Saturday, October 4, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

For the past several years, the first ten days in August has found me in England; as a choir groupie. I’ve had the good fortune to explore Winchester, Salisbury, Gloucester and, this year, Truro with the Cathedral Singers of Ontario. The choir’s focus is to sing daily evensong at an English cathedral for a week. Being in situ for a week gives one a good sense of the ethos of a community.

The choir has an axiom: The first cathedral that you visit is the one with which you will be most smitten. So, with a small amount of coercion, I convinced my pair of travel companions that we should make a brief stopover in Winchester en route to Truro. The sun was brilliant, the air warm, the gardens still beautiful, the refectory welcoming and the cathedral, well...yep, still in love with Winchester.

Using our onboard GPS (with newly purchased European maps uploaded prior to departure), we hustle down to Truro. I am excited about the opportunity to explore Truro and the surrounding areas’ gardens in this glorious weather!

By midweek, it was becoming obvious that venturing out without one’s umbrella and a rain jacket was plumb silly. By week’s end, I was convinced that moss was starting to grow on me; not because I was slow-moving, I was just always damp.

I had decided prior to the tour that I would attempt to attend the daily 8 a.m. Eucharist at the cathedral, along with the daily evensong. And, when the tour moved onto Buckfast Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Devon, I had also decided to attend as many of the hours of the daily office as time would permit.

The morning services at the cathedral were held in a different chapel each day. They were sparsely attended. There were two officiants. The morning service was a most peaceful, intimate way to start the day. The evensong, with gowned choir, elegant music accompanied by organ, and the beauty of the quire, was an exuberant and compelling end for the day. Meaningful bookends for the day were created by these services.

At Buckfast Abbey, the daily office consists of Vigils at 5:45 a.m., Lauds at 6:45 a.m., Eucharist at 8 a.m., Midday prayer at 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Vespers and finally Compline at 8:40 p.m.

I have to admit that, at that very first Vigils service, I wondered what was I doing there. I couldn’t discern what the barely-awake monks were saying, I could barely see them in the shallowly-lit quire and I had no idea when I should kneel, stand or otherwise. Not very many people sing well at that time of day; so we weren’t there for beautiful music either.

Nevertheless, I carried on with my personal commitment to attendance. By Compline, I was physically tired but absolutely smitten with Buckfast. I entered the darkened sanctuary for the last time of the day. It was easy to surrender my body to the pew and my mind to the quietness, because of the fatigue. The service was performed in darkness except for two candles in the quire. Again, I had no idea about the liturgy; I knew however that it was a very mystical experience for me. At the end, out of our pews we filed towards the Lady Chapel, following the monks. In the brilliantly-lit chapel, the monks sang a Marian antiphon, Salve Regina. Leaving in silence, Day 1 of honouring the daily office was complete; the sights and sounds of the day were whirling in my head in a confused but satisfying dance.

The bells signalled the call to each service. The next day found me frequently galloping to chapel, caught up in the busyness of being a tourist. Catching my breath, I found myself being thankful for the break from the secular. It felt centering and calming to stop the day to reflect on my relationship with God.

Back in Canada, shortly after our return, we ventured into Toronto and attended a Vespers service at the Oratory of St Philip Neri . Located on King St. West, it stands on a corner in a rough-around-the-edges section. We carefully put things away in our car; even more carefully tried to decipher the parking signage and made our way to the church.

Unlike Truro Cathedral or Buckfast Abbey, the interior of the oratory is bathed in light, even in late-summer, late-afternoon. The sanctuary is quietly filling with worshippers. The most diverse collection of parishioners that I’ve seen gathered anywhere. Caucasians, Asians, Afro-Americans, well-heeled, down-on-the-heels...just being in such a gathering was inspiration enough.

The Oratory prides itself on its liturgy (Latin Catholic) and its music (paid singers and glorious repertoire). The choreography is precise, even before the service starts. Priests and seminarians carefully prepare the chancel with well-rehearsed movement, all appearing calculated but in a reverential way.

The service has no English, no carefully worded worship guide and no direction from the officiants. Yet, everyone in the pews seems to know exactly where to go in the pew books or what to do. For us, it wasn’t a problem-we simply peered over the pew in front of us, or sat and knelt with the regulars or sometimes we did nothing...simply absorbed by the liturgy. It didn’t matter: it wasn’t a test. As we re-entered the Toronto streetscape, somehow, everything seemed softer, softened.

And then, this Wednesday morning, in the St James’ chapel, the mid-week Eucharist; Malcolm Wilson is presiding. Malcolm treats every aspect of this service with a joy, a gentleness and an appreciation, that causes simple gestures to become graceful but not contrived; words are spoken as if they were wee, tiny babes-to be carefully and gently cradled. At several points, he is required to kneel at the altar. I always watch this gesture with deepest respect: when Malcolm’s knees hit the floor, their thud is a clear ‘Amen’. I’m not sure what I feel most blessed by with his closing benediction: his smile or his beautiful expression of the words. Needless to say, by the time I walk through the chapel doors and into the waiting world, I feel as though I have been in the mystery and mystic space that liturgy can create.

So what?

For me, I had my summer vacation confirm for me, once again, a few things. One: that regular worship is worth making space for. And by regular worship, I mean more than Sunday worship. The cathedral, abbey and oratory that I visited all have daily services. The liturgy is not re-invented for each service; it follows century-old order. There doesn’t have to be a Eucharist at every service; there doesn’t have to be singing. Truth be told, there doesn’t have to be anything, really, just access to the space and quiet contemplative time.

It also reminded me that we spend so much time following the worship guide, caught up in the page that we should be on, that perhaps, we lose sight of the fact that what matters more is not where the page is but where the heart and mind are in the liturgy. It’s not a test. For me, the lack of a worship guide, is maybe a good thing...I can’t be distracted by it.

What I did on my summer vacation was to spend a fair amount of time mindfully exploring how we worship. The more that I did, the more satisfied, calm and peaceful I felt. In my mind’s eye, I can see early morning Eucharist in the Jesus Chapel in Truro Cathedral, I can hear the monks chanting in Buckfast Abbey; I can see the young priest setting the altar in the Oratory and I can hear Malcolm’s knees thump the floor: Soli Deo Gloria.
The Web Scribe

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