This year, my wife and I experienced the culmination of Holy Week in a very unique and special place: Holden Village – a Lutheran retreat center in the North Cascade mountains of Washington State. The site of an active copper mine from the 1930s until its closure in 1957, it is operated as a year-round center for retreat, learning, and worship. I had heard of it for years from some of the others in the Compline Choir who are regulars, but it was my first time there.
To get to Holden, one has to take a boat, the “Lady of the Lake,” up Lake Chelan for about an hour and a half, disembark, and form a “bucket brigade” to pass baggage and supplies to the old school bus that meets the boat. The bus then drives up a one-lane gravel road twelve miles into the mountains which surround the former mining town. We felt privileged to be the last visitors there before the village closed to guests for the summer, due to the arrival of hundreds of workers on an environmental mine remediation project; Holden will be open again to summer guests in 2016. There is a permanent staff throughout the year, made up of volunteers who commit to a period of service for many months or years. There are many young college graduates working at Holden before moving on to the next phase of their lives.
We got there on Good Friday, and the service that evening was very moving, with the community gathered around the foot of the cross. Many people contributed to the worship in different ways – reading, singing, playing instruments. The feeling of community was palpable, with parents of staff members visiting for Easter, and with many children of staff members, who attend a one-room school in the village. Needless to say, their teachers were in the community as well.
The Easter Vigil was unique, with the lessons at the beginning proclaimed in different locations and media throughout the village. The Eucharist was followed by a dessert extravaganza in the dining hall. And Easter Morning Matins was also celebrated in the hall, complete with an excellent bell choir:
Lent and Easter have been very special times for us at Compline; you can listen to many services of exquisite music at www.complinepodcast.org. We’ve also been working toward a special Peter Hallock Gala Tribute Concert on May 9, with the chamber choir Opus 7.
Here’s an Easter hymn for you, “Lift your voice rejoicing, Mary,” from the beginning of our podcast from the Third Sunday of Easter. Christ the Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!
Lift your voice rejoicing, Mary,
Christ has risen from the tomb;
on the cross a suffering victim,
now as victor he is come.
Whom your tears in death were mourning,
welcome with your smiles returning.
Let your alleluias rise!
Raise your weary eyelids, Mary,
see him living evermore;
see his countenance, how gracious,
see the wounds for you he bore.
All the glory of the morning
pales before those wounds redeeming.
Let your alleluias rise!
Life is yours for ever, Mary,
for your light is come once more
and the strength of death is broken;
now your songs of joy outpour.
Ended now the night of sorrow,
love has brought the blessed morrow.
Let your alleluias rise.
Time passes so quickly; January is almost over, and I can’t believe my last post was before Christmas of last year.
I’d like to look back at 2014, remarkable in its moments of both grief and joy for the Compline Choir in Seattle:
We had times of great grief beginning in April, when our founder and director from 1956-2009, Peter R. Hallock, died. Also in 2014, death took two of Peter’s closest associates for many decades. Carl Crosier, Peter’s business partner in Ionian Arts, and founder of the Compline Choir at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, died in August. Then in December, Glenn White passed away; Glenn was a remarkable acoustician, recording engineer, organ builder, and wine expert who collaborated with Peter on many projects over six decades. At his celebration of life on December 18, 2014, Peter’s Te Deum Laudamus (containing material pre-recorded by Glenn) was played in lieu of a sermon. If you’ve missed any of the descriptions of the services honoring Peter or Carl, go back a few posts on this blog, and you will find many links. Jason Anderson, director of the Compline Choir, recently published “I Call: A poem reflecting on loss” – I really recommend it to you. Also, I hope to write more about Glenn White and the Te Deum.
Now I’d like to report on some happier news from 2014. It was back in January of 1989 that my youngest daughter Francesca was born; until 2014, it was the last time that a child had been born to a currently-singing member of the Compline Choir in Seattle. But in 2014 we were blessed by the birth of not one child, but three! All three fathers have musical careers. Fred McIlroy is Organist-Choirmaster at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood, WA, where he also directs a Compline Choir once a month. Justin Cormier is accompanist coordinator at Seattle Pacific University, and organist at First Free Methodist Church. Brian Glosh and his family will be moving to Virginia at the end of February, but we’ve been blessed with his contribution to Compline over the past year; listen to his countertenor solo at the beginning of “Once in Royal David’s City,” which we did in procession on the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 4. Brian, we’re going to miss you!
Events to Note
January 31, 2015 would have been the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and prolific writer.
