Monday, May 23, 2011

Sunday Evening at St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle

Sunday night Compline in St Mark's cathedral in Seattle: it is the same this Sunday evening as it has been every Sunday evening for more than fifty years. Just before 9 PM, dozens of twenty-somethings gather outside the great west doors. Among them are university students, street people, young professionals. There is a sprinkling of older people, but the vast majority of the crowd is under thirty-five years of age.

As soon as the doors open, they file quietly into the semi-darkness to find places in the pews, sitting on the floor along the walls, sprawling in the sanctuary. The crowd continues to pour through the west doors in a seemingly endless stream until the great space is nearly full. As the people gather, the silence seems to grow, not diminish. There are a few whispers, but most people are content to let the silence seep into their bones. Cell phones are off; iPods unplugged. There are no signs asking for silence, no officious ushers, no clergy smiling tightly through their teeth.

At 9:30 a door opens to the right of the altar and a robed choir files in, pacing the length of the cathedral to stand at one side under the organ loft where they cannot be seen. Their leader sounds a note, and a clear unaccompanied tenor voice spins the opening line of the ancient service of Compline into the reverberating darkness. Another voice answers, complementing the silence. The choir picks up the ancient Gregorian rhythm of the psalms. The group sing a motet; a solo voice chants final prayers. The choir files out the way it came in.

When the choir has disappeared, the huge congregation sits motionless in the stillness, reluctant to move. The moment passes; people begin to get up and leave, their movements languid and gentle, as if waking from sleep. Some stretch and yawn. Many hold hands. At the west door two greeters stand with collection bowls, but their focus is welcome, not money. Scraps of conversation float by, "Mystical.... healing.... peaceful.... mysterious....." The half hour long service has been broadcast on the radio, silence and all, to a listening audience of more than 100,000 people, supplemented by unknown numbers tuned in on the internet.

It would not do to analyse this weekly phenomenon too closely but it is perhaps significant that the person who began it was a musician, a cathedral organist imbued with the play of sound and silence, and the resonance of stillness. It was a stroke of luck that the cathedral clergy refused to participate (perhaps they thought a lay-founded service was beneath them); it would now be inappropriate for them to do so. Whatever the motives, those who have continued the tradition have created an environment that has enormous respect for the innate ritual sense of the ordinary person.

It was this respect that was lacking two Sundays ago at the event that was so upsetting to the congregation, young and old alike. Beyond that particular event, however, Sundays in general are tough for a lot of people; Sunday afternoon is the haunt of "the noon-day devil". There is no reason that the fine speakers whom I have not gone to hear because of the raucous context could not make their presentations in the context of Compline in the St Mark's Cathedral fashion. Their remarks could be spoken in the semi-dark—forget the dais and the show-biz razzle dazzle.

As St Mark's has demonstrated, there is a real need for something like this on Sunday evenings. One would be forgiven for wondering why other churches have not taken a page from St Mark's book—but in these deaf and competitive days, that is probably too much to hope for.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Hartwell, who for a time was Brother Isaac, SSF. Steve died last Saturday morning, the 21st of May, 2011. Along with his partner Ray, who survives him, he was one of the greeters mentioned in the above description, a pillar of St Mark's. He was multi-talented: vestment-maker, master of ceremonies, above all a kind and generous friend to anyone who came to the cathedral, and, in his private life, hospitable and generous almost to a fault. He would not have seen himself in this way, but his entire life was self-gift. He wanted to make people comfortable with God, helping to ensure that the worship had dignity, and flow, and beauty without being oppressive or pompous or kitsch. He was no stranger to suffering, and provided comfort to people without number. He will be sorely missed.


Blogger Ken Peterson said...

Thank you for your lovely tribute to Steve Hartwell. I hope to do the same in my next blog posting to Thanks - Ken Peterson

11:50 pm, May 25, 2011  
Blogger Bo said...

Beautiful piece: sorry to hear about your friend.

2:07 pm, May 26, 2011  

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