Holy Week 2019
From the storied Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, England, comes an argument for the primacy of the daily office: Matins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer).
[The services of Matins and Evensong] are made out of layers of tradition which are much older. The medieval services drew on the patterns and content of worship in Christian churches of the first centuries. They in turn drew on the worship of the Jewish synagogues, which themselves depended on the traditional Jewish scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament.
Service Booklet. Introductory Note, p. 2. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.
Having placed the services in their historical context, the anonymous author of this introduction (could it possibly be Eric Milner-White?) then elucidates our place in this ancient pattern.
It follows that we need to do two things in order to enter into the spirit of these services. First we have to be patient and relaxed enough to allow a long tradition to have its say. Then we should allow our own thoughts and feelings to become closer to us than life outside admits. These two things are not separate. In the tradition there are, along with what is strange, strong expressions of our basic feelings about ourselves and God. And it is precisely the cool and ancient order of the services which gives a space and frame, as well as cues, for reflections on our regrets and hopes and gratitudes. The best analogy of it is in a relation of love. There, as here, we find ourselves by attending to another. So we may learn here a little of what we need and enjoy everywhere.
Service Booklet. Introductory Note, p. 2. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England. Emphasis added.
It's not surprising to find "a relation of love" when we consider the Matins and Evensong liturgies, or really any liturgy of the church. Beauty is both intrinsic to and the goal of liturgy.
John O'Donohue, quoted on this blog earlier this month in Evensong - the surrender to, remarks on the human soul's hunger for beauty. "In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act."
This brings immediately to mind these words of Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island: "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." And do we not find and lose ourselves in the experience of love?
O'Donohue goes on to say that at its essence, beauty is love. (And not just any shade of love either, but Eros!)
To awaken and surrender. To find and lose. When we surrender and lose ourselves in the historic, authentic liturgy of the church, we awaken to love. One needs only to look to Christian hymnody to see what a archetypal spiritual image this is.
Perhaps the most famous words in this vein are those by John Newton
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
A lesser-known hymn by Elizabeth Cosnett (b. 1936) gets at the contradiction in trying to "find" God.
Can we by searching find out God or formulate his ways? Can numbers measure what he is or words contain his praise? Although his being is too bright for human eyes to scan, his meaning lights our shadowed world through Christ, the Son of Man. Our boastfulness is turned to shame, our profit counts as loss, when earthly values stand beside the manger and the cross. We may there recognize his light, may kindle in its rays, find there the source of penitence, the starting-point of praise. There God breaks in upon our search, makes birth and death his own; he speaks to us in human terms to make his glory known.
An anonymous 19th century hymn also gets at the paradox of finding the One who finds
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me; it was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found of thee.
And in one of the grandest lines of hymnody, by the great Charles Wesley, we see that the goal of all this spiritual hide and seek is really so that we can lose ourselves in the beauty that is the subject and object of our worship.
Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
And so it is with Evensong. If we attend to Evensong "in a relation of love", the great tradition of beauty which permeates this service will awaken us and cause us to surrender in the same act.
Evensong, in a noisy, demanding world, offers something rare. Our churches should offer it, and our congregations should be encouraged to cherish it.
Evensong should be loved.
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