Sainte-Denis

Sainte-Denis

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Evensong

Durham Cathedral is the church militant and triumphant. Unlike Chartres or Salisbury, which seem about to leap into heaven, Durham shoulders its way upward. With massive pillars in the jagged Norman dogtooth supporting the highest cathedral in Christendom, the ceiling almost disappears above you. Imagine sitting in the choir stalls, peering up into the dark shadows while voices, like incense, rise all around you. This is evensong.

When the host of my B&B suggested the service to me, I remembered attending a gorgeous evensong at York Cathedral several years ago with Keith and immediately planned my visit accordingly. It was a surprise, however, when one of the priests invited the half dozen of us huddled below the towering roof to come into the choir and sit in the empty stalls next to the singers. Unlike the well-attended York service, this was suddenly intimate and deeply personal. Only a dozen choir members filed in: a few men, a couple of boys and several girls. But when they started to sing, the sound filled the cathedral vaults.

Almost all of the content comes from biblical text. Originally a combination of vespers and compline, most of the service is sung. I was unfamiliar with the sequence, but a summary was conveniently provided for the uninitiated. As an attendee, this leaves you free, for the most part, from response so that you may pray, meditate or, like me, simply float upwards with the song. The power of the music was profound. It echoed through the immense spaces above us and wrapped us in an intertwined web of soprano, baritone, tenor and bass voices.

Walking out into the cloister into the summer rain afterwards, I had the impression that I was stepping out of a stream of faith that had preceeded me by two thousand years and would continue on long after my departure.

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