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Posted October 15, 2007

Book: The Benedictine Tradition
Editor: Laura Swan
Liturgical Press. Collegeville, MN. 2007. Pp. 156

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

When St. Benedict wrote his “little rule for beginners” in the sixth century, he could not have known it would shape the lives of religious men and women for more than fifteen hundred years. Offering instruction on prayer and community life, Benedict’s Rule espouses the values of humility, prayer, and hospitality that have marked the lives of Benedictines throughout the ages. Benedictines are those persons who commit themselves to the Rule of Benedict, and have been popes and widows, scholars and mystics, and lay peopel from many religious traditions, including Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans. They have lived in monasteries and ashrams, in busy urban centers, and in desert hermitages.

Dedicated to God and the practices of the Liturgy of the Hours and monastic life, Benedictines have made significant contributions to chant, theology, and the preservation of spiritual works of literature and scholarship. Represented here is the work of major Benedictine figures throughout the ages, beginning with Pope Gregory’s account of the life of Benedict and arriving at recent statements by the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses on conflict in the world. Along with the Rule, the writing of these Benedictines remains as relevant today as in any age.

An Excerpt from the Book:


While the earliest adherents to the Christian movement certainly sang songs and hymns during their gatherings, singing of Old Testament Psalms rarely occurred before the third century. Newly composed hymns were preferred, until the popularity of some heretical hymns led liturgical leaders to find other sources for hymnody.

The women and men dwelling in the monasteries of the desert and city established through their common practice what would become the core of the Monastic Office, namely the continuous recitation or chanting of the full book of Psalms. The psalms and much of Sacred Scripture were memorized. Thus the office could be chanted privately or together with other monastics or while busy with manual labor. With time and a desire to emulate the venerated desert ascetics who prayed without ceasing, more and more urban Christians aspired to pray the full psalmody.

Styles for singing the psalms, either in Divine Office or at Eucharist, took no structured form for several centuries. Early chant, commonly call Old Roman chant, preceded the Gregorian chant we are familiar with today. Gregorian chant was developed not during the time of Gregory I (590-604), but by the schola cantorum under Pope Vitalian (657-672). Old Roman chant was monotonous and somewhat formulaic, with a melody line that did not necessarily match the sung text. Gregorian chant was freer flowing, precise and definitive, with a melody line that more accurately served the text and an ornate oscillating style that is pleasing to the ear. Choirs and cantors memorized both text and chant instruction. The chant tradition, in its earliest centuries, relied on the chant master’s memory. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it did not. While variations are humanly natural, certain chants or styles suffered.

What we today call plainchant is closer to Gregorian chant. It retains the light beauty of Gregorian chant without the burden of technical detail. Gregorian chant, sung well, is technically challenging and requiring both mental and vocal skill. Plainchant often uses the same melody for various texts. This is quite typical for the ordinary psalmody in which the same psalm tone is ued for all the verses of a psalm. Yet it is also used for the more complicated psalm forms such as in the case of the Office antiphons. In plainchant effort is made to adapt the melody to the rhythmical structure of differing texts, and oftentimes it can be observed that care is taken to bring out the sentiments of the words.

Table of Contents:


The Venerable Bede, Monk of Jarrow

Romuald of Ravenna

Anselm of Canterbury

Bernard of Clairvaux

Hildegard of Bingen

Gertrud the Great of Helfta

Dame Gertrude More

Blessed Columba Marmion

Raissa Maritain

Bede Griffiths

Trappist Martyrs of Tibhirine, Algeria

Benedictines and the Chant tradition

Conference of Benedictine Prioresses