The missing voices of Western chant

The universal music of holiness is chant. Nearly every religious system utilises chant in some form, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Daoist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.

For most of these, chant is inseparable from religious practice. Yet for Christianity in the West, chant has been largely rejected or forgotten for a number of historical and cultural reasons.

Why chant?

Chant comes from the Latin cantare meaning “to sing”, and entered the English language via its French derivative, suggesting it may be another relic of the Norman conquest whereby Anglo-Saxon words came to coexist alongside the French vocabulary of the new ruling class.

What the various forms of religious chant have in common is their superfluity. That is, they exhibit excess in duration, or repetition, or tone.

Excess in duration refers to two things: firstly, chants tend to be long in their entirety. Secondly, chants tend to stretch each word, or specific words, far beyond their spoken length. The result is that a simple prayer can, either by repetition or by stretching of each word, last for minutes rather than seconds.

Why repeat the same words over and over? As a Russian Orthodox friend once observed, her church will never say something once when it can be said three times. Likewise a popular Sufi chant “Allahu” repeats that single word several hundred times.

The rationale for repetition is simple: we repeat things because they are important, because we seek familiarity with them, because we do not wish to forget them, and ultimately because once is not enough.

We also stretch and extend and expand something when we wish to emphasise its importance. When we want to reinforce a point with a child: we repeat ourselves slowly and clearly. When it comes to religious chant, we ourselves are the child, and we want to reinforce the religious message of the chant.

Repetition and expansion of a word alters our experience and comprehension of it. We begin to see the word in a new light, to hear and understand it differently. We experience the word from multiple angles and so our experience of it is enriched.

At the same time this expansion of the word can make it seem less solid, less substantial. Have you ever repeated a word so many times you forget how to say it, or you suddenly realise how strange the word is, that you usually take it for granted or gloss over it quickly? In Australia as children we play this game with the word “caterpillar”. Say it over and over and you discover what a strange word it is. You may find yourself thinking of caterpillars with renewed appreciation.

In a religious context this testing of our usual relationship with language is much more significant. Reams of theoretical and practical spiritual guidance have been written on the subject of language and the divine, as exponents of the various religions have grappled with the holiness of specific words on the one hand (such as names for God that should never be written or spoken) and on the other hand the complete failure of language to capture or describe the divine. As the Daodejing states: “I know not its name, so style it ‘the way’.”

Or in a Thomistic mode:

“We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures; and thus the names imposed by us signify Him in that manner only.”

The one and the many

The most basic chants consist of only one or two tones, but even the most complex chants typically return to a single dominant tone. Within this dominant tone, changes in tone often occur within a single word and a single syllable – not only extending the duration of the word, but also breaking it up and obscuring its meaning.

Known as melismata, these groups of notes sung to a single syllable of text contrast with the dominant tone. Together they represent the tension between unity and multiplicity, the one and the many, a consistent and central theme of these religious traditions.

God, the divine, is a transcendent unity obscured in ordinary human life by the multiplicity of the created world. As the famous Sufi musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang in his version of “Allahu”:

“Everything begins with you,

Everything ends with you…

Each branch sings of your creation

Each leaf is your being manifest”

The monotony of chant is important because it reinforces this sense of underlying unity behind our varied experience. It signifies a single thread running through all of reality. The deviations in tone are kept in check by the monotone, in the same way that the religious traditions teach us to keep God or the underlying nature of reality in mind despite the variations and multiplicities of daily experience.

Time and eternity

Some forms of chant are rhythmical, while others utilise “free rhythm”, a rhythm dictated by the text itself.

For chants that contain a regular rhythm, the length of the chant in its entirety is key. From the slow pace of a Chinese Buddhist chant to the hypnotic pace of a Sufi Qawwali, if there is a rhythm, then it must go on long enough to establish itself and become firmly rooted in the listener.

The rhythm reflects the regularity of nature, the rule of time. It becomes the baseline of the worshipper’s chant, just as the regular passage of time underlies the order of creation: hours, minutes, days, seasons, and years, or the regular beat of our own heart.

Modern secular music also features a regular rhythm, but in these instances the duration of the music is typically too short for the rhythm to become ingrained in the listener. Popular music generally runs from three to five minutes. Most rhythmical religious chants would just be getting started by the time a secular song has finished. The Qawwali has a tempo closest to contemporary secular music, yet they typically run from 15 to 30 minutes. In a long, fast paced, rhythmic chant the rhythm itself fades into the background. It gives us a sense of transcending time.

