During a recent time of transition, as I questioned so much about my vocation, I realized that I was attending the Anglican service of Evensong quite often. Christ Church (Georgetown), St. Francis (Potomac), St. Thomas (Fifth Avenue, NYC), Washington National Cathedral and Christ Church Christiana Hundred (Delaware) became scenes of gentle healing, much needed and quietly strengthening. For the uninitiated, Evensong is that afternoon offering to our ears, hearts and minds of prayers sung by a choir on the listener’s behalf.
I recalled that during a sabbatical in 2013 I had attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals over a 3 month period. I was inspired by the most glorious music, written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy. Not a performance, but performed well. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of musicians who have practiced many long hours. On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener.
Recently, I pulled Gail Godwin’s 1999 novel, Evensong, off the shelf to re-read. I’ve always loved her writing with its artful descriptions of simple joys and complex emotions. She intimately knows the Episcopal church, and writes perceptively about the broken people who are all around us. Who are us. In Evensong she writes about those living in and passing through a small North Carolina town. Each character in some way has been abandoned, mostly by a parent or spouse, but also by their friends, schools, and yes, even their churches. I hadn’t noticed this theme the first time I read the book, but it was quietly apparent this time around. God hadn’t abandoned any of Godwin’s characters, of course, but each sometimes felt alone in their earthly abandoned states. And it would be unrealistic to think you might not question whatever grains of faith you had during those times.
“I’m beginning to think that the times when you lose your faith are the times of your deepest blessing. . . . It is the dark night of the soul. The mystics have written about it. You’re at your very lowest, you have no further to fall, everything is dark and then you can kind of be quiet and see what is speaking to you out of the darkness. . . . I would be more worried about the person who never lost her faith.” — Gail Godwin, from an interview in 1999.
I don’t think anyone feels particularly blessed in their aloneness, but perhaps that is the gift of Evensong. Finding an understanding of the difference between loneliness and aloneness, you can be quiet…experience what is speaking to you out of the darkness, and actively listen for wisdom, reminding you that you are not alone after.
The traditional canticles sung during Evensong are Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis. The link below is to one of my favorite settings, by Tudor court composer Orlando Gibbons. Both Mary and Simeon are alone in their prayers, speaking to God in the darkness…and listening.
Where I’ll be:
May 22, May 29 and June 5 – organist/choir director for the 9:00 am, 11:15 am and 5:00 pm service at St. John’s, Norwood, 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Experienced choral singers who would like sing with the choir there, come at 10:30 for rehearsal before the service.
May 31, June 2 and June 6 – performances of Brahms’ Requiem with the World Bank/IMF Chorus and orchestra, 1:00 pm each of these dates. United Church (G and 20th) on May 31. For performances at the World Bank (June 2) and IMF (June 6) visitors will need to get free passes by contacting email@example.com and allow a few extra minutes to get through the security checks at these institutions.
June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s, Norwood. Come and sing with the Summer Choir there. 9:15 am rehearsal.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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