Sacred chants sung in deep, sonorous voices born of long practice and devotion, are extraordinarily soothing. They induce tranquillity by easing the turmoil of thoughts and emotions, bring release for a while from daily anxieties and pains, and, most importantly, evoke a sense of the Divine.
Since ancient times, sacred chants have been integral to Christian worship. The earliest Christians offered praise and adoration to God by chanting scriptural texts, especially the Psalms, that is, prayer-hymns that express all the moods and emotions of the heart. Over centuries, many styles of Christian chant emerged in the West as well as the East. The Gregorian chant, the most well-known, named after Pope Gregory the Great, spread all over the West supplanting other forms. It receded into the background with the rise of polyphonic music and vernacular sacred music. It is now experiencing a popular resurgence. The immense popularity of the musical album Chant, recorded by monks of the monastery of Santo Domingos de Silos [Spain] is an index of this upsurge.
Typical features of Christian chants
Traditional Christian chant, particularly Gregorian, is monodic, that is, one vocal part of melodic line predominates. The chant is sung without any musical instrument; the only instrument being the exquisite, intimate, subtle and beautiful human voice. A distinguishing feature of the chant is the blending of many different voices in perfect unison. Unison is an indispensable condition for singing the chant, no doubt, but it expresses a deeper reality: the unity of worshippers in God.
Chants are sung particularly during the central community act of worship, the Mass. Earlier intoned in Latin, they are now rendered in many different languages. The Latin Gregorian chant is seldom heard today except in a few monastery chapels. Almost everywhere, the chants have taken a vernacular turn. Another religious service, chiefly in the Catholic tradition, during which chants charge the atmosphere of chapels is the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office. This is a series of devotional services during which texts from scripture, the psalms, and prayers are chanted several times a day from early dawn to close of day by monks and nuns. In some places, ordinary Christians also join the monks in the evening session of prayer [vesper].
Chanting the Divine name
Christian chant includes a form similar to the chant of the Divine Name so popular in our country. This form of chant emerged in Eastern Christianity before spreading west. Known as the “Jesus Prayer”, it consist in repeatedly chanting the name of Jesus with heart and devotion, either in its simpler form, “Jesus” or in its longer version, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Chanting the name of Jesus, or reciting it repetitively, is a spiritual practice to arrive at a state of “unceasing prayer”, that is, a state of continual God-awareness. Many devout Christians chant or recite the name of Jesus, just as much as they chant or recite other sacred phrases from the scripture, not only at certain set times but all through the day.
Ecumenical and inter-faith chants
A style of chant that has gained popularity today is the Taize meditative chant. This is the chant of a new religious community in France. Christians of all denominations participate in this inclusive spiritual community. The Taize chants are characteristically short, melodic, and deliberatively repetitive. Each chant is followed by a long pause for meditation. The Taize chant has been taken up by churches worldwide.
A new phenomenon that needs to be highlighted is the increased celebration of inter-religious chants. People of different faiths come together to participate in the chants of varied faiths, not only to savour their aesthetic beauty, but also to experience their common humanity and oneness in the Sacred – a significant fact given the religious conflicts that mar our world.
Psycho-physical benefits and beyond
The psycho-physical benefits of chant are fairly well-established today. Researchers point to salutary body-mind effects: slowing down of metabolism, steadying of pulse, normalising of blood-pressure levels, reduction in rates of respiration and heart beat. Tangible relief from psychological tensions and strains has also been claimed.
Extremely desirable as these benefits are in our fast-paced world, the value of sacred chant, as all religious traditions stress, goes beyond psycho-physical wellbeing: it is a transformative spiritual practice that can open the doors to the timeless.