On Saturday, February 28, 2015, 9am, I will be giving a presentation at the Search for Meaning Book Festival, an annual event sponsored by the Seattle University School of Theology. The Compline Choir is going to assist me in my talk, which is titled “Prayer as Night Falls: Seeking the Numinous at the End of the Day.” See the festival link for more information; I’m the second author listed under the “P’s.”
I love the Advent season, with its many stories and images of expectation and patient waiting for the coming of Christ. One of these images, that of the Church as Bride and Christ as Bridegroom, occurs in several Advent hymns or anthems that we sing at Compline at this time of year. It refers to Christ’s return on the Day of Judgment, which is another Advent theme.
And will Christ come at midnight, as in the parable of wise and foolish virgins (and the wonderful Audivi vocem de caelo by Thomas Tallis)? Or will it be at dawn, as in the hymn, “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding”:
Waken’d by the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,
Shines upon the morning skies.
I was reminded of this latter image while on vacation in Montana several months ago. Our train arrived in Whitefish at 4:45 in the morning; We picked up the keys to our rental car (left trustingly at the station counter), and set off for Missoula in the early-morning darkness. It happened that as I was driving around the west side of Flathead Lake, I saw a wonderful brightening beginning in the eastern sky, and parked for ten or fifteen minutes in the chilly silence. The picture shown here was one of the last, when everything was at its most glorious.
I had never really taken the time to watch a sunrise, but I kept thinking of Peter Hallock’s setting of “The Dawning” by the 17th-century mystical poet Henry Vaughan (1622-1695). Peter wrote this for the Compline Choir in 1988, and it was the first of his two compositions for men’s voices accompanied by five ‘cellos. It was commissioned by The Cathedral of St. John, Denver, Colorado. The piece is more than eight minutes long, so it’s ideal for listening when you have some time to put aside the busyness of the season for a little Advent reflection.
AH! what time wilt Thou come? when shall that cry,
The Bridegroom’s coming! fill the sky;
Shall it in the evening run
When our words and works are done?
Or will Thy all-surprising light
Break at midnight,
When either sleep or some dark pleasure
Possesseth mad man without measure?
Or shall these early, fragrant hours
Unlock Thy bow’rs,
And with their blush of light descry
Thy locks crown’d with eternity?
Indeed, it is the only time
That with Thy glory doth best chime;
All now are stirring, ev’ry field
Full hymns doth yield;
The whole Creation shakes off night,
And for Thy shadow looks the light;
Stars now vanish without number,
Sleepy planets set and slumber,
The pursy clouds disband and scatter,
All expect some sudden matter;
Not one beam triumphs but from far
O at what time soever thou
Unknown to us the heavens wilt bow,
And, with Thy angels in the van,
Descend to judge poor careless man,
Grant, I may not like puddle lie
In a corrupt security,
Where if a traveller water crave,
He finds it dead, and in a grave.
But as this restless, vocal spring
All day and night doth run, and sing,
And though here born, yet is acquainted
Elsewhere, and flowing keeps untainted;
So let me all my busy age
In Thy free services engage;
And though (while here) of force I must
Have commerce sometimes with poor dust,
And in my flesh, though vile and low,
As this doth in her channel flow,
Yet let my course, my aim, my love,
And chief acquaintance be above;
So when that day and hour shall come,
In which Thyself will be the sun,
Thou’lt find me drest and on my way,
Watching the break of Thy great day.
(Recording: The Compline Choir, from the CD Night Music, c2001. Baritone soloist: Vernon Nicodemus. A companion piece for five ‘cellos, Jubilemus Omnes, was written in 1997 and revised in 2003.)
[Today, the Compline Underground comes closer to what I’d envisioned when I started the blog several years ago. I not only wanted to write my own thoughts about Compline, but let the blog be a place where others can share theirs as well. And so that this space can be a real forum, I am establishing contacts with the more than eighty places outside monasteries in the U.S. and Canada where one might hear Compline regularly – daily, weekly, or seasonally. You can see these in the tab “Where to experience Compline.” Now I would like to introduce our first guest blogger, Jeff Reynolds. Jeff started a weekly Compline service at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City, California in 2009 and has since then written or arranged over 1600 pieces of music for Compline, suitable for various vocal combinations]:
Seldom in our lives are we presented with something so unlikely. As someone who lives in North America where the ancient past is considered 50 years, what are our chances to chant Compline in an 800-year-old Spanish Monastery’s Chapter House, or any 800-year-old structure?
