Sunday, July 23, 2006


And now, a post two weeks in the making: The Compline at St. Mark's Cathedral, a "Seattle Tradition".

I have long considered, somewhere in the back of my mind, a stint in the cloak of Holy Orders. Imagine, I tell myself, the solitude and intimacy. I envision a monastary somewhere, carved out of the wilderness. The stone halls echo with quiet prayers--little but Latin heard for miles. What writing I could do, I think. What contemplation. Someday. Then, on this very night, I was offered a place among the Fransicans at St. Marks. Meager portions, celibacy, a free robe. These were the selling points that the monk gave me. "Our new slogan", he casually proclaimed, "is 'Franciscans: Making sandals look chic since 1266.'" We both chuckled and then he bid me good evening.

This, though, is the atmosphere at the Compline; the vast body of the cathedral becomes a resounding temple for the interior. Rarely can so many people sit so silently so long--for this is not a place where you can get away with hushed exchanges (when a couple cell phones went off, the whole structure repeated the sounds). This is the closest I've been to that monastic experience.

The Compline is a practice that arose in the west with St. Benedict in the sixth century and was carried on through the Benedictine Order. Most all of the major liturgical branches have some form of this service. The term derives from the Latin for "complement", and while the obvious connotation is one of completion--a ritual to end the night--after two Sundays spent there I like to think of it as a natural partner or perfection of my week. In various liturgical traditions the day has been broken up into several hours, each with its own prayers and mechanics, and the Compline is the consummation of the day before heading into nighttime rites. At St. Mark's a choir of male voices recites the parts of the mass between the elevated sung psalms and responses that carry throughout the room.

There is nothing that requires the Hour of Compline (which, sadly, is only half an hour) to be experienced in a cathedral like St. Mark's. I can see it happening anywhere, in the smallest of spaces. But there is something other-wordly about the lifting of voices through the distant rafters of a hall so huge. A cathedral can be any building that is designated as such, the word having its origins in Greek cathedra, meaning "seat". A "cathedral church" was the focal point of a particular bishop's see--his provence. Many of these structures took on grand form because of their importance. St. Mark's is one of the bigger churches that I have been to, which, despite being the pilgrim that I am, is a relatively small number. As cathedrals can go, it is not impressive. But it is not the glorious figure that was planned in the late 1920s.

The cathedral was eventually contstructed during the 30s and 40s. Due to the Depression and the financial status of the church St. Marks was closed during much of the 40s. However, by 1947 all debts were off and they actually "burned" the mortgage before the altar. Construction continued up through the 60s, and in 1965 a new organ had been installed and dedicated, the organ that they continue to use today.

And what an organ it is! Last week I left directly as the Compline prayers came to a close. This week I decided to stick around and absorb more of the life being emitted by the building. I was quickly surprised by music that would make Andrew Lloyd Weber eat his heart out. At the back of the cathedral is a magnificently enormous organ. At the helm was Thom Yorke (reminded me of the real Radiohead at the piano. The sound was a bit different, though. Much more gothic) a graduate student from the University of Washington with a striking British accent. He said he was standing in for Bill, who has been playing the organ for the Compline service for about thirty-one years now. Tom was passionate. When he was finished I asked him about maintenance, and he went on to describe what must be the death-defying task of climbing ladders at the back of the instrument and leaning way out to fix certain pipes.

The crowd at the Compline was not what I would have expected. When I arrived late late Sunday eve, there was nowhere left to sit, and at least a hundred people had staked out portions of the floor (some were even prepared: they had blankets or sleeping bags at the ready). Scanning the congregation I noticed an uncharacteristic heterogeneity. There were summer-clad young people, well-dressed parental types, couples and groups of all varieties, elderly veterans, solo meditators, spiritual concert-goers and wide-eyed children. On both visits I have seen a man who rides the same bus as I do--a very grandfather-looking fellow who I intend to speak with on the next avaiable occassion. There also appeared, after the Compline, a woman who I have seen on another bus, a prophetic sort of presence. She always carries some small toy companion--tonight it was a doll. She is partially blind, and after searching her way up the aisle she came to rest in the front row. As the music swept through the hall she began to bob. Her dancing was a physical expression of the exhuberance that I think we must all have been feeling post-liturgy. Even by 10:30, when the organ ceased its booming, there were still people inside.

In a way not much is asked of you at the Compline. But you are given space, and if you let yourself you can be filled with the visceral, resonating word of God.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Fruits of the Vine, the Fruits of the Spirit

Though I may cross a barren desert of distractions the pilgrimage goes on!

Speaking of pilgrimage, interesting etymology, that word. A pilgrim is at the very root a foreigner, someone travelling abroad, outside her own land. So a pilgrimage is not only a religious mission towards a holy site--the way most of us have come to understand it. In it's fullest sense--the one I adopt here--it's a departure from the familiar to relms unknown. In our present day and age this conjurs up images of xenophobia and nationalist hostilities. Part of my journey is to see whether there are still places where spiritual foreigners are welcome.

The Vineyard is one such religious space. Oh, the Vineyard! What is religion without wine? Bring out the cup, that's what I say, Catholic at the roots. The Catholics are the only ones who actually drink wine, of course, but the concept holds true. A cup shared all around.

I found myself at a Vineyard service by way of one of my spiritual barometers, a friend named Chris. This is the man who put Franny and Zooey in my hands, through which I learned of the Jesus Prayer and that "the only religious thing you can do, is act." This guy made me coffee and eggs early in the morning out of the kindness of his heart. This guy ministers in a prison because that's what he's called to do. He invited me to accompany him to a Bible study with homeless youth. I agreed.

"God-talk", it was called. For the most part, however, they did the talking. Frustrated, yearning, often passionate talking. Words about violence, words about vengeance, words about change. These are the people who I stand next to at the bus stop, listen to as they talk about drugs, brush past without recognition. On that day I ate tacos, exchanged stories, laughed heartily with them. