Chant as a Spiritual Practice

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is titled “Meditative Singing,” instructions on singing, from the website of the Taizé community in France:

“Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly….Nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of ‘heaven’s joy on earth,’ as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.

“These songs also sustain personal prayer…. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts….”

The second reading is from The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, a 1979 book by Starhawk:

“Witchcraft has always been a religion of poetry, not theology. The myths, legends, and teachings are recognized as metaphors for “That-Which-Cannot-Be-Told,” the absolute reality our limited minds can never completely know. The mysteries of the absolute can never be explained-only felt or intuited. Symbols and ritual acts are used to trigger altered states of awareness, in which insights that go beyond words are revealed.

“When we speak of ‘the secrets that cannot be told,’ we do not mean merely that rules prevent us from speaking freely. We mean that the inner knowledge literally cannot be expressed in words. It can only be conveyed by experience, and no one can legislate what insight another person may draw from any given experience. For example, after the ritual described at the opening of this chapter, one woman said, ‘As we were chanting, I felt that we blended together and became one voice; I sensed the oneness of everybody.’ Another woman said, ‘I became aware of how different the chant sounded for each of us, of how unique each person is.’ A man said simply, ‘I felt loved.’ To a Witch, all of these statements are equally true and valid….”

Sermon: “Chant as a Spiritual Practice”

One of the most interesting aspects of being a Unitarian Universalist is that we are not told what kind of spiritual practice we are supposed to do. No one tells us that we should read the Bible regularly, as happens for many Protestants. No one suggests that we light the shabbat candles on Friday evening, as is true for many Jews. No one reminds us to pray salat five times a day, which is the case for many Muslims. No one calls on us to do chant the sutras, something which is true for many Buddhists.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have a prescribed spiritual practice. I believe this is mostly for very pragmatic reasons. We have learned that individuals can be quite different from one another. While we generally feel that having some kind of spiritual practice is a good idea (most of the time), we recognize that what works for one person may not work for another. So we might suggest to one another that we find some kind of spiritual practice, if that’s something we feel the need for. But there are no requirements, no guilt if you don’t need a spiritual practice. (Guilt if you don’t help make the world a better place, maybe, but no guilt around spiritual practices.)

There is one downside to this pragmatic flexibility. If you decide that you’d like to engage in some kind of spiritual practice, sometimes it’s hard to know which one to try. How do we find spiritual practices that work for us?

This is more or less the situation I found myself in back in the 1990s. As a young adult Unitarian Universalist, I had tried and given up on prayer and meditation. I still attended Sunday services when I could, but I had a vague feeling that it would be nice to have something I could do not just on Sundays, but all week long.

It was about this time that I started going to some Unitarian Universalist young adult conferences, and I went to a Unitarian Universalist summer conference for the first time. Back in the 1990s, there were a lot of Unitarian Universalists who were also involved in Neo-paganism and other earth-centered traditions. I met some of these Neo-pagans both at the young adult conferences and at the summer conference, and discovered that they all seemed to repertoire of earth-centered chants and songs. I had never run into chanting before. I liked the simple repetitive feeling of the chants, because they stuck in my memory better. I also liked the meaning of the lyrics — a deep feeling of connection with the non-human world, and with the human world as well. As Starhawk said in the second reading, when I sang these chants with these Neo-pagans, we blended together and became one voice.

Chant lies somewhere between the spoken word and singing, and it has both the power of music and the power of the spoken word. It is deceptively simple, and it can be inspiring and moving. I soon found out that chanting of this type is found in almost every culture around the world. Here, for example, is a chant from Hawai’i…. [At this point, Mike Nakashima sang “Oli Mahalo,” or “Gratitude Chant,” an oli (chant) composed by Kehau Camara]

After listening to, and participating in, various kinds of earth-centered chant, I began to become aware of the existence of other types of chant.

In particular, I kept hearing about something people were calling Taizé. My first direct experience with Taizé song and chant involved one person teaching a simple song, and then leading a group of us as we sang it over and over again. The melodies were a bit more complex than the earth-centered chants I already knew, but it didn’t seem all that interesting. It turns out that Taizé chant is more than just simple melodies that are sung over and over. Most Taizé chants are meant to be sung as rounds, or with four-part harmony. If people can’t sing all the harmony parts, there might be someone like Mary Beth to play those other parts on a piano or other instrument.

