In a frequently broadcast “Christmas at St. Olaf’s” special from some years ago now, a chorus member recalls what the conductor told the chorus as they began rehearsals of Randall Thompson’s haunting choral work, Alleluia. The conductor said something like, “Imagine that there is a chorus being sung all the time, just beyond our hearing, and when you sing this piece, you are joining that invisible chorus.”
I thought of this on the two nights last week when I was able to visit the Washington National Cathedral, during their week of experiential prayer opportunities that they called “Seeing Deeper.” I tend to be a choral geek, so I chose the evenings when I could hear the virtuoso Cathedra chorus as part of this event. Others may have chosen tai chi or yoga or simply sitting and reading or praying in this beautiful shared holy space. For me it was wonderful being in the nave with no chairs – seeing the marble work and observing people being present to the place and the music in various ways – and with a sense that everyone’s way of being there was deeply “right,” whatever form it took.
I really enjoyed moving around the nave –as the singing was going on -just walking up and down, around the great pillars and in the galleries, as this rich polyphonic music was being offered. As I listened to the treble notes, gorgeously carried by the acoustics of the place, I let my eyes follow the upward reach of the gothic arches, and observe the visual rhythms of the vaults, and notice the fine, lacy stonework of some of the side chapels. I’ve been in the Cathedral many times for many events, but moving, rather than sitting, in this prayed-in space, was a new experience.
By Friday evening, when the place had been open all week, I really sensed a deepened spirit of prayer among those gathered. The labyrinths were laid out, and as I listened to the music, of the Allegri Miserere, the people who were walking and praying in the labyrinth seemed to be joining in a dance; those who were sitting or lying on yoga mats, simply meditating and listening, were also tuned into something holy that the music and the space were carrying. People were lighting candles, praying in the chapels, sitting on the floor in the Great Choir as well as in the pews, some even crossing themselves with water as they passed the Baptismal font.
This was truly an experience of corporate prayer. There were no words of instruction being offered about how to pray. We knew how; we were joining the chorus of prayer that goes on always, each in our own way. But in that place, together. We were responding to the invitation that is always there – expressed in the words of Sunday’s gospel (John 1:39), and offered to the world: “Come and see what it is like, to dwell together in holy presence: come, and see.”
Kathy Staudt is a member of Our Saviour, Hillandale and an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary.