“Everyone Is Welcome,” announces a small sign over the door of the gothic brick edifice. It was first placed there to make sure people of color knew it was safe to enter in the sixties; later it served as an indication that people with AIDS were welcome too. Now it whispers carefully to me each time I enter. If the sign were any larger I’d be spooked.
I’m not scared of the building. I’m not scared of worship, or of God. I’m not scared of the two-story tall cross affixed to the wall in the front of the sanctuary. I’m only scared of the people and their politics— though of course, I don’t really even know them.
But the small sign whispers that I am welcome, and I take it on faith that it is true.
Lisa often takes my arm as we enter together at 9 pm every second Thursday of the month. She guides me through the dim light in the narthex into the large candle-lit sanctuary. Six tall candles on the altar. Three more high overhead in special lanterns. One in the aisle, and dozens in votive holders at the foot of the altar. I imagine each of them being carefully lit in honor of someone in need of more light.
There is only one electric light on in the sanctuary, and it shines down on a statue of a Caucasian Mary holding a baby Jesus that looks strangely like a tiny adult.
There are never more than twenty darkened outlines of shoulders and heads in the pews. I let the outlines exist as dark shapes as I walk past. It’s too hard to think of them as people, and I do my best to forget them as soon as I sit down.
We are all utterly silent. It’s as though there’s an unspoken agreement to remain sonically invisible to each other. I can pretend anything I want about the outlines. Only once has anyone ever spoken to me in the sanctuary, and that was a polite welcome from a priest in the back. Twice people have spoken to us outside, but Lisa is impatient with this, for my sake, and the conversations are as short as they can politely be.
We sit down, and the old pew underneath us creaks and snaps. The candle light settles upon us. Lisa puts her palms together in front of her heart and bows, the same way she bows to her yoga students. I close my eyes and breathe in the air that smells like church.
This is a Compline service, more accurately a Sung Compline, so named because there is no speaking, only twenty minutes of singing. It takes longer than that traveling both there and back, but it’s worth the time in a way I cannot consider without tears.
It works for me because I don’t have to act like everything is okay. I don’t have to talk and smile and be friendly. I can sit with my own truth, namely, that church—something that was more than family, something akin to everything that mattered—was broken for me many years ago. Nobody can see my eyes fill up. Nobody tries to talk me into getting more involved. I only have to walk into the darkness and candlelight, sit down, and allow the ancient sounds of the chants to flow over and through me.
Members of the small choir, seldom more than nine, wear black robes that seem timeless and appropriate. Yet each carries a music folder outfitted with an LED book light. Sometimes the lights make me want to laugh, other times I shake my head, but usually I just close my eyes when they start to come in, so as not to ruin the timeless effect. They enter silently from a side door, off the transept to the left, into the traditional Lady Chapel area, and sing from there.
They gather, they look at each other, and the lead singer begins, as she always does. Her voice is not especially powerful, but it is clear and steady, complete in itself, confident but delightfully unassuming. She leads, the others respond. I’m learning what to expect, many of the chants are the same each time. Her voice is always unfaltering, and my confidence in her is soothing.
But it’s the others that capture my imagination this evening. I can sense them working to exhale their own music around a unified timbre and tone. One voice from several. I can feel the millisecond of hesitation as they surrender and breathe and allow the sound of many to form around that inscrutable sacred thread which connects one voice to another. This evening they are graciously successful.
This is the beauty of unison chant done well. It is the recognition of and reverence for the one tone which can possibly emerge from any particular group of voices. It requires each of the singers to listen to each of the others at once, a type of expansive listening we seldom do.
We Americans seem to always focus our attention to a fine point. I think we are taught to do this early in our lives. I think it’s a cultural expectation, to find the one person to watch, the one voice to hear, and then to form ourselves around them. We don’t seem to be able to take in the diversity of expression with an expansive consciousness, we drill down and focus, blocking out all the rest, as if the other is nothing but a distraction. This works, I am convinced, to our great detriment.
Expansive listening is something good singers come to understand and practice. In this type of listening something important can be discerned, namely a common timbre, the “inscrutable sacred thread” I referred to above. It’s not a tone created by or around any individual voice. Far from that. Each voice must find it, surrender to it, and conform to it simultaneously. This, to me is one of the most exquisitely beautiful practices human beings can undertake. It is submission and humility; it is yielding self to the current and tone and melody that only becomes possible when we sing, or act, in concert with one another.
I am reminded of something I read.
“Again, believe me when I say that if two of you on earth agree on anything that they ask, my Mother who’s in heaven will do it for them. Because where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there among them.” Matthew 18:19-20 DFV
I wonder if this isn’t why God has granted me these moments of church again. So that I might reawaken to this thing I used to know, this thing I once believed about faith community, the inscrutable sacred thread that runs in and through those willing to practice an expansive kind of awareness.
I look to my left and examine one of the shadows across the aisle. I extend my awareness to the two forms in the pew just behind me. I allow the forms to become souls, with me, in this sanctuary, and in doing so stretch to imagine the inscrutable sacred thread around which we are selflessly wrapped, joined together in a unison of listening, witnessing, and worshiping. And for just a fleeting moment, while the choir sings the only four-part piece of the night, John Rutter’s setting of the 16th century prayer from the Sarum Primer, “God Be In My Head,” I submit to the exquisite vulnerability of being welcome here, just one of the many souls listening expansively in the safety of darkness and candlelight.
God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.