Posts Tagged Compline

Compline in Austin

Compline Choir of St. David's, Austin, Texas

Compline Choir of St. David's, Austin, Texas

I started last week to write about groups across North America praying the Office of Compline on a regular basis outside of monasteries, and this week I’m writing about the Compline Choir at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.  It was founded in 1985, the third group chronologically after the choirs in Seattle (1956) and Honolulu (1976 – the subject of last week’s blog).  But St. David’s was the first group whose founder had been a member of the Compline Choir in Seattle.

Leslie Martin left his post in Seattle in 1985 to become organist/choirmaster at St. David’s, Austin.  His love of the Compline service inspired him to start a group of men’s voices (similar to that in Seattle) singing a weekly office of Compline, but, unlike Seattle, the service was based on the order in the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, with a few modifications.  When Les left Austin in 1989 for a position in New Britain, CT, the choir continued under the direction of David Stevens, who is still Director of Music at St. David’s today.  Les started a Compline group in Connecticut, but that group ceased after he returned back to Seattle in 1992, where he sang again with the Compline Choir at St. Marks until 2005.

About ten years ago, David Stevens decided to change the Compline Choir to a mixed group of men and women: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB).  They sing a variety of choral music in the same places (Orison, Psalm, Hymn, Nunc Dimittis, and Anthem) as we do in Seattle.  They also, like us, meet a couple of hours before the service to rehearse; their service is every Sunday at 9 p.m.  One of the choir members, Susan Richter, has maintained a web page for a number of years now where one can listen to sound clips of the music.  I’ve included one of these music files here from the Christmas season.  It is a polyphonic setting of the hymn “Virgin-born, we bow before thee”, which was sung as an Orison on the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 3, 2010.  The melody is from Psalm 86 in the Genevan Psalter of 1562; words are by Reginal Heber (1783-1826):

Virgin-born, we bow before thee: blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild, blessed was she in her Child.
Blessed was the breast that fed thee; blessed was the hand that led thee;
blessed was the parent’s eye that watched thy slumbering infancy.

Blessed she by all creation, who brought forth the world’s salvation,
and blessed they, for ever blest, who love thee most and serve thee best.
Virgin-born, we bow before thee; blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild, blessed was she in her Child.

David Stevens described to me a phenomenon that we have long experienced in Seattle – that many persons’ first encounter with a particular parish is through attending Compline there.  It is the nature of this meditative service, where all that is expected is a kind of attentive listening, that creates a welcoming “sacred space” for attendees.  For more than 25 years now this has been offered at St. David’s in Austin, and the Underground congratulates you!

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Last Sunday was quite a treat for me, as I was resting at home after surgery, and was able to see the weekly videocast of the Byrd Ensemble’s Compline service (7:30 PST) and then catch the service from St. Mark’s Cathedral live on  The Compline Choir celebrated the Baptism of Christ by singing the anthem of the same name by Peter Hallock, with the countertenor solos taken by our newest member of the choir, Tyler Morse.  Here’s a link to the podcast (the piece begins at about 21:13) – also read last year’s blog about this wonderful composition.

Peter Hallock (b. 1924) has also released his latest CD of several of his large-scale compositions, The Last Judgment and Te Deum Laudamus, recorded by the Tudor Choir, and only available right now at Ionian Arts.  I’ll be blogging about this CD in the future!

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Compline in Honolulu

Logo by artist Roland Roy for the LCH Compline

Logo by artist Roland Roy for the LCH Compline

Today I am beginning a new feature of the Compline Underground: each week I will tell the story of one of the fifty-plus groups across North America that is praying the Office of Compline (Night Prayer).   But I will continue to write as well about all things pertaining to the office, especially what’s happening with our group at St. Mark’s, Seattle.

The group that immediately came to mind for my first story is the Compline Choir of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.  To my knowledge, it is the first group whose founding was inspired by the Compline service in Seattle.

While a student at the University of Washington in Seattle in the early 1960s, Carl Crosier attended not only the Compline at St. Mark’s Cathedral, but also the wonderful organ concerts, the Good Friday and Advent Processionals, and the “historically informed” performances of Handel’s  Messiah — all creations of Peter Hallock, organist/choirmaster at St. Marks from 1951-1991, and founder/director of the Compline Choir from 1956-2009.  After moving to Hawaii, Carl became involved in the music program at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu in 1972, where plans were already underway to renovate the building and install a tracker-action organ, which was dedicated in 1975.  The Compline Choir was started on August 1, 1976, with eight men from various churches – so it was built on the model of the Seattle Compline Choir, which in turn had its origin in the English ATB (alto – tenor – bass) choir.  Most people know about the English “men and boys” choir tradition, but do not know that there is a substantial repertoire for the group when boys are not needed or on holiday.  Peter Hallock, who sang in the choir at Canterbury Cathedral (a privilege rarely given to an American) while a student there in 1949-51 also influenced Carl Crosier to take up the countertenor (male alto) voice.  Peter helped Carl with many things liturgical and musical in the formation of this first Compline Choir offshoot, and came to Honolulu to give workshops.  Carl began making fair copies of Peter’s music and helped get a number of pieces published.  From the early days of music publishing software to the present, Carl has continued to publish music with Peter, forming a company, Ionian Arts, in 1985.

