Friday, May 20, 2005

Qui cantat, bis orat

I've used Qui cantat, bis orat, a quote from St. Augustine that translates roughly as "to sing is to pray twice" as my e-mail tag line for the last couple of years. (I don't put the English translation underneath, which prompted my father to send me a book of Latin quotes -- and their English translations -- to me for Christmas last year.) The tag appealed because of it's source (I belong to an Augustinian parish) and because I sing for the parish.

But why does Augustine privilege sung over spoken prayer? I can't find the original source of the quote, so I'm not sure what was in Augustine's mind, but I do know what's in mine. Singing, particularly with an audience, is risky. I tell people that I sing solo instead of jumping out of airplanes, it's the same irreverisble mix of panic and thrill. You are exposed when you sing, and lack of confidence (as well as of pitch) are difficult for those singing with you, or listening to you, to overlook. Prayer is risky and exposed as well. We express our inmost needs, hold out our most difficult hurts for comfort, and risk being changed and challenged by the grace we receive.

Our lives begin in the rythyms of our mother's wombs. Her heartbeat and breathing are the first music we hear, and are inextricably wound up in how we grow and are nourished. When we sing, particularly in prayer, and perhaps most of all in community, we reach down into those first experiences of the grateful sharing of food that is the Eucharist. Our singing nourishes us and we grow by it, when we enter into it together.

The space spanned by spoken prayer is smaller than that of sung prayer. The range of the voice, the changes in rythym add a depth to the prayer that speech cannot reach. Sung prayer can be layered on top of sung prayer, a multi-dimensional function that cannot be captured as speech. As St. Paul said to the Romans, "the Spirit herself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

Sometime when I cantor, I am so worried about the notes and the words, that I can't pray the psalm. Last Sunday, I literally shook at the ambo. When I know the music so well that it wells up effortlessly, then, then I understand what Augustine means. It can be joy, as in the Christmas psalm, "All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God..." echoed back by the congregation, filling the world with song. It can be sorrow, singing to shepherd my mother to new life, weaving the words and music over her coffin like the lullabyes that wrapped my cares away for the night as a child. When sung, it is surely well prayer.

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