We find stories to be powerful testimonies to how God is leading in our lives. So Snapshots is inaugurating a new feature in which we’ll invite the School of the Spirit community (including you) to tell us what leadings look like in their lives. Think about whether you have a story to share, or know someone whose ministry story intrigues or inspires you. Send suggestions for future columns to email@example.com or volunteer to interview them yourself and write it up.
Here, Joann Neuroth, board co-clerk, interviews Tony Martin, a graduate of the 11th class of On Being A Spiritual Nurturer about his call to a ministry of chants.
Joann: Tony, as a Person of Presence at SN11, I witnessed your project presentation in which you performed several chants you had developed from Thomas Kelly’s words. How did that project come about?
Tony: Kelly has always attracted (and frankly, scared) me. He’s so sure of his connection to the Divine, and he emphasizes so strongly the need for surrender or what he calls “holy obedience.” Well, I’m drawn to the fruits of that, which are so apparent in his writing, but its scary to think of what such a surrender might cost or where it might lead. Nevertheless, his words inspire me, and I thought that if I could sing them, it would help me remember them. Paulette Meier’s album, Timeless Quaker Wisdom, in which she sings the words of early Friends in a simple unaccompanied style she calls “plain song,” gave me the idea that I might do something similar with Thomas Kelly’s words. I read Testament of Devotion three times. Finding “singable” nuggets that resonate out of his rich context was harder than I imagined. But eventually I accumulated a project’s worth of singable quotes. And then it was a matter of letting the words and different tunes knock around inside of me till they settled into a melody I could remember and repeat.
Joann: Have you been surprised by how it’s developed?
Tony: For sure. Recently Paulette Meier, who I’ve admired from afar, invited me to be part of a Pendle Hill chant workshop. I immediately said yes, but then realized I’d just signed up to lead 9 hours of chanting on Zoom! I was appalled and sure that it couldn’t be done and thought about backing out. But I am so glad I didn’t. We interspersed the chanting with journaling and worship-sharing and breaks and it turned out that it was more than OK; many of the chanters told us they found it wonderful. Things turn out to be possible that I couldn’t make happen alone.
Joann: Well, in fact, the whole Zoom technology might have been an obstacle. How do you manage that?
Tony: Patsy (my wife and fellow SN11 grad) and I had been leading monthly in-person chant groups for years in our little town of Bedford with 6-8 people and at our Roanoke Quaker Meeting with 15-20 people attending. When the pandemic put that on hold indefinitely, Patsy suggested we try it online. My first reaction was, no way. As you probably know, the audio lag makes it impossible to chant live together on-line. We got around that by chanting to recordings while muted. At first, we used recorded chants from our mentor Beverly Shepard. Then we began experimenting with mixing the recorded voices of our own group. I would send out ahead of time, a recorded melody with my voice, inviting participants to record themselves singing along … then I’d dub the recordings together to make a multi-voice chant. Eventually we worked out the technical wrinkles and over the past year have assembled a repertoire of 30 chants from which we can pick a set for a given session and invite people to sing along while muted. Each of us can hear ourselves and the recording … and see others do the same.
But the important part for me is getting beyond the technology enough to focus on making it worshipful and intimate. For one thing, Bev taught Patsy and me in our first FGC Chanting Workshop in 2000, that there’s an “arc” to a whole chanting experience. We choose chants that follow a sequence: invocation … gratitude … lament/supplication … answer … healing … more gratitude … and finally benediction. And we’ve developed a practice we call “basking” afterwards – we sit in the rich silence and Friends who are moved to do so, offer reflection or response in a worship sharing kind of way. The response continues to amaze me, from the initial small groups of 10 or 12 we began with last March, we have steadily grown to where we had 37 people at our last session.
Joann: Could interested people join you in this experience?
Tony: Absolutely. We meet twice a month on Zoom: On the 4th Tuesday at 7pm and the 2nd Friday at 4pm. People can simply email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for the Zoom link. My wife Patsy is the indispensable partner for all of this – the administrator and tech person who keeps us running smoothly, and she’ll be glad to put you on the email list.
Joann: Does it come easy to you to think of this as a “ministry?”
Tony: It’s becoming more and more easy to think of it that way, largely because there is a life to it that seems to thrive and grow independent of how I feel. There was a point early on in our Zoom chanting experiment where I wasn’t feeling the deep connection that came so dependably when chanting in person and I thought, “This isn’t working, Maybe we ought to lay it down.” But people kept coming, so they were obviously getting something out of it. I’ve been nervous about this conversation because there’s a fine edge between offering oneself and performing. I want to be a pure instrument but worry about where I might be leading with ego. In person, I’m able to clearly be at Spirit’s disposal, but with zoom, there is so much preparation that it can feel pre-meditated and performance-like. Still, Patsy and I feel called to do this work which feeds our spirits and seems to answer a need in others. So, my ego notwithstanding, yes it does feel like ministry. I’ve been leading chants with a study group as part of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Northeast Wisdom School on Zoom, and recently was asked by the group to set to chant a prayer another participant offered that had moved us all. When I sent it out, I noticed how eager I was for positive feedback and wondered if that meant I was doing it for selfish reasons. But what I heard back from the originator of the words was deeply affirming – the music was able to take the words inside to a deeper level. So, I’m coming to see that I don’t need to be a perfect instrument – I just need to be available and God can use me even if I still have neediness and work to do.
Joann: What do you see for the future?
Tony: Well, there’s no question we’re longing to return to in-person chanting. There’s a part of this that just can’t happen except when you’re singing responsively to each other. My favorite metaphor is a starling flock: you can see them move together like a living whole. They’re not exactly moving “as one” but they are moving responsively to each other and that creates a larger “whole.” When we chant in person, I may start a chant but when people pick it up, it’s not mine anymore. It takes on a life of its own. None of us know where it’s going. we slow down, speed up, harmonies and counter melodies emerge, it seems to finish and then picks up again until somehow, we all know that it’s over, like a flock of starlings settling together into a tree.
The question is whether and how we’ll keep both in person and on-line versions going. There is a program (that has some entry barriers) that would allow singing together in real time. I’m excited to explore that. Maybe a hybrid of some singing in real time and others singing along muted could be possible. But so long as there are Friends/friends who want to chant with us, we will continue chanting.Play or Download "As the Deer Longs" Chant Play or Download "Divine Abyss" Chant