The Tidings Online Monday Nov. 5th, 2012
In Pasadena: Hooked on chant and meditation at Assumption
Written by BRENDA REES
The church is nearly dark, except for twinkling candles and soft light from the side altars that illuminate peaceful shadows, cast upward on the smooth walls.
It’s the last Wednesday of the month at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Pasadena, where organizers are preparing for the monthly meditation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. A small but dedicated group attends the quiet time service that is punctuated with reflective readings by Father Gerard O’Brien, pastor.
Participating parishioners are joined in meditation with musical selections by the parish Gregorian Chant Choir, a steadfast group of singers who are infusing ancient prayers into modern life.
Headed up by parishioner Timothy O’Brien (no relation to Father O’Brien), the group has been formally meeting since the beginning of the year for weekly rehearsals and at the monthly meditation evenings.
Tonight, as the choir members arrive, O’Brien sets up chairs near the back of the church, installs a small light on his music stand, and rearranges sheets of music. He’s also thrilled, he says, to use an iPad with a keyboard app for establishing musical pitch to his choir — an unexpected but certainly useful example of the marriage of new technology with early musical art form.
The service begins with Father O’Brien bringing out the Blessed Sacrament. The choir sings an opening chant, establishing a quiet and thoughtful mood.
During the hour-long meditation, the choir will sing about five selections. O’Brien chooses hymns, psalms, antiphons and a variety of chants that are relevant to the liturgical season.
The noise from outside dissipates, the quietness takes hold and the richness of sound is magnified.
“One thing I realized is that you don’t need a huge choir to make an impact,” O’Brien says, recalling his days back in his New Zealand homeland singing in choirs. “That surprised me. The quality of the sound can certainly carry on its own.”
There wasn’t always live singing at the monthly meditations. Recorded CDs were used until O’Brien approached his pastor about starting a Gregorian Chant Choir last year.
“I went to the meditation service and thought it was very good, but I wondered what it would be like to have live music,” says O’Brien, admitting that he has no professional training in music, just lots of, as he says, “experience as an amateur.”
Father O’Brien liked the idea and soon CDs were replaced with real voices.
“We get lots of comments from people who say they enjoy the live music,” says Frances Inafuku who coordinates the meditation time. “I don’t think any other church in the area is blessed to have live music like this at a completive prayer service.”
For members of the choir, singing takes concentration but the rewards are many. “The beauty of the music is its simplicity,” says member Cassa Bernardini who has a degree in music and has been with the group since its inception.
How was the parish originally “inspired” by chanting and prayer practice? “We were visited [some years ago] by an abbot from a Benedictine monastery,” explains Bernardini. “We all learned about his daily life and how chanting and singing were such an integral part of their daily prayers. Chant is something you need to do with one another; it’s communal. We got hooked.”
As the group continues to learn new chants and expand their repertoire, O’Brien hopes that new members (no prior singing experience is necessary) will join and experience the joy of singing. To help newbies, he translates the Latin chants so members have a sense of what exactly they are singing.
“It is prayer after all, and, yes, we are performing and we want to do our best, but we are providing a pray-full experience to both the singer and listener,” he says.
Near the end of the meditation service, Father O’Brien offers up the songs of Adoration to the Blessed Sacrament at the altar. After the monstrance is put away and the crowd rises to leave, O’Brien and his choir members smile at one another.
“I think chant is a beautiful art and I’m sad that it’s fallen out of general use,” he says. “I hope that our group can reawaken that sense of wonder and peace.”
Monthly meditation prayer services at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, Pasadena, are usually the last Wednesday of every month. Information: (626) 792-1343. The parish Gregorian Chant Choir rehearses Tuesdays, 7:30 p.m. in the school’s Science Lab. Contact Tim O’Brien, (626) 353-0232.
Picture 1: Timothy O’Brien (right) talks with Gregorian Chant Choir member Denise Hornick prior to rehearsal at Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary Church. The choir sings at monthly meditation prayer service.
Picture 2:Gregorian Chant Choir members of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church include Cassa Bernardini, Robert Lydon, Timothy O’Brien (director), Frances Inafuku, Denise Hornick (absent) and Tiny Bennett.