I first remember Carl from the summer of 1979, when the Seattle Compline Choir made a trip to Honolulu to sing at a regional convention of the American Guild of Organists.  Peter wrote his anthem “Come, Holy Spirit” for the occasion, and we sang it at a candlelit Compline service at the Episcopal Cathedral.  We also sang Compline with Carl’s choir at the Kawaiahao Church.  Over the years, Carl has sung with the Seattle choir, including our travels to Russia and Scandinavia (1997) and England (2000).  Carl retired both as Cantor (Director of Music) as well as director of the Compline Choir in August, 2011 – exactly 35 years after it began.  The choir is now led by Keane Ishii; they still are singing every Sunday evening at 9 p.m.

Carl’s wife Katherine remains as organist at LCH, and she is a prolific blogger – I’ve put a link to all of her blogs with the “Compline” tag here.  Take a look at the church’s website page for Compline; there is a brochure (PDF) about the service that can be downloaded.  I’ve put a permanent link to Katherine’s blog, “Another Year of Insanity”, on my links on the upper right of this page.

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Last week in Seattle we sang Peter Hallock’s lovely setting of the Christmas carol “Lullay, my liking“, and one of our newest singers in the choir, Tyler Morse, sang the solo in verse 2.  This 21-year-old countertenor, a senior at Pacific Lutheran University, continues the great male alto tradition begun by Peter Hallock and continued by Carl Crosier and many others!  I’ll post a podcast of the service from January 1 when it becomes available.

At the beginning of Compline we sang a lovely New Year’s carol (to the tune “Greensleeves”) based on a poem from 1642, and here is the first verse — may you have a wonderful new year!

The old year now away is fled; the New Year it is entered,
Then let us now our sins down tread, and joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this day and let us both now sport and play.
Hang grief, cast care away, God send us a Happy New Year.

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In Memoriam: Ralph Carskadden’s Reflections on Compline

Ralph Carskadden

Ralph Carskadden (1940 – 2011)

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.

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Lord, keep us steadfast

crocus in springThe 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.

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The Seattle Compline Choir and its English roots

Eton Choirbook

Opening of the O Maria salvatoris mater, by John Browne, in the Eton Choirbook (c. 1490)

Before I begin today, I wanted to announce that my new web site is up and running: To get on my mailing list to receive notifications of this blog posting, just go to the “Contact me” page and fill in your email address.  Tell your friends!

I’m posting this on Sunday, March 6.  It’s the last Sunday of Epiphany, but also the first Sunday of the month, and the Renaissance Singers of Seattle are singing Compline tonight at 7:00 p.m., via a live video stream (hope you can watch!).  It was partly a concert of the Renaissance Singers that I attended last week, as well as the arrival of a CD that I had ordered, that prompted me to write about the origins of the Seattle Compline service today.

The Renaissance Singers concert featured music of the Eton Choirbook, a manuscript preserving the repertory of large English churches and collegiate chapels from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  The English had a special musical genre called the “votive antiphon”, a substantial piece of music that was sung in pure devotion, usually dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and sung in the Lady Chapel right after Compline.  Listen to the beginning of a typical composition from the Eton Choirbook, a “Salve Regina” by William Cornysh.  Pieces like this are substantial, lasting between 12 – 14 minutes, and are extremely elaborate, with long “athletic” phrases.  I can imagine the whole community of the collegiate church or chapel going off afterward, observing the “great silence”, with this offering of great beauty resounding in their heads, lulling them to sleep.

The CD that arrived in the mail was by the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, and consisted of five pieces from the Peterhouse Partbooks, which preserve the English repertory from a little later, up to 1540, but the votive antiphon was still a large part of the collection.  It’s probable that the partbooks were copied for Canterbury in 1539-40, when it was being converted from a monastery to a Cathedral.  It was during the time of Reformation that the uniquely English service of Evensong was created; this combined Vespers and Compline, and the tradition of singing a beautiful anthem at the end was maintained at Evensong until today.

The founder of the Compline Choir, Peter Hallock, studied in 1949-50 at the Royal School of Church Music, which at the time was housed in Canterbury.  In order to learn plainchant, the students sang Compline from a little booklet published by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, and they would periodically go down to the resonant crypt of Canterbury Cathedral and sing Compline.  When Peter started the Compline Service in Seattle in 1956, he used the same booklet, and this is what we have been singing from ever since.  And we always do an anthem at the end of the service, out of this English “ethos”.  It is a time when we offer something of great beauty, and something that lingers in my mind as I drive home, go to sleep, and prepare for another work-week.

