Finding Presence — Center for Action and Contemplation
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Finding Presence

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Finding Presence
Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Chanting is one of the most traditional methods of contemplation. While some traditions repeat a single word or sound, Benedictine and Gregorian chant within the Christian tradition draw their inspiration from the Psalms. Cynthia Bourgeault describes how chant works as a contemplative method. She is one of the best teachers in this regard:

Chanting is at the heart of all sacred traditions worldwide, and for very good reason: it is fundamentally a deep-immersion experience in the creative power of the universe itself. Because to make music, you must engage those three core elements out of which the earth was fashioned and through which all spiritual transformation happens.

The first element, of course, is breath. Many of the great world religions picture the earth as being created and sustained by the steady, rhythmic “breathing” of God. Virtually every tradition starts you off on a spiritual practice by bringing attention to your breath and teaching you to breathe fully and consciously. [Benedictine monk] Father Theophane . . . liked to remind his retreatants, “Every breath you take is the breath of God.”

The second element is tone, or vibration, the sound you make when you add voice to that breath. Again, many of the world’s sacred traditions tell us that creation came into existence through the power of vibration. . . . [including] the ancient Christian insight, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1)—for what else is “word” but vibration combined with intentionality? Mythologically, the world was “spoken” into existence. And when we add our tone, we join this speaking.

The third element, which I just mentioned above, is intentionality. . . . When you chant, the quality of your intention and attention is what makes the difference between boredom and beauty. As you give yourself to the words you are chanting, their spiritual power comes alive in you. . . .

Not even melodies and choir books are required. In traditional Sufi prayer, for example, a single word is chanted over and over—one of ninety-nine names (spiritual attributes) of God: “mercy,” “truth,” “life,” “peace,” and so forth. With nothing but a single word, sometimes an accompanying drumbeat, and the conscious attention of the participants, a chant of enormous power and beauty rises in remembrance of God.

Perhaps no community has done more to reclaim the sacred Christian practice of chanting than Taizé, the small ecumenical community in France founded in the late 1940s. They remind us that “through [the songs], little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts.” [1]

References:
[1] “Meditative Singing,” article from Taizé website.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 161–162, 169.

Story from Our Community:
Three years ago I finished 7 months of chemotherapy; the treatment was very powerful and I had to stay home from my job. Though I often felt physically miserable, the time alone was peaceful and rich. I watched the sun sweep across my room, listened to the Canada geese fly overhead, lost myself in a book, and listened to the breathing of my three dogs sleeping near me. I am not a formal churchgoer and don’t attach to one belief. But this experience and others I have had are not different from those of the religious I admire. The path is wide. —Laura C.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
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