artisanalway


Chancing Chant
December 3, 2011, 4:36 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , , ,

Chanting scripture has changed my prayer life.

Nearly two decades of my work has been about the power of music in its performative mode, yet it always surprises me when music teaches me something new in this mode (by which I mean in its relational, embodied, and multidimensional manner in which insight, unexpectedly, arrives). On the one hand, such things make a scholar feel silly. We, too, get seduced into the shackles of expertise. We lapse into presumption of knowing all about our subject of inquiry that we can forget there’s always more to learn. Especially in what Jean-Luc Marion would call theology, as opposed to theology—apophatic nod to God in the first, cataphatic nod to God in the second. (Yes, I want you to look up those words).

On the other hand, these things give more credence and faith in what we already know, at least if what we’ve written/learned is true. If it’s true, in other words, it will continue to lead into new learnings. And so, in this case, I’m pleased to be surprised once again. My basic argument has been that music will forever extend the boundaries of theological knowledge, theological discipline, precisely because its manner of teaching/learning is performative—primarily relational, embodied in oral-aural form, multidimensional in self and community, so never to be written entirely in stone where it would become simply a fossil. Therefore, if theologically-curious folks are really interested in knowing more about what Spirit is about, they should do so in the performative mode of music. It will confirm and refine any theological knowledge you think you have.

But…what’s all this about, you ask, 2-3 paragraphs in? This is a scholar’s befuddlement, sharing that chanting scripture has altered my prayer life for good.

A bit of backdrop, to set the stage. While attending the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco, I took Sunday morning “off” as Christian Sabbath, identifying a Eucharist service I could attend on the early side of the morning. Two public busses and a bit of a walk later, I found myself in a community of dancing saints—those living and stewarding a liturgy of Word and Sacrament, those ‘written’ or painted on the rotunda of the church building showing ways of loving God in loving neighbor, the world over. It was a blessed morning—though also a bit of a pain the derriere, which I won’t go into—the conclusion of which was being invited into the community’s practice of weekday morning prayer. I received the prayer book, a book of musical liturgical offerings, an anointing of hands & spirit to then be on my way.  It seemed such an extraordinary invitation that I actually accepted it. What a preposterous idea—to pray at 11 a.m. most weekday mornings with a community in whose worship I had been nourished one Sunday morning in November. So be it.

The liturgy is a familiar one, at least for a Presbyterian who had been shaped as a closet-Episcopalian for nearly ten years: opening sentences, opening song, contemplative silence, sung Psalms, silence, canticle, scripture, prayers, closing song, closing sentences and benediction. The Gospel reading comes with attention to the Daily Lectionary, revised standard version (I think we call it). Whatever text for the day now arrives into my e-mail Inbox from www.dailylectionary.org. Convenient, for all kinds of reasons. What is unfamiliar is the chanting.

This community’s worship practice might best be described—granting I only know a glimpse/sensation of it—as ecumenical-intertraditional, Eastern orthodoxy in contemporary voice. Incense was ‘lit’ at the sacristy. Bells open and close times of silence. Vestments—though they presented with a sense of Ti-Die hippiedom—distinguish leaders. Actual ordained clergy are difficult to identify. An open-hearted community of lay leadership this is. The life of the liturgy, as I experienced it, came through what they call “paperless music,” intoned and led singing in which pitch is determined on the spot and everyone really does sing. Those who are obviously musical, in strong voice, and those whose gifting does not seem to include musicality, also in strong voice. Because it is for praise of God, not aesthetic limitation. “Paperless music” places the performative aspect of music, shared, before all else. Just like I have written. Just like I learned in my own journey of theological formation. This community allows its liturgy to be shaped primarily by the performative, by the participation of its Friends.

So weekday mornings has found me in a quiet space with some privacy, entering into this liturgical practice, feeling silly while I sing the opening sentences (both parts), sing the O-Antiphon of the week, sing the Psalms. I’ve even experimented with chanting the Gospel, as invited by the order of worship to do so. You know what I’m learning? The ancient ones of our Christian tradition were on to something mysterious, wise, counter-intuitive to us today.

The liturgy itself invites the leader to sing in telling places. When asking us to pray for our enemies. When inviting us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Places of highest vulnerability, deep woundedness, spiritual resistance. We sing, with shaky voices out of tune, perhaps out of synch with what God really intends. We offer voices into vulnerable space.

