A month ago, my wife and I were on a ten-day retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, near Pecos, New Mexico – where I wrote my last post. It was a deep experience of Advent and Christmas in a setting of great beauty and prayer, made even more serene by the blanket of snow that surrounded us.
There were no more than five guests at any one time during our retreat, so our small group was invited to take all our daily meals with the monks in their upstairs refectory, which afforded gorgeous views of the grounds, nearby mountains, and the Pecos River canyon. One day everyone got up to watch a pair of golden eagles sitting on a tree branch not more than twenty feet outside the window.
While my wife was working on her own project in the monastery library, I attended most of the daily offices. The normal schedule began with Vigils at 6AM, Lauds (Morning Prayer) at 7AM, Holy Mass at 7:30AM, and then breakfast. Noon Prayer was followed by the midday meal. The normal evening rites included Rosary, Vespers, Adoration, and finally Compline, at 7:15PM. Because of the changes required in the schedule due to the Christmas solemnities, Vigils was sometimes observed the previous evening, and Compline was omitted. Mass was always attended by a handful of people from the village of Pecos, but on Sundays as well as Christmas Day there were many attendees.
At the end of each day, it is traditional to sing the Antiphon to the Virgin Mary appropriate to the season – and whether the last office of a particular day was Vespers, Compline, or Vigils, we all turned to the back of the chapel to face the mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which was illuminated. The antiphon sung from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Purification on February 2 (Candlemas) is the Alma Redemptoris Mater – you can listen to the simple tone here.
One of the most vivid memories in my retreat was a reading at the 6:00AM office of Vigils on December 22. There are normally two readings at Vigils: the first is from the non-Gospel portions of the Bible, and the second from the great literature of the Church – on this day the second reading was from a commentary on the Gospel of Luke by the Venerable Bede, concerning the Magnificat (the Song of Mary). Here is the first part:
Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving. As I contemplate his greatness, which knows no limits, I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior, whom I have conceived in this world of time.
It was personally moving for me to be hearing this reading, in the presence of those who had also surrendered their whole lives, to offer all the powers of their souls in praise and gratitude. This was my first time on retreat for more than a couple of days – and I know it won’t be my last.
Through the last week of Advent and through the first three days of Christmas, my wife and I are staying at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey near Pecos, New Mexico – east of Santa Fe. It’s been a serene way to prepare for Christmas, and I will write soon about Compline at the Abbey.
Several weeks ago, with the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, fear was very much in the air. As I sang the hopeful Advent hymns, I knew again that the words turn us away from fear to hope, from despair to joyful expectation. Here’s one example:
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Another is the hymn “Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding,” which I’ve excerpted from our Compline service from the Second Sunday of Advent:
Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say,
“Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”
Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from Heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.
So when next He comes with glory,
And the world is wrapped in fear,
May he with His mercy shield us,
And with words of love draw near.
Honor, glory, might, and blessing
To the Father and the Son
With the everlasting Spirit,
While eternal ages run.
The Advent Wreath is ready for tomorrow, when we will light one candle to mark the first of four Sundays of Advent, a time of waiting before Christmas – but it will also mark the beginning of a new Christian liturgical year, with changes of color, ceremony, and music.
The month of November always contains the last days of the old church year, along with other signs of seasonal change, which in the Northern Hemisphere include shorter days, bare trees, and icy weather. It is no wonder that the readings for the daily Mass and Office focus on end times and the hereafter. The first two days of November, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, set the tone. At the Compline Service in Seattle closest to the feast of All Saints, we read the list of all those departed who have sung with our choir since it was formed in 1956.
I loved the anthems we sang at Compline during November (remember that all of the services of Compline at St. Mark’s are available as podcasts on both complinepodcast.org and king.org). But I chose one of these to share with you because, in my recollection, it is the first time we have sung an anthem with piano accompaniment: “Blow Ye the Trumpet,” by the American composer Kirke Mechem (born 1925). Mechem wrote new music to an old hymn text.
One of the aspects of Compline is praying for a “quiet night and a perfect end” – for the acceptance of our own death. And as I wrote in Prayer as Night Falls:
Mysteriously, the more we seek our eternal selves, our true selves, the less we fear death. As we empty ourselves, shed the “tent of clay” that is our bodies, our egos, our senses, our thoughts, we fill ourselves with the presence that creates and sustains all.” (p. 56)
As we are filled with eternal life, “Why should we start, and fear to die?”
Blow ye the trumpet, blow,
Sweet is Thy work, my God, my King.
I’ll praise my Maker with all my breath.
O happy is the man who hears.
Why should we start, and fear to die,
With songs and honors sounding loud.
Ah, lovely appearance of death.
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.