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The Monk Who Couldn’t Sing

by Catherine Doherty

Once upon a time in France, there was a beautiful abbey which was renowned throughout the whole medieval world for its singing.

In the midst of all the monks with their marvellous voices, was one little monk who desired to sing with his whole, whole, whole heart. But he was tone deaf; he couldn’t carry a tune.

He loved to listen to the music and sometimes sat in the corner behind the choir and wept a little that he couldn’t praise the Lord in song.

One day the abbot came excitedly to the monks and told them, “The king is coming to visit us. He has heard of our singing and wants to hear it himself. You had better prepare.”

So leaving aside everything they could, they spent much of their time practicing.

The abbot said to the little monk, “When the king is here, do not open your mouth.”

Finally the great day arrived, and the choir began to sing. They sang so beautifully that those hearing it felt like they were hearing the heavenly choir itself.

The little monk was hiding in the choir loft, in ecstasy at hearing the music. He was so full of the love of God that he couldn’t stop himself. Right in the midst of everything, he lifted his voice and sang. Of course, he was completely out of tune.

The whole choir just stopped. Someone found the little monk and took him away.

That night, the abbot was so angry that he could barely contain himself. He ordered the little monk to spend the next twenty-four hours on his knees on a very cold floor in a very cold cell. After the little monk left to do this, the abbot became calmer and began to prepare for bed.

Suddenly he was startled by a glowing light which seemed to fill the room. And there, standing before him, was the Mother of God. Though always gentle and tender, she was on this occasion rather stern—as a good mother might be with a wayward son.

She said: “Heaven was filled with a terrible sound this evening, a harsh grating noise full of self-centeredness, pride and vanity. It was the sound of your evening prayer, which you sang for an earthly king.

“It was almost unbearable. And just as all of us were wondering if we could possibly listen any longer, we heard a faint sound of such sweetness and purity that it began to transform the disharmony into something almost pleasant.

“As your little monk lifted his heart to the Heavenly King, his voice grew stronger. It permeated the terrible noise the rest of you were making, and what finally reached our ears was more beautiful than anything we have heard from this monastery in a long time.

“So, my son, I suggest you go to your brother and offer him your bed for the night. Take his place on your knees for the remainder of the twenty-four hours; for it is he, not you, who has greatly pleased the Heavenly King.”

In his long nightdress, the abbot got up and went into the cold church. He was shaking like a leaf.

From that time on, the little monk was allowed to sing with the choir and from that time on; they began to sing from their hearts for the glory of God.

Adapted from three different written accounts of this story, which Catherine used to tell us often when the subject of music came up.