Considering the time we spend in our cars, there must be nothing wrong with a decent sound system, especially if this gift of modern technology can be used to counter the stress of the modern commute—the inevitable impatience, the tiresome finger tapping, and sometimes the snarling of the inner beast, cornered as he is by the threat of modern life.
Music may be the “food of love” but it is also medicine for the troubled heart, balm for the wounded soul, and a source of calm in the midst of the storm. Remember angry and anxious King Saul who was calmed by the music of David’s harp. If the psalm can calm, then the best calm and balm must be Gregorian chant.
In June, I was blessed to visit Italy for a week. As we made our way from the rough and tumble of Rome down the winding roads of Umbria, the peace of the Italian countryside began to sink in. We were headed to Norcia to visit a former student who is a novice at the newly re-established monastery there. The birthplace of St. Benedict is an ancient walled city set in the rolling hills of a national park. Led by Dom Cassian Folsom, the monks have restored buildings, established a brewery and gift shop and have now recorded an award winning CD of Gregorian chant.
Since the second Vatican Council, the Benedictine order has been no stranger to the decline in religious life. Once thriving abbeys operate now with a “skeleton crew” of a few aging monks. Others have closed, merged, and sent their few remaining monks to other abbeys or out to work as diocesan priests. The decline has been severe, but there is a tenacity to the monastic way of life. Through revolution, persecution, and decline monasteries are destroyed or die out, but given time they always seem to bounce back. As one monk said to me with a smile, “We’re like weeds. We come back.”
The Benedictine monk makes a vow of both stability and conversion of life, and it is this combination of permanence and freshness that echoes through the timeless Gregorian chant. The monks of Norcia are as old as the hills, but they are young and energetic. The Benedictine life they have re-established is traditional and austere, but there is a joie de vivre and esprit de corps that enlivens all they do. Where many monasteries have reduced the number of worship services, the monks of Norcia maintain the original eight offices a day. To listen to their Gregorian chant is to send your roots rain. Here is beauty that is “ever ancient ever new.”
We were only able to be with the monks of Norcia for a brief overnight visit, but even in that time we were refreshed and renewed. My traveling companion marveled, “I have a bad back, arthritis, and digestive complaints, but during my stay in Norcia I was pain free. It was like I was being healed!” To get a glimpse of the beauty and peace of their life take a moment to view this short film.
The monastic life is good for you—even in small doses, and to listen to the monks while you drive not only alleviates road rage, but also it clears your mind, helps put things in perspective, and clarifies your thoughts and feelings. You may not be able to literally understand the Latin texts, but you know they are singing the psalms. You know they are praising God. You know they are orienting their whole lives to the Lord and if you open your heart and mind as you open your ears, you worship with them and the truth, beauty, and goodness soaks in with its calming and healing effect.
The monks’ CD is not only a cure for road rage, but also it provides an unexpected avenue for effective evangelization. The world is listening, and the world is desperate for the spiritual fervor and faith that Gregorian chant represents. Since the CD’s launch, the monks have enjoyed five weeks being in the top place on Billboard’s Classical Traditional list. All About Jazz praised the Monks’ “music of simplicity and warmth,” while the International Review of Music reported that their singing “seems to echo down the ages…beauty so rich and full is not to be discounted.”
However, every silver lining has a cloud, and the problem with listening to Gregorian chant from Norcia in your car is that you can become too calm and cool—even to the extent of becoming zoned out. I was so laid back the other day that I wasn’t paying close enough attention and nearly pulled out in front of an eighteen wheeler that was barreling along the highway.
The monks’ chanting might be a little echo of heaven. I advise you to keep it no more than an echo.
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