On September 13, 2011, my dear friend and mentor the Rev. Ralph Carskadden died after a long struggle with cancer. He was an Episcopal priest in a number of parishes, as well as Canon Liturgist at several cathedrals, finally coming back from retirement to be Priest-in-Charge at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle from 2008-2009. In addition, he was a talented artist in ceramics, icon writing, and textile art, especially vestments, banners, and other fabric creations for liturgical use. But I would like to write in particular here of his connections with the Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, and share with you some of his quotations and observations about the Compline phenomenon.
My connections with Ralph were over a period of more than forty years; I met him in 1967 when I was in my third year as a music student at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington; he was assisting at Christ Church nearby and had just been appointed Episcopal Chaplain to the university. I had been singing in the Compline Service in Seattle for three years by then, and Ralph asked me to help with the music for an Ash Wednesday service held at the University Chapel. By the fall of 1968 I was singing in the choir at Christ Church, which Ralph directed, and when in 1969 I entered graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle, our paths continued in parallel: Ralph became an assistant priest at St. Paul’s Parish, and I was asked to become choir director there; he and his partner Steven joined the Compline Choir and sang for several years. Then Ralph served in positions in Michigan and San Diego, returning to Seattle in 1986, where he pursued a Fine Arts degree. Steven returned to the Compline Choir, and Ralph came on occasion as reader — earning the epithet of “Father Superior”.
In the liner notes to the Compline Choir’s 1994 recording “Feathers of Green Gold”, Ralph contributed a short poetic passage, which speaks of the nature of the Compline service in Seattle – a service which appeals to those searching for an alternative form of worship – and finding it in this lay-led monastic office, where all that is asked of the attendees is a kind of silence that could be described as “active listening.” But it goes beyond describing this meditative liturgy to consider an underlying truth about being a Christian in our times:
If we are to grasp the message of the gospels;
If we are to understand the teachings of Jesus;
If we are to be faithful disciples, then we must realize what we are called to be:
Called to act counter to the prevailing culture which surrounds us.
Ralph also commented about Compline in an article about the Seattle service in a New York Times piece in March 1997: “The Faithful are Casual at this Sunday Service”. He left us again with a memorable quote:
In our culture we do things regarding love and spirituality better by candlelight, at night.
Ralph’s obituary in his memorial service program quotes him as saying “A piece of my soul is connected to the art, music, and spirituality of Russian orthodoxy”. He was influential in putting together the Compline Choir’s pilgrimage to St. Petersburg, in July of 1997. We arrived at the Orthodox Seminary, somewhat severely jet-lagged, but after a revival of strong Russian tea, we trekked ten minutes away to the Tikhvin Cemetery near the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to sing the Kievan Kontakion for the Departed at the Composers’ Corner, among the graves of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others. Thank you, Ralph, for that wonderful moment.
In 2004, Compline Choir had a 50th anniversary celebration. We invited all the alumni of the choir to come to Seattle to sing for the morning service at St. Mark’s, and for Compline that evening. Ralph preached the sermon at the morning service on August 15, 2004. I’ll let a few excerpts speak for themselves:
I’m reminded of a sign at an entrance to Winchester Cathedral: “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born, and will continue long after you are dead.” And so it is each time we enter this resonant space. We join a conversation. First, a discourse between architects and planners, among local business- men and women, committees and faithful parishioners who have tried to say something about God and faith in concrete, glass, wood, and iron…
Come to this Holy Box on Sunday nights at 9:30, when both the light and the darkness, inside and outside, are in dialogue with each other. And discover that the architecture of this place suggests a space apart, rather than a place sealed off from the rest of creation. It’s not that God is “in here” as opposed to “out there”, but rather our experience in this space opens our eyes to holy presence both within and without…
The visual conversation is joined by silence and sound, made possible by the space. In choice of texts both said and sung and in the very musical settings, the dialogue, the conversation continues. Ancient plainsong hallowed and honed by at least a millennium of daily prayer, polyphony from the renaissance, solid chorales and song-tunes of reformers and Pietists, folk tunes gathered from the countrysides, and joined with them notes from Butler, Hallock, and Proulx still wet on the page. Hymns of seraphim and cherubim, poetry of King David, prose of Isaiah, mystical texts of medieval bards, angular words of Luther, messages of hope and promise from black slaves, and unforgettable phrases of W. H. Auden, his “rare beasts and unique adventures.” All of these voices are in conversation with us in this place. Surely the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews seem apropos, as we reflect on our experience week by week “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”.
And great indeed is the cloud of witnesses, with whom we are privileged to converse, as we worship. It is a radical and important thing that we as modern people bring ourselves to this conversation – – open ourselves to the voices of the past, in order to be informed, inspired, challenged, judged, instructed, yea, even disciplined for the work of our time, that we too might run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Ralph’s sermon went on to speak of several issues that were in everyone’s thoughts in the summer of 2004: the political race, and the Olympic Games. He spoke of the divisions in American political and religious life, and wove it into the gospel for the day – Jesus’ saying that every house would be divided, “two against three, and three against two.” He brought in Karen Armstrong’s book, The Battle for God, and “the ancient distinction between mythos and logos; between sacred significance and rational discourse; between meaning and practical matters.” And Ralph reminded us of her warning about “the grave dangers which exist when the two are confused or combined – as current events at home and abroad attest.” He continued:
This last week Dr. Peter Hallock loaned me Armstrong’s book. He has done that over the years –said – READ. And in effect what he said to me was…if you want to understand what I have been trying to do in that wonderful sacred space called St. Mark’s – a space he said “I have loved since I first visited it on a Cathedral Day at age twelve as a lad from Kent, Washington. If you want to know about my choice of texts, my musical compositions; if you want to perceive the importance of the vocation and work of the Compline Choir, read The Battle for God.” I believe that Peter and the Compline men, have, to use the metaphors of Jesus, “seen a cloud rising in the West and know it’s going to rain.” They have intuited the south wind blowing and know it’s going to be scorching heat. I believe their commitment to rehearse and sing Compline together is a way of responding. I believe they sing together on Sunday nights as a way of experiencing meaning. A way of intentionally, under the discipline of music, giving voice to a great cloud of witnesses. And in so doing making “savage souls gentle” and uplifting sad minds.” And these singers –these men we know – together with the hundreds of young folks who fill this cathedral Sunday night by Sunday night, and upwards to a hundred thousand listeners every Sunday – form for us a contemporary cloud of witnesses, pointing to a spiritual realm of eternal and timeless presence, in the face of which issues of daily life find perspective, and our lives find purpose.
That night, we sang Compline with Ralph as reader, and as a memorial to him, we have put it on our podcast site; you may listen to it here.
Ralph’s entire sermon is now posted here. There is a link to the audio recording as well — when you click on it, the screen clears, and it may take a couple of minutes for the sermon to load.
Thank you, Ralph, for your insights into liturgy, art, and music. As the Compline Choir sang for you at your memorial service we sing again the Kievan Kontakion:
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing but life everlasting.