Even if we could make a pilgrimage to Spain, we would find the main building of the Spanish Monastery has moved to Vina, in Northern California. William Randolph Hearst had workmen disassemble the Chapter House (built by the Monks, 1190-1220) and ship it to San Francisco in 1930. He had a vision to construct a bigger and more magnificent “Hearst Castle”, and the Chapter House would be a key element. He lost interest as he lost in the 30’s economy, and the limestone ‘stones’ gathered moss in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
The first abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux petitioned the City of San Francisco to buy the stones for reassembly on the grounds of the abbey at Vina. They accepted his bid of one dollar and shipped the stones to the abbey where they were slowly reassembled by skilled stone masons. Over time some stones were pilfered from the Park and the masons had to improvise with some new pieces. On an Anglican men’s retreat of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (est. 1854) in Nevada City CA, we decided to chant Compline in the confines of the ‘sacred stones’, as they are called.
We had two men who had sung Compline before and two volunteers who could read music. I put a simple, medieval Compline together in book form and we had one rehearsal with the two that had never sung Compline before. The result was authentic, if not great. It was a truly mystical experience. You simply were not in the here and now. The ‘Stones’ seemed to radiate some ancient vibes of worship long past.
On October 12, 2014, the Compline Choir celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of my joining the choir in 1964. Some of the alumni who had sang with me over the years were invited to sing Compline, as well as come to a little dinner-celebration before. I was also invited to choose the psalm, hymn, nunc dimittis canticle, and the anthem for the service, which can be heard at the choir’s podcast site.
In addition, Jason Anderson, director of the Compline Choir, asked me ten questions in the form of an interview, which will be published in the St. Mark’s quarterly, The Rubric. Following is the complete text that I sent – I hope you will find it of interest:
JA: Could you describe your book Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline in four sentences or less for those who might not know about it? Why might one want to read your book?
KP: One review of the book was titled “a love story at day’s end,” and I thought that was very apt; the reviewer went on to describe it as “equal parts history, memoir, travelogue, theology, and music history.” There are several strands that I weave together: the story of Compline within the greater narrative of Christian fixed hour prayer; themes relevant to the spiritual journey; my own experiences; and musical examples for listening and reflection. I think that anyone on their own inner pilgrimage would enjoy this book.
JA: You masterfully weave multiple, distinct story lines in your book. Talk about the early history of the book and how you came to write it as published. When did the idea of authoring a book about Compline first come into your mind? Who helped you along your journey as author?
KP: About fifteen years ago, a fascination with Compline led me to create a new version of our Order of Compline, in modern, inclusive language; this led to my wanting to tell both the story of Compline, and of my own spiritual journey, as a preface to a collection of prayers, hymns, psalms, and anthems, selected from our service. In 2009 this had metamorphosed into a number of chapters organized around different themes such as “Light and Darkness” and “Death and Life.” I sent several chapters to Phyllis Tickle, author of many books, including The Divine Hours, a daily compendium of fixed-hour prayer. She thought my book was a wonderful idea, and put me in touch with Jon Sweeney at Paraclete Press. But as it went through their committee process, I realized that it just wasn’t a cohesive story. I got a writing coach, Waverly Fitzgerald, who helped me immensely, and a totally reorganized book went to Paraclete with a formal proposal in 2012. At that point they gave me a contract, and when in April 2013 the manuscript was submitted, Jon Sweeney (who is now the publisher of Paraclete Press) gave it a superb once-over that caused me to re-arrange chapters, write one new chapter, and, in general, eliminate those things that would cause the reader to “go to sleep.”
JA: Can you retell the story of your first Compline experience? When did you first hear about Compline and from whom? How did you come to join the choir in 1964?
KP: I had just started my freshman year as a music major at the University of Puget Sound, when David Calhoun, a UPS alum, invited me to sing in the Compline Choir in Seattle. The first chapter of my book describes this experience, but it is interesting that from my very first contact with Compline I sang in the choir, rather than first coming to hear the service (which is more typical).
JA: You have a love for early music, medieval and Renaissance music in particular. Is this a result of your Compline experience or another influence?
KP: Yes, Compline gave me my initial contact with chant and Renaissance music. And from Peter Hallock I received a connection and fascination with the Early Music movement. In 1965 the Flentrop organ was installed, a manifestation of the interest in neo-Baroque tracker-action instruments, and in the fall of that year I attended a concert of Renaissance and Baroque music where Alfred Deller (Early Music pioneer and the reason why Peter became a countertenor) was soloist and conductor with groups from the University of Washington School of Music. At the same time I took my first music history course, which really implanted a passion I have had for early music ever since.
