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Magazin für Theologie und Ästhetik

Forms of God

Meditation, liturgy and Gregorian chant in religious youthwork

Ton Zondervan

1. Introduction

'Movement', both in a literal and a metaphorical sense, is the most typical feature of our late-modern Western culture. Moreover, through secularization and 'unchurching' many young people are unfamiliar with churches and other sites of silence and contemplation. It is therefore not that astonishing that many young people are interested in visiting monasteries, in meditation and sacred music. I have worked for a Dominican monastery in The Netherlands for three years. I organized several weekends for students on Gregorian chant, give workshops on introduction to meditation and take the young people that visit us to the choral prayer. In this article I reflect on my experiences in this work with secularized and mostly unchurched young people, combining aesthetic and practical theological perspectives. I will argue that meditation and visits to monasteries can have an important initiating function into the religious sphere, that is fundamental for further religious development of young people..

2. Youthwork in a monastery

Several years ago the CD of the monastery of Silos was a big hit. Pop groups like Ennya flirted with Gregorian chant and their music became very popular amongst young people. Apparently Gregorian chant touched upon a string. This fascinated me and I decided to investigate this phenomenon by organizing two weekends for students on Gregorian chant, together with the conductor of the Gregorian choir of which I am a member. We choose to introduce the students to a small liturgical form: the completes of St. Willibrord.[1] The participants, all between 18 and 25 years of age, did not have much experience with singing. And since they were not very familiar with music history, we started the weekend with a workshop on this topic. With music samples we illustrated how Gregorian chant forms an important part of the roots of Western music history. Thereafter they were introduced to the foundation of choral prayer: psalm chant, which turned out to be a very good voice training as well. We also introduced them to basic liturgical forms, to make them aware of the liturgical character of Gregorian chant. For example, we rehearsed the entry into the church in procession, bowing for the cross et cetera. Finally, we finished the weekend by singing the completes in the beautiful church of the monastery. It is impossible to convey on paper everything that happened in all these activities. I will not easily forget the giggling with the first rehearsal of the procession, the false tones that were produced on the first attempts of chant and the heat of the discussions we had during the evenings.

The enumeration of activities in the previous paragraph is basically a description of the foundation of liturgical education of young people. Participating in a form in which text and music merge in a beautiful unity engendered experiences of 'silencing' that left behind deep impressions. For a number of the participants it remained undoubtfully an exotic experience that remained distant from their normal lives. However, one of the students was so impressed that she asked our choir to sing Gregorian chant in her wedding service a year later.

For the young people that visit our monastery it is a great experience to begin their day with a laud (choral prayer) and, later on during the day, get an introduction to meditation. They experience also how beneficial it is to stay in a place where silence is organically built into daily life. They get in touch with new dimensions of themselves, of their contacts with other people and of life in general. Usually they are intuitively aware of the existence of these dimensions, but hardly explore them because their lives are so loaded with action. They also discover that liturgy is a way of organizing this kind of contemplative activities.

What can we learn from all this from with an eye to contemporary religious education?

3. Resting points in a culture of movement

Secularization and unchurching are cultural phenomena that have an enormous impact. For many people religious concepts have lost their power to a great extent. If, under those circumstances, we want to reflect on religious experience, we must, metaphorically speaking, dig one layer deeper than that of content, namely to the level of the form of (religious) experience. Therefore, my approach to liturgy and meditation in this article is primarily aesthetical. I consider liturgy a space where we get into touch with the basic forms of religious experience. The term 'space' has multiple meaning here. In first instance, I think of an 'inner or mental space', but I add immediately that this space cannot be separated from the concrete space where one participates in liturgical forms. I don't want to approach religious experience merely from a psychological perspective. What I have in mind here primarily, is the idea of making space for 'silencing', in a culture that wants to keep everything in movement. Meditation is a good exercise in constructing such 'inner spaces'. I consider meditation an important possibility for putting people on the track of liturgical forms in our culture. Introducing people to meditation helps creating important preconditions for the process of liturgical and religious education.