Shorter chants like this Chinese Buddhist chant are of a much slower tempo. Yet the slow pace has the effect of seeming to stretch time. Each beat of the drum or gong or cymbal seems just a little slower than we would expect. They also seem deliberate, and their ponderous tone reinforces the sense of time slowing down during the chant.

Whether speeding time up or slowing it right down, these rhythmic chants alter our usual relationship with time. They offer glimpse of freedom from our normal temporal constraints.

But what about chants without a regular rhythm?

Chants such as Gregorian and Byzantine chant, from the Western and Eastern Churches respectively, are characterised by “free rhythm”. These chants evolved from pre-existing texts, and as such the text forms the basis of the melody.

In the absence of a regular rhythm, the sense of time is left behind. The chants themselves may be short or long, but their flowing, unconstrained pace carries a sense of timelessness or eternity. They arise out of silence, hang in the air and fall away. In the absence of a regular rhythm, these chants eclipse our normal sense of time entirely.

Gregorian chant provides a stark contrast to modern secular music. In a 1974 article in the New York Times, Jonathon Cott noted that:

“most people—inured to and satiated by Western harmony—find it disconcerting to listen comfortably to long stretches of monophonic singing. In its deepest expression, plainsong suggests a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s attuning oneself to one’s self. And in order to resurface into this meditative world, the most effective musical decompression chamber would certainly be a quiet retreat to a Benedictine monastery or, next best, a contemplative listening to plainsong recordings.”

The challenge of religious chant in its various forms is to let ourselves be conformed to it, with its time-dilating use of rhythm, duration, tempo and repetition, its play between monotony and melody, and its simultaneous enriching and dissolution of sacred text and language.

The loss of Western chant

The provenance of chant in the Western world is unmistakably Catholic. Yet with few notable exceptions, the regular practice of chant in the Catholic church has fallen away. Historically, chant gave way to the harmonies of polyphony, and the continuing development of Western music saw symphonic and even operatic versions of sacred music, as well as the adoption of hymns in a liturgical context.

By 1903 Gregorian chant had been displaced to such an extent that then Pope Pius X issued a motu proprio calling for a return to chant and early polyphony.

Subsequent popes reiterated the call for Gregorian chant to take “pride of place” in the liturgy, both before and after the Second Vatican Council. But their calls have not been widely heeded, with metrical hymns and increasingly contemporary styles of music remaining popular.

The irony is that while new recordings of Gregorian chant from Benedictine monks in Norcia, Italy, and Dominican nuns in Michigan have made news with their popularity and sales, the same music rightly belongs in the weekly liturgy of every normal Catholic parish throughout the world.

The Anglican church created its own English-language adaptations of the chant, and Lutherans likewise point to the continuity of chant in their own tradition. Nonetheless, in the history of Protestant-Catholic relations Gregorian chant has been largely rejected by Protestant reformers. There’s a reason why chant in the West is associated with cloistered monks and nuns and not with evangelical mega-churches.

A culture without chant

Chant is as universal a religious form as bowing in veneration. It has its own logic, purpose, and significance. Yet sacred music in the West is far more likely to take the form of 18-19th century metrical hymns, “folk” inspired music from the 1960s and 70s, or more contemporary rock and pop inspired songs.

The absence of chant in Western culture means that our culture is deprived of the influences contained and expressed in this musical form. As we continually decry the fast pace of modern life, our endless distractions, our fears and anxieties, perhaps a regular experience of timeless chant is exactly what we need?

The use of being useless

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

Sometimes when reading the Yi Jing or Confucian books, we can forget that the “superior man” is not recognised as such by our society or culture.

The Daoist classics offer a more colourful account of the sage or the man of virtue as someone who stands apart from society and culture, someone whose words and actions are as likely to bemuse or confuse as they are to enlighten.

In emulating the “uncarved block” Laozi describes himself as seemingly inferior to others:

All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles,
As though feasting after the Great Sacrifice,
As though going up to the Spring Carnival.
I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign;
Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the mind of a very idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self-assured;
I alone depressed.
(I seem unsettled as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.)
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.

His description is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s “use of what is useless”, and we find it echoing again in the theme of this blog – the superior man is not a utensil.

