyed;
neighborhoods and nations are overrun by criminals; we lose those we love.
But by papering over these things, we also paper over the brokenness of our world, and the sin that underlies that brokenness. And when we deny sin, we deny the possibility of redemption, the possibility that the sadness and hurt are just temporary. We deny the possibility that life is too glorious and too important to waste on diversion.
“Yes, it is sad, isn’t it?” I answered the girl in the classroom. “But
isn’t it also beautiful?”
And that, perhaps, is the best description I can ever give, not only
for Gregorian chant, but also for life itself.
- Jef Murray