Monastic Chanting: Monks of the Desert


I came into choir one day. I had already been a monk for over 47 years. Someone had asked me about how it felt to chant. That question had never crossed my mind. In our tradition, a monk or a nun chants whether he or she feels well or ill, whether he or she feels good or bad, whether he or she feels anger or happiness. A monk simply chants. If a monk gives himself totally to the chanting, then all feelings begin to take second place.

Neither monks nor nuns always give themselves completely to the chanting and so there is a spiritual struggle that happens — or worse, no struggle at all and one gives in to letting the mind wander. If it is struggle, then the monk has to keep drawing his mind back to what he is chanting. The goal of chanting for the monk is communion with God, but a communion expressed in his singing and being aware of what he is singing.

Although rarely adverted to, this is the goal of all communication, with one another and with God. We want to be in communion with one another. That simply means that we want to be in union with one another in order to understand one another and communicate in such a way that each of us is both understood and understanding.

When I was a young man before I entered monastic life, I loved sitting in the back of the monastic church and just listening to the chanting. Even though the chanting was in Latin, I already understood it with no problem. However, listening to chant was a very different experience for me. I would just sit still and let my heart be present to the Lord, not trying to express itself in the words of the chant, but in the beauty of the chant.

There are two types of chanting which are normal in our tradition. One is the straightforward chanting of the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures to various simple melodies, called modes. Then there are the various Antiphons (for the Psalms, for entrance processions, for offertories and communions), the Graduals, the Tracts, Sequences, Short Responses Hymns, etc. These chants are in various levels of complexity, some of them quite simple and some quite difficult. For the one who is listening, some of these chants are truly glorious! For the one who is singing, some chants are treacherous, but when done well are incredibly satisfying.

Today one need only look up the “effects of Gregorian chant” on the internet to read about the effects that chant can have in one’s life. Some studies indicate that chant can lower the blood pressure, lower stress levels, bring peace and tranquility and help one concentrate. Monks do not chant for those reasons. If the effects are true, then they help a monk be a monk by helping him be a better human being.

One of the challenges in modern Christian monasticism is that we now often chant in the language of the local country or culture. It took centuries for the Latin chants of the Western Church to be developed and each monk spent years deepening himself with the words and the way of chanting. Now practically every monastery that still chants has its own style and its own system of chanting. Recently, when in another monastery, I had to give more attention to the system of chanting than to the praying, which is its goal. It might have been better to have stayed in the back of the church and to have participated by listening.

One who listens to chant — as opposed to the one who does the chanting — actually has more options for his or her prayer. One can lift up the heart to God in the beauty that is heard when the chanting is well done. One can practice being still and wordless. One can let one or two words capture one’s heart and mind and pray that way.

Even a person with no faith can participate by listening and be affected by the chant. When I have been in Orthodox monasteries listening to monks or nuns chanting in a language I do not know or when I have been in Buddhist monasteries or Bön monasteries, I have often just listened quietly, not praying but being still. This is a wonderful gift.

In my own monastery, many people come who are not Catholics and many visit who have no faith at all. Almost everyone finds some positive effect in the chanting of the monks. Many of these people find themselves returning to the monastery or purchasing CDs of chant because of its effects in their lives.

Because chanting is often done in the language of the culture or the country, some people — even some Catholics — find themselves reacting negatively at times to what is chanted. As far as I have been able to determine, Buddhist and Bön chants also — when chanted in a known language — have had the same effect. This is caused by images used, which are sometimes violent or sexist or express thoughts or emotions not acceptable to many in today’s cultures. Helping others understand the role of imagery levels of meaning is not easy. One easy example is from a Psalm which says something like this: he is my enemy, may he become like a woman’s miscarriage in the sun.

People can be startled by such images and levels of meaning. Some try to avoid such challenges by excising all such texts. Such violent language was perhaps intended to be taken literally in the original context millennia ago. Today, such texts have to be understood figuratively, as for example: harm to one’s enemies is understood as the desire to root out from one’s life evil thoughts or deeds — indeed enemies to a deep spiritual life.

If we return to the two basic types of chanting in our Catholic tradition — the straightforward chanting of the Hebrew Psalms or the chanting of the entrance antiphons, offertories, etc. — we find that almost all of the offensive texts are found in the first form of chanting, whereas the second form of chanting rarely chooses that type of text.

Monks and nuns of all traditions keep chanting. Those who are not monks and nuns are welcome to choose to share in ways that benefit their lives.

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