Last weekend, I went with a group of parishioners to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. The monastery is home to a community of Episcopalian monks. (This confuses some people, since the one thing everyone remembers from studying the English Reformation, other than Henry VIII’s inordinate proclivity for marriage, was the dissolution of the monasteries. This did, in fact, happen, but during the 19th century, men and women called to the monastic life founded new monastic communities within the compass of the Anglican tradition, and more are being formed even as we speak.)
The chapel is the center of life at Holy Cross; on an average day, the monks will spend about two and a half hours in there, mostly chanting psalms. This practice is central to Christian monasticism; the earliest monks, back in the 3rd and 4th centuries, used to pray all 150 psalms each day, alone, while performing manual labor. The Holy Cross monks have it comparatively easy: they go through the whole psalter on a two-week schedule, which leaves them with about thirteen or fourteen psalms a day.
The chanting gets into your bones. Most visitors find it challenging at first, but then it creeps up on you: the slow, measured pace; the simple tunes; the blend of those voices.
The blend is the key. To chant psalms well, you need to set aside your ego; no voice, not even a beautiful one, can stand out from the others. Instead, you need to listen to one another with great care: listen for the indrawn breath, for the pace, for the tone, volume, and pitch. That way, your voice can be submerged in the other voices, just as your life is woven into the common life of the community.
That listening is, I think, the best part of it, the part that is of real value. We are so well trained to speak our perspective, but most of us do not know how to listen well. There is a humility in it: setting aside our own concerns, opening ourselves the life of another.
Think about your own life: to whom do you need to listen? Make space to do that this week: your relationship and your very soul will be the stronger for it.
I was not able to find a video or sound clip of the Holy Cross monks chanting, but here is one from SSJE, a different order of Episcopal monks who are based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.