Where There is Charity

Our bodies are instruments, the first ones that were ever played.  Rhythm comes from our awareness of the beat of our hearts.  Melody is the practiced pattern of chosen pitches, but it originates in the verbal interactions between parents and children.  Our baby squeals reached higher and higher pitches.  It gave us delight.  Our parents lulled us to sleep using peaceful vocal tones.

Here’s another example of a song that has managed the trick of time-travel.  Many of you just heard a bit of it last Friday, but didn’t know how ancient it was.  I’ll show you the trail from long, long ago.

When Christian religious communities first began, they were voluntary refugees from the world.  They prayed, and they chanted.  Chant was a continuation of the Jewish tradition of psalmody, the oral tradition of passing on sanctified verses in song form.  This singing tradition existed long before writing, as far back as the Age of Bronze, more than thirty centuries ago.

This song first began with the statement (in Latin) “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est” which means “Where charity is true, God is there.”  It originated before written music so we can’t date it exactly, but we can read the text in 10th Century manuscripts.  By the 11th Century, the square notes used to chart Gregorian chant accompanied a revised version of the verse saying, “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where charity and love are, God is there.)

This form of the song was used for hundreds of years during the part of the mass when the bread is blessed, but before it is distributed.  It is accompanied by an internal meditation practice performed by monks and nuns called by the Greek term λατρεία, latreia (adoration).  While chant is offered, those about to receive communion contemplate the Seder during which Jesus was reported to have asked his companions to remember him when in future they eat and drink together.

In the thousand years since, the text of the chant has been set to many other melodies, but it also has continued in new arrangements of the original tune.  The one I’ve sung most often was composed by Maurice Duruflé  in 1960 as part of his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens.

I was not thrilled at the prospect of having to watch footage of the Royal Wedding over and over.  I like rituals, and bright colors and good music, but once I’ve seen it, it’s in my head.  I don’t watch my favorite movies or listen to my favorite songs repeatedly.  I replay them mentally.  After a few years, they fade, and then I can enjoy a new view.  So I avoided watching the wedding at first.  My wife understood, but she also had heard something I hadn’t.

The groom had commissioned a new version of the old chant to be performed.  It’s an adaptation of a love song written by Paul Mealor, a composer teaching at St. Andrews, where William and Kate had been students.  Mealor put the text of the old chant to his love song and then (after three verses) placed the original melody to emerge, sung by a solo alto, from within the mist of gorgeous suspensions he had written.

After all the irritating commercialism surrounding the Royal Wedding, the reappearance of the ancient chant enabled me to connect emotionally and understand it as a human and personal event. William and Kate got married not only with a pledge to love and support each other, but also with a public acknowledgement that charity is holy.


Filed under Emotions, Music, symbolism

12 responses to “Where There is Charity

  1. What a lovely sentiment. I’m glad you know what you’re listening to and can explain it to the uninformed, like myself. This adds to the unexplained good feelings I have about this couple. I’m not one for “positive vibes” but I definitely get them from William and Kate. My romantic notions battling the ever growing cynicism, I suppose.

    • Thanks. I would always prefer to find a good quality in people, so I can love them. I think this was an expression of how William’s parents positively influenced his values. I also liked the fact that instead of taking a big trip, they decided he should go back to work, where he’s needed.

  2. I loved every minute of the Royal Wedding. LOVED IT! My favorite part was the wedding ceremony and the music. Every hymn was chosen for a certain reason and means something to them. One hymn was chosen because it was played at Princess Diana’s funeral. My favorite, Jerusalem, was chosen by Prince Charles and a personal favorite of Prince William’s. I agree with Momfog, that this added to the good vibes I received from the young couple. Great post. Please continue to enlighten me.

    • You are pretty enlightened already, especially if you’ve been to the library, but I’ll help anytime I can. “Jerusalem” has great emotional resonance for their family and for Brits in general. It has long been the theme song for their courage as an entire people, especially during times of national struggle. England has no “official” national anthem. Many consider this song to be the one that best represents them. Parry adapted Blake’s poem during the hardest days of WWI. It’s a very dramatic, uplifting melody, kind of like singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

  3. I didn’t even plan on watching the Royal Wedding, the only reason I did was because I had insomnia. I’m glad I did. There was definitely something about this music that made it even more special.

    I agree with DMTF. I love your enlightenment.

  4. This chant (or some version of it) is included in our Taize service at church. The Taize songs are short, simple chants — very lovely. I’m glad to know the history of it. I didn’t watch the wedding, only the highlights, but your post and the comments make me think I really missed something! Maybe I’ll go back at watch the ceremony just to enjoy the music.

    • Yes, I’m both well-versed in and very fond of Taize services. The Taize Community itself began with one brother’s commitment to return to the simplicity of the first religious communities and offer prayer and chant accessible to all in support of peace and justice issues. I like their chants, and I especially like the meditative practice of lectio divina, the repeated reading of a scripture passage or other relevant reading with a period of silence after each repeat, followed by shared, short reactions. Meditation techniques are so important, and easier to do than people think.

      My wife gets all the credit for this topic. I wouldn’t have watched except for her urging. Glad you benefited too!

  5. Mikey, I learn a lot on your blog. We don’t have TV and I would not have caught this phenomenon even if we did, but your second-to-last paragraph here was so tantalizingly well written that I had to go and play each video in order, so that I might be able to even begin to experience what you experienced in the last one. Not every writer would make me want to bother with it. As always, well done and thanks.

  6. I’m so completely infused and educated by television that I’m sure I write like TV, and probably speak like it also. However, I speak and write like the live TV of the fifties and sixties, an exciting time for creativity and joy in exploring the use of a new, democratizing medium of communication. I expect your kids will structure their storytelling in ways that seem like the Internet.

  7. I really enjoyed watching the wedding. I told everyone I was excited to see it, but they didn’t believe me.
    Lovely song.

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