To be interested in this stuff, to take it seriously, let alone to try to practice it, is to invest in something profoundly anti-social and counter-cultural, at least as our society and culture currently stand. Like choosing poverty over wealth, low status over high, solitude over popularity.

Understanding the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end sounds well and good until you realise that “the transitory” includes everything that occupies and demands our attention in nearly every moment of ordinary life.

Who wants to be dull, dark and depressed? Who wants to be intractable and boorish? But that’s what remains when your desire for the transitory begins to fade.

Buddhism and Christianity: a brief convergence

G.K. Chesterton once teased his contemporary proponents of comparative religion as arguing that:

Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.

He was right in that enthusiasm for a “common truth” in all religion seems almost by definition to resolve comfortably in the domain of a Buddhist-inspired mysticism. Modern advocates of a universal religion still tend to fall into the trap of equating Christ with the Buddha, and then cutting out the bits that don’t fit.

But Chesterton was not especially well informed about Buddhism, and I suspect that those who want to Buddhify Christ may be thinking a little too narrow in their approach to the problem.

That’s not what this post is about, however, and lest I get sidetracked let’s keep things simple.

After some years of consideration and study, it seems fairly straightforward that what is described in Buddhism as Sunyata or ’emptiness’ corresponds to the apophatic or “negative theology” aspect of God as something that defies the grasp of our intellect.

Buddhism may therefore be viewed from a Christian perspective as a conceptually negative attempt to enter into a profound mystical relationship with God, both understood and experienced as the hidden foundation of all reality.

From a Buddhist point of view, orthodox Christianity is a little harder to grasp. Okay, it’s actually a lot harder to grasp without conceding some points that don’t seem to lie in the usual ambit of Buddhist metaphysics.

But if all form arises from emptiness, and we understand (thanks to negative theology) that by ‘God’ Christians refer to this emptiness, then wouldn’t we have to allow that ‘creation’, or the coming into being and sustenance of all things, must be the same as the arising of forms out of emptiness?

The stumbling block of an anthropomorphised view of God as some kind of Zeus-like deity sitting above the clouds and contemplating how to interfere in our lives is not the view held by orthodox Christianity.

The real stumbling block is that orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ to have been an incarnation (coming into form) of God (emptiness), as a true expression of the emptiness, in a way that differs from the Buddha, where the Buddha is understood to be an ordinary human who realised emptiness.

You can see why there is such a temptation to reduce Christ to the level of a Buddha, or to say that Christ’s claims of divinity were misunderstood by his followers, or that they are somehow the ‘equivalent’ of the Buddha’s enlightened state.

Yet at the same time, some Buddhist sects have gone in the opposite direction, elevating and even divinising the Buddha until he represents not just an awakened or enlightened human, but enlightenment and emptiness itself.

Some people are offended by Christian exceptionalism. That’s understandable, but Buddhism can also be exceptionalist in its own way – viewing other religions as inferior paths that do not contain the complete truth – it’s just that reincarnation allows Buddhism a much more relaxed attitude on a number of issues.

Since I’m angling for a Buddhist perspective on Christianity, let’s look at it from the more pragmatic perspective of the individual path to enlightenment. When Christians hold up the crucifix they are venerating the image of the highest possible being (God) that was reduced to the lowest and most miserable human condition – unjust suffering and death at the hands of others.  They venerate this image in the understanding that the dead God-human did not remain in death, but came back to life, and in so doing revealed the truth about life, death, God, and humanity.

Is it any wonder that his followers subsequently lost their fear of death, changed their lives, and gained a new understanding of their relationship with God?

Each religion makes sense in its own context. We can also find points of contact between the different religions. But when we do this we are stepping outside the original frame of either religion. To try to make them all fit together is inevitably a different activity. To see them as saying the same thing is ultimately a solitary experience.

I guess the real question is whether it is otherwise for anyone else?

Form and Formlessness

I bought a book about comparative mysticism recently.

Most of it is familiar territory. I’ve read a lot on comparative mysticism, and I’ve made my own comparisons of various mystics. But what attracted me to this book was the author’s analysis of thought and sensation in the context of “form and formlessness”. You can read about it here, but it is lengthy and intense:

What’s so special about this analysis?

Well, mysticism is a fairly esoteric field, and while there are plenty of people espousing various theories and interpretations, it is extremely rare to find a genuine entryway into these esoteric concepts. Many mystics have offered descriptions and idiosyncratic instructions based on their own experiences, but often their language is metaphorical or dependent on their own temperament or religious context.