JA: Of all current singers in the Compline Choir, you have the longest history of working with and learning from Peter Hallock. Would you share some favorite stories, events, and/or pearls of wisdom from him?
KP: I’ll try to pare this down to just three anecdotes about rehearsals, communication, and humor. One quote about taking notes was really from his teacher Eva Heinitz (another pioneer of the Early Music renaissance): “If I can use a pencil, YOU can use a pencil!” At the end of every summer the choir got Peter’s “August letter,” which was not only a call to renewal of our commitment to sing Compline over the following year, but often an essay about something that he was passionate about at the time – for instance, the Buddhist concept of “attention.” His wanting to involve us in his passions led to several notable events – the trip to Russia and Scandinavia in 1997, and the trip to England in 2000. His humorous side came out especially in the musical skits (one was a parody of “Blazing Saddles”) for several performances at the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, WA. Each “musical” always found a way to give Harriet Bullitt, the owner, an opportunity to dance the flamenco.
JA: Peter Hallock and the Canterbury Connection is something about which both of us have written. What pilgrimages have you undertaken and where? How have those pilgrimages changed and formed your spiritual life? Where might you recommend others go as pilgrims and why?
KP: There are some journeys I have taken which to me seem like classic pilgrimages due to a particular objective: the Labyrinth at Chartres, the Crypt at Canterbury, Solesmes Abbey, singing at the Papal Audience in Rome. And certainly the experience of these goals shapes and forms one’s spirit. But there are also journeys where the unexpected takes over, like the time that I had a compulsion to fly to Boston, and drove to New Haven to hear Compline during a lightning storm, where I had an amazing revelation about light and darkness. Aside from specific places (I’ve never been to the Holy Land, or Santiago, for instance) I would urge one to visit some place of refuge from the noise of daily life – such as a retreat at a monastery, or time out in the silence of nature.
JA: How has Compline changed since you joined in 1964? How has it remained the same? What are your best hopes, dreams, and wishes for Compline in the next 5, 10, and 50 years? What role might choir alumni have in helping realize these hopes, dreams, and wishes?
KP: Compline went through a process since I joined that I would call “changing with Peter.” We were a reflection of his passions and purposes at any given time. After the trip in 2000 we didn’t take any excursions outside of St. Mark’s, mainly because Peter was “done with traveling.” One thing that has never changed is the fact that the choir has never been paid as professional musicians (we always pay instrumentalists who assist us however), while at the same time the quality of the group has always been of a high professional standard. That’s just the way it is, when we have to rehearse the five changing pieces of a typical Compline service at 7:30, then sing them on live radio at 9:30. Since Jason has been our director for the last five years, we have begun to do more extra performances, such as in the premiere of John Muhleisen’s Pietà, or our appearance in the movie Nothing Against Life. One of the roles that alumni can play now is to support and further the work of the Hallock Institute, which is currently in its formative stages. I would hope that Compline continues for at least another 50 years, and have the great GREAT grandchildren of the Hippie generation coming to experience the Numinous every Sunday!
JA: God always seems to be calling you in new, different ways. Would you write about your faith journey? Who and/or what were the greatest influences along your journey? What role did Compline play along the way?
KP: My journey has been one of a deepening Christian faith, while becoming ever more open to what insights the other great faiths of the world offer. I agree with the writer Alan Watts that faith is much more important than belief, which seems to me more a source for discord than unity among the various denominations. Compline, in its sacred “spaciousness” has been a constant in my journey – ever the encounter with the Numinous in sacred time, every Sunday with a “cloud of witnesses” of saints, composers, poets, and choir members. As to people who have influenced me — two that I met in the early ‘60s, Peter Hallock, and Fr. Ralph Carskadden, were mentors of mine almost the whole of my five decades. Recently Srs. Sharon McDonald and Lucy Wynkoop have become mentors to me in my journey as a Benedictine Oblate at St. Placid Priory, in Lacey, WA. They both celebrated the 50th anniversary of their profession in 2013.
JA: Fixed, daily prayer is something about which you have spoken or wrote extensively. Do you have thoughts, suggestions, or best practices for someone contemplating intentional daily prayer? How has daily prayer shaped, changed, or formed your spiritual life?
