1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 (NRSV) 12But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 . . ., encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
There is an ancient story in the Orthodox Christian Tradition concerning a Pilgrim who searches for a deep communion with God, for an understanding of prayer and the spiritual practice of “prayer without ceasing.” In his travels and conversations with people of the church he discovers the writings of the Christian writers where he learns how to let his life be a witness to the teachings of Christ through unceasing prayer. Using the words of the blind beggar Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and timing his breath and steps to the rhythm of the prayer the Pilgrim repeated the prayer without stop as he journeyed from place to place. He found that even when he wasn’t literally speaking the prayer it was playing in the back of his mind and guided him in his actions towards all he me.
The prayer the Pilgrim used is called the “Jesus Prayer” and often used in a form of contemplative prayer called the Breath Prayer. By repeating the Jesus Prayer in a daily prayer practice the mind learns to become still and your being centered in order for the still small word of G-d to be heard and the presence of G-d to be felt. But the pilgrim wasn’t just praying a breath prayer; he was using an ancient form of prayer called chanting.
A chant is defined as a “short, simple series of syllables or words that are sung on/or intoned to the same note or a limited range of notes; A canticle or prayer is sung or intoned in this manner, or to sing or intone to a chant such as chant a prayer. It is the repetitive speaking or singing a single tone, word, or phrase that the one praying uses to open the door into G-ds presence. And, chanting has an eclectic past. It is used by almost every religion in some form or other. The far Eastern Tradition often uses a single tone, pronounced “ohm,” to draw their minds into stillness and into oneness with the universe. Those in the Judaic faith repeat the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” traditionally as they rise in the morning and as they go to bed at night. But it is also used as a prayer chant. Those in the Roman Catholic Faith have many chants which they use to draw their minds into stillness and their hearts into G-ds presence. One type, Gregorian chants, were psalms set to music in which medieval Monks used for the same purpose, creating stillness. I became interested in chanting many years ago when I heard my first Gregorian chant and found the cadence and sound of the notes lifted my heart into a new place that it had never been before. I have been chanting ever since.
In the scripture quoted above from 1 Thessalonians Paul calls us to pray without ceasing. When I was a teenager and heard those words my first thought was that is impossible. After all, I have class work to do, problems to figure out, chores to do, people to talk to, games to play, work to do, you name it and I could find a reason why such a task would be difficult. I’m betting you could add to this list, after all our lives are busy with living. So how on earth can we pray constantly? Well it has taken me a little while, Ok, OK, a long while, to figure that conundrum out. I realized that Paul wasn’t asking us to give up our lives. Rather he was calling us to center our lives in prayer. For me chanting has been the way to accomplish that task.
Now you might be asking how chanting helps me pray unceasingly? A while back I was laid off from my job and I was truly afraid of what could happen if I didn’t find another one. Every evening, following a day of unsuccessful job searching, I took long walks with my dog and tried to come to grips with what was happening to me. The problem was I was the only one talking. In fact I realized I was talking so much that if G-d was there she was never going to get a word in edgewise. One evening a friend invited me to a Taizé service and I rediscovered the peacefulness of singing chants in order to quiet my mind and offer the simple prayer of myself.
My Spiritual Practice of Chanting
So how does chanting help G-d enter, well the steps are pretty easy really. First of all there are really no hard and fast rules. You begin by identifying a word or phrase that draws your attention and has significance for you. This is a trial and error processes so don’t worry if it doesn’t quite fit and you have to change it. You will discover your chants will change over time as your needs change.
To begin a spiritual practice of prayer chanting set aside 15 to 20 minutes in your day and repeat your chant, rhythmically, timing it to your breath or your step as you walk. You may chant out loud or you may do it silently it all depends on where you are and what is happening around you at any given moment. The major thing is to practice it every day. Learning a Spiritual practice means you must do it every day just as if you were learning to play an instrument or play a game, it takes commitment.
You have a wide choice of times to choose when to practice your chants. You may set aside a quiet time as you would for any meditation or you may chant while preparing for you day in the morning or rest at night; waiting and riding public transit; doing dishes, laundry, or other housework. The key is to do it every day. Gradually, just like the ancient Pilgrim, the prayer will begin to “play” in the background of you mind all the time, providing comfort and guidance in all your daily activities.
You may chant using whatever method you are most comfortable with such as a single tone, as those in the Far Eastern traditions do; a single spoken word or phrases, such as the Jesus Prayer; or, and this is my preferred way, a musical chant. Whatever you choose the process is pretty much the same. Musical chants are often short scriptures or spiritual phrases set to a simple tune that is easily remembered and sung. Because I love music, even though I no longer am able to sing well, and I find musical chants the easiest for me to remember and repeat when I am praying. I find that music triggers a sense of stillness the spoken word alone cannot do.
I mentioned my chants change from to time to time and it is because my relationship with G-d changes over time. As my relationship deepens I become more comfortable with certain chants because they draw me deeper into the mystery that is G-d. You will know when that happens and you will also simply know what chants deepen your experience with G-d and other don’t. I have a number of different chants that I am particularly fond of that I use depending on where I am emotionally and spiritually that day. Most often I use scripture passages that have been set to music but occasionally I will use a phrase that means something to me at that time in my chants. Currently one of my favorites is based on Matthew 28:10, 20 “Do not be afraid, I am with you always.” The music is written by Harpist Linda Larkin and the arraignment is by John P. Newell. This chant reminds me I am not alone and I find comfort in it when I am confused and frustrated. I also often use the Taizé chant Ubi Caritas (Live in Charity) written by Jacques Berthier of the founder of the Taizé community. Currently these are very meaningful for me but you may use whatever chant fits your current spiritual journey.
My prayer for you journey is you will find comfort in G-ds presence as you sing words of peace, prayer, love.
Since rediscovering chanting I have discovered the many modern sources for chants, which I find useful in my own search for unceasing prayer. Some of my favorite resources are the “Iona Community” web site, http://iona.org.uk; the “Taizé Community” web site http://www.taize.fr/en ; “John Bell & Wild Resource groups,” http://www.ionabooks.com/books/john-bell-wild-goose-resource-group.html ; and John Phillip Newell’s website “Heartbeat a Journey towards Earths Wellbeing,” http://heartbeatjourney.org .
I have included a YouTube© video of Do Not Be Afraid from the CD Chanting for Peace, Meditative Chants by Linda Larkin, (available on her website http://blog.santafeharps.com ).
Ruth Jewell ©December 31, 2013