The second component of our Rule of Life actually has two parts. The first part is simply to "study scripture." We do this in various ways, either by reading selections from scripture according to an assigned lectionary or through the group study technique known as lectio divina. No specified frequency for this study is given, and Abbey members choose to follow this part of the Rule in whatever way works best for them: daily, weekly, etc.
The second part of this portion of the Rule is, in contrast, very specific about timing: "pursue a specifically selected spiritual formation activity annually." Although the frequency is specified (annually) the range of spiritual formation activities which have been chosen is as varied as the members of the Abbey.
I often start thinking in January about what my chosen spiritual formation activity will be for the year, but it is not usually until the late summer that I begin to pursue the activity. I think this is because, having been a student, then a teacher, for most of my life, I still think in terms of academic years. The year begins when school starts!
This year, I have chosen to pursue a deeper exploration of chant. I have always been a singer, and for most of my life in the Church have been a member of the choir, so musical expression is an important part of my spiritual experience. Chant is, in one way of thinking about it, music -- so it is not surprising I would love it. However, in another way of thinking about it, chant is more than music. Chant is prayer -- meditative prayer, in fact.
In our Abbey meetings and retreats, we have often used Taize, a type of Christian chant, to enhance our prayer experience. Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend-long workshop exploring chants from many different religious traditions. Christian, Jewish, Muslim (especially the Sufi version of Islam), Native American, Buddhist and Hindu chants were all introduced. I enjoyed singing all of these and learning about their uses in religious rituals from around the world.
The chants were in many different languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit and others, but the meaning of almost all chants, as the instructor, Robert Gass, explained, is basically, "Yay, God!" Most chants are devotional and the point of the chant is to express love and praise for God.
Chants are sung, of course, but they are different from most songs in that they are usually very simple and often repetitive. One Taize chant the Abbey often uses is "Ubi caritas, et amor; ubi caritas, deus ibi est," which means: "God is love and where true love is, God himself is there." This can be sung dozens of times and the idea is to sing it enough times that the singing becomes automatic, the words and tune require no thought, and a state of deep prayer can be entered.
In Robert Gass' workshop I learned how effective it is to sing a chant for a very long time -- 20 minutes or more -- then stop and sit in silence as a group. We did this repeatedly throughout the weekend, and no matter which chant we had just sung, I found myself in a state I would describe as simultaneously ecstatic and deeply peaceful. I can now see why the ancient practice of chant has become a central feature of every religious tradition: quite simply, chant brings us into deep, personal contact with God. And the experience can be profoundly moving.
What spiritual formation activity do you plan to pursue this year? Will it be chant, or might you want to follow the lead of a former Abbey member who decided to visit and walk every labyrinth she could find? Or, perhaps, you will choose some readings or go on a retreat -- or come up with your own unique spiritual formation activity.
How will you live out this component of our Rule of Life in the coming year? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.