I’m going to digress from my usual recounting of recent events, and go back to October 2010, when Compline Choir took part in the filming of a scene from the movie Nothing Against Life.
The film, directed by Julio Ramirez, was shot entirely on location in Seattle It follows four characters – two men and two women – whose lives intertwine in the final days before each attempts suicide. Nothing Against Life centers around this taboo subject, and is intended to raise consciousness about suicide, and inspire people to get and/or give help before it’s too late.
One of the four characters, a young woman named “Wave”, comes to the Compline service at St. Mark’s, and finds a few moments’ peace from her troubled relationship with her religious fundamentalist parents. Since we don’t allow photography during the Compline Service on Sunday evening, the filming took place on a Friday evening, with movie “extras” as Compline attendees. In the scene, which lasts about three minutes, the camera pans over the Compline Choir chanting, and then picks up Wave and follows her as she enters the cathedral and walks up the center aisle to sit on the stairs beneath the altar with a number of other young people. She makes eye contact with a young woman who smiles at her.
Jason Anderson, the director of the Compline Choir, had picked out several things for us to chant in simple plainsong while the action was taking place: “Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts” and Psalm 91. It was actually my writing last week about Psalms 4 and 134 that got me thinking about Psalm 91, because the three of them, taken together, are the psalms that St. Benedict selected to be sung every night at Compline.
We spent from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. filming the scene. Most of the time was spent waiting back in the choir room, or in our places. The cathedral was teeming with activity – sound crew setting up mikes, camera crew practicing their run on a noiseless cart, wranglers wrangling the “extras”, and lighting people rigging up reflectors so our white surplices (as the director said afterward), “glowed like angels”. I saw one person walking around, carrying a can of Red Bull, as if the energy of all this were not enough. Finally came the moment to film the first take. A ritual of things came in succession: the command for silence — the cry “rolling!” — the obligatory blackboard with the clattering arm — then an almost deafening silence — then the shocking cry from the director — “ACTION!”
Then it was up to me to begin — I was the cantor — to intone the first notes of “Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts” — to break open the incredible silence. The words came out of my mouth almost as in slow motion. There was something about the fact that this was going to go on celluloid, and perhaps live on much longer than I would, that made this moment so significant. And this was October, my 46th anniversary of singing Compline – this film suddenly seemed to me to sum up, in three minutes, the very thing I had dedicated most of my adult life to do. And now, singing to this imaginary young person who was contemplating suicide, came the reassuring words of Psalm 91 (to which you can listen here):
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 He shall say to the LORD,”You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
3 He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter *
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He shall cover you with his pinions, and you shall find refuge under his wings; *
his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler.
5 You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, *
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
6 Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, *
nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.
7 A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, *
but it shall not come near you.
8 Your eyes have only to behold *
to see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,
10 There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.
12 They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
13 You shall tread upon the lion and the adder; *
you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet.
14 Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.
Among the many things I could say about this psalm, I will select two for now. First, if we are bound to God in love (verse 14), then we are at one with the power, the force that animates us, and is there available to us as our “true self” (Thomas Merton) — therefore, to quote Julian of Norwich, “all will be well”. This is not delusional thinking, but simply that come what may, we are in the hands of God. I often think of images like the buildings coming down on 9/11 when I sing such verses as “There shall no evil happen to you”. Do we trust in God enough to always say the Compline “mantra” (from Psalm 31) – “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”?
The other thing to consider is “how does God take care of us?” Are we not the creatures of God? As we are in the hands of God, are we not also the hands, the eyes, the ears of God for our fellow creatures? I think this is the message that Julio Ramirez is getting at in his movie: listen to others — be aware of their needs, and help them to choose life.
I’ll be letting you know when the movie comes out.