On Sunday Pope Benedict XVI completed his apostolic visit to France, and in particular to Lourdes. I was not able to follow the details of this visit, but last night I did sit down and read the address he delivered in Paris to “the Parisian cultural community”. The theme of the address was “the origins of western theology and the roots of European culture”, and as it was given at the Collège des Bernardins, founded in the thirteenth century by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Pope naturally began by discussing the role of the monasteries in preserving and cultivating both theology and culture.
He makes the central point that the motivation of the monks was not to make “culture” — it was to seek God. Quaerere Deum. In the pursuit of this high purpose they cultivated scholarship and artistry, and Benedict XVI draws particular attention to their concern for word — especially in the Scriptures — and music — especially in the liturgy. About music he says, in part:
For Benedict, the words of the Psalm: coram angelis psallam Tibi, Domine -– in the presence of the angels, I will sing your praise (cf. 138:1) –- are the decisive rule governing the prayer and chant of the monks. What this expresses is the awareness that in communal prayer one is singing in the presence of the entire heavenly court, and is thereby measured according to the very highest standards: that one is praying and singing in such a way as to harmonize with the music of the noble spirits who were considered the originators of the harmony of the cosmos, the music of the spheres. From this perspective one can understand the seriousness of a remark by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who used an expression from the Platonic tradition handed down by Augustine, to pass judgement on the poor singing of monks, which for him was evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance. He describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the “zone of dissimilarity” – the regio dissimilitudinis [. . .] Bernard is certainly putting it strongly when he uses this phrase, which indicates man’s falling away from himself, to describe bad singing by monks. But it shows how seriously he viewed the matter. It shows that the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty.
This Pope has repeatedly drawn our attention to the higher resonances that we ought to hear in our liturgy and worship, and this is another excellent instance. The liturgy should always strive to be a “reaching up”, a transcendence, a participation in the heavenly liturgy. It will often fail to reach those heights, of course, but it needn’t fail so frequently as it does, and we certainly ought not to be content in the “zone of dissimilarity”.
This is but one small passage of a very rich and stimulating address. Read the whole thing.