The Caesura

Those who love Gregorian Chant are probably thinking, ‘We all know what the caesura is. We merely disagree how long it should be!’ If you think I am going to propound any new theories about its duration, you will be disappointed. I’m more concerned with its meaning.

The caesura — the pause in the musical line which occurs midway through a verse of psalmody — is an important element of plainchant. It gives shape to the music but also, more significantly, provides a brief silence in the midst of the singing to allow the words to sink in. This embrace of silence in the very midst of choir is a reminder that we are meditating on the Word as we sing it. Even at our ‘noisiest’ there is a silent dimension to monastic life. It is this silence that makes monastic life seem at odds with the world around us, where a constant stream of sound is the accompaniment to everything from jogging in the park to driving the car. Silence is one of the great asceticisms of monastic life and one that many an outsider finds unnerving, but it is also a source of profound joy and peace, a blessing to all who experience it.

The monk carries within him a vast silence, but it is not an empty silence, nor an uncomfortable silence. It is the silence of the attentive heart, waiting for God to speak, aware that the Word may be spoken in the brief pause between two halves of a psalm verse.