Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Glossolalia and chant

As we bask in the glow of Pentecost, I have been thinking about this spiritual phenomenon most commonly associated with the charismatic movement and hence, the Holy Spirit: glossolalia. This is the technical Greek term for what we call "speaking in tongues." Indeed, the word rather onomatopaeically means "to talk" and "tongue".

The phenomenon is not new: it is in fact recorded in Acts as first occuring on Pentecost day and then mentioned by St Paul in his first letter to the Church in Corinth. It has in fact persisted down the ages albeit viewed with suspicion by some in the Church, as indeed (it must be admitted) it still is. Some saints have written of mystical experiences in which they practiced glossolalia and others have commented (positively) on it.

However, what strikes me, is a view expressed by Fr Rene Laurentin, that over the years glossolalia did not disappear in the Church; it became stylised and written down as music we now call Gregorian chant! An interesting prospect and not unlikely, given the Roman bureaucratic penchant for formalizing and stylizing everything! Anyone who has listened to the "the chant proper to the Roman liturgy" (as Vatican II calls it), would notice the ebb and flow of the music which becomes especially ornate on a single syllable. In the study of chant (Gregorian semiology) this is called a jubilus or melisma.

St Augustine noted that at times the chant in the jubilus "liberates itself from syllabic limits". As Dom Daniel Saulnier OSB of Solesmes writes: "It is a song beyond words, beyond the somewhat narrow concepts that the words evoke."

It strikes me that this is precisely what glossalalia does: ecstatic utterances in praise of God over-flowing beyond the bounds of words through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Many people who have this gift sing in tongues... and yet in a real sense, this sung glossolalia has been transcribed and prayed for centuries as Gregorian chant. Indeed this may not be surprising as it is the same Spirit who has inspired such sublime melodies married indissolubly with the sacred texts of Scripture (themselves written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit). The picture above from Quarr Abbey shows the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) dictating the music to Pope St Gregory the Great, after whom the chant is named.

Thus the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II recognised in 2003: "Among musical expressions that best respond to the quality required by the notion of sacred music, especially liturgical, a particular place is occupied by Gregorian chant."

And what are the qualities required of sacred music? Pope Benedict XVI tells us:
1. "In liturgical music, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation.
2. "The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and He leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality?
3. "Yes, it is the cosmic context that gives art in the liturgy both its measure and its scope. A merely subjective "creativity" is no match for the vast compass of the cosmos and for the message of its beauty. When a man conforms to the measure of the universe, his freedom is not diminished but expanded to a new horizon."

And it is clear that His Holiness indicates that the Church pre-eminently recognises these qualities in Gregorian chant. How many of us can say the same? After all, it is the one art that still links us to the Jewish song used by Christ and the apostles, and it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who caused the Christians who first sang the chant to burst forth into jubilus!


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