Bringing together silence and sound, chant offers a contemplative path that leads us through Advent’s winter shadows. Chants, ancient or contemporary, draw us across a threshold into deeper quiet and give us courage, so that like the shepherds who rose out of fear to peer up at shining angels, we dare to step from familiar dark into unknown light.
Here, Susan J. Latimer, an Episcopal priest and musician, tells us how chant can give us courage, heal us, and help us become more present to the divine through the very resonance of sound in our bodies. May Susan encourage you to sound the rhythm, breath, and vibration of chant, and through it, deepen into a holy Advent.
The Healing Power of Song: Singing and Chanting as Spiritual Practice
by Susan J. Latimer
Human song is an image of the mystery of the Incarnation. Air in a body,
in a throat, pushing the intelligible voice outward in beautiful expression,
is an image of Spirit in the flesh, of divinity joined to humanity.
– Jeremy Driscoll, OSB
This my first response to the pandemic because as long as I can remember, I have been singing. Singing in choirs, singing on horseback, singing with friends. Singing along with popular songs on the radio, weaving harmonies around melodies, singing art song and lieder in recitals. Singing has always brought me joy.
In college at Yale I majored in music and accompanied many singers in recitals as a pianist. I continued studying both voice and piano through a Master’s degree in piano accompaniment at University of Southern California School of Music. For my graduate thesis, I chose to study The Exsultet, that gorgeous 8th century chant that shines out of the candlelit Nave each year at the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter with hope: “Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels …” A few years later while in seminary, I began chanting the psalms, and also discovered Hildegard of Bingen’s extraordinary repertoire of chants from the 12th century. I listened and sang (or attempted to sing!) until they became a part of me.
The one who sings, prays twice.
– St. Augustine of Hippo
My introduction to contemplative sung prayer came from the music of Taizé [i], as is probably true for many of you. Through this monastic community’s beautiful repertoire of chant – simple cycles that people repeat together over and over, surrounded with silence – I learned how to let song become a prayer of my heart. Taizé prayer soon became my favorite way to pray, and I brought their liturgies to each parish where I served as a priest through the years – Atlanta, Maine, West Virginia, Tampa, and Southern California. I learned that everyone is able to sing these chants, and that no musical training is necessary for one to sink into the depths of contemplative sung prayer.
Music is the best medium for awakening the soul; there is nothing better. Music is the shortest, the most direct way to God; but one must know what music is and how to use it. . . . The whole of life in all its aspects is one single music; and the real spiritual attainment is to tune one’s self to the harmony of this perfect music.
– Hazarat Inayat Khan
When I attended my first Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault in 2015, I found a whole new body of sacred chant – that of Darlene Franz, whose many compositions are used widely in the Wisdom community. There I was introduced to Gurdjieff’s Three-centered Awareness and found that chant played an important part in bringing the centers into balance. Through the resonance of melody and words, I have experienced chant opening up my heart. Breath, tone, and felt vibrations in my being get my moving center to come on line. Chanting has become, for me, the best way to awaken the emotional and moving centers, balancing them with the intellectual center, which so often dominates. Chanting, I have found, can bring me into presence.
I know in my cells that prayer permeates a sick body, makes it shimmer as the new life comes in, making the cells remember how to respond to the harmonic whole. Music is like prayer, a mystical bridge between heaven and earth. I guess all art, all genuine religions are born of the subtle body that is the connector between divine and human.
– Marion Woodman, Bone
In the Advent season of 2016, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. I knew instinctively that music needed to be a part of my “treatment” – that music and specifically, sacred chant, needed to surround and permeate my four months of chemo, my double mastectomy with lymph node removal, and my 33 radiation treatments. And so I chanted. Before each chemo session, I chanted All Shall be Well. When Darlene’s recording of Wisdom School chants was released in the spring of 2017, that 40 minutes of sacred song became my daily morning practice. And so I continued to chant. I would chant along when I could, and would walk around our house as I chanted. When I could not chant, as in the actual chemo and radiation sessions, I listened to sacred chant and sacred music, or simply heard them in my inner being.
When you hear certain sounds, you are irrigating your body and soul
with certain structures and patterns.
– Therese Schroeder-ShekerI have no doubt that I am a survivor of breast cancer, and one who is still singing, at least in part because of the practice of sacred chant. I was blessed later that year to study a little with Therese Schroeder-Sheker, founder of The Chalice of Repose.[ii] Therese brought into our time an ancient Cistercian practice of using music for healing; she developed the healing art of music, through voice and harp, as a way to care for people in chronic pain or in Transitus, the dying process.
I was a student in the organization’s contemplative musicianship program for a time. When Therese heard my singing voice after cancer treatment, she expressed wonder and surprise that my vocal chords did not seem to have suffered any damage. She told me that in her experience, someone with the level of chemo and radiation that I had received, would have surely suffered vocal damage. I believe that because I was “irrigating my body and soul” with sacred music, as she says, somehow my ability to sing was preserved.Back to March of 2020: I knew from my own experience how healing the practice of chant is, and I could see that all of us were going to need help in navigating the pandemic. I hoped to make a difference and offer what I know by leading regular 30-minute chant sessions online. Soon my dear friend Elizabeth Combs joined me in the task, and for 3 ½ years she and I offered a weekly chanting session through Wisdom Waypoints.[iii] Our online practice continues, now with the addition of several new chant leaders. Over and over, participants have told us how, even on Zoom, the practice of chanting in a group centers, energizes, and calms them. Over and over, they end the session with a bodily feeling of peace, hope, love.
Cynthia Bourgeault says that there are so many things that our mind alone cannot believe, but our moving center knows. When I chant All Shall be Well, I believe it – and I know it – in my bones.
Susan J. Latimer
Susan J. Latimer was born and raised in North San Diego County, California, with a love of music and the ocean. She has a BA (Yale) and MA (U of S. California) in Music, and an MDiv from The Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1992, she has focused on contemplative practices and spiritual formation in her work in parishes. She is also a professed member of The Order of the Ascension, a religious order within the Episcopal church.
Paula Pryce edits the blog series for The Contemplative Society. If you have an idea you would like to share in a blog, contact her through this website.
[iii] You may join Susan Latimer and other leaders in the practice of chant on Wednesdays at 5pm ET (2pm PT) on the Wisdom Waypoints website. See Contemplative Chant – Online and Ongoing – Wisdom Waypoints