Rediscovering our songline

Kyrie eleison

Amid the noise and haste of modern existence, it can be easy to lose track of what really sustains us and gives our lives direction, writes Br Michael Green FMS, Director of Marist Schools Australia.

It's not really a post-modern notion, the concept of cantus firmus. But neither is it an idea whose time has passed. At least Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn't think so; his musicals are often held together by it.

In case you're a little dusty on your musical history, permit me to explain that the cantus firmus was a composition technique that became common when polyphonic sacred music began to emerge from plain chant in the eleventh century.

It was a way of giving a piece of music an anchor, an integrity, a unity – a sort of insurance against beautiful polyphony's descending into discordant cacophony.

Whatever the trills and thrills through which voices and instruments might wander in a complex musical score, they could be brought back to an underlying, constant, and familiar melody. The augmentations to the score then didn't lose their way, or become so caught up in themselves that they lost touch with the fundamental movement or purpose of the piece.

As the centuries went on, it was often that a popular secular song might be chosen for the cantus firmus – something sure and well-known.

Our pluralist, rapid-change, post-modern culture can lack much sense of cantus firmus; indeed, it may reject the very notion. Relativism prevails. The result can be confused and confusing, especially for young people.

We can get absorbed by the immediate, the now, the pressing. Our energies, our imagination and even our values can be hijacked by the latest and most dominant people or issues in our lives.

Lent affords us an opportunity to go back to our primary songline, to renew our connection with what really sustains us and gives our lives direction. Jesus Christ is our cantus firmus: God-with-us, love incarnate.

Sometimes, we need others to sound the melody our cantus firmus for us, because we cannot hear it above the din of our living. Pope Francis is playing that role for the Church, calling her back, humbly but unambiguously, to what is really essential.

Teachers have the opportunity to do the same for the young people in their care. A worthy Lenten challenge.

Read full reflection: From Brother Michael Green (MSA Newsletter)

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