I recently had the privilege of singing Schubert’s Ave Maria at my nephew’s wedding, at the Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. It was a beautiful and moving service in a number of ways, one of which was the wholehearted participation in the Mass by the many young men. From the start it seemed that they all had a strong bond and some history together. But it also felt like something beyond the normal post-college camaraderie – a certain shared unity, strength and commitment. As an example, at one point during the prayer of consecration I noticed the man next to me raising his hands in quiet praise. Then a few moments later it all came into focus when he reached over to take my hand as the Lord’s Prayer began. As I looked around all of them were joining hands as well.
I cannot quite pinpoint what is happening. Having been one of the first to receive Eucharist this morning, I move to the back of the gathering near the ambo. While singing the communion responses, I watch others walking east toward the sanctuary steps to partake. And from behind the altar, there are people processing west toward the altar to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. What strikes me is the simplicity of this Eucharistic ‘journey’. It is beautiful. I am mesmerized. What I see calms me. There is give and take; there is back and forth; there is bowed head and lifted hands. The sight reminds me of something. What, what, what? The ocean………
Here is art engaged in conversation with the heart for which we have no words. Why would you come to a monastery to see contemporary art? For the same reasons you come to worship…the focus is God-ward, the artist’s steps along the way are clear, the path is well lit, and there are companions to be found along the way.
I watched a dance yesterday morning – a ballet. Sitting far back in the church with some visitors, I looked up from the hymnal to see the apse and sanctuary space. The clergy and acolytes were preparing the Eucharist. I watched in awe their graceful movements. Their care, their purposefulness, their cooperation with each other created a majestic choreography lifting me into the reality of what Jesus did on the cross. My internal gratitude to our Lord was more heartfelt than ever before. As I write this late at night, I am still humbled by the ‘dance’ of the Eucharist. Again, My Lord…..Thank You.
I love to sing Gregorian chant. I really do. Our Divine Office books with musical notation and Latin words on the right and English translation to the left are a GPS for focusing one’s mind on spiritual things. My mind, however, is often a trampoline for thoughts that lead to….mistakes. We sing chant antiphonally, verses alternating between men and women. Recently I heard a lone female voice join the men on the last two words of a Psalm verse. It was mine. I considered a cough or foot scuffle diversion – anything to cover the fact that my mind was that far astray. Instead, conscience prevailed. I kneeled (as is our custom), confessed, and re-focused. Until the next time.
My only previous experience as an extended choir member was singing Haydn’s Creation with the Cape Cod Symphony several years ago. This year I was invited to join the choir for a recording of Miserere Mei, Deus (Psalm 51) by Josquin de Pres (French composer 500 years ago). This piece is a five-voice version of the psalm we chant every Friday at Lauds, so the Latin words are very familiar. For the recording the challenge is to sing together, in time, in tune, with the same tone, while reflecting the full meaning of the words. Only by the grace of God, much help, and a great deal of work can I hope to reach this goal. The photo shows the score open to the most difficult bass line I am to sing. I now have a much richer understanding of what it means to sing to the Glory of God!
The evening sun gave a fiery aspect to the church’s oculus window on the eve of the Feast of Pentecost. The next morning we celebrated the fire of the Spirit in our Eucharist worship: festival music from the choir and fanfare from brass, organ and bells. We heard the words of the Spirit: scripture and prophecy in song and story. The service closed with a “still small voice”: a solo cantor singing “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” accompanied by a chamber orchestra.
As I pass between the south side of the church and the marsh, the birds are singing louder than ever on this sharp, clear morning. Soon the Women’s Schola will start recording their new Gregorian Chant CD. “Let everything that breathes, sing praises to the Lord!” Psalm150:6 (NLT)
Sometimes the most unexpected things catch me up short and give me a fresh shot of energy. Getting out of bed was not easy this morning after two runs last night of our upcoming play “The Dining Room.” But I dragged myself to a brass rehearsal at 6:00am (leaving my dog snoozing soundly on his bed!) The first perk was playing “Be Thou My Vision” – one of my favorites – with a great brass group – what’s not to love? But what really caught my attention this morning, after slipping into my seat for Lauds and wondering if I’d make it through the service without falling asleep, was the introduction to the week’s hymn. Our organist was telling us a little of the history of the text written by John Bunyan as he sat in a prison cell, having already suffered tremendous personal loss. Singing his words I had one of those awesome moments where suddenly all life’s “problem’s” seem insignificant in the face of the hugeness of God and the fantastic and exciting adventure that it is to live the Christian life.
“He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, Let him in constancy follow the Master. There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.”
“Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit, We know we at the end, shall life inherit. Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.”