hold my hope

So, when did you last sit down with a book on prayer and find yourself laughing? Oh, all right. I do laugh with books on prayer — but it’s often a bit rueful, as I face yet again the gap between what I hope for and what I sustain. This was different. This book is funny — and worth sharing:

Ana Hernández is someone whose worked crossed my path last autumn when I went to the Music that Makes Community workshop in New York. She is a creator of earworms, and teacher of chant.

Earworm first. I think I have shared this before: Open my Heart. It doesn’t sound like much at first, but trust me — if you listen to it a few times, it will sing itself in your consciousness at the most helpful times.

I love her songs, and they have been a large part of my prayer for the last year — but I confess, the book has made me a bit nervous. The Sacred art of Chant: preparing to practice.

I like chant. I like it contained safe in the walls of Evensong and Compline. I like it sung stunningly by well trained monks. But this book seemed to be asking more of me. I suggests that I might chant. It suggests that I might make it a part of my daily prayer. It suggests that I might make noise in prayer. Silence, yes. Noise? God of all Scariness, give us strength.

Still, you know that I tend to think that what terrifies us is good for us and one of the ways God calls us to grow, so I have persevered. Ana Hernandez makes strong claims for chant:

Chanting with an intention to open our hearts and minds to the presence of God in us helps us to be quiet in the face of mystery and learn how to hear what it has to say to us. Chanting can hep us focus when we’d normally space out, stay calm when we’d normally blow up, raise our energy level when it’s time to go out, lower our energy level when it’s time to go to bed (or vice-versa — you make the call). Chanting is great at helping us fathom how to deal with our emotions so we don’t feel overwhelmed and so we don’t overwhelm others: It helps find and maintain a balanced perspective.

… and I have this nagging hunch that what she is saying might just be true.

So, I wanted to share it — to say ‘sing this. read this. try this with me?’

Even if you find that chant is not your thing, I think this is a book worth reading. She is asking big questions about how we can live more openly with God and one another, and how we can ‘manifest our sweetest selves’. I suspect that only someone who is not always sweet could have stumbled across that goal, and I find that very reassuring.

I’ll give her the last word: Hold my hope. The Schehallion Reel of chanting:

leadership (that makes community)

This is the fourth post in a series on Music that Makes Community

I want to think about the chanted psalm I described yesterday — and indeed the music that we sang in New York, generally — in terms of the sort of leadership that it models in the church.

In the psalm, it was quite clear that there was a leader: one person held the text, initiated the singing and built the foundations for the rest of us.  Our ability to enter into the psalm was based on our willingness to listen to the person leading, respond to him (in this case, him), and accept the premise of a very sophisticated game of ‘follow the leader’.

That’s how it started, at least.  But the leader was improvising just like the rest of us.  He held the text.  He had shaped the idea, and brought certain skills and experience to the task.   He initiated, and we responded — at first.  After a while, though, the flow of leadership changed.  There were times when the leader’s chant began to echo or build on notes that others had offered.  Our ‘echoes’ became his raw data — part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in prayer, the ‘voice of God’ that then filled him and shaped his notes.

We had seen this happen earlier in the day when we were doing a physical improv, mirroring our partners.  After a while, we stole from each other, and the group began to move as one.  In that improv, the experience helped form the group.  Now, the experience embodied God in our midst.

What fascinates me in all this is how perfect a balancing there was between clear leadership and shared responsibility.  We could not have done what we did if the cantor had not given us a clear lead.  He offered us a structure (a chanted Psalm) and a way to engage with it (echo back).  He offered a theological vision (God speaks now, as words jump out) and an invitation to participate in that vision (sing what you hear — share God’s word).  He offered us beautiful chanting that stirred our response and brought energy to the task at hand.

And then, once we’d begun our task, he mirrored it back: listening to us — hearing God’s word there — echoing it so that we could hear it too.  He followed our lead, and led us forward again into the word of God.

There are times when the energy in a room rises, the air becomes electric, and you know you are on Holy Ground.  This was one.

One cannot manufacture those moments.  But it is still worth noting the circumstances:

  1. The leadership was clear: in vision, role and offering — the leader provided the context for our song and prayer.
  2. The leadership was fluid: the group recognized and established the leader’s authority by risking doing what he asked and responding to his song. The leader recognized and established the group’s authority by listening and responding to new leads, and building them into his own work.
  3. God’s word was free to move around the community  —  we moved beyond the human constructs of ‘follow the leader’ into a game of creative response to the initiative of God.

