My first encounter with God the Father was in a Renaissance cathedral in Tuscany in my early 20’s. In the overwhelming peace and beauty of this soaring, astonishing cathedral, He revealed himself to me. I dimly understood, even in the depths of my unbaptized, uncatechized spiritual darkness, that there was a Glory beyond understanding. I could feel that this Glory was immense, and mysterious, and real. But I could not quite grasp what that meant for me or what I should even do about it.
Several years later, after I had come to the understanding that God was real, I had my first serious exposure to the Mass. A chance encounter with some Dominican seminarians at a local pub led to an invitation to attend Easter Mass. My fiancé at the time, Phillip (now my husband), was a fallen away Catholic but felt that we should accept their invitation. I was not raised Catholic, so I wasn’t sure what chocolate bunnies and colored eggs had to do with going to church, but the seminarians were such a fun, cheerful bunch, how could we say no?
When we arrived on Easter morning for Mass, those young seminarians, all dressed in white robes, solemnly prayed and chanted for the duration of the Mass. Their chanting impacted me so deeply that after that first Mass, I simply could not stay away. I attended Mass every Sunday following, no matter what, even though I didn’t really understand what everything meant. I just knew that when I was at Mass hearing the brothers chanting, I was hearing the very voice of God, and he was speaking directly to me. Mere words are too poor and insufficient to explain how these Masses altered me to the very core of my being. This experience of hearing Gregorian chant was incredibly transformative. It was transcendental, otherworldly, and astonishingly beautiful.
But unfortunately, the feeling would not last, because as soon as I left the Bay Area of California upon graduating from UC Berkeley, I could not find a Mass that came anywhere close to what I had experienced at the Priory. Now back in Los Angeles, I landed at a nearby LifeTeen Mass. It was a rough landing, and it hurt. In effect, it delayed my entry into the Catholic Church by several more years as I grappled to find my way back to a sense that the God of all creation was a personal God who cared about me. I was so desperate to find a way back to a sense of God that I even joined the LifeTeen choir and sang such classics as “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Rain Down Your Love on Me” as the teens crowded around the altar for the Consecration. Obviously, the experience did not give me what I had hoped for.
But those chanted Masses had done their work. Although this second experience of the Mass was radically different than the first one (and not in a good way), I was irrevocably changed. Gregorian chant had cracked open my heart to listen to the truths of the Catholic Church, even at a LifeTeen Mass. I slowly began to hear God’s voice again in the Mass readings and prayers, and I tried really hard to focus on the nuts and bolts of the faith without relying on feelings.
Think about that for a moment. Gregorian chant, even psalm tones and simple hymns as I heard at the Priory, contain within themselves such a transcendental beauty that it allows souls to hear God in a very unique way. Even a soul that is very far from God.
And I was indeed very, very far from God. I know those seminarians heard me in that pub cursing up a storm. I’ll humble myself to admit that in my pre-Catholic days I had a terrible habit of cursing and especially taking the Lord’s name in vain. And that was just the most apparent of my great and many hideous sins. But those young men did not shun me, even though to their ears it was surely quite unpleasant. They just invited Phillip and I to Mass, and probably prayed a lot for us.
The divine power of Gregorian chant to convert souls is why every Catholic parish should make serious effort to teach their choir how to chant the ancient hymns of our faith. If you are just starting out and worry that what you have is not enough, rest assured – it is enough. If you only have 2 or 3 singers and will to make it happen, God will multiply your efforts and pour out his graces over you and all who hear you sing at Mass. Ask the angels to sing with you and trust in the Lord to help you through your struggles. If hearing Gregorian chant could open up a soul as wretched as mine and make me willing to hear God’s voice, it will certainly do the same for others.
With my own drastic conversion in mind, I have felt called for some time now to record our Schola. Given that my home responsibilities and my children come first, I had to spend a lot of time pondering and waiting for the right moment when I would be able to dedicate the extra time to this project. I have a lot of little ones at home, including a set of 2 year old twins. I prayed a lot about it. I asked God to make straight my paths, and if it was His will, to show me the way forward. Patience is not my strongest quality, so it was a difficult wait. But about 6 weeks ago, we were finally able to make some recordings.
While we are just past Advent and Christmastide ends this Sunday, I would like to share the Rorate Caeli we recorded because it makes my point – that even very simple chant hymns can be quite heavenly. Please, share this video and my story far and wide – you never know when a soul will be waiting for this very moment to turn to Christ. But more importantly, if you feel God calling you to contribute to the Holy Mass by singing or starting a chant group, do not hesitate. You can do this! Have faith, trust the Lord, and work as though someone’s eternal salvation is on the line. Because it just might be.
Production: Cesar Santos
Audio: Derrich John