A new way to listen; a new way to pray

Matthew 6:9-13

Pater noster qui es in coelis,

Our Father who art in heaven,

sanctificetur nomen tuum.

hallowed be thy name.

Adveniat regnum tuum, fiat voluntas tua

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

sicut in caelo et in terra.

on earth as it is in heaven.

Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie,

Give us this day our daily bread,

et dimitte nobis debita nostra

and forgive us our trespasses

sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Et ne nos inducas in tentationem

And lead us not into temptation

sed libera nos a malo.

but deliver us from evil.

Only five notes of the scale are used for the entire prayer. Extreme economy of means. Anybody can sing this prayer. Everybody can sing this prayer, and of course that is the point.

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray and Jesus gave them this very simple prayer. The chant composers, understanding the essential simplicity of the words, wisely left it alone. This, as one of the earliest “melodic” prayer formulas and just barely removed from ordinary speech, stands its elemental ground as the Church’s prayer. We can hear it resonate through history as if from the far end of the catacombs where the Roman Christians of the first century worshiped the risen Jesus, the same Jesus who only a few years before had taught the prayer to his disciples in Galilee. In this prayer we come into closest proximity to Jesus, his first disciples, and his earliest worshipping community.

If we listen closely to this prayer we can hear its “tune” formed in the mouths of the earliest Christians, the accents of their speech prompting the rise and fall of the melody’s contour. (click this link to listen:  Our Father )

Pater nos-ter, qui es in coe-lis,

sanc-ti-fi-ce-tur no-men tu-um.

Ad-ve-niat reg-num tu-um…

Our Fa-ther, who art in hea-ven… The five notes adapt as easily to English as to the Latin…or German or French or any other of a number of human tongues.

Pa-ter no-ster, qui es in coe-lis, sanc-ti- fi –ce-tur no – men tu – um

1 – 2 1 – 2 -1 – 2 1 – 2 1 –2 (1-2)1- 2 – 3 1 – 2 – 3 1– 2– 3 1- 2 – 3 (1-2)

But, rhythm is the animating force here, as it is in all chant. The understated lilting back and forth through alternating groups of two or three syllables subtly draws the singer into a dance. This dance-like rhythmic quality is not imposed on the words however, it arises from them. The earliest Christians simply spoke these words and listened to them until their essential speech rhythm presented itself. When it did, the “tune” simultaneously choreographed itself. The medieval scribes merely recorded what had been transmitted orally for centuries.

What this says to us in a completely new way, regardless of the fact that it is almost as old as the Church itself, is that Jesus teaches more than just abstract words to recite in prayer. He, in the very words he utters, teaches us that prayer is a dance, that like God’s creative speech our prayers really make something happen. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. Now Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father,” and in our very act of saying it the Father dances over us in love, like Fred Astaire on the tips of our tongues.

5 thoughts on “A new way to listen; a new way to pray

  1. Good job Ric,
    I just happened upon your writing of the Pater Noster today.
    Quite a different and interesting approach and I especially liked
    your thoughts at the end. I am very much taken with life being a
    dance and have written a poem called – The Dance of Life which has
    been printed in Spirit and Life a few years ago. So I am with you in
    believing that the Father dances over us in love and the image of
    Fred Astaire only enhances the whole concept. Thank you.
    You are an inspiration! Sister Mary Jane


  2. Thank you Sister. You are one of the dancing-est souls I know, so coming from you that means a lot. The glory of chant,indeed, language itself, is that gentle lilting dance, feet leading body without seeming to, tongue leading voice without drawing attention to itself. Ultimately, I suspect more and more that it’s the dance of the language that says, communicates and matters even more than meaning.


  3. “The earliest Christians simply spoke these words and listened to them until their essential speech rhythm presented itself.” Is this something you’ve perceived, or something that you learned in musical training? I’m quite curious. It’s a lovely idea, regardless.


  4. It’s literally the way all Christian chant was composed–and comes out of Jewish practice. The idea was not to compose pretty music, but how to amplify the spoken word. “Beauty” was not a consideration until much later, after Platonic thought took hold. Rather, expression of spiritual power as contained in the word of God was, and is, the ideal.


  5. I invited a music librarian to speak on chant in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions in my Western Religions class, and he pointed out something similar. “Chant is not music,” he wrote on the board. It was also interesting to me that a Moroccan funeral chanting of the Qur’an sounded a lot like a percussive but soulful slave spiritual. Chant can take on more earthy tones, too, though I’ll always love Palestrina!


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