The essence of the article is that our experience of an object consists of various sensory impressions of that object plus a thought about the object’s existence.

The author uses a gong as his example: you can see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, and smell it. But each of these impressions is transient, and furthermore they are all quite distinct from one another.

If you close your eyes and refrain from other interaction with the gong, how do you know it is there?

You don’t. Nonetheless, we all tend to hold an impression or thought or idea of the gong in our mind like a place-holder for the ‘real’ object. We think “there’s a gong there”, even though we no longer have any experience of the gong.

In fact, this idea of the gong also informs our experience of it: the distinct sensory impressions are all bundled together with this “gong” idea.

Yet the gong idea and all the sensory impressions are ultimately just thoughts – just mental impressions, and we know nothing about the reality beyond them.

All thoughts and sensory impressions are transient, impermanent forms that arise and fall within the mind.

Not that we really know what “mind” is either, that’s just another thought form, a pragmatic distinction between different aspects of my experience.


These forms arise out of something that has no form, and when they disappear only formlessness remains.

I must have read about “the space between thoughts” dozens of times, but I never understood its true significance. For one thing, it’s tempting to conceive of this “space” as something special, something that will of itself reveal all the answers we are seeking. But it doesn’t seem to work like that.

The article does a great job of clarifying that this formlessness is indeed entirely without form – we cannot grasp it, cannot conceive of it. It is darkness to the intellect.

It will not appear as something special, but when we understand how special it is, and that it is everywhere – in all the gaps, in all the spaces, within form and without form – then we can start to lay down the delusions, cravings, and selfishness that blight our daily experience.


After all, what is true of the gong is equally true of you. You have your thoughts, your sensory impressions, and you try your utmost day-in day-out to fit them to a more abstract idea of “I exist”.

Descartes famously reasoned that he could not doubt his own existence because the very act of doubting proved he must exist. But more contemporary philosophers have since argued that this is not the case. Instead of “I think therefore I am”, all Descartes can really say is “thinking is happening”.

Like the idea of the gong, we carry around an idea of ourselves that is nothing more than a thought – albeit a very rich, complex, and convoluted one. That is not to say we don’t exist – just that this thought of oneself is not actually a self anymore than the thought of the gong is actually a gong.

The ‘it never happened’ button

Making decisions is strangely difficult for a Melancholic. For reasons I won’t elaborate at this point, we often find ourselves mired in endless loops of hypothetical outcomes and utilitarian calculations, pragmatic considerations clashing with idealistic ones, fate and destiny alternating with existential self-determination.

We might never know what the “right” decision would be, but I’ve nonetheless discovered and created a small collection of heuristics (rules of thumb) to put an end to indecision. I’d like to do a series of posts to help catalog and elaborate on these heuristics and maybe discover more.

Today’s heuristic is the “it never happened” button.

The background

The “it never happened” button was first invented when someone offered me some paid work that I didn’t especially want to do.

The dilemma

Take the work or don’t take the work?

How much do I need the money? Let’s be honest: I always need the money.

Do I want to do the work? Wrong question: should I want to do the work?

It sounds awful…but it could be the start of something bigger! I could look back on this event as the moment my career in X first began!

Don’t you have an obligation to take on paid work so long as it’s not unethical? Aren’t you being a little stubborn, naive, idealistic, soft?

The work is vaguely within your field…isn’t this how people get their big break?

The resolution

The indecision continued for hours and the only progress lay in feeling more conflicted.

I felt like I was trying to arbitrate over two equally compelling, passionate, and reasonable parties, both of whom just happened to be me.

Then, like the wisdom of Solomon, an answer came to me seemingly out of nowhere:

“If you had a magic button that could go back in time and make it so that this person never offered you work in the first place, would you press the button?”

Yes. O God, yes I would press the button.

And in that moment I knew my answer.

The analysis

This heuristic works because it separates the question of “do I want to do this?” from all the associated social challenges of saying “no” to someone, of turning down work, turning down money, and trying to fit seemingly random and unsolicited events into your own sense of a personal journey.

It also implies that saying “no” to something is not going to have devastating and unexpected repercussions.

I’ve used this heuristic in about a half-dozen instances, and each time it has provided a quicker and easier end to the otherwise wearying and self-destructive loops of indecision.