The trust involved in improvising a psalm together is huge.  We had to trust the concept, trust the leader, trust our ears and our voices, and trust what God was doing.  That sort of trust might come easily — if the group is already well formed,  the relationships are secure, and it is generally a trusting group — or it might feel like climbing to the very end of a high and flimsy branch.  Once you are out there, though, swinging on that branch, it is a glorious and liberating thing.

Part of what makes Music that Makes Community work is that we are all out on a limb together.  It is risky for a leader to step out with a text and a drone and to make something up.  It is risky for a congregation to join in, and speak or sing aloud in response to the nudging of God.  And crucially — as we get used to being in that place of risk, we get closer to others who may have to take risks to join us.

And that takes us back to what happened in St Paul’s, when people who came to remember 9/11 found themselves in the midst of an all singing all dancing eucharist.  Tomorrow’s post: the riskiest risk-taking of all.


improv chant (that makes community)

This is the third post on Music that Makes Community XX.  

Today, I want to explore an unlikely equation.

Lectio Divina + ancient chant + Scary Improv = a stunning way to sing psalms.

As a priest, I have always found psalms tricky.  I love Anglican Chant, and am thankful that there are places (not too far from here) that do it well.  I love plainsong, and have had fabulous experiences of small groups of people singing Compline in dark country churches.  But often, congregations set out to sing psalms in ways that just don’t work.  I’m not sure, yet, how well what I’m about to describe would work in most churches.  It would certainly take courage to try. But we can do courage, right?  For a liturgy that shimmers, it is worth it, yes?

So, on we go.

Scary Improv Psalm began simply enough.  We were invited to say together Psalm 23 — in the authorized version (which I suspect was meant to be reassuring).  In fact, this was verbal mirroring, another form of the morning improv.  The leader began, and we matched his rhythms. As we went on, leadership moved around: other voices, other rhythm emerged. Sometimes there were ‘mistakes’ — words multiplied as memory took over and we slipped into alternate versions. Then, we would come together again, speaking as one.

At first, it was our mistakes that ornamented the psalm:  an embellishment here, a collective swirl and pause there as we found our way together.  Then we were invited past accident, into deliberate action.  This is where Lectio comes in.  In the same way that you ‘listen for a word’ in Lectio, we were invited to listen for the words that spoke most deeply to us.  To listen, as the leader spoke — and then to echo the words that jumped out.

The Lord is my shepherd

I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

lie down
lie down
maketh me

He restoreth my soul.

And on we went.  At first it was forced: deliberate echoing.  Hesitancy.  Then, we fell into prayer. Words rose and fell — awe-filled, reserved, angry, fearful, weary, hopeful.  Sometimes, stripped of emotion: pure word.  It seemed that many of us were equally lost in our own prayers and wholly caught up in the group.  The energy rose and spines tingled.  Yet all we were doing was speaking a psalm…

When we were done and had spoken about what happened, we were invited to do it again — this time singing.

The leader began to chant the psalm — neither Anglican Chant nor plainsong. The chant seemed to owe as much to the mosque as the church, and yet it was also born in the moment.  Notes came as the leader prayed.  We were asked to join in: echoing the words that spoke to us, illuminating the text.

Before we had started, we had been given a drone: a note held as a  ‘home base’, which offered both safety and energy.  For me it was mannna. I could not imagine making up melodic lines or harmonies — though in fact, I’d had to do that earlier, in Most Scary of Improvs — but it is possible to sing back a note, to echo a word just offered.  (Really, it is.)

For much of the psalm, that is all I did.  I echoed the occasional word, on the drone, probably inaudible to all but my nearest neighbour. Then — it should not have surprised me really — what was happening in the group became more engaging than my fear.  I began to hear patterns:  there was a woman behind me with a lovely light soprano voice who embellished the text with fine filigree of gold. There was a man near by who rumbled out of the depths of the earth.  There was someone who echoed in thirds, and another who multiplied the chant with rhythmic repetitions.  It began to make sense, and I started to hear where I could fit in.

The different voices helped me find my own.  The power of the psalm and the unity of the group deepened as each person found a way to be themselves.

How many times have I said something like that?  written it?  read it in a church profile? “We find our voice as we listen to each other.”  But never had I seen the concept come so vividly to life.  Music that Makes Community also makes very good theology.

And I have I mentioned, yet, that it was also great fun?

Next post: leadership.
This is a work of evangelism.  We are not done with this yet…