Cantatio Divina

Over the last 5 years, I’ve frequently used a practice of “sacred singing” that I’ve called Cantatio Divina with various groups of worship-focussed songwriters. Below is an explanation of the idea, its historical and biblical foundations and some tips for leading this practice in your own context.

Old-Piano-HD-Wallpaper-1“Do we read the Bible for information about God and salvation, for principles and ‘truths’ that we can use to live better? Or do we read it in order to listen to God and respond in prayer and obedience?” – Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book.

Lectio Divina (or sacred reading) as a Benedictine practice saw scripture not simply as a book to study but as a place to meet with a living God, believing the presence of God could be experienced through meditating on the Word of God. Lectio provides the prayerful student of God’s Word a powerful path to follow in praying the scriptures. In the practice of Lectio Divina, one moves through 4 stages – lectio (reading the Word), meditatio (meditation on the Word), oratio (praying the Word), and contemplatio (contemplating the Word). That final stage of contemplation is not simply “thinking about the word” but a centered union with the Word Himself, bringing the heart and the mind into resting in the presence of God. This movement might be viewed as a kind of labyrinth for the soul, encouraging the reader ever-inward toward a deeper union with God through a prayerful reading of God’s Word.

Similarly, Cantatio Divina (or sacred singing) is a practice that can provide us a place to encounter God through singing God’s Word. Cantatio as a group practice anchors our spontaneous singing or prophetic singing in the Word of God or quite literally in the words of God. In Ephesians 5:18-21, the apostle Paul instructs the church at Ephesus that the filling of the Holy Spirit is supposed to result in us speaking and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. In a parallel comment to the church at Colossae, Paul suggests that these spiritual songs cause the word of Christ to “dwell richly” in us. Our thankful singing gives life the word of God in our hearts (Col 3:16). To the church at Corinth, Paul gives specific instructions about prophecy in worship and even specifically guidelines for the practice of spiritual or prophetic singing. “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:15-16, ESV). Sacred singing is certainly a biblical practice but must be practiced in a way that leads to understanding – to the word of Christ dwelling richly in us.

CANTATIODIVINASimilar to the pattern the Desert Fathers established for Lectio Divina, Cantatio Divina has four distinct movements: Inquisitio (searching the Word), Lectio (reading the Word), Cantatio (singing the Word), Concentio (choral agreement with the group). Participants move in and out of these four stages freely, sometimes searching the scriptures, sometimes joining the singing of another group member, sometimes reading scripture allowed, and sometimes spontaneously singing the word of God that has been read or singing their own prayerful response to either what they have read aloud or what they have heard read aloud. While the goal of Lectio Divina is centered oneness with God, Cantatio Divina moves the participants toward a communal harmony with each other and with The Melody, Himself. Once a time of Cantatio Divina has begun, there is no need to follow a specific order of these four movements. Participants may move freely from concentio back into the cantatio of their own heart’s response to God’s word. Or they might move from a time of lectio straight back into inquisitio and find another passage to read aloud before singing anything at all. Each participant is allowed to follow their own path into an experience of God’s presence through this uniquely musical interaction with God’s word.

I traditionally begin the practice of Cantatio Divina by identifying a specific aspect of God’s character on which the group will focus (ie. “search the psalms for evidence that God is sovereign”). Because God is diamond-like with infinite facets of beauty, any aspect of God’s nature can serve as a rich beginning point for this practice. Occasionally I will lead at least one familiar worship song as a beginning point for the time of sacred singing, inviting the group to enter into a spirit of thanksgiving and inquisitive expectation. Sometimes this initial time of singing eases the anxiety of those inexperienced in the practice of prophetic singing and gets the ear used to the sound of worship in the particular space where we have gathered.

As the musical leader of a time of Cantatio Divina, I will play a repeating pattern of chords on piano or guitar that might serve as a canvas on which our time together might take shape. Any key, any progression, and any tempo can work. Particular care should be taken to keep the repeating pattern consistent for the sake of the singers. I might change the chord progression, key, tempo, or key signature once or twice during the practice but only when the entire group is in a season of inquisitio or oratio. These occasional changes keep the time fresh and moving forward. Dynamically, the musical leader can and SHOULD respond to the singing of the group, rising and falling on the same tide as their sacred singing.

The practice normally includes some time of quiet music as the group members individually search the scriptures for passages that draw their attention (inquisitio). As some participants continue searching the scriptures, others might begin reading the Word of God allowed to the group (oratio). As the musical leader you might spur on their cantatio by singing your own simple “thank you Father,” or “hallelujah.” You might encourage their concentio by listening well to their singing and joining someone’s song even verbally encouraging the group to join in singing a particular word or phrase that you’ve heard someone vocalize.

bible-study-groupI usually end the practice of Cantatio Divina either be verbalizing a prayer of gratitude to God for the specific aspect of His character on which the group has been focussed or by unifying the group around another familiar song of worship.

I hope you find in the practice of Cantatio Divina the same rewards I have: a deeper love not simply for the word but for its Author, not simply for worship but for The Song, himself.

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