Monday, June 26, 2006

Tibetan Mozart

The idea was already a bit unusual: to interweave traditional Tibetan chants with the various parts of the Mozart Requiem, attempting as much as possible to match the tone or purpose of each section. The monks (about ten of them) are part of a group being sponsored by Richard Gere (!). They go around the world with their message of peace and their plea for a free Tibet, but this concert was not a staged performance. It was their real prayer. The spokes-monk said that the first "movement" was an invocation to the forces of goodness, and it was paired with Mozart's "Introit." The Requiem started with their strong, basso profondo (and I mean profondo like an organ pedal) that seemed to last forever, until one or more voices "flipped" into an upper register with a clearer, lighter tone. It was a powerful, wordless sound. Creepy, really. If I hadn't been convinced that these men were the real deal, and had truly dedicated themselves to peace, I would have thought that the sound was demonic. It was that weird. Then they stopped chanting and began making a "joyful noise" with cymbols and bells and huge horns. And then they walked to the side of the stage, and the orchestra began playing the Introit.
Paired to the "Kyrie" was another (to me, identical) chant, but this one was explained as a purification ritual. I was impressed by this, because our culture does not tend to accept the need for purification in the spiritual sense. But the monks were matter of fact about this. And again, the painfully low, thundering bass groan, sustained for minutes at a time.
When we got home, I kept hearing that groan in my memory, and I reflected on the experience. I have never been present for Buddhist prayer of any sort--except in movies. So this was my first encounter with Buddhist chant. But I had heard something similar, I remembered. It was in 1985, when a group of us had the extraordinary invitation to Mass in Pope John Paul's private chapel.
George Weigel has written about John Paul's "groaning" in prayer. We witnessed this that day. The Pope was on his kneeler, and he was vocalizing in low, wordless groans. No one had prepared us for this, and most of us have been somewhat embarrassed to even refer to it. We didn't know what to make of it. Weigel relates it to the "groaning of creation" in Romans 8. So I was reflecting on this connection: the Buddhist monks, praying on behalf of "all sentient beings in the world" express that in the same external form as the Catholic mystic Pope. The Gospels tell us that Jesus "groaned inwardly" on several occasions, too. And Paul says "the Spirit prays within us with unutterable groanings."
Could it be the "voice" of the Spirit that the Buddhists, having no revelation but creation, have welcomed and given a home? There is something so "fitting" in that--especially that a Catholic saint (I use the word in anticipation of the Church's eventual judgment, and in submission to it!) embodied prayer in the same "mode." That's what really tells me that there is something of a primordial language here, something that goes to the roots of creation. How can we so live in Jesus that the Holy Spirit is utterly free to utter his wordless groans in us, as in Pope John Paul?
Any thoughts on this?

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