A couple weeks ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on our Ash Wednesday service layout, I decided it would be good for the musicians to be able to put down their instruments and microphones in order to participate with their families and the church in the part of the service when the elders imposed the ashes and when everyone formally journeyed on Way of the Cross. So, knowing there would be no musicians to underscore, I was thinking about what kind of music would fit to be played overhead during that time. I began searching the iTunes Store for soft, contemplative music, and after sifting through a bunch of New Age weird stuff, I came across something that immediately brought me back to one of the most memorable moments of my life. Although, thinking of it now, it seems like it happened in a dream.

It was about ten years ago, and I was staying with my team of Celebrant Singers (not to be confused with the Celibate Singers) at a bed and breakfast inn in Vermont. It was late October, and I must say that being in the Northeast during the Fall was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life. We had a couple days off - we usually got one day off per week, almost always Mondays, and then we'd be back to doing concerts in different churches every weeknight, and anywhere from two to six Masses in Catholic parishes on weekends. Our days off were purely sabbatical. Well, at some point between partaking of a nice home-cooked meal and crocheting a scarf in a rocking chair next to a fireplace, we were told of a local monastery where a group of monks gather together at four o'clock in the morning to chant.

So in the morning a few of us woke up and drove down to a dimly lit chapel in the woods. Slowly, monk after monk entered the chapel. They gathered on the altar near the sanctuary, about thirty of them. Some sat down, others leaned against a wall or pillar, and they all began to sing. It was mostly Latin, from what I can remember. (Of course, being up that early, everything seems Latin.) There were a few moments when one of the monks would play a simple tune on a classical guitar or incorporate the subtle sound of a rain stick, but for the most part, it was simple, pure drone and chant. It was one of those moments when you are truly alive.

This is the album that captured my attention in iTunes: Chant: Music for the Soul - Monks of Cistercian Abbey. I thought for sure Gregorian Chant would be the perfect music to use in our Ash Wednesday service during a half hour of reflection. That is, until I ran the idea by the staff. Apparently, most of their encounters with Chant weren't as moving and colorful as mine. Their experiences were pretty much limited to a single priest (no pun intended) singing part of the Mass with an awful, crackly voice, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of my co-workers. They claimed that many others like themselves, especially former Catholics, would immediately be turned off at the sound of Chant. Now, let me just say that I am extremely grateful for the freedom I have to be creative and incorporate ancient worship practices in our church, but I am equally grateful for the reins of a healthy team. We keep each other in check, oftentimes steering one another away from disaster and towards honoring God in a greater way.

To be sure, we were already pushing the evangelical limits by imposing ashes and praying through the Way of the Cross. And although I personally would have preferred this beautiful Chant to be heard in this rich service, we could definitely accomplish what we needed to with any number of other music styles. Perhaps this Gregorian Chant would have been more of a distraction to some. We ended up using an instrumental piano album. I honestly don't even remember hearing it. I was too enraptured in the Way of the Cross, observing a bunch of marked people journeying on the Jesus Road, and participating with my wife and another family, as we listened to a mother read the Scripture passages to her Son at each stop along the Way.

In the meantime, over the past couple of weeks, I have listened to this Chant album a number of times. I let it play in the background while I am working. I absolutely love it! I heard it once said that Gregorian Chant is music in its purest form, the closest sound to the voices of angels and the song of God. I suppose that is a pretty subjective statement, but I challenge you to listen to it for yourself (thirty tracks for only $7.99 in iTunes). You may find a certain objective beauty in it that exceeds the music of later eras. I know, it's hard to accept that Contemporary Praise and Worship music might not be the pinnacle of musical achievement.

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