Monday, June 30, 2014


Several years ago when Isabel Anders and I were working on Chant of Death, a mystery based in a Benedictine Abbey in south Louisiana, we simultaneously listened to recordings of Gregorian chants while doing the writing. Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott, co-publishers of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, who had issued a contract for Chant of Death, also began to listen to recordings of Gregorian chants when they prepared the book for publication. The four of us developed something called "collective intention" about this particular novel. Isabel and I have always said that Chant wrote itself, and we completed it within six months. Chant contains many allusions to Gregorian chant, to monastic life and metaphysical ideas, and it's an exploration of both the holy and the profane in a tightly-knit mystery of 146 pages.

Last week-end, I attended a silent retreat entitled "Praying the Psalms," sponsored by the Sisters of St. Mary at Sewanee and featuring Sr. Madeline Mary and The Rev. Suzanne Warner as leaders of meditations on the Psalms, including those that we chanted at Morning and Evening Prayer each day. I was again introduced to Gregorian chant, especially those based on Psalms included in the Office of Morning Prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. These Psalms that we chanted had also been chanted by Benedict's monks and had been prescribed by Benedict to educate monks about leading a holy life and to show them how the Gregorian chants inspired connections with God.

One of the articles distributed by Sr. Madeline Mary during this retreat was an article entitled "On Good Health and Gregorian Chant" that featured an interview with a famous French Audiologist named Dr. Alfred Tomatis, and which was the core of a CBC Radio Documentary called "Chant." It was later broadcast on NPR in the United States. The article had been taken from the bulletin of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Latin Mass Community in Littleton, Colorado.

The interview tells the story of the head of a monastery in France, an abbot who had changed the Benedictine Rule to exclude chanting from the monks' daily schedule, an elimination of six to eight hours in their daily activities. Curiously, after the abbot excluded the chants, the monks began to complain of tiredness, and medical specialists were called in to treat them. Various treatments were explored, including that of adding meat to their normally vegetarian diets because they were told they were dying of starvation. Seventy of ninety monks had begun slumping in their cells and seemed devoid of energy. The addition of meat to the diets of the tired monks had no effect on them, and they continued to suffer from the curious lassitude.

St. Mary's Chapel, Sewanee TN
The abbot called in Dr. Tomatis, the French audiologist, and he treated the monks with sound only, primarily Gregorian chants, explaining that the chants, when sung in Latin, follow a relaxed physiological rhythm that is described as "pure," affect the cortex of the brain, and provide the channel for perfect listening to a higher power. The audiologist played the music of Mozart and Gregorian chants from the Abbey of Solemes, particularly the dawn and midnight masses for Christmas, and within months, the re-introduction of the chants in Latin had revived the health and energy of the French monks.

The article also revealed that Menninger's Clinic in Topeka, Kansan uses Gregorian chant to help their patients recover. This is a very brief resume of the interview with Dr. Tomatis regarding the relationship of Gregorian chant and good health, but the results resonated with the ideas that Isabel, Gary, Susan, and I had about playing Gregorian chant music to inspire the writing of Chant of Death. I remember the time as a highly energized period in which the creative process was heightened by ethereal stimuli and resulted in Chant, a book that Isabel and I still regard as a "mystical mystery."

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