I went to evening prayer the night before this second lockdown began.
I’ve always loved choral evensong. The first one I ever heard, in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, in early Michaelmas Term 1984, made such a life-changing impression on me that I ended up attending it every evening for the next year and a half.
When people ask me if I’m a churchgoer, I’m never sure how to respond. Before discovering the comforting, grounding nature of Anglican evensong sung by a choir of men and trebles, preferably helped by the acoustics of high stone arches, I went to church quite often but only outside Mass or service times, when I could sit quietly in the half-light, let the drunken monkey inside my head calm down and be inspired by the architecture which, of course, had to be at least five hundred years old before I could trust the wisdom absorbed by its walls. I’ve never felt – and still don’t feel – comfortable at Sunday morning services. I find them too long, my mind frequently wanders during the sermon and hymns to me are a minor endurance test. Moreover, I find myself becoming irritated and ill-at-ease in what I perceive as the respectable, pillars-of-society atmosphere of Sunday morning Eucharist or Mass. Evensong, on the other hand, has something therapeutic and accepting about it. I love the mind-appeasing chanting of psalms, the lulling of plainsong, the night falling behind the stained glass windows, and I love the fact that it’s only forty or so minutes long. I love sitting there, in communion with the music and the centuries-old walls. Nietzsche could not imagine a God that didn’t dance. I cannot imagine the Divine without music – and professional, at that.
I went to evening prayer on Wednesday night, just before lockdown. There is no music at evening prayer but I felt like being in Norwich Cathedral, among the Caen limestone walls that have seen many a plague and war over their almost thousand years. I felt like showing support to the people who care for it at present.
Since the end of the first lockdown, services have not been sung in the choir stalls, as per custom, but in the nave. Seats far apart. Everybody, including the clergy and the choir, wearing masks. What strange times, when our very breath – breath, that is what makes us alive – should carry the danger of death. A pillar candle on the floor, where just over five hundred small, wooden crosses are arranged in rows. One for each Norfolk person who died from Covid-19.
As soon as I walked in through the South door and reached out towards the electronic hand sanitiser, I was surprised to hear music. The choir was singing. I wasn’t expecting it. “Music!” I said to the verger.
He directed me to St Saviour’s Chapel, one of the side chapels off the ambulatory, and told me the choir were recording music, in case the lockdown was prolonged beyond 2nd December. In case, I thought and wondered how many people besides myself fear that it will be extended. There were just eleven of us in the congregation and I recognised faces I’d seen at evensong over the past couple of months. As the priest began the prayers, I could barely hear him: his voice was drowned out by the choir in the nave, the choir singing a joyful familiar melody. I suddenly realised it was the Sussex Carol. Every now and then, they would pause, probably to listen to the choir master’s instructions. A Christmas carol, in early November. Is there a chance that the lockdown will go on for much longer than we anticipate? To the point where there may not be carols on Christmas Eve? Funny, the traditions you cling to for a sense of continuity and normality.
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring
I smiled and hummed along into my cloth mask. I like the Sussex Carol. My eyes wandered towards the retable ahead. English, 15th century. Three central panels representing the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and, in the centre, the Resurrection, and a panel on either side with men in mitres, either bishops or saints. Bright, mediaeval colours. I’d never taken in these paintings before and feasted my eyes on them.
News of great joy news of great mirth
News of our merciful King’s birth
Then why should men on earth be so sad
Since our Redeemer made us glad?
H. says Christmas carols make him sad. All that promise of peace and joy, he says, and yet it’s the same wars, violence and suffering year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium and we never learn. I never know what to reply to him. He’s right, of course. I cannot give him an intelligent argument to make him change his mind – at least not a rational one. All I can do is retreat to that place inside me where certainties are not connected with empiricism. How can I find the words, products of my limited brain, to convey the truth of unlimited imagination?
Then out of darkness we see light,
Which makes all angels to sing this night
I smile and hum into my mask. I’m glad I came to evening prayer. I did get music, after all. And with it, a glimmer of hope in these dark times.