In 2000, the Compline Choir traveled to Canterbury Cathedral to sing Compline there, and go down to the crypt, where it all started, and sing an anthem.  But that’s another story.

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Post-Compline organ music

Flentrop Organ at St. Mark's

Program for the dedication of the Flentrop Organ, September, 1965, with Flentrop’s autograph.

Last Sunday night after the Compline Service, a young organist gave a solo recital on the “mighty Flentrop”, the big pipe organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle.  It’s not too unusual to have a guest organist, but an unusual thing happened at the end that inspired me to write about organ music this week.

Informal organ recitals have taken place immediately after Compline since 1965, when the organ, built by D. A. Flentrop in Zaandam, Holland, was installed.  The Flentrop was one of the first neo-Baroque or mechanical-action instruments installed in Seattle, and one of the largest of its kind in North America.  It made St. Mark’s almost immediately a mecca, a pilgrimage destination, for every organist in the country. Peter Hallock, organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s from 1951-1991, and founder/director of the Compline Choir, made the organ loft available to anyone who wanted to play after Compline.  A crowd of us would climb the stairs and listen while Bill Giddings, a member of the Compline Choir, would either play the organ himself or facilitate the playing of others.  I’m sure that this after-Compline event brought more people to the service itself, leading to the growth of attendees by 1967 to between 400-600 people, mostly teenagers and young adults.  Bill, now a retired chemistry professor, still takes his place at the organ most Sunday nights, and many people hike up the stairs to get a closer look and listen to the magnificent instrument.  To give you an idea of what it’s like up in the loft, here’s a video of St. Mark’s organist Mel Butler giving an organ demo after church.

Last Sunday was the night before Presidents’ Day, and we had an extra-heavy attendance of young people at Compline.  The organist, Kyle Kirschenman, was himself only a junior in high school [update 2012: now beginning organ performance studies at the University of Washington in Seattle].  He reminded me of so many young organists, who over the years have made their pilgrimage to the Flentrop.  One of those prominent in the organ “free-for-alls” back in the late 1960s was the then 16-year-old Roger Sherman, who now heads Gothic Records, a national source of organ and choral music.  In 1993 he started the radio program The Organ Loft, which in Seattle follows the Compline Service on Classic KING-FM; The Organ Loft has both organ and choral music, and it’s the next best thing (and in some ways better!) to being at St. Mark’s in person after Compline.  Another young person I remember was Bruce Neswick, who sang with the Compline Choir while in college, and is now the organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City [update 2012: he’s now associate professor of music (organ) at Indiana University] .

I have always sensed intuitively a link between music and spirituality, but could never until recently articulate the similarity between a concert and a worship experience.  I have come, mainly through being a Benedictine oblate, to see that deep listening is the same as meditation, and that the process of focusing one’s attention on music in either performance or listening is no different than a Zen monk focusing on the qualities of a moss-covered rock.  Many of the young people that come to Compline refer to it as a “concert”, and I don’t have a problem with that.  The divine office is a concert for deep listening — and afterward, organ music provides additional opportunities for mindfulness.

Taking a larger view of musical beauty, all forms of creation, whether they be meant for deep reflection, or simply for enjoyment, have that divine creative spark.  Spirituality has been defined as “a stance toward life [where] more and more everything cries out ‘God’ for us” (John Gorsuch, An Invitation to the Spiritual Journey, 1990).  Spirituality allows us to process the experience of sound as communion with the Divine, through our own individual discrimination-process (called “taste”), which takes in the qualities of the particular work, the intent of the performance, memories of past hearings, and the special circumstances of the moment.  The qualities of a piece of music can vary from those requiring deep listening to those that are simply entertaining, full of playfulness and joy.

We experienced both kinds of beauty with Kyle’s recital last Sunday.  After his program, which included an arrangement of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings“, the people gave him a round of applause. He then launched into an arrangement of “Be Our Guest”, from the 1991 Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast”.  Many of the young people in the audience knew the lyrics, and sang along — I even saw several young women dancing on the labyrinth in one corner in sheer abandon. I smiled with recognition, at my own youthful excitement during the organ “free-for-alls” of the ’60s.  But I believe that this spontaneous sing-along was a first for these after-Compline concerts!

Not being familiar enough with the lyrics (even though I bought a copy of the film for my kids when it came out) I looked up “Be Our Guest”.  The final chorus really says it all about the kind of Benedictine hospitality that we have been offering at Compline since 1956:

Be our guest! Be our guest!
Our command is your request
It’s been years since we’ve had anybody here
And we’re obsessed
With your meal, with your ease
Yes, indeed, we aim to please
While the candlelight’s still glowing
Let us help you, We’ll keep going
Course by course, one by one
‘Til you shout, “Enough! I’m done!”
Then we’ll sing you off to sleep as you digest
Tonight you’ll prop your feet up
But for now, let’s eat up
Be our guest!
Be our guest!
Be our guest!
Please, be our guest!

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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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