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Center for Action and Contemplation

Chant: Discovering Your Voice

Monday, May 21, 2018

Art: Week 2

Chant: Discovering Your Voice
Monday, May 21, 2018

Chant is singing our prayers. Chant is vocal meditation. Chant is the breath made audible in tone. Chant is discovering Spirit in sound. —Robert Gass [1]

My colleague, Center for Action and Contemplation faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault, sees the psalms as a powerful prophetic art form . . . that was always intended to be sung, not simply read. It is in the singing that something deeper is revealed. Cynthia writes in her book Chanting the Psalms:

The word psalm, of course means “song.” Technically there is no such thing, then, as a spoken psalm. That would be an oxymoron, like a two-wheeled tricycle. But if psalms are really songs, that means we need to sing them. Which brings us to the awkward matter of making friends with our singing voice.

Many of us carry the lifelong shame of having been told we do not have a singing voice, and therefore assumed that our right to sing was forever imprisoned by the voice of judgment that first declared it unworthy. The damage done is not just to our instrument of musical expression and exploration, but to that of spiritual expression and exploration as well.

When we work with our voice, we work with the core elements out of which the world came into being and through which it is sustained: breath, tone, intentionality, and community. These four elements can serve as sacred tools to explore the mystery of creation with something other than our minds! A whole different part of your being is engaged, and a whole different intelligence and perceptivity flows from this engagement.

It’s easy to fake our speaking voice. We can manufacture hearty tones, imposing authority, or superficial cordiality. The speaking voice also quickly takes on all the artificialities and constrictions of our personality.

From time to time I try an experiment where I ask each person to introduce themselves with “hello, my name is. . . .” Then I introduce the plot twist: “Ok, let’s do the same exercise again—only this time, chant the “hello, my name is. . . . ” I demonstrate a monotone chant, and off we go.

The results range from hilarious to poignant, depending on your take. It is typically a total unmasking of whatever we’ve just heard. Some voices that seem shy and retiring take on a beautiful, resonant timbre, and people look at each other in newfound appreciation. Some of the heartiest of the speakers turn out to be all bluff, struggling to find a wavering note as if suddenly exposed.

What is happening? The greatest challenge in sacred chanting is the same as its greatest opportunity: it strips away the masks and forces us to work with what’s real.

[1] Robert Gass with Kathleen Brehony, Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound (Broadway Books: 1999), 12.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD (New Seeds: 2006), 73-77.

Image credit: Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown (detail), by William P. Gottlieb, 1946-1948, Downbeat, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When Miles Davis blows the cacophony that can barely be contained by the word song, we come closest to the unimaginable, the potential of the future, and the source of our being. —Barbara Holmes
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