Psalm 91 and a movie

Filming “Nothing Against Life” (copyright, NAL Movie/Regan MacStravic – Picture by Regan MacStravic)

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.

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  1. #1 by Bonnie Westmark on February 18, 2011 - 12:55 pm

    I can’t wait to see the movie!

  2. #2 by jefe on February 18, 2011 - 1:25 pm

    Ken,
    What a stroke of genius to use the Compline Choir to set the ambience for the ‘church’ scene. I wonder how the director found out about your group? Having played hundreds of Hollywood movie sound tracks, I can identify with the slow progress and lots of hanging around waiting for something to happen. One of our basses is a producer of film shorts, many of which play on pbs. He’s done one spotlighting the interplay between choral students and Chanticleer at a music camp. Maybe it’s time for “Compline, the expose'”.
    Ken, you need to answer my question on the placement of the extra antiphon for Psalm 104. Before and after?
    Keep up the good work here. I’m always fascinated by, and look forward to your pieces.
    regards, as always, jefe
    In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum

  3. #3 by Rene Marceau on February 18, 2011 - 2:59 pm

    Ken,
    Singing with you, Bill and Tym has made me so appreciative of the sacrifices that you three have made to continue this sacred tradition. Even though I am coming up on my two year anniversary, this time together with the rest of the Compline singers is the highlight of my week! The experience of being a part of this movie only strengthens my resolve to participate in Compline every Sunday! We are making a difference!

  4. #4 by Ken Peterson on February 18, 2011 - 3:30 pm

    Here’s an email from the director of “Nothing Against Life”:
    “Ken, I will also make sure we post the beautiful and inspiring article on our press section and our Facebook account.
    Thanks!
    2011/2/18 Julio Ramírez

  5. #5 by Ken Peterson on February 18, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    @Jefe – the director of the movie knew about Compline from attending the service over several years. Also, within the last year we had a student at the UW do a mini-documentary on the Compline Choir which you can find at vimeo.com by searching on “St. Mark’s Compline Choir”. I’ll put a link to it in a future blog, and we should see that it gets posted to YouTube. @Rene: thanks for the good words. The “Bill” he mentions is Bill Giddings, who started singing in the Compline Choir in 1959.

  6. #6 by Roy Walworth on February 19, 2011 - 10:53 am

    Hi, Ken,
    I didn’t know about this blogsite till I received an e-mail from John Marshall yesterday. Though I was aware of the movie project from our Facebook connection, it is a gift to read your reflections on the experience. It was also good to know that Bill Giddings is still around. My first experience of the Compline Choir was in the mid-60’s when I rode up to St. Mark’s with Dave Calhoun and Bill, I think in his Checker automobile! I sat with Dave during the rehearsal and tried to sing along, but sat in the congregation during the service. Afterwards, we had the usual impromptu organ recital by Peter Hallick, then Bill, and finally Dave. At that point I actually got to press a key on the then nearly new Flentrop–a thrill of a lifetime. To know that the ministry of St. Mark’s compline service still continues and is reaching the lives of so many in even more and unexpected ways it a living testimony of God’s presence and grace. Also, I appreciated your reflections. Darn good theology for an ol’ Methodist buddy!

  7. #7 by Laura Lasworth on February 27, 2011 - 9:13 am

    Thank you for this entry Ken. Very moving.
    I’m enjoying keeping up with you here.
    Blessings,
    Laura

  8. #8 by Ken Peterson on April 1, 2014 - 4:02 pm

    It was just announced today, that the movie will be shown at Cinerama Theater in Seattle on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, with doors opening at 6pm. For more information, check for updates on http://www.nothingagainstlife.com .

  9. #9 by teri weaver on September 6, 2014 - 4:21 pm

    Your message is what so many are saying following the death of Robin Williams.

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