Meditation leads into an inner space and is also an exercise in dwelling in that space for some time. This can be already difficult enough, because turning to our inner spaces we usually discover a lot of unrest there. Therefore, meditation requires exercise and discipline. It is much easier to indulge in the many impulses that our culture provides for and thus deafen that inner restlessness. However, meditation is not a way of abiding inertly in an inner space. The paradoxical thing about meditation is that by surrendering to silence, so by doing nothing, precisely many things take place. It makes us aware of how we are influenced by what goes on inside and outside of us. The most essential feature of meditation is that it is ordering. That explains for the great attraction it has in our culture of chaotic movement.

In meditation one follows instructions concerning physical attitude, breathing and the way one deal with one's consciousness. Many of these basic principles can be found in liturgy as well. Therefore liturgy as a form can be just as 'silencing' as meditation. It also orders and helps us in mediating between our environment and deeper layers of our inner life. Unfortunately, that does not go for all liturgy, because in many churches the liturgical forms have lost their power. And where powerful liturgical forms (such as Latin liturgy) are being preserved, they are highly inaccessible to young people who are not familiar with the church. I surmise that Taizé is so popular amongst young people, because that community has succeeded in creating liturgical forms that are both powerful and accessible. Moreover, their liturgy is embedded in group activities that focus on exchange and establishing interpersonal connections, which is a good basis for celebrating liturgy.

That brings me back to our weekends on Gregorian chant. On those occassions we also strived to make Gregorian chant and Latin liturgy more accessible, by choosing a rather simple liturgical form (completes). We also attended the choral prayer in the monastery, which is accessible to to secularized young people as well, because of its character. There are two prayer services per day, instead of seven like in most contemplative monasteries. This limited amount of services prevents a 'liturgical overdose'. The prayer consists of a rather simple hymn, two psalms, a Scripture reading, five minutes of silence, a psalm of praise and concluding prayers, all in Dutch. However, this accessibility is not a sufficient condition to convince young people to participate in monastic liturgy. Let me give an example. In the second weekend we organized it took us much effort to persuade the participants, mainly academically educated younger members of a liberal-christian youth church, to first 'expose' themselves to our program for a day. Right away the first evening they wanted to discuss about their objections against the catholic church and its liturgy. They agreed with our proposal, but on the condition that we allowed them to have their own liturgical closing service of the weekend, after the concluding completes. It was evident that this concession was necessary to counter their ambivalencies toward the program and the (catholic) setting. However, after we had sung the completes in the church of the monastery to close our weekend we noticed that our proposal had worked out. The young people were very impressed by their participation in this liturgical form and uttered, somewhat taken aback, that their own closing service 'would come a day after the fair'.

What do we actually do, when we put young people in touch with (this form of) monastic liturgy, Gregorian chant and meditation in an aesthetical way that appeals to their experience? Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as the 'disinterested enjoyment of the soul'. That quality has made aesthetics into a distrusted realm for theologians. For stressing the lustful always implies the idolatrous danger of a self-aggrandizement that leads away from God. Do we step into this pitfall with the activities described above?

4. Aesthetics as a way to God

This question leads us to debates on the function of music and the role of music in liturgy that have been going on for many centuries. The relation between music and the sacred is far from harmonious. Viladesau (2000) describes how in its history Christianity conjured, in various guises, the danger that music as aesthetical form dominates over the religious content of preaching.[2] Christendom has always been a prophetic religion, that urged its adherents through the preaching of the word to not become 'similar to the world'. Mystical experience has always been considered as diverting from this prophetic task. Through the history of theology several modes of thought can be discerned that take this tension into consideration, all of which converge in the same pragmatic solution. Music is allowed, but it must be subjected to the prophetic preaching of the word.