Chanting the Psalms has been the most remarkable for me, however. As long as I can remember, I have felt dissonance in reading the Psalms. Sometimes the poetry seemed flattened in the tools (historical-critical, exegetical) I was asked to bring to them. Sometimes the language refused to be flattened and was simply violent, full of lament, raw. Difficult to let in during a devotional period of listening. Following this liturgical practice, I began to realize I’m finally opening to the Psalms as they were intended, perhaps Intended. Songs. To be sung. Companioned by others. And it’s changed how I receive scripture as well.

I’ve increasingly wrestled over the years with how to read my own Scriptures, mostly because they seem so abused, so often, that I hesitate to join my efforts into the abuse. I can only take about 1-2 sentences at a time when most of my communities require whole chunks, pericopes (pah-RICK-oh-peez) we call them, in which historical legitimacy or validity may be argued. I’ve been choking for years on that much Word, eaten that quickly. And the Psalms in particular. They are simply too vivid to read quickly, within liturgy or for my own sustenance.

Except when they are sung, I’m learning. I’ve sung eight days’ worth of Psalms, learning the chant-style of this practice community, and the Psalms are going in. I feel them. I sense them. I don’t understand them but I am nourished by them. Eight days. Only eight days and I found myself weeping this morning, encountering my own scripture for the first time in a long time. It’s like it was an old friend, finally finding the window my soul had been scraping at for years.

So what if chanting scripture is not some Catholic or Orthodox practice we Protestants needed to excise in order to be true to sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratis, but an ancient wisdom with shaping force for spiritual maturity and path to new life? What if the Wisdom of God, playing in the face of the Creator for as long as there’s been Life, comes into embodied form in us when we offer our voices in prayer, praise, and word in this fashion? Is it worth it to you to feel silly, feeling you can’t sing, yet chant Holy Writ until it nourishes you past your mind, your theology, into Wisdom somehow intimately inside you?

I dare you. 🙂 Chanting will change your prayer life, for good.



Spiritual Strength-Training
October 26, 2011, 11:26 am
Filed under: body, life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , ,

The fruits of strength-training demonstrate the integrity and character of the discipline engaged. Such is my current hypothesis, at least, with potential ramifications for how we reflect critically on spiritual strength-training. What are the fruits of your daily life right now? In what emotions, awarenesses, mind-habits are you steeping today? When someone maligns you in speech or action, do you retaliate or worse, begin plans for revenge rooted in a bitterness of the injustice of it all? When you hear of injustice, do you rise up in anger? When a colleague betrays you, how do you navigate the hurt, the pain of it? When a colleague invades your privacy, threatens you in passive-aggressive body-language, how do you respond?

These questions arise because I learned something important this morning at the gym. I have been on an “intentional bodywork” path for about nine months, though I re-discovered ‘contemplative running’ for myself about five years ago. [‘Contemplative’ in this context simply means ‘a quieting pace,’ ‘even an intensely slow one.’ 🙂 ] As a portion of my regular self-care plan and as an academic’s ‘re-learning’ tool, this has meant working with a personal trainer. Original goals were simply re-dress of nutrition habits and stream-lining physical fitness, with particular attention to core-strength. Discovering I actually have core muscles, for instance. I didn’t really think on it until this morning, but even with an intensified fitness regime, I’ve not sustained any injuries of note and I have much deeper awareness of body-sense, sometimes what I call ‘felt-sense’ in all areas of my life. Two dimensions of this awareness beg further attention: 1) strength-training with a guide who knows what she’s doing clarifies the path and allows mutual negotiation of obstacles (internal and external) and 2) strength-training, like everything else, has an integrity and character of its own, known by its fruits.

When I re-discovered a love of running, I established my own fitness goals and challenges in terms of races, each of longer duration than the last. I checked in, from time to time, with someone at the local Y. I lost weight and aligned other habits to my new addiction, running and the adrenalin rush that would come after about mile 2. Life was good, and I was pleased with the fruits of appearance and felt-health. About every 3-4 months, however, there would be an inconvenient injury of some kind—pain in the hip, knee-pain, arch-pain. But “no pain, no gain,” right? So I kept on. Eventually the arch issue made running impossible and I was stymied on how to be in my body anymore. My practices had provided fruits my mind enjoyed tremendously, but my body was also complaining to the point of making practice impossible. I would start a run and at some unexpected moment, a shooting pain would travel up my leg, halting all movement. I began to wonder if there were a different way to learn bodywork, body-movement.

