Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Great Homily on Chant

Homiliy for the Church Music Association of America, Gregorian Chant Workshop, Founders Chapel, University of San Diego
by Father Cávana Wallace

What is the common link between the days after the Epiphany which began with the arrival of the Magi bearing their gifts to the new-born messiah in Bethlehem, the later event of Christ’s healing of the leper we have read in today’s Gospel and the setting of this liturgy within the framework of a workshop on Church music? How can we possibly bring all three of these elements together? The opening lines of the early 19th century popular parish hymn might come to mind, “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet Thy tribute bring! Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me his praise should sing?”

Today’s Gospel sets our blessed Lord in the context of his healing ministry, one which demonstrates his power as God as well as announcing the Kingdom of heaven, both of which point to his mission to restore order to creation, and to bring harmony out of chaos.

Where there is disorder in any relationship, be it with God, neighbor or within oneself, its effect resonates a disturbance in mind, body and soul. In this context sickness and disease are telltale signs that there is something out of sync in our world, out of tune, the reason we need a savior.

Contemplating this further, I imagine that the scene of the Gospel showing our Blessed Lord cleansing the leper and healing the sick, although dramatic and exciting, was nevertheless quite noisy. Within this context of his healing ministry, demons would often scream and shout at our Lord as they were being cast out of the physically vulnerable and the weak of mind. Frenzied, excitable crowds would no doubt be caught up in the waves of emotions generated by such events. Christ stands in the middle of a battlefield.

In the midst of all this noise, having brought healing to the leper, Our Lord asks for silence. But there is that human temptation to resist stillness, maybe the reason we are told in the Gospel today that Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray – away from the clatter and clamor of daily life and living, to sacred rendezvous places where the sound of heaven could be gently heard.

In the classical work of the Divine Comedy, which describes in poetic fashion, both the liturgy of heaven and of hell, the Florentine poet Dante draws this point out by comparing hell as a place of constant noise with heaven as a place of silence and music.

In the Inferno, the “soundscape” of Hell is characterized by disharmonic harshness and acoustic unpleasantness, screams and lamentations, waling and the grinding of teeth. This perverted type of music is so terrible that it is overpowering and Dante must ultimately cover his human ears, a far cry (literally) from the melodic harmonies which the poet describes resonating through the heavens.

We can only surmise what the music of heaven is like and the peace and the refreshment it must give. But on this side of the veil within the unfolding of the Church’s liturgy, Gregorian chant must come very close to the music of heaven. This is not a private opinion. The Church has seen it wise to attach particular indulgences to the singing of Gregorian chant. Why? It is because such sacred music can and does do something to the soul.

The setting for this week’s intensive workshop on this sacred form of music has been the University of San Diego. It was thought, at one time, that maybe it would become the Notre Dame of the West. However, I conclude with a poem by Charles Phillips, professor from 1924-1933 of the English Department of the one and only Notre Dame, renowned for giving generations of his students a love of Catholic faith, Catholic literature and Catholic culture. Simply titled “Music”, its words capture what I think we have tried to touch and gently press upon during this past week and in particular through the Church’s liturgy we are celebrating today.


There is a hunger in my heart,
A longing in my soul, to hear
The voice of heaven, o’er the noise
Of earth that so assails mine ear:

For we are children of the skies,
Exiles and wanderers from home-
See how the stars like candles burn
In windows far from where we roam:

Like candles lit to show the way,
Dear kindly beacons, sure and bright!
But O the heavy journeying,
And O the silence of the night! –

The vasty silences that lie
Between the going and the goal!
Will not God reach a friendly hand
To lift and lead my tired soul?

Will not God speak a friendly word
Above the tumult and the din
Of earthly things – one little word
Above the voice of care and sin?

He speaks. He answers quick my prayer.
He opens heaven’s lattice wide;
He bids me bathe my brow in airs
Of heaven like a flowing tide!

He speaks; He gives unto my soul,
Unto my listening ear, its meed:
He breathes upon me with the breath
Of music – and my soul is freed

And I am lifted up and held
A little while, a child to see
The beauty of my Father’s House
Which shall no more be shut from me.


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