I can stand right here where I am and quickly sing a melody that is roughly the same as the first melody cooked up by an anonymous monk in the 7th century. That melody was committed to memory by others around that monk and then transmitted from place to place through constant repetition. It lived further through the generations, passed from old to young, and then again as the young became old and it was passed on again, cascading through time and place, and all long before anyone had thought up a way to write it down.
Then in the 11th century, the means became available to take this series of sounds and put them into paper form, so that the melody could be transmitted from place to place and from generation to generation even if it weren’t heard. The melody took on a new form, a form that made immortalization even more technologically possible.
Then printing came and made the process even easier. For the first time, the entire body of work could be easily reproduced and distributed all over the world.
Five hundred years went by until something even more spectacular happened. The chant took on a new digital form. Once the chant became digits, the limits of physical transmission were entirely overcome. The same chant, again without actually being heard, could be distribute billions and trillions of times unto infinity and never degrade with each passing use. One click to put the chant on digital networks and it enters into a new status of universal reach, capable of serving all of humanity so long as this world exists.
But there was even one more stage in this long evolution. Digital media made it possible to transmit not just the physical music but also a real recording of monks singing the chant. Right now we can hear a version that was sung perhaps back in the 1950s. Every singer is probably dead by now but that one version they sang that one time way back then can be resurrected and live, as alive right now as it was when it was first sung.
We can copy their vocal inflections and their careful interpretations and make them out own, and then turn around and make our own versions, which can be listened to by people 100 years from now. It’s like a time capsule that is never buried but continues to be added to even as it serves the living and the dead.
And to think that it all began with one voice, one person singing one thing some 1,400 years ago.
To enjoy such access is a unique privilege of our generation. This is the music of the Roman Rite. It came of age with the ritual itself as a means of making it more beautiful, more worthy, more compelling, more wonderful as a means of praising God in our public worship.
Why are we attracted by making our own bodies instruments to make this happen in our time? Because in this music we find truth and meaning. This means transcends the lifespans of all all existing things. It is evidence of the capacity of truth to extend beyond one generation, any existing political arrangement, any existing business firm or man-made institution. It is a manifestation of the persistence of the faith in all times and places, its miraculous capacity for outliving every attempt to kill it. It is immutable. It is strong. It is mighty. It gives us a glimpse of eternal truth.
Lately, I’ve been thinking more about this claim that the reason we are drawn to chant is that our deconstructionist age has made us fearful of change. The claim is that we cling to chant as an arbitrary source of stability.
What is meant by this idea of deconstruction? The movement is a 20th century idea. It began with legal studies. The deconstructionists observed that the law does not necessary embed robust truth. It is essentially made up by self-interested politicians. It is the product of interest groups, designed to help them at other’s expense. The law was revealed to be a kind of hoax.
The method of analytics spread to literature. What does a novel mean? The author might have one idea, but we can’t necessarily known what he or she intended. And maybe the author himself or herself was not fully aware aware of its meaning. In any case, we are the readers. We are the interpreters. Our own cultural conditioning heavily influences our own reading, and we cannot escape this. The dominant meaning for us is entirely subjective and it is pointless and fallacious to somehow insist that our subjective meaning be imposed on others.
So it is with language. It is just words and words change. They serve an instrumental value of enabling communication between people. We use them as a way of groping through the dark, working together to find ways to cooperate with each other. The means of words extends from their use only and is never embedded in the words themselves. It is all arbitrary and changing, never fixed. In this way, language too evades any claim to permanent meaning. Meaning is dictated by culture and does not descend from on high.
So too with the interpretation of philosophy, politics, art, theology — really everything. Nothing really means anything in a fundamental sense. Everything is conditioned on society and on our subjective minds. This is why we cannot speak of truth with a capital letter but only what is true for me and what is true for you, and this is forever evolving.
So goes the deconstructionist way of thinking.
Let’s grant that this is entirely correct. None of what we once thought to be true really is. What is left for us to hang on to? What in our universe can be counted on to last and persist and actually embed something valuable in the ultimate sense.
Liturgy is the great exception. It does not exist in time. It extends out of time into eternity. It touches a real outside of time and the material world. It points up and out of time. Through it we receive communication from God and find ourselves transported out of the limits of the physical and into communication to God to give praise. In sense this, and if this is true, the deconstructionist critique of the realm of time cannot touch it. We did not make up liturgy. The liturgy is a gift from all eternity to us.
No matter how much we might decided to accept the deconstructionist idea — and maybe even the more we accept the idea — the more impressive the liturgy truly is. It is the great exception, a means that we have to access truth with a capital T. Within liturgy we are rescued from a world that is otherwise invented, manufactured, and arbitrary.
This is one reason that the liturgical spirit that imagines ourselves to be making the liturgy rather than accepting it is so dangerous. It threatens to reduce liturgy to the status of law, literature, language, and politics. It cannot be so! The liturgy is the one thing in our world that evades the imperfections of all the things we create ourselves.
Now back to the chant. Here is the music of the liturgy, a thing transported through the ages by repeated singing, blessed by God to achieve immortality across all ages and places. It is the musical corollary to the liturgical text and integral to the liturgical action itself. We are not drawn to it out of fear but because we long for things that the permanently true, for sounds that are not arbitrary, for art that points to the Creator of all art.
Yes, the chant was made at some point by one human person but a human person who worked to discover a musical sound of eternity. And when this happened, it became part of the liturgical experience and it took on a new form, blessed and blessed again by its use in the eternal project. We stand here a millenium and half later and sing it in the same way. It is our means of accessing the longest possible human experience in our insatiable desire to find and touch the truth of God.
One simple song can do this when it is part of liturgy. It is not arbitrary. It is a rare and impenetrable well from which our generation can drink something pure and true in a time when everything else seems to be crumbling. This is a true act of love. To sing the chant is to find authenticity and purpose, to be part of something that is not only larger than our own time but larger than time itself.