The Great Silence

The Rev’d Canon Robert Hendrickson, former curate, censes the altar during Compline at Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut. (Source: The Yale Herald)

The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.

The carillon begins to toll at a quarter of nine every Sunday evening, favorite hymns peeling away more than a hundred feet above the ground of New Haven, Connecticut. The music of the bells invites all those within a few miles from Christ Church to pause for a few moments and recenter, to bring closure to their week and begin another week once more refreshed. New Haven’s cathedral is lit only by candle light–from the altar, from the reredos, from the window ledges, from the baptismal font, along the ground in the choir, interspersed among the pews. The cloud of incense hovers just above the head, the fog of frankincense and lavender streaming up steadily from the brazier set in front of the marble altar.

At nine o’clock, the bells sound the hour. A hidden voice from the choir calls the assembled to silent worship of the One made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns deep darkness into morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface the earth. The disembodied voices press on, lifting their voices in the night office. Hymns are sung and psalms are chanted. Prayers are offered for those gathered and those who could not be present. The choirmaster offers his craft, but silence is truly the presider. At the end of the office, a hymn to the Mother of God is offered, closing the day. The silence of the office is intensified in the seconds following the close of Compline.  The Great Silence has begun.

While I love the entire sung Office of Compline at Christ Church, my favorite piece is the last few moments after the choir has stopped singing. There is a pregnant silence in the air. Nobody stirs for those few moments. In the silence of the still church, the only movement comes from the dancing flames of the candles.  Though no words are exchanged, we are all united in the silence. The congregation is diverse and there are very few things that we hold in common. Yale undergraduates, seminarians, parishioners, homeless people, professors, liberals, conservatives,  educated, illiterate, depressed, engaged, troubled. Even so, in the stillness, we are one. A collective breath, a living prayer to the One who orchestrates all creation, to the Christ enfleshed on the altar, to the Spirit dancing and whispering in the candlelight.

With no words, the Great Silence ends. Feet shuffle, chairs creak, throats are cleared. Some make  pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady, others make for cider hour in the parish hall.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or 
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who 
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless 
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the 
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

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