What chanting is meant to do…
“I looked in temples, churches and mosques, but I found the Divine within my heart,” the Sufi poet Rumi writes. I know the truth of that awareness. I have lived wrapped in the middle of it for more than sixty-five years. More interesting than that, perhaps, is the way that awareness came to me.
It was 1952. I was sixteen years old and wrestling with whether the attraction I felt to monastic life was a real vocation or an adolescent fascination. It was 5:00 p.m. I was leaving campus after a couple hours’ work on the high school newspaper.
I came out the back door of the academy and turned to say my usual night prayer at the Marian shrine. Just as I arrived at the statue, the stained glass windows on the second floor above me opened. Then the sweetest sound I’d ever heard came wafting out of those windows as it had so many times since I’d come to that school. The psalm tone was a haunting one and the singing of it was lilting, clear, gentle, and soothing.
The sisters were chanting Matins, the longest of the Liturgical Hours of prayer, which was often said at night “in preparation” rather than at 5:00 a.m. on a school day. I stood stock-still and listened. And I knew. I belonged in this community.
The chanting had done what chanting is meant to do. It raises the mind and heart to God. It elevates consciousness beyond the prosaic and the earthly. It separates us from one kind of world and introduces us to another: the one that probes the soul rather than the mind. The one that settles us into the direction of our lives. The one that shapes our souls and trains the ears of our hearts to hear the spirit of life within us. The one that turns our feet from the path of the popular to the path of human purpose.
All the great traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Native American cultures, Judaism, the Islamic reading of the Koran and the mystical Sufi experience, among others, all use chant to express the deepest understanding of their spiritual ideals.
Chant is not where anyone goes to argue theology or contest the existence of miracles. Chant is where we go to be. To simply be that other part of ourselves that tugs at our feet on the ground and raises us up somewhere above them.
Chant deepens the very nature of prayer. Monastics chant over and over again from day to day: “O God, come to my assistance, O God, make haste to help me.” This is the antiphon that opens the chanting of the 150 psalms, which will be recited over and over again every day of our lives. Then, eventually, it becomes the beat of the heart, the hope of the seeker. It is the etching of the presence of God on the mind that goes on forever and can never, ever, be forgotten. It is the daily memory and promise of God’s presence that clasps two souls to one another: I to God, God to me. It is the sound of the presence of God that never goes away.
In the end, chanting quiets the mind. It opens the heart to contemplation. It takes you down the deep stairs to the cave of the heart and leaves you there to realize the great things God is doing, has done, and will continue to do forever. Chanting moves you into a sense of oneness with the universe, where no thinking or problem-solving is the price of your admission, only awareness of the presence of God, eternal yet new every day of your life.
—from The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life, by Joan Chittister. (Save when you buy now.)