Chances are that if you really want to do something, you won’t feel so conflicted about it in the first place. But if you are conflicted, give the “it never happened” button a try and see if it helps.

Finding your inner Trump

My latest piece on MercatorNet is part of a first foray into the four temperaments theory:

If you want to know what an extreme choleric looks like, start with Donald Trump.

If an ancient Greek physician met Donald Trump, they would be deeply concerned. Not for any of the usual reasons, but because Trump’s behaviour and appearance would be viewed as indicating a severe excess of yellow bile – a terrible imbalance of humour with associated medical complaints.

On the psychological level Trump is an excellent specimen of an extreme choleric. He is proud, ambitious, audacious, thin-skinned, aggressive, bullying, self-absorbed, energetic, and individualistic.

There’s a little bit of Trump in all of us, but more so (much more so) in others of the choleric temperament.

Are hate crimes motivated by hate?

My latest article at MercatorNet began as a serious self-examination.

A reader had accused me of writing articles that contribute to, or validate, homophobia in the broader community and hence hate crimes.

This despite my articles also disavowing hate crimes, violence, and animosity.  The conclusion seems to be one cannot even dissent reasonably and in good faith from LGBT narratives, constructs and goals without being implicated in atrocities like Orlando.

But I wanted to be sure, so I applied the principles of formal and material cooperation in evil to the problem. Along the way, I found some surprising research into the motivations behind anti-gay violence.

the popular view is that hate crimes must be motivated by hate. Our folk psychology tells us that it takes a small amount of animosity and prejudice to say something rude or demeaning about homosexuality, a fortiori those who commit violent anti-gay assault and even murder must be driven by proportionately greater animosity and prejudice.

Instead Franklin’s research suggests that animosity and prejudice are, at best, incomplete descriptors of anti-gay violence. If people can commit anti-gay violence while being self-professed supporters of gay rights, then the popular understanding of anti-gay violence must be flawed.

Election ’16

In my latest article at MercatorNet, I play “spot the pattern” with Australian politics.
Why don’t you play? It goes: Rudd-Gillard-Rudd; Abbott-Turnbull…?
One has to wonder if the participants in this grand farce of Federal politics ever stop, stare at the heavens and ask themselves what immense and powerful forces are directing their movements. Because it seems too improbable that having lambasted Labor for its leadership woes, the Liberal party could unwittingly steer itself down the exact same course.

Racism and homophobia

In my previous article at MercatorNet I was labelled more insidious than a Southern Baptist preacher. I don’t know much about Southern Baptist preachers, so in all honesty I’m not sure if that makes me very insidious, or just a little. But given the tone of the debate, it seemed about time to reflect a little more deeply on the nature of our intellectual disagreements:

many people believe that a hidden or clandestine animosity or prejudice is the underlying motive of people who oppose or dissent from various aspects of the LGB agenda.

In my case it means that although I state I am sceptical of how the concepts of sexual orientation and sexual identity are constructed, and I am therefore sceptical of derivative phenomena like same-sex marriage, some people will nonetheless argue that I am secretly motivated by animosity and prejudice toward homosexuality – that I am in fact homophobic…

Dispassionate thinkers should be able to see both sides and understand the nature of the disagreement. But most of us are not dispassionate thinkers, and the public debate is littered with activists on both sides. Non-activists, like pacifists in the middle of a war-zone, are liable to take fire regardless of their motives and intentions.

Disavowals of homophobia will not satisfy activists who lack the capacity or the will to understand the real points of contention. But if those of us who disagree with the LGBT movement are to remain dispassionate thinkers, then we can’t blame them for this failing either.


Not your grandfather’s transgenderism

My latest piece at MercatorNet was actually written several weeks ago in an attempt to resolve some of the confusion surrounding transgenderism:

Transgenderism operates on two levels.

The basic level is how most of the public seem to understand it: transgender means a man becoming a woman or a woman becoming a man. It’s associated with sex change, and the social expectation is that the rest of us “play along” with the change so as not to embarrass the transgender person and give the game away. If they’re lucky, they can pull off the transition and everyone will just assume the man is actually a woman or the woman actually a man…

But there’s a more complex level of Transgenderism as well, and this complex level is not about a man becoming a woman or a woman becoming a man. Instead it is about breaking the connection between gender as a social construct and biological sex. It’s a different paradigm from the basic, popular understanding. This is not your grandfather’s Transgenderism.