Thus, my aesthetic method of liturgical education, focussing on form instead of content, seems to put me at odds with theological tradition. However, I can invoke Aquinas to argue the contrary. He maintains that even when vocal music does not serve the preaching of the Word directly, it can perform a legitimate function in mediating an inclination towards God. But how does music invoke this inclination? Again, Viladesau can guide us here. Searching for an answer to this question, he refers to classical and medieval philosophical and theological thinkers that made great effort to illuminate this problem.[3] For us the most relevant thing here is his drawing on the neo-platonic idea that the experience of beauty is a revelation of God. This experience is a form of enjoyment that springs from the joyful experience of 'form'. This form is the organizing principle of things and of our knowledge of them. Form corresponds to the search of our intellect for understanding. In this sense form is the key to existence itself. The enjoyment of forms, of that which enables existence, is the implicit affirmation of the goodness and joy of being itself. This affirmation can only take place in an intelligent and free human being, that considers existence as valuable and attributes an ultimate purpose to being. Thus the aesthetic experience of reality ultimately refers to a an order of existence in which absolute value and meaning inhere. Finally, the experience of finite beauty always implies, be it unconsciously, the affirmation of infinite beauty. In the Christian tradition we call this infinite beauty 'God'.

All of this may sound beautifully, but can it be affirmed by late modern people living in a highly secularized culture? I'd like to refer at this point to Peter Sloterdijk's typification of our era, that underscores the importance of forms. He thinks that the secularization of our culture eventually leads to an experience of the world as a 'hyper-immanent space'. Typical for modern thinking is that it turns the world (saeculum) into something absolute. At the same time it eliminates the two major forms of thought of classical metaphysics, 'God' and 'soul'. Thus the classical triangle of God, world and soul falls apart, says Sloterdijk. Everything that was previously known under the aspect of God and/or the soul is now considered as 'secular'. That makes all reality into an immanent phenomenon. Sloterdijk uses the image of a world that coils into a clew in which all distinctions are muffled. Thus, 'the all encompassing world-block evolves into an ontological monstrosity with a form that can hardly be grasped.'[4]

Sloterdijk points at the precarious condition of late modern people that face the task of creating a religious outlook on life. All classical, given forms with which pre-modern men distinghuised and experienced order in reality are gradually becoming obsolete to many people. My point here is that those forms mediated experiences of unity and beauty. In medieval philosophy the so-called transcendentalia, the good, beautiful and true, eventually always referred to God. The world was considered a created cosmos with an innate order. That idea seems to be disappearing totally. For modern people, the world has become a hyper-immanent space. Therefore we have to provide for our existential anchoring ourselves. Not God is the foundation of human existence, but man him/herself. By making the secular absolute, the transcendent has become problematic. I think that Viladesau neglects the impact of this cultural development. We cannot draw a continuous line from the aesthetical experience of form to God anymore in the classical way.

However, Viladesau's theory also corrects Sloterdijk at a very important point. For Sloterdijk extrapolates the secularizing tendencies of modern culture rather one-sidedly. Like Viladesau I contend that every human being needs meaningfulness to be able to live. This meaningfulness comes about in the process of bringing a certain order in the chaotic experiences of everyday life. If there is one thing that we became aware of in modernity, it is the complexity of existence and the limits of our grasp and control of it. There always remains a surplus of things that are beyond our control, to which we must relate. That is pre-eminently the domain of religion. I assume that gradually there will come more space for transcendental forms, because purely inner-worldly forms are not sufficient to create human worlds, as phenomenologists like Eliade taught us. Therefore, I consider the idea of the world as a 'hyper-immanent space' as a purely theoretical option. New ways towards God must be found in the tension field between these two positions.

Modernity goes along with secularization, unchurching and de-traditionalizing, especially amongst young people. Reflecting from a practical-theological perspective on religious youthwork, our starting point should be that most of them are highly unfamiliar with religious contents. I think that Gregorian chant and (certain forms of) liturgy are attractive to young people because they experience, be it just intuitively, how these forms are ordering and mediate between the secular and the sacred. Gregorian chant as a musical form has its specific aesthetical efficacy which conveys an experience of 'silencing', ordering and unity to the listener. This gives young people a certain grasp of the idea of the specific 'space' of the sacred. A space that can be entered only after becoming silent and after concentration. When prepared well enough in a good program, they grasp that this experience is relevant for their own lives. Therefore, I think it can be considered a prophetic task to bring young people in touch with Christian forms of transcendence through Gregorian chant and monastic liturgy. The classical position that considers the preaching of the Word as a prophetic task must be corrected and enriched by our aesthetic insights and experiences.

