I attend a church where we regularly sing and chant the psalms. When I was a choir member several years ago, I had to learn ways of reading chant notations. Once I got the hang of it, I loved chanting, and I enjoyed the psalms more than I ever had.
Monastic communities have been chanting psalms for centuries, and you would be surprised how many convents and retreat centers have choirs that sing the offices of prayer throughout the day; these services are generally open to the public. One friend of mine goes regularly to a small monastic community in her city, just to sit during a busy day and listen to the psalms musically unfold.
There are numerous benefits to chanting psalms, but I will list only three.
When we sing Scripture, it helps us attend to it better.
The reason I enjoy chanting is that it can be very simple. You can make up your own chant. The simplest form is to sing all the words on one note until the last emphasis in the phrase—then you move up or down a note. That’s it. If you prefer, use a melody you already know well and that fits the verses you’re singing. Once you’re comfortable with the singing itself, then you can relax into the flow of the sound and pay attention to the meaning of the words. It’s a great form of meditation. It also helps if you want to memorize a passage; attaching phrases to an easy melody makes the words easier to recall.
Singing and chanting are good for us physically.
I heard one story about a group of monks who stopped chanting the prayer offices for a time—many of them became physically ill until they started chanting again. The vibrations we set in motion through singing and chanting do good things for our bodies. I once had a fascinating discussion with a music therapist who could explain which parts of the body benefited by humming and producing other vocal sounds. Chanting can calm us physically, helping with heart rate and blood pressure. Chanting can also help us breathe more deeply.
Singing can help us slow down our words and dwell in them.
It’s pretty difficult to chant rapidly—it just doesn’t work. So if you want to slow your Scripture reading, chant it out loud. Every time you have to take a breath, that’s a pause in the words. After a while, you will breathe naturally at the ends of phrases. Author Paula Huston tells the story of how, when monks at a certain monastery lead worshippers to chant the hours, you can always tell who the visitors are because they rush to the next phrase; by the end of a psalm they have learned to slow down and follow the monks’ rhythm. Another benefit of chanting is that, when you chant in a group, you can experience community quite tangibly as you all breathe together, sound the same notes, and follow the same words.
On a recent walking trip, I took along simple songs to sing as I walked. On the days when I drive to work, I play prayerful music and sing along, and that becomes my morning prayer. And sometimes when I’m walking my commute, I will sing softly a bit of liturgical music that comes to mind, such as “Lord, have mercy,” “Lamb of God,” or “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” We were built for singing, and singing is good for our souls.
- What is your experience of singing in worship?
- What kind of singing helps you?
Here’s a three-minute video of my leading a retreat group in chanting Psalm 23.