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A requiem for Benet Lake and choirs that gave praise and thanks to God

      Men once prayed here.

      Black tunics and scapulars bending low, billowing with the movement. Antiphons soaring softly and sweetly by a lone young tenor voice, all the way up to the exposed beams, it seems, only to be answered by baritone voices crusty with time and lectio, yet all a blend of praise and thanks to God.

      A holy life of music and verse, indeed.

      A golden age? Nay. Never has been, nor ever will be. Memory plays tricks. It wrings from cold, hard fact mere wishful thinking, reducing what was to what might have been to falling down a passage which we did not actually take. We follow at our own peril.

      Still, something was there. Something beautiful and noble and good, which drew back life’s dark veil to give us a glimpse of our goal. Did we not sense it? Did we not feel a presence that pricked us with joy? A sense sublime of something far beyond ourselves; a world palpable, pregnant with hope.

      But they are all gone, now. So I approach the choir with a spring in my step and slip into a choir stall. Who will know? Who will care?

      “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me,” and I’m off, chanting Terce. Standing, I chant Mode I of the eight St. Meinrad psalm tones. My voice joins the echoes of the monks of old, and of this place, and together these rise before God like incense.

      Light streams through the clear windows high above and splashes on the floor of tile. In his light we see light, the source of life. Did they not perceive it, those men of old? Or did they perceive it and simply ignore it? Or did the daily charge of chanting in church turn from delight to drudgery? Or did the lack of new blood discourage them and so despair overwhelmed them?

      Who knows?

      The acoustics soothe. God’s word lilts, and I soften the ending of each phrase as I was so instructed years ago. See? They had the knowledge; they passed it on, but when no one steps up to receive it, what is one to do? So sad, this wasted knowledge. The accumulated wisdom of sight and sound and spirit that rolled out of choirs over the centuries now silenced, at least here. The pleasure of euphony deemed useless.

      Psalmody over I now sit. The book is before me at eye level. The reading, which I read aloud, exhorts us to yield not to the desires that once shaped us in our ignorance. Get in, get out, shut up, sit down. The readings for daytime are short and sweet. I like that.

      The longer readings are for the early morning hours, long before the rising of the sun, when silence of night is a welcome friend. Now, though, a mere pause to give thanks suffices.

      Reflection follows. If chaos is strangling the world beyond these walls, harmony dwells in here. And this is what is so puzzling, that dystopia is preferred to delight; fracture preferred to family; revulsion preferred to resemblance.

      All the more reason for choirs such as these! Psalmody and their tones appease the soul and hush the mind, allowing the fragrance of God to overwhelm us. These tones defeat the curse that binds us to our base desires. But the epoch of such choirs is passing us by, and we are the lesser for it.

      Let us pray, and so I stand. The prayer asks the Father to bring together all whom sin has driven apart. A worthy plea given the times. “Let us bless the Lord,” I chant following the prayer. “Thanks be to God.”

      I bow and slip out of the choir.

      We want others to love what we love, and we are more than willing to teach them how. Fewer people, though, seem to love these choirs, this way of life, this mode of being, this little rule. It smacks of the medieval, and nothing ruffles the feathers of the hipster and the cool and the facile more than the medieval. Wordsworth noted that “the mind of man becomes a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which he dwells.”  But you know what you get when the beauty of the mind is obscured by the atrophy of the soul?

      You get empty choir stalls.

 

      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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