Religious music and religious experience

That brings us to the basic question of my article: how does the experience of religious music like Gregorian chant convey experiences of transcendence? In line with my aesthical approach in this article, we must primarily take into consideration the 'preconditioning function' of religious music. In a culture dominated by movement, the first thing that must be done is to create spaces for religious contemplation. I'd like to follow Jeremy Begbie's analyses of the music of Taverner and Messiaen at this point.[5] Begbie argues that Taverner's and Messiaen's music are attractive to many late-modern people because it differs radically from early-modern classical art music. Central to the latter is that it generates musical tension and relaxation by means of rhythm, volume, tone and melody. Begbie thinks that Messiaen and Taverner belong to a tradition of composers that 'spatialize time' in their music in new ways. He refers to Rochberg's description of this new musical aesthetic, who argues that early-modern classical art music generates dynamical forms that create progression in their musical discours along a linear approach. The newer tradition 'generates forms in which spatial projection, freed from the dynamism of rhythmic periodicity, occurs in unpredictable patterns, occupying a time structure which stands outside the propulsive influence of the beat and metric puls. An essentially static structure is the end result (...).'[6] According to Begbie, Tavener would be the most extreme example of modern composers that make music so abstract that it is reduced to its essence and thus becomes a 'window to God'. That makes understandable why Taverner himself describes his music as 'iconic music'.

Taverner's view on music is disputed in musicological circles for its musical historical analysis, but the crucial point for my argument is its cultural relevance. Taverner belongs to a counter-tradition in a culture that is dominated by movement. Therefore I think that the aesthetic analysis of the previous paragraph can be used to evaluate the method in the youth activities I describe above. The participants were impressed by the (relatively simple) Gregorian chant and monastic liturgy, because it has a totally different aesthetic than the music they usually listen to. It offers a 'kind of musical de-compression, an 'aural' space amidst a temporally compressed culture, a stable place, in which we are not shoved and driven from 'here' to 'there'. And in a society overloaded with multiple and contradictory communication systems and messages, [it] provides a simple space - unified and relatively undifferentiated.'[7]

However, religious music does more than merely precondition transcendental experience. Much more takes place in the space it creates. Viladesau describes music as 'tonal analogy of emotional life', that symbolizes in a direct way certain fundamental emotions such as joy, hate and desire.[8] The musical forms raise these feelings, that on their turn call up contents or situations brought about by these feelings. Therefore music not merely enchants the senses, but also appeals to the heart and the intellect. For example, through its structure, Bach's music can call up an experience that equals a logical or mathematical exercise. Does that imply that religious music invokes religious moods or experiences, as Rudolf Otto maintains? Then religious music would be an analogy of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans which Otto indicated as the object of religious experience. Viladesau is right by pointing out that Otto's theory of analogy presupposes a religious consciousness. The mysterium tremendum et fascinans can only call up religious experience in a person that recognizes it as such. That triggers the question to the origin of this religious consciousness. Viladesau chooses for Plato's answer to that, who said that religious forms themselves mediate religious experience. God reveals Him/Herself ín beauty, truth and goodness.[9]

Now we can elaborate our interpretation of the impact of Gregorian chant and monastic liturgy on young, secularized people. In the previous section I already mentioned the ordering function of it. I adhere to a platonic idea of the inherent power of these religious forms. Even when the youngsters are unacquainted with religion, these forms mediate an experience of the transcendent, or at least a hint of it. Their aesthetic power creates an inner space in the participant/listener, which is more than an enchantment of the senses. Heart and head are also involved. The reflection thus raised has a different quality than their reflection outside liturgical forms. Now their reflection is also related to the transcendent or sacred, which inserts a new dimension. That can be the beginning of a religious outlook on life.

