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Glimpses of heaven

24 March 2017


I LOVE all kinds of liturgical chant: Anglican chant, Taizé chants, Orthodox chant.

Chant is the best medium for singing the psalms; there is a loss when they are paraphrased into metrical verse, however pleasing the combination of words and music may turn out to be (like Crimond and the 23rd Psalm).

My favourite chant for psalms is plainsong with organ accompani­ment. This distances me from purists who hold that plainsong should never be accompanied. They are right in a sense: a monophonic chant has a clarity and purity that cannot be rivalled. But organ accom­p­animent adds something else: a sense of spiritual longing.

I first encountered organ-accompanied psalmody in my gap year, when I taught in a boys’ prep school in Broadstairs. Wednesday was my day off, and, after school lunch, I took the train to Canterbury and went to evensong in the cathed­ral.

The first time, I was disappointed to find no choristers; Wednesday was their day off, too. But then I discovered accompanied plainsong, moving at its own unhurried pace, the voices somehow cradled by the organ, which sometimes led and sometimes followed the alternation of solo and unison voices. To me, this combination produces a mood of something like nostalgia. Yet it is a nostalgia for something that has never actually been experienced.

This mood is, perhaps, close to what St Augustine was expressing in his prayer: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” We come from God, and our destiny is God, and we know a little of God, but not very much. Nevertheless, we recognise what was once described to me by a lapsed Roman Catholic as a “whiff” of God. And, once we have caught that whiff of God, we are permanently unsatisfied: we long for more.

Spiritual yearning like this is not often evoked by the music of public worship. Most four-square hymns set a mood of brisk cheerfulness, as befits their principal purpose of punctuating the liturgy, and allow­ing for processions and collections to take place.

By contrast, modern worship songs are intended to be vehicles of praise — almost sacramental in themselves, conveying the joy of God in the present moment.

Lament is rare, and it is usually an expression of sorrow or sadness, leading back to praise. We close our eyes and raise our hands, and heaven is realised among us.

But perhaps we realise the eschatology too easily; chant in all its forms reminds us that heaven can be only glimpsed at here on earth. We are in pilgrimage, and this world is a wilderness, a veil of tears.

If worship is intended to train us for heaven, then chant is the spiritual exercise that can keep us fo­­cused.

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