Raising our Hearts: The Place of Gregorian Chant in God’s plan

by Rev. Håkan Lindström

The purpose of creation is to give glory to God

God created the universe by a free act of His will in order to give to Himself external glory, as His perfections, which are are one with His essence and being, are reflected in manifold ways by His many different creatures. Lifeless creatures like stones and minerals give glory to Him by obeying the laws of gravity and chemistry, which were created by Him. Plants give glory to Him by following the biological laws that God created. Animals follow their instincts, which God has given them. Men and angels, the rational creatures, give glory to God by following His will as made known to them by the natural law and revelation. We give this glory to God whenever we carry our daily cross, practise the virtues or lift our hearts up to Him in prayer.

Singing is a noble form of prayer

Singing is a way of expressing both thought, by the words sung, and emotions and attitudes by the unspeakable musical meaning of melody and rhythm. When singing, more so than when only speaking, we make the vibrations of the sound resonate through the whole of our bodies and the room. Sung prayer therefore involves a greater part of our nature and is consequently a more complete praise of the Creator by His creature. Always and everywhere words have been given greater emphasis by singing them; from the temples of religion to battlefields and today’s football stadiums. As St. Augustine puts it: “he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings;”1 which is the passage actually from his writings that seems to come closest to that more famous saying often attributed to him: “he who sings well prays twice.”

God indicates how He wants to be worshipped

Already to the second generation of mankind, God indicated how He wanted to be worshipped by a special ritual of sacrifice, as He showed that He was pleased with the sacrifice of Abel, but that the sacrifice of Cain did not please Him. The Old Testament is full of detailed descriptions of rites of worship that God Himself made known to man.

The rituals for divine worship in the New Testament have not been directly revealed by God to the same extent and level of detail; instead Divine Providence and the assistance of the Holy Ghost given to the Catholic Church have helped to form and define the different rites and forms of liturgical prayer. As the commonly used name for the traditional melodies and style of singing used in the Roman liturgy indicates, Gregorian chant dates back at least to the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (540–604). In fact, thanks to the almost sacrosanct status given by the Church to the compositions of that pope and saint, much of the music still in use today, especially that of many of the propers, has remained essentially unchanged since his day. This makes Gregorian chant just as much a part of liturgical tradition as many of the texts and rites of the traditional Roman missal. The use of Gregorian chant at Mass, then, is an instance of that which is most specific about liturgical worship: giving glory to God by rituals that we have not invented ourselves, but that we have received, if not by direct divine revelation, then through that institution which God has ordained for defining the rituals of divine worship in the New Dispensation; namely, the holy tradition of our mother the Church.

Gregorian chant expresses musically the thoughts, emotions and attitudes of adoration, thanksgiving, petition and expiation as they are in the mind of the Church, shaping and shaped by the centuries of liturgical prayer and therefore objective and valid for all ages.

Plainchant is a most spiritual form of singing

God made man to know God with his mind, love Him with his will and rule his lower appetites by these two noblest faculties of man’s spiritual soul. The three elements of music: melody, harmony (the simultaneous sounding of several tones) and rhythm, correspond and appeal most to respectively the spiritual mind, the emotions of longing and the emotions of aggression. Gregorian chant is plain chant; only a single melody is sung on its own, having, therefore virtually none of the emotional appeal proper to musical harmony. The rhythm in Gregorian chant is chiefly defined by the rhythm of the words sung, which for the most part are the inspired word of God. There are no musical bars corresponding to a specific number of beats, as is the case in most other music familiar to us. Instead, it is the text that provides rhythm and subdivision of a piece of Gregorian chant. From this it is clear that this form of chant is a most spiritual one: the elements of music that appeal most to emotion are either hardly present at all or completely subjected to the spiritual content of the text. The one element of music that is present and elaborate is that which appeals most to the mind: melody.

For these same reasons, a singer of Gregorian chant is an image of man redeemed and restored to the order in which God created him: his mind wholly intent on the word of God and ruling the lower parts of his being.

View all the articles from Ite Missa Est

  • 1St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 73, v. 1.