KP: I have a list of resources for fixed-hour prayer at the end of my book, and very soon I will be putting the list on the book’s website, http://www.prayerasnightfalls.com, so anyone can access it without having to buy the book (likewise the 25 musical examples from the book are there for listening). If one wants to explore the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, there are several online sites that make it very easy to go through a particular office, like Morning Prayer or Compline (Night Prayer) – so wherever you are, you can just call it up on your smartphone, and be tuned in to whatever day’s prayers are appropriate. It is also good to have a physical book in case there is no internet available! As to how daily prayer has formed me – I have found, along with others, that even when it seems like “going through the motions,” a few moments of silence and prayer can be very calming and centering.
JA: Saint Mark’s is embarking on a capital campaign entitled Living Stones: Building for Ministry—a theme taken from 1 Peter 2:5. How do you interpret being a living stone? Who were the living stones in your own life–those persons who have had such a positive, formative impact on your life? How have you been a living stone to others?
KP: “Living stones” always reminds me of the hymn “Blessed city, heavenly Salem,” with its verse: “Many a blow and biting sculpture polished well those stones elect.” A stone is not alive in the sense that we are, but it is not without change over time. We are all both stone and sculptor – “polishing each other” in community. Our immediate family, our teachers, authors, and friends all have influence (positive and negative) on the “sculpture” that we become. Sometimes an adversary even engenders an ultimately positive impact on our lives. For me personally, there have been many living stones that have contributed to my own spiritual framework – especially Peter Hallock and Fr. Ralph Carskadden. As for me — I have been a living stone in the sense of giving my time, voice, and words to the Compline service — to this wonderful prayer at the end of the day.
One of the themes of Compline is remembering our mortality — and several experiences have kept this subject on my mind over the last three weeks.
On August 30, I sang in a performance of the Requiem by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). It was not given in a church or concert hall, but at an intimate gathering at the home of friends Al and Janet Berg. Thirty singers rehearsed the piano-four-hands version, had dinner, then performed the work from beginning to end without pause. Since then, one section of the Requiem has been playing over and over in my head; it’s the beginning of the second movement:
|Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie des Grases Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret und die Blume abgefallen.||For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away. (I Peter 1:24)|
You may well remember how this goes, but if not, there is a lovely performance of it here by the Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir of Denmark (click on “SHOW MORE,” then on the “10:07” link).
I particularly love how Brahms presents the first sentence of the text, sung in unison by the choir in a slow, somber, triple meter. Then comes an orchestral interlude which builds and builds until the choir repeats the text at full volume — powerful and inexorable, as if to say, “No, no — death comes to us all – we can’t escape it!”
A week after singing the Brahms, I attended my 50th high school reunion — a serious reminder of how quickly time passes, as well as a joyous celebration of life and common memories, especially of classmates who have died. I also thought of Carl Crosier, whose Requiem Mass was taking place in Honolulu at the same time. I had written about Carl in my previous post , and the service booklet and music for his Mass (which included the traditional Gregorian Requiem chants, sung by a women’s schola) can be found here.
The following week, at the beginning of Compline, we sang “The duteous day now closeth” (words by Paul Gerhardt, 1648,
translated by Robert Bridges, 1899). Its three verses speak of gratitude at the end of the day, the beauty of the universe, and our “mortal blindness,” in which we lose sight of life’s preciousness and meaning:
The duteous day now closeth,
each flower and tree reposeth,
shade creeps o’er wild and wood:
let us, as night is falling,
on God our Maker calling,
give thanks to him, the Giver good.
Now all the heavenly splendor
breaks forth in starlight tender
from myriad worlds unknown;
and we, this marvel seeing,
forget our selfish being
for joy of beauty not our own.
Though long our mortal blindness
has missed God’s lovingkindness
and plunged us into strife;
yet when life’s day is over,
shall death’s fair night discover
the fields of everlasting life.
The melody of “The duteous day now closeth” was originally a secular song of parting called “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,” by Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517), but the version we sang was harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Bach knew it as the Lutheran chorale, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (“O world, I must leave you”). Here is the first verse:
|O Welt, ich muß dich lassen,
ich fahr dahin mein Straßen
ins ewig Vaterland.
Mein’ Geist will ich aufgeben,
dazu mein’ Leib und Leben
legen in Gottes gnädig Hand.
|O World, I must leave you, I travel from here along my way to the everlasting fatherland. I will give up my spirit so that my body and life lie in God’s merciful hand.|
From the Gerhardt text, to the Isaac tune, to the Lutheran chorale text — in so many ways this hymn sums up the thought that we need to be mindful that life passes quickly, and we should live as though this day might be our last. Perhaps Johannes Brahms had this in mind, when in the final year of his life he wrote the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, which include two settings of “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen.” It was, as some say, his final goodbye.
