Today we can scarcely go to a clothing store, a health club or even a gas station without being besieged by a variety of thumping, agitating and jarring music blasting from speakers above. While I appreciate a variety of music, I have found that Gregorian chant stands in stark contrast to the fatigue of today’s popular tunes which tends to dominate music charts across the globe. By its very nature, Gregorian chant supersedes the entertainment value of music by allowing us to step out of our fast-paced world and instead focus on the sacred. Standing the test of time, this early Christian song continues to enrich our Catholic culture and rouse the soul with holy inspirations. Originating as a form of plainchant, this great treasure of the Church began under the auspices of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) who referred to it as “the song of Angels.” Early art depicts Pope Gregory as a music loving saint who received the gift of chant from a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, who came to sit upon his shoulder and began to sing in his ear. Born in the Church, its lyrics come from the Latin Vulgate, Mass ordinaries, divine office hymns, antiphons, and responsories. For centuries it has been sung in Latin as pure melody in unison without musical accompaniment, meter or time signature. It is music composed for the soul in which the words of God are lovingly sung back to him.
Gregorian chant continues to be kept alive in monasteries, convents, and some cathedrals while also remaining a subject of study among a small group of dedicated academics. Over the past few decades, the world has seen a resurgence of chant. In the 1990’s, an album aptly named Chant, performed by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos (Spain) became the best-selling record of Gregorian chant ever. Emerging in 1994 as an antidote to the stress of modern life, Chant peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 chart. Similarly, the Cistercian Viennese Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz, also shot to the top of classical music charts with their #1 selling album which also hit number nine on the pop charts!
So why does Gregorian chant rock? One reason is that it conveys the sacred to the secular. Contrary to the agitating sounds of hip hop, hard rock and heavy metal, Gregorian chant is instead a soothing balm for weary souls and a source of comfort for unsettled hearts. Inspiring and edifying, simple and poignant, this music of paradise slows our racing minds, renews our vigor, and eases the tensions of a harried world. It ethereal quality elevates us from the temporal and transports us to the spiritual.
Dr. Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London noted that “the musical structure of chant can have a significant and positive physiological impact,” and that chanting has actually been shown to “lower blood pressure, increase levels of DHEA and also reduce anxiety and depression.” Similar studies also suggest that Gregorian chant can aid in communications between the right and left hemispheres of the brain more effectively, therefore creating new neural brain pathways.
Benedictine nun, Ruth Stanley, head of the complementary medicine program at Minnesota’s St. Cloud Hospitals also says she’s had great success in easing the chronic pain of patients by having them listen to chant. “The body can move to a deeper level of its own inherent, innate healing ability when you play chant. It’s quite remarkable.” In a 1978 documentary called “Chant,” French audiologist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis, related how he was called upon to help the monks of a Benedictine monastery who suffered from fatigue, depression, and physical illness. He found that they usually took part in six to eight hours of chanting per day but due to a new edict, their chanting was halted. When Tomatis succeeded in re-establishing their daily chanting, the monks regained their well-being and were again full of life. His conclusion was that Gregorian chant is capable of charging the central nervous system along with the cortex of the brain thus having a direct effect on the monk’s overall happiness and health.
Aside from noted physical, spiritual and metal benefits, Gregorian chant may even aid in the conversion of hearts. It is believed that well-known author and philosophy professor, Peter Kreeft listed the angelic chant music of Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina as one of the reasons he is Catholic today. Beyond this, Gregorian chant inspires and instructs. It allows us to regain our strength, our clarity and our focus on what is truly important in life. In his letter read at the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Emeritus Pope Benedict spoke about the vital role Gregorian chant has played in Church history along with countering the argument that Chant is a thing of the past. Instead he praised Gregorian chant as being “of huge value to the great ecclesial heritage of universal sacred music,” and that “Mass must convey a sense of prayer, dignity and beauty.” The Second Vatican Council also noted that Gregorian chant should be given “pride of place” in liturgical music. Unfortunately, finding a church where chant is still sung is a daunting task.
On a personal level, I listen to Gregorian chant regularly at home, at work and while driving. I’ve found the more I listen to it, the more I recognize its spiritual and mental benefits. It calms me and lifts my mind from the challenges of the day to what is above. I even noticed my pets are calmer and more relaxed when chant fills my home! A friend of mine says it peacefully lulls her baby to sleep. Still others find playing it at home creates a tranquil family atmosphere in which to converse, eat, pray and live. Like the rhythm of a calm heartbeat, Gregorian chant fosters peace within ourselves and those around us. It is not music for the sake of music – but rather prayer that inspires prayer.
If you’ve not yet had the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits of Gregorian chant, there are some great CD’s and downloads available including those mentioned in this article. Why not give it a try! In comparison to much of today’s music, Gregorian chant is music that aims for heaven, the greatest goal of all! And because of that – it rocks!