Like Taverner's music, this really is a counter-cultural idea. The cultural ideal of autonomous man who must be the foundation of his own life is ever more expressed in the daily lives of young people. For example, in the higher grades of secondary schools pupils are to learn to watch over their own learning process, as a precocious manager. For many of them this responsibility is far to heavy, which leads to great stress. There is also a great stress on stimulating cognitive development, even in the religious education. These educational ideals, aimed on acquiring individual autonomy, stimulates only a limited number of their mental and spiritual capacities. In the liturgical forms and meditation they participate in when staying with us, many young people experience exactly the opposite of the ideal of autonomy. Liturgy expresses a religious outlook on life, in which surrender to and faith in the divine foundation of life are central notions. The youngsters recognize this difference, but lack the tools to name it and to reflect on it. For an increasing number of young people an intensive introduction to liturgy and meditation in a weekend in a monastery is a first step in this process.

5. Concluding remarks

In this article I tried to demonstrate the importance of aesthetical theory for a practical theological reflection on religious youthwork that aims at taking the present cultural situation into consideration. It explains why so many, and ever more, young people want to visit monasteries and want to meditate. It helps in explaing how during such visits young people get in touch with religion and transcendence, and what it means for their personal development. It also offers a critical perspective from which developments in educational programs can be evaluated.[10]

Another point I touched upon is the liturgical poverty in many churches. My aesthetical approach explains the immense popularity of Taizé and why many of these same youngsters don't go to traditional churches anymore. It uncovers that in those churches aesthetical and religious experience are considered to be of secondary importance (as in many protestant churches), or that much liturgy has become inaccessible or meaningless (as in many catholic churches). I think it is surprising to many people that my experiences with Gregorian chant and monastic liturgy in youthwork lead to such criticism. Old religious forms, considered obsolete by many, turn out to be very useful to renew religious education and to rethink the function of worship in late-modern culture.

My experiences in religious youthwork underscore the importance of aesthetic theory for theology. Since ten to fifteen years theological interest in aesthetics is growing. I think that this may help us further in getting a deeper understanding of what secularization implies and how to relate to it. Generally speaking I think it helps us in recognizing the new guises of the religious and transcendent in late-modernity.

At the same time I must counter-balance my focus on form. Form and content can be distinguished, but not separated. I do think that the classical idea that the preaching of the Word is a prophetic task must be corrected and enriched by our aesthetic insights and experiences. But I add that new forms of religious experience thus engendered can lead to new interpretations of the Word. That could be an important aspect of tradition in our time. And I am traditional enough to admit that I doubt that we are facing a fundamentally new task. Probably Christianity has faced comparable problems before, since it has had to adapt to fundamental cultural shifts more than once. Therefore a plea for attention to aesthetical theory and religious forms, also leads to the point of the importance of historical study and knowledge of our traditions.

  1. The completes are the last prayer of the day in the monastic choral prayer.
  2. Cf. R. Viladesau, Theology and the Arts. Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric, New York/Mahwah, N.J., Paulist Press 2000, 29-33.
  3. Ibidem, 34-46.
  4. P. Sloterdijk, Kansen in de Gevarenzone. Kanttekeningen in de variatie in spiritualiteit na de secularisatie, Kampen, Agora 2001, 30. (Transl. TZ.)
  5. Cf. J.S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, especially chapter 5.
  6. G. Rochberg, 'The Concepts of Musical Time and Space', in: The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth-Century Music, Ann-Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1984, p. 117, cited in: Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, 142.
  7. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, 144.
  8. Cf. Viladesau, Theology and the Arts, 39-41.
  9. Ibidem.
  10. The fluidity and mobility of late-modern culture invoke many aesthetical questions. My references to the theological aesthetical tradition were necessarily brief. A very good introduction to this topic is: C. Pickstock, Soul, city and cosmos after Augustine, in: Radical Orthodoxy, John Milbank (ed.) et al., London, Routledge 2001 (1999), 243-277.

© Ton Zondervan 2004
Magazin für Theologie und Ästhetik 27/2004