Strength-training with a guide challenged my autonomy, not to mention my pride. Each of us knows best our own body, our own path, right? How could someone else, especially someone known only in a professional sense, know our bodies better or differently than we do? There’s a partial truth there, of course. Each of us has a particular relationship with our own body, what one author calls “the joyous consort” with whom we come into this life. But like other specialized areas of human inquiry and knowledge, bodywork draws its own experts—professional athletes, trainers, sports-medicine specialists, etc. Those whose gifts and graces are awareness and skill-development in physical movement, strength-training, wholistic living from view of or primacy in body. In a very real way, my trainer-friend knows my body’s mechanics better than I ever will. I’ve discovered a great freedom in finding out what she knows and can teach me about how I uniquely move through the world, which muscle groups I can ‘fire’ to accomplish various tasks, how best to strengthen my embodied relationship with the world in which I yearn to contribute. Simply put, however, I’ve not sustained any injuries of note for months. The path continues to unfold, with obstacles negotiated in mutual consultation with a guide who knows about such things.

The insight or awareness this morning: there are learned ways to move, to sustain weight, and then there are the intended or natural ways to move that proffer a sense of flow or weightlessness. Even when I think I’m moving naturally, my guide gently sculpts the movement back into form, healthy biomechanics. And often I can feel the difference, though I didn’t know how to get there on my own. Those involved with Chi-LivingChi-Running or Chi-Walking—speak of this too. When we are children, we learn how to walk and then run well attuned to natural ways of movement, what our body does naturally. Children can run for hours, not only because they are young and have lots of growing energy. They move naturally, without years of confined movement, poor-posture, constrained ways of being determined by societal norms of attractiveness, etc. As adults, we forget how to move in ways natural to our being, in other words. If we become conscious of the difference—which many of us never do, avoiding it for reasons of shame, guilt, apathy, whatever—but if we become conscious of this difference, we can spend years (perhaps) trying to re-learn a natural way of being in our own skins. Re-learning what was intended from the beginning.

This naturally led me toward the integrity and character of the practice of strength-training, asking not only the questions of ‘how’ or discipline of practice but also those of ‘toward what end’? Gyms are full of many of us who yearn to be seen—in fitness, with attractive physique, with desire—but gyms can also be thought of as a playground, a space in which to move like we did when we were kids. There are things to climb, balls to throw, games to play, by oneself or with others. Gyms can be environments of exploration, learning that extends inward and outward, both. So what are the fruits that come into your life from such explorations? Do you feel playful and rooted to the goodness of life when you leave the gym? If not, why not? Or perhaps you play outside instead. After your times of working out, how do you feel?

Ultimately, though, I’m interested here in the potential learnings and fruits for spiritual strength-training. Each of us receives learned ways of spiritual practice, offered to us by our communities of belonging as the ways of being faithful. But are those the way your own spirit yearns to move, to breathe, to connect? What are the fruits of that training? Have you sustained injuries within such training, and if so, ought you to seek a guide who may align your own spirit’s movement with that of Spirit, whose fruits allow healing and minimizing of life-halting injuries? Does your way of practice result in open-hearted fruits of the Spirit, grounding you in a peaceableness and joy, even in the face of communal anxieties and fearfulness? When life wounds you—as it always will, you can’t avoid it—does your training strengthen your spirit to sustain and heal?

If nothing else resonates for you in these musings, I leave you with simply a confession of gratitude for what can be received along a wisdom-way, what we need to remind one another is true: there are Spirit-intended ways we move and breathe and have our being, and sometimes they match our learned ways, but often they do not. Being companioned by a guide who knows spirit-movement can make a big difference in re-learning what was intended to come naturally. So perhaps that person will be a spiritual director, or a prayer-partner, or a coach. Whomever. Pray for him/her to come into your life, and I promise you’ll be surprised who appears. This is also not an ego-command to behave morally or with Methodist perfection. This is a witness to who God is when we step into the river of Spirit intended from the beginning. You don’t try to do any of this…it flows, when the strength-training is true. When we move, breathe, and have our being in this way, this Way, then peaceableness—even joy—meets injury with patience, betrayal with mercy, injustice with gentling fierceness.

I wish that strength-training, with guidance, for you, for each of us, for all of us. As the child of God you are, receive a blessing in the words of one who has become a guide for me:

May it be so for you,

May it be so for me,

May it be so for all of us.

Amen, Amen, and Amen….and a little woman.