Just four months after the death of Peter Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir in Seattle, we mourn the passing of Carl Crosier, Peter’s business associate and chief executor of his estate, who died on August 28. Carl heard Compline as a student in Seattle in the 1970s, and, after leaving the mainland to work in Hawaii, formed a choir at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu to sing the service. Carl retired as director of this choir about three years ago, and I did a feature on the Honolulu connection in January of 2012. Since then, the service has been discontinued, but I’m still keeping an opening for Hawaii on this blog’s new tab, “Where to experience Compline” as a reminder that this was the first of many choirs modeled after Seattle’s Compline Choir.
You can read more about Carl, his many accomplishments, and his memorial services in his wife Katherine’s blog. But I would like to tell one story, which comes from my book, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline. It is about our experience together during a trip to England in 2000. I’ll quote from the book, along with a few editorial notes in brackets:
* * * * * * *
“In 2000, the Compline Choir made a trip to England; it wasn’t an ordinary choir tour, but rather a pilgrimage to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary since our founder and director, Peter Hallock, had been a student in Canterbury at the Royal School of Church Music. It was in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral that Hallock and his fellow students would sing Compline, mainly for the benefit of hearing the chants resonate in the wonderful subterranean space.
When we visited Canterbury Cathedral we sang our office of Compline in the choir stalls of the Cathedral for the general public. As the service progressed, I recalled that Canterbury was founded by monks, and that Compline would have been sung every evening in this place, with the same chants, over 900 years before. It seemed as though the same spirit passed from those ancient voices to the students in 1950, and through Peter Hallock to us, and on to many choirs throughout North America.
Having completed Compline, we had arranged in advance to process down to the crypt, where we would sing, just for our own group, one of Peter’s anthems. I was reminded of the medieval custom to process to another chapel after Compline to sing a special anthem, and felt again a connection to those that had gone before. [We processed two by two, with Carl and I leading our respective columns.] We walked silently past the altar, marking the spot where Thomas Becket had been murdered in 1170, then downstairs to the crypt. We gathered in the middle of the chamber, under the low stone arches, in the final resting place of many of the saints. I thought of the columbarium in the crypt of St. Mark’s in Seattle, where the remains of friends and acquaintances lie. We had arrived at our pilgrimage destination.
The anthem Peter had selected was a composition he had written nine years before, using the words of a prayer fashioned from the ending of a sermon given by John Donne: “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven.” This poem and the occasion of our singing in the crypt at Canterbury has always been linked together for me as a meditation on our dying:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
Into the house and gate of heaven.
To enter that gate and dwell in that house,
Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
No noise nor silence, but one equal music;
No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
In the habitation of thy glory and dominion,
World without end, Amen.
It was only years later, in writing this book, that I sought out Donne’s sermon<1>, and found out how much it says about life and death.
The sermon that Donne preached that day was on Acts 7:60: “And when he had said this, he fell a sleep.” Lent had just begun, and Donne began his sermon by saying “He that will dy with Christ upon Good-Friday, must hear his own bell toll all Lent.”<2> The verse from Acts comes at the end of the life of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose last words, as he was stoned to death, were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” and then, having uttered these words, he died – or, in the King James version – “he fell asleep.” Donne seizes on this short verse of Acts to make two points: first that we must be something, answer some calling in our lives, and live out our days following the example of a person of integrity, such as Stephen [and Carl]; and second, that having done our best, we will not die, but sleep the sleep of Stephen, a blessed rest until the Resurrection.
We began by thinking of sleep as a little death, and we end by a vision of death as but a sleep. As darkness is succeeded by light, so sleep is followed by waking. Donne concludes his sermon as follows: ‘ They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkenesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equall eternity. Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an Actuall and undeterminable possession of that Kingdome which thy Sonne our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible Blood. Amen.’
May we experience eternity now, in this life, a foretaste of that “one equal music” and “one equal possession,” when we awake from the great sleep.”
* * * * * * *
And may the souls of Carl and all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.
<1> John Donne, “A Sermon Preached at White-hall, February 29, 1627 [1627/8],” in The Sermons of John Donne, vol.8, no. 7, edited by E.M. S. Simpson and G. R. Potter, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956; digital publisher Brigham Young University, 2004-05).
<2> Ibid., 1.