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20100907-the-school-of-chant-by-jessica-mesman-griffithWhen the email circulated that there would be a traditional Latin Mass at our parish for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15, I immediately and foolishly wrote back that I wanted to be in the Schola Cantorum.

The extent of my Gregorian chant experience is one weekend at the Abbey of Gethsemani five years ago. My Latin is limited to two semesters in college, the Sign of the Cross, and a CD of hymns by Beth Nielsen Chapman in heavy rotation at our house every Christmas. I’d been to exactly one Latin Mass, almost a decade ago, and remembered only how completely lost I felt among all those Mantilla-clad women, shuffling the pages in the Missal. All I had was bravado.

Soon after we settled on a schedule for choir practice, Dave’s mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. I’d taken on what suddenly seemed to be a shocking amount of freelance work—all due on August 15. The baby, 10 weeks old, stopped sleeping and started drooling buckets, cutting what looked like four teeth at once. I had reached a Zen state of sleep deprivation.

And yet I felt cosmically propelled to see it all through. Maybe it was the memories of the cantors at Notre Dame, their voices ringing out like bells, sonorous and clear, or the holiness of the monks at Gethsamani, chanting the psalms, not always beautifully, but faithfully, through the night. If only I could chant, I’ve always thought, I could really pray. And prayer seemed the only solution for the current state of emergency.

I’d read somewhere that chant comes so naturally, anyone could do it. But the Mass of the Assumption is a High Mass, with propers and antiphons trotted out only on the Marian feast days, some of them so complicated on the first listen that I laughed out loud. I was in way over my head.

When I showed up for the first practice, I did not find monks or choir nuns with years of experience. I found two other women, a Sony Megabass jambox, and a CD from the monks of Solesmes, one of the best chant choirs in the world. This is actually how it’s been done for centuries—not by CD, but viva voce, following the example of another’s voice, chants acquired by immersion, by many years of experience in a Schola Cantorum.

We had exactly three weeks.

We practiced as often as we could, working around my infant’s erratic schedule, the other ladies driving well out of their way to accommodate me. I’d rush through dinner, hurriedly nurse the baby down, grab my rumpled and coffee-stained music and drive to the church, listening to the CD in the car.

I listened while cooking three meals and two snacks for my preschooler, while washing and drying each round of dishes, while checking email, nursing, changing diapers. Soon Dave was playing it too. I’d slouch into the kitchen for morning coffee to the sounds of the Sanctus. I even heard Charlotte humming the mournful Kyrie as she labored over a drawing. It was taking hold in all of us. We never said as much, but I knew that as Dave and I went about our days chanting with the monks, our thoughts turned to his mother.

On the last night of chant practice, just as I was leaving the house, we got a call that she had been rushed back to the hospital with a high fever, signaling a dangerous infection in her brain. I was late getting to the church. The other two ladies were waiting patiently in the pews. We’d stumbled through the Sanctus once when I sat my water glass on the window ledge behind us. It caught on the lip of the sash and began to tip. I lunged to catch it just before hit the stone floor, set it back on the ledge, and when I whipped around to run for a paper towel to mop up the spill, tripped over the plug to the Sony MegaBass, and landed, face first, on the arm rest of a lacquered wooden pew.

I remember the cold stone on my bare legs as I slid to the ground, the warm rush in my cheeks as blood filled my mouth. Loretta, a nurse, rolled me over on my back, and I managed to ask her, Did I lose a tooth? Smile, she said, and I smiled obediently. She shook her head no. I laid back, closed my eyes, and for a moment, everything went black.

My head ached for days, the outline of the pew a shadow on my right cheek. By the 15th it had faded to a sickly yellow and I was no longer dizzy. We three ladies stood in a semi circle, under Mantillas, and chanted. I was so nervous I don’t remember much about the Mass. I don’t know if we sounded like a choir of angels or a murder of crows.

But the chants no longer seemed impossible. They seemed inevitable.

Now that hectic week of chant, work and family drama is already a distant, yet somehow, pleasant, memory. My mother-in-law, impossibly strong, is recovering well from a second brain surgery. My bruised cheek has healed. But the Sanctus is still gloriously stuck in my head. This morning, as the last August sun rose behind the red barn, Charlotte turned from her drawing to smile at me when she heard the now familiar call:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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