Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sacred Music

Notre Dame
A bit of research prior to our travels showed there was a Sunday Gregorian Mass in Notre Dame, and I wanted to attend. I had envisioned monks in heavy robes and deep voices, but the nuns were doing the chants, voices ascending. To spend an hour just sitting and absorbing this amazing cathedral was a privilege. Centuries of worship must concentrate energy, which may be partly what draws these daily crowds. Hearing the music, looking at the soaring buttresses, admiring  the stained glass, and just simply being in the space was exquisite.

Sacre Couer
Then by design or chance, when we were visiting Sacre Couer I took a seat in a front pew to admire the altar and art of the Basilica. Within a few minutes, a sung Eucharist was beginning. It was just serendipity, and not planned. Nuns again, beautiful voices. Everything was in French so I didn't understand the content word for word, but this was a Catholic mass, so although it has been many years, I certainly had a sense of what they were celebrating. As I sat I had time to take in the gold and stained glass, and to wonder how mosaics of Stars of David had come to the walls gracing the pulpit.

St Paul's Cathedral
Again - at St. Paul's in London, we wandered in during the last half of a sung Eucharist. This time, a Mozart Opus with a men's choir singing verses in Latin. I found myself at the back, looking at the silhouette of the congregation with my gaze drawn up to vaulted ceilings. This time the sombre tones were reminding me of the (mostly) men buried here, including Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt the cathedral after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Westminster Cathedral
Again again.... at the end of the Westminster tour we heard that Evensong would be in just a half hour if we wanted to stay. We did. This time there were no tourists milling about the periphery, and the service took place in a smaller setting. The men's choir sung in Latin, and the priest welcomed His Excellency from Malta who was seated with other guests of honour. On the way out of this structure we walked over the spot where Darwin was entombed, and past the tribute to Sir Isaac Newton. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lay at the entrance in a place of honour.

Being in these sacred places and listening to the sacred music made me think of the millions who sat in these place before me, royal and common, devout or politically motivated, with self-interest or the good of the world at the heart of their intention. I also wondered at and about the churches themselves, the sculpture, stained glass, paintings and architecture. So much beauty.

We visited other churches on our travels in Paris and London: Sainte Chappel, St. Louis I'lles, St Etiene, St. John the Baptist in Berford, Saxon Saint Kenselm in Lovell, chapels in Oxford. Are there modern day equivalents? I can think of none. Our common spaces are less divine and not built to last centuries: coliseums, shopping centres, subway cars, parks. Less permanent and ambitious. Less divine.

Today people with great wealth to bequeath tend to sponsor universities and hospitals to be remembered, and churches are careful not to flaunt their riches with so many who need help in their daily lives. A recent exception is the Aga Khan Centre in Toronto that opens gardens and a museum to the public September 18... today, in fact.

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