I would emphasize today this essential point: that the expression of community prayer in choir has to be rooted in our personal prayer. The external performance of monastic chant, if it is empty of spiritual devotion on the part of the monks and nuns offering it, is quite meaningless. That is obvious.
You remember St. Benedict’s frequently quoted words: We must always remember what the prophet says…”sing praise wisely”…Let us consider then how we behave in the presence of God and his angels and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices (RB, Chapter 19). We know this and we all strive to be faithful to “singing wisely” but the flesh is weak and the mind is flighty. The only way we can achieve any proficiency in our choral singing is if we have a firm prayer life. As St. Benedict says at the beginning of his chapter On the Discipline of Psalmody, referred to above, We believe that the divine presence is everywhere…we should believe this to be especially true when we participate in the Divine Office… It is a good reminder to us. Not essentially the quality of the music or the ability of the singers or the arrangement of the psalms and readings–all those are valuable and we should do our best. But what is essential is the prayerful devotion of each one participating and the unity of all the members together.
How to foster and deepen this devotion? Since today is the feast of St. John Chrysostom, it is convenient to offer his words of instruction. Before John was ever a priest or Patriarch of Constantinople, he was first a monk in Antioch. Friday after Ash Wednesday we often hear this teaching of his as a Second Nocturn Reading at Vigils:
Prayer and converse with God is a supreme good: it is a partnership and union with God. As the eyes of the body are enlightened when they see light, so our spirit, when it is intent on God, is illumined by his infinite light. I do not mean the prayer of outward observance but prayer from the heart, not confined to fixed times or periods but continuous throughout the day and night. Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God, not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.
Prayer is the light of the spirit, true knowledge of God, mediating between God and humanity. The spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness; like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. It seeks the satisfaction of its own desires and receives gifts outweighing the whole world of nature. Prayer stands before God as an honored ambassador. It gives joy to the spirit, peace to the heart. I speak of prayer, not words. It is the longing for God, love too deep for words, a gift not given by human beings but by God’s grace. The apostle Paul says: We do not know how to pray but the Spirit himself pleads for us with inexpressible longing. When the Lord gives this kind of prayer to a person, he gives us riches that cannot be taken away, heavenly food that satisfies the spirit. One who tastes this food is set on fire with an eternal longing for the Lord: God’s spirit burns as in a fire of the utmost intensity…
If we bring a heart full of prayer to the Divine Office, then we will truly be the voice of Christ praying in worship and intercession for all the Church and the human family. This is what the Lord intends for us.
From Abbot Robert’s Chapter Talk, 13 September, 2015