Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2005
Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2005

Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2005

Solemn Advent Vespers at the Cathedral

You can’t read much in the history of Christianity without running across the story of the 10th century Russian emissaries who, being sent by their ruler Prince Vladimir to discover the true religion, decided that they had found it when they witnessed the Divine Liturgy in the Church of Hagia Sophia. “For we knew not,” they told the Prince, “whether we were in heaven or on earth.” I don’t think anyone—at least, anyone who knows the state of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church—has much hope, still less expectation, of having such an experience in any Catholic church in our time. But it can happen. It has happened to me.

For some years now, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama (that’s mo-BEEL, not MO-buhl) has offered solemn vespers on the Sundays of Advent. I haven’t attended as often as I would like; the cathedral is twenty miles away and for one reason or another it has more often than not been inconvenient for me to take the time. But it was at one of these services a few years ago that I had a momentary taste of what it might actually feel like to praise God in heaven, and I knew that there might be more than metaphor to those images of the redeemed singing eternally there.

The idea of an endless church service sounds more like hell than heaven to most of us, and is one of the reasons why people say those very ignorant and foolish things about preferring hell because it will be more interesting than heaven. But that’s a defect in us, and in our modes of worship. I have spent many years complaining, sometimes bitterly, about the drab and deadening quality of most Catholic worship: ugly buildings, wretched music, lifeless language. So it delights me to be able to report a ray of sunlight in the gloom.

The interior of the cathedral is beautiful and has unusually fine acoustics. For a cathedral, it’s rather small, and so an organ and a small but talented and well-directed choir can fill it with sound. The choir director knows how to use the space, with long slow lines of chant and polyphony that have time to bloom sonically. Most of the texts are sung, which means that our dispirited liturgical translations have little chance to work their negative spell. There is no badinage whatsoever. Offhand I don’t in fact recall a single word spoken this afternoon that was not part of the liturgy.

Above all, I think, there are two things operative here that make this service so worshipful: the first, the sine qua non, is reverence, and the second is a kind of taste which follows from and is supported by reverence. I don’t mean simple aesthetic taste, although that’s important. I mean also a sense of propriety as to what is compatible with reverence. The worst days of marginal competence in Catholic choirs may be over—I hope they are over—but I have heard any number of capable choirs sing a hodgepodge of peppy pop-worship songs and traditional hymns which always somehow seem to be calling attention to themselves, a quality strengthened by too-prominent placement of the choir and all their guitars, amps, mikes, keyboards, and mixers at the front of the church. In the cathedral the choir is in a traditional loft at the rear of the church, and the sound floats out into the huge reverberant space above us.

This reverence doesn’t seem the least bit strained or inauthentic, nor this taste self-consciously exquisite. Rather they seem to be the natural unforced result of a sense that we are approaching God and that our understanding of Who He Is leads naturally not to any sort of shallow conviviality but to a respectful attentiveness that necessarily becomes an external and internal quiet, because its object is outside itself. Nothing, therefore, seems directed toward the nurturing or manipulation of our feelings. The music is at the service of the texts. The texts are at the service of the Advent message: Something wonderful is about to happen. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

The only disappointing thing about this afternoon’s vespers was the slight attendance. I don’t think more than fifty people were there. If anyone in the Mobile area is reading this: there’s still one more Sunday in Advent.


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