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A significant story is still related in the village of Fleury, France, never rebuilt after the artillery and trench warfare of World War I. In the vicinity still stands the Benedictine Abbey, established in 640 A.D., and only shuttered by passing warfare over the centuries; with the withdrawal of Hitler’s menace, it was refounded in 1944 and thrives today.

This significant story, I mentioned, began in the monastery chapel, on the first day of the Christmas octave, in the early 640s. The Abbott, his advisors, and the community of monk and priests were chanting the Hour of Vespers, or evensong.

Anticipation mounted among the consecrated men. A new short prayer or antiphon of the promised Messiah would precede their chanting the Magnificat, the pregnant Mary’s song of praise and joy in her God.

Moments passed. Then, within shivered breathing exploded sacred words drawn from the prophet Isaiah:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

reaching from one end to the other,

mightily and sweetly ordering all things:

Come and teach us the way of prudence.

As Vespers concluded, the Abbot and his assistants began distributing small gifts to his community and then returned to their Order of Day. Six new antiphons would follow in succeeding days during Vespers and quickly spread throughout European monasteries.

This is one version how The Great “O” Antiphons of Advent came into being, its author’s anonymity purposely veiled. Created in a chaotic world, they speak to ours. There is release, into the sunshine and peace.     

Put together a man with a humble spirit, who for eight years scrapped brilliant compositions until birthing his distinct voice, tintinnabuli (Latin for “little bells”)—and you will thrill with the Estonian genius of Arov Part. I had such an experience.

His Miserere (1992) presents an awesome response to the Coronavirus pandemic, together with a long look at the specter of death in our stunned psyches. Two liturgical hymns comprise this choral work: the Miserere, the great penitential Psalm 51, and the Sequence Dies Irae, found in the Roman Catholic Mass of the Dead. Part’s intimacy with the living Word of God shimmers in each note of the score.

As the piece opens, five soloists implore repeatedly for mercy, accompanied by woodwinds and percussion. Pregnant pauses for reflection follow, slowly building toward thundering drumrolls: Catastrophe has struck—monumental shuddering follows in its wake. With its resolution, the choir ascends to radiant heights over the deep-throated resonance of the organ, tam-tam, and bell. Then it’s over. Earth knows peace.

We open our eyes and blink, then breathe. Mercy’s sweetness enfolds us within humble silence, until the next wave of grief… and the next theophany—the story of our lives.

 

 

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