Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Hearing voices on the feast of St. Athanasius

It's the feast of St. Athanasius, a 4th century bishop of Alexandria.  You can read about his travails here. He was a young deacon at the First Council of Nicea, spent his career fighting Arianism, was run out of Alexandria more than once, and you may not be surprised to learn that an inscription on his tomb reads Athanasius contra mundam — Athanasius against the world.

Last July, I spent a fair amount time with the readings for Athanasius' feast, getting ready to write a reflection for this month's Give Us This Day about the melodies I hear in my head when I pray the Psalms.  (A short excerpt from the piece is below.)  I'm getting ready to go on retreat in a couple of weeks, looking forward to spending some time soaking in sung psalmody at a Camoldolese monastery.  Other than the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist, this retreat time will be totally silent, not even a daily consultation with a spiritual director.  No Wi-Fi, no cell phone signal.  I'm going to the desert and the psalms will be the only voices I hear.

Whenever I encounter Psalm 67, I hear voices.  Not the mystical murmurings of angels, but the strains of Margaret Rizza’s serenely majestic setting of this psalm.  A lone male voice calls on God, and the call is taken up by a vibrant chorus whose notes seem to stretch to infinity.  In the layers of voices both human and instrumental I can almost see all the nations of the earth streaming forth, shimmering in the light from God’s face.  The psalm rings forth as a single voice, but no one voice can make music of such intricate depth.

All too often we encounter the psalms in their plainest dress, prayed silently or spoken by a single voice in the daily liturgy.  Yet simmering underneath is a chorus of possibilities: the enduring strength of monastic plainchant, the soaring soprano glory of Allegri, the full-voiced joy of an assembly singing a favorite psalm to an otherwise unremarkable melody.  So may God’s ways be known upon the earth. — From Give Us This Day, May 2012

You can hear Margaret Rizza's setting of Psalm 67 here.  It's track 09.


  1. Where are you going on retreat?

  2. Fran - I'm going here:

    It's near my family in California, I've been up there once for Evening Prayer.

  3. Thanks for sharing the Margaret Rizza chant - I had not heard this before. Her music speaks to me.