The liturgical season of Lent is a time of quieting the mind and simplifying one’s life. We do this not only by giving up things that are unessential, but by pursuing new activities that deepen us. In the Compline Choir, we observe the season by making changes in how we sing parts of the office. The psalm, hymn, and Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) are often sung in plainsong (simple unison chant). We also sing the same Orison (sung prayer) at the beginning of Compline each of the weeks of Lent: “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word” (words by Martin Luther, trans. by Catherine Winkworth) — listen to it on our podcast from March 20 (click “Play” — the Orison starts almost immediately).
This simplification gives us more time to rehearse a more complex anthem, which is sung at the end of the Compline service. There are many choral compositions appropriate for Lent, especially settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. When Peter Hallock founded the Compline Choir back in the spring of 1956, he had in mind the vocal forces that could sing the Lamentations settings by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) — and for that reason invited a group of men that could sing this piece, set for altos, tenors, and basses only. We’ll be singing the first of the Tallis Lamentations in April, and then Hallock’s own setting for choir and solo cello on Palm Sunday. We started Lent by singing a motet by Tallis on the text “In jejunio et fletu“. The words are from Joel 2, vs. 12 and 17, and were used as a Responsory at the Office of Matins for the First Sunday of Lent. Here is a link to a performance by several groups, and a translation:
With fasting and weeping, let the priests say: “Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people, and give not Thy heritage to destruction.” Let the priests weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, “Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people!”
The Second Sunday of Lent the Compline Choir sang the motet “Ne reminiscaris, Domine”, by Jacobus Vaet (ca. 1529 – 1567). This is a piece not heard very often, as opposed to the “In jejunio”. It was new to the Compline Choir; Jason Anderson, our director, had made a special edition for us. What a blessing it is to be a part of a group which is able to meet on a Sunday night, rehearse a new and difficult piece like this, and perform it on live radio an hour-and-a-half later — not perfectly, of course, but with a good degree of credibility. My favorite part is the ending, where on the words “Thy most precious blood”, there is a change to a slower triple meter — it almost seems like time itself is standing still — a very haunting effect. (Listen to the podcast from March 20 – the anthem begins at about 19:44). And the translation:
Remember not, Lord, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins.
Spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood. And be not angry with us forever.
I’ve also made room in my life so that I can focus on more silence and reflection. I attended a day-retreat at St. Placid Priory on the first Saturday of Lent, where we spent the day with Morgan Atkinson, who showed his documentary film “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton” (here’s a sample), as well as selections from several other films. I’ve been subscribing to the daily messages from Abbey of the Arts (see a link on the right), which during Lent are reflections drawn from the writings of the desert fathers and mothers. I’ve also started submitting sections of my book, Compline Reflections, to a writing coach — a Lenten discipline that I plan to extend through the summer.
May you be steadfast in your observance of this special time of the year, as we enter into Spring and look forward to rebirth and new life.