I found that, for me, Taizé chants were not as elemental and ecstatic as the earth-centered chants I had heard and sung. But they were deeply meditative. Because they were repeated over and over, it was easier for me to learn one of the harmony parts. And even though it was far more structured than the earth-centered chant, Taizé chant also gave me that same feeling of connection to the people I was singing with.

There are other aspects of Taizé chant that I especially valued. First, while Taizé chants are distinctly Christian, there is a real effort to make them non-sectarian. The Taizé community in France, home of the chants, is a monastic community that welcomes anyone from any Christian denomination. Second, in an era when most Western religious groups seem to ignore young adults, the Taizé community makes a point to especially welcome young adults. Finally, the Taizé community has a distinctly internationalist perspective: an individual Taizé chant might be translated into twenty or more languages. “Nada Te Turbe,” a Taizé chant that we’ve been learning here at First Parish, and that we’ll sing in just a moment, has been translated into twenty-one languages. Thus, Taizé chant is meant to bind together a world that has become divided by religion, by age, and by language. Let’s sing together a Taizé chant that we’ve been singing a lot recently, “Nada Te Turbe.”

The third type of chant that I’d like to introduce to you comes from the Threshold Choir. The Threshold Choir was started by a woman named Kate Munger, who felt a need for a kind of healing music that could be sung to people who were dying. She began teaching others her singing techniques and her repertoire of songs, until now there are many Threshold Choirs. This past July, Kate Munger and the original Threshold Choir honored for their work by being invited to sing in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

About fifteen years ago, I took a workshop with Kate Munger, and learned some of her techniques for singing to people who are dying. She has singers sit around the person who is dying. The singers sing gently and quietly, but with power. Thus the person in the middle of the circle of singers is surrounding with gentle song. When her Threshold Choir groups are practicing, they take turns sitting in the center of the circle so they can experience what it feels like to be sung to. This helps all the singers listen better to one another, and it helps the singers to have great empathy with the people for whom they sing.

Some people have expanded the Threshold Choir concept to include singing to people who are ill or unwell, but not actually dying. My home congregation has such a choir, which they call the By Your Side Singers. My family had direct experience of the By Your Side Signers: in the last year and a half of my father’s life, they would go to his residential facility and sing to him. He was no longer able to talk so I don’t really know what he thought about it, but I liked the fact that someone would come and pay that kind of attention to my dad.

Even though I took a workshop with Kate Munger, I’ve never actually participated in a Threshold Choir myself, nor in one of the healing choirs like the one that sang to my father. But some of the Threshold Choir songs have stuck with me all these years, and I find myself singing them to myself. In the past couple of weeks, with all the turmoil in the world, I find myself singing one of these songs called “In These Times,” a short song I learned from my exposure to the Threshold Choir.

Chant begins as a communal activity: it’s something we do together; it’s something that is done in cultures around the world; it’s something that can bind us to people who are quite unlike ourselves. At the same time, chant can also be an individual practice as well, a kind of meditative singing that — to use the words of the Taizé community — “can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others, or resting.”

This means that chant is one of those spiritual practices that helps build community. Even when you practice it on your own, it is at heart a communal activity. Actually, this is true of any kind of singing — as you probably know, singing in community leads to all kinds of benefits, including relieving stress, boosting your immune response, develops a sense of wellbeing and meaningful connection to others, enhances memory including enhancing memory in dementia patients, helps with grief, calms your heart rate, improves sleep, and on and on.

This, by the way, is the pragmatic reason behind singing hymns in our Sunday services — singing is good for us. But honestly, some of our hymns are difficult to sing. By contrast, because many chants are relatively simple songs they can be learned more easily, even someone with little or no musical ability. At the same time, chant can provide interesting possibilities for skilled musicians: a more skilled singer might be able to sing a harmony part, or add accompaniment with a musical instrument that doesn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the chant.

Whether you’re a skilled musician or someone with no musical ability, the key to participating in chant is learning how to listen. Whether it’s chanting or singing, listen to the people with whom you’re singing or chanting. It is by listening while chanting in a group that the chants stick in your heart and mind; and in that way they can become a part of your everyday spiritual practice. This reveals to us a great religious truth. We can’t just follow a song leader or some other authority figure. We have to actually participate. Participating requires us to listen to those around us. So it is we give voice to what’s in our hearts and minds, and at the same time listening to what others are voicing is in their hearts and minds. This is how community is built: by listening, and by putting yourself out there, both at the same time.