Interfaith chant bypasses reason, wakens hearts
Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter
Two years ago, Joy Carey, a
founder of Mystical Chant, thought it would be nice for
organizers to provide lunch for those who attended that
first daylong interfaith chanting event.
The volunteers had enough for 400
servings of pita bread and hummus — surely adequate, they
thought, to have leftovers to donate to local soup
The food ran out in minutes.
About 800 people had come to St. Mark's Cathedral to watch
and participate in Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist
"We were absolutely amazed at the
number of people who showed up," said Carey, a counseling
psychologist and Sufic Muslim. "I never expected this to
be an annual event."
Indeed, next Saturday marks the
third Mystical Chant, with about 800 people expected to
chant along with groups representing Buddhism,
Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. (Coffee and tea
will be provided this time, but no lunch.)
So good has the response been
that organizers are hoping the event can serve as a model
for chants in other cities.
"I think this is a prototype of a
possibility of doing deeper interfaith activities that can
move beyond tolerance to really appreciating the spiritual
wisdom in each other's traditions," said Ted Falcon, rabbi
at Seattle's Bet Alef Meditational Synagogue and a
Mystical Chant founder.
Each of the participating groups
will lead audiences in chants from their tradition. The
groups include Taneen, a Sufic Muslim group from San
Rafael, Calif., singing with Navah, a local Sufic Muslim
group; Tiferet, a chanting group from Bet Alef; monks and
members of the Hindu Vedanta Society of Western
Washington; members of the Dharma Sound Zen Center of
Seattle; Peregrine, a Seattle medieval vocal ensemble that
will lead Gregorian chants; and St. Mark's Cathedral
Women's Choir, which will conduct Taize chants — part of a
style of worship created by a monastic community in the
French village of Taize.
"It's quite an amazing atmosphere
when you get 600 or 800 people in a cathedral booming back
when you're doing these faith chants," said Jim DeCaire, a
novitiate monk with the Vedanta Society of Western
Washington, which will be performing shanti mantras (peace
chants). "It really creates an atmosphere of reverence and
respect for various faith groups. It's not one group
trying to outdo another group. That harmony of faith is an
unspoken theme of this event."
For Carey, harmony was the point
in creating a day of interfaith chanting.
"People were focusing too much on
the negative misunderstanding level of the religions,"
Carey said. "It's just obvious that we all come from the
same place, we all go back to the same place, and we are
breathed by the same mystery while on this planet. And
it's obvious the religions are trying to call us to that.
"Music, because it involves the
breath and avoids the mind, goes directly to that
awareness that's in the heart. That's where we have that
knowledge of unity and oneness, that we never seem to be
able to find in the head."
Chanting is a part of most world
religions, with roots that stretch back centuries. The
earliest music in the Jewish service had to do with the
chanting of the Torah. Development of chanting in
Christianity arose in the 4th and 5th centuries, primarily
as a celebration of Mass and in the chanting of psalms
during daily prayers. Many Hindu Sanskrit chants are
devotional prayers to God.
The practice of chanting, with
its repetitious vocalizing of words or sounds, serves to
focus the mind on the sacred and can deepen the spiritual
"I think we forget that
spirituality is intimately interwoven with our physical
being," said Joe Anderson, a spokesman with Peregrine. "We
think it's something out there somewhere — God in heaven
or on a mountain or something — when in fact it's here
with us. By generating a bodily vibration through chant we
bring all of ourselves into involvement with the sacred."
Chant is also "a way to get a
community to breathe together," said Falcon of Bet Alef.
"There is something that happens when you breathe together
— a sense of community and communion that is deeper than
Americans have steadily become
more interested in chant and song "and nonrational ways of
disposing oneself to contact with the divine since the
rediscovery of mystical traditions that began in the late
1960s," said Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of
religion at Pacific Lutheran University.
Recordings of Gregorian chants by
Benedictine monks, as well as the spiritually infused
works of classical composers Henryk Gorecki and John
Tavener, have sold briskly in recent years. Pop stars such
as Madonna have included chants in their hits.
(Another local spiritual music
event making its debut is Town Hall Seattle's "Lift Every
Voice: Celebrating Cultures Through Song." The series
features a night of Jewish cantorial singing and
African-American gospel and spirituals March 2.)
"Most of the time when we do
interfaith events, we talk to each other about our
traditions," Falcon said. "We raise our levels of
understanding, which is wonderful. But the guiding
principle (of Mystical Chant) is to guide each other into
chants and melodies of our actual worship experience and
to share an experience of the holy and to clearly
demonstrate a belief that the universal presence to whom
we direct our energies is the same."
Toward that end, the Muslim,
Christian and Jewish chant groups will be participating at
an interfaith chant in Portland in April, and perhaps
another in San Francisco next year.
At the end of last year's Chant,
"we saw people in the audience, standing up, with their
arms around each other's shoulders, rocking and singing,
and you know that in previous years and generations of
their families, they were probably at war with each
other," said Carolyn Browne, a member of Tiferet and this
year's planning coordinator. "They were spontaneously
expressing the joy of being around each other. Something
special's been created. We hope it perpetuates."