by Lori Smith
“When you sing you pray twice.” – St. Augustine
Chant is defined as the worship and celebration of the sacred through melodically simple vocalization; singing our prayers; vocal meditation; the breath made audible in tone; discovering Spirit in sound. Chanting quiets the mind, opens the heart, and uplifts the spirit.
Chant encompasses a wide array of musical expression¬ from monastic chanting always sung in precisely the same tonal sequence to the Sufi zhikrs using the repetitive text chanted on a half-spoken tone of indistinct pitch. Some chant is rhythmic, i.e. Native American drums, while others consist of long sustained notes with no rhythm at all such as the traditional toning of the well-known Sanskrit sacred syllable OM. Sometimes chants use traditional texts and then others use the pure vibration of wordless tones and overtones. Some chanting is a capella like Gregorian chant while other chanters use instruments ranging from drums, rattles and flutes to bowls and harps.
In ancient times before the printing press, books were handwritten and rare. Most knowledge was organized into compositions that could be preserved and transmitted through chants. With the printed and digitized word we have lost the time-honored and potent tool of chanting. Chanting was and still is a powerful learning tool. Learning to chant refines our capacity to listen, and listening requires an open mind. Chanting makes the mind alert, able to shift focus quickly and strengthens memory. Chanting can be a powerful tool in our yoga practice. Watch for the following benefits of chanting and how they might prepare one for centering prayer.
The very sound of chanting helps to heal our bodies and minds. Think about the calming effect of singing lullabies to children, the effect of listening to soothing music when tired. My son¹s long bout with hiccups was cured when we listened to the chanting of brothers and sisters at a Benedictine Monastery. Scientists have determined that plants thrive in the organized music of Bach or Handel but fail to grow in discordant, unorganized music. Discordant sound makes us nervous, and harmonious sound such as chanting, heals us.
Chanting regulates our breathing and promotes deep abdominal breathing. When chanting, our breath rate goes down, then our heart rate goes down, and then our blood pressure goes down. Chanting brings about a general “cooling-down” of our whole body. A recent study by Dr. Alan Watkins, senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, revealed that teaching people to control their breathing and applying the musical structure of chanting reduced stress levels. The research involved five monks having their heart rate and blood pressure measured throughout a 24-hour period. Results showed their heart rate and blood pressure dipped to its lowest point in the day when they were chanting.
When chanting wholeheartedly we can release negative emotions. Have you ever cried when singing a hymn at church? Emotions are brought into unity in this act as they are allowed expression through the agency of the voice. Chanting is a physical exercise for the body that empties the lungs and muscles of toxins created by frustration and stress.
On a physiological level, chanting seems to energize people. Reported experience of chanting retreats brought everyone to a state of high energy. In contrast, silent retreats concluded with most people feeling tired and heading straight for bed. An excellent example of this is the story of a newly elected Trappist monastery Abbot who reduced the amount of chanting at the early morning Matins services. An immediate result was that the monks had greater difficulty staying awake. Even though the reduction in the length of the service would have seemed conducive to better attention, the opposite actually happened. The chanting that had been removed was soon reinstated and this proved conducive to a wakeful and attentive early morning service.
Similarly, the monks at a Benedictine monastery in France became lethargic and experienced a spate of illness upon stopping its practice of 6 to 8 hours of Gregorian chant. Dr. Alfred Tomatus, a French neurolinguist , investigated the monks and found upon reinstating the chanting they revived and became more alert. Dr. Tomatus research on the effect chanting had on the well-being of the monks discovered that there are certain frequencies within sounds that recharge the brain. The richness of sound is created by many-combined vibration-frequencies producing measureable overtones and harmonics. Overtones are not usually recognizable to the human consciousness. Dr. Tomatus discovered that the higher frequencies and resulting overtones are the ones that feed and recharge brain energy. The human voice is rich in these overtones. That is one reason why it is healthy to sing. When people are chanting they are trying to make the harmonics audible in their voice. Creating and being able to listen to these usually inaudible harmonics is representative of causing the outer consciousness to resonate to Divine Presence within.
Chanting is good for our mental and physical health and ultimately, for our spiritual growth. Chanting exercises our intuitive mind which is the half of the brain giving the human ability to appreciate religion and experience spirituality. The mind then experiences a high degree of unification as the rhythmic pattern (rational) part is united with the conceptual (intuitive) part of the brain. The wandering mind is gently brought back to the sound. The mind learns how to move from a scattered state to a focused state.
With the breath chanting requires mental, emotional, and physical functions to engage in and concentrate on a single act. The power of chanting unites body, breath, voice and mind. When we put all of our attention and all of our emotion on one word at a time as we do in chanting, we are learning how to focus our mind. The Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault instructs that, “In Christian chant you have to know and understand the words. You have to accept them into your heart in a very deep way. The words are always primary in Christian chanting.” Focusing the mind on Truth in this way helps us surrender our small “self” and opens us to the Holy Spirit and transformation.
The Taizé community believes that singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Chanting uses just a few words expressing a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing becomes a way of listening to God. To open the gates of trust in God, nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of “heaven’s joy on earth” as Eastern Christians put it and an inner life begins to blossom within us.
The songs also sustain personal prayer. Through them, little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts. Mother Dolores Hart from Regina Laudis Abbey stated, “If we were meant to be silent, then why would God become the Word? If He became the Word, then we have the right to become the song. That tone brought into whatever prayer form is a heart-to-heart call from the individual to God.”
Chanting can be a powerful tool in our yoga practice from a Christian perspective. Many of the benefits of chanting prepare body, breath, mind and heart for entering into centering prayer. Our breath rate and blood pressure lower, the body and mind receives a wash of healing voice overtones, negative emotions are released and the mind is focused and alert. The heart has received Truth and our inner being is seeking unity with God. The outer consciousness is ready to resonate to the Divine Presence within and we move into interior silence.
|Chants from Doorway to Devotion by Jim Reale|
|“Divine Indwelling”||“Requesting His Presence”|
|D E DD||DEC DEC D D|
|In my body||Jesus open my heart|
|D C D||DEC D EC D D|
|In my breath||Jesus come into my heart|
|C C D||DEC D EC D D|
|In my mind||Jesus rest inside my heart|
|E C D|
|In my heart|
Several musical resources for Christian chants can be located on our Audio & Visual Page.
”Lesson Seven: The Hidden Wisdom of Psalmody” – a Beliefnet article on interview with Cynthia Bourgeault ¬on Contemplative Practices. Meditative Singing ¬ from www.Taize.com
“The Spiritual Significance of Music,” by Dr. Pam Blosser, from the pages of Thresholds (Ancient Arts & Sciences website).
“Praying Twice,” a Beliefnet article with Mother Dolores Hart from Regina Laudis Abbey. Chanting, by Robert Gass and Kathleen Brehony
Yoga for Transformation, by Gary Kraftsow.
“Chanting” – www.livingdharmacentre.ca/chanting.html
“Sciencetech Gregorian chanting can reduce blood pressure and stress”
“Chanting as Meditation Practice,” an Internet article from Jay Wilson, member of Nichiren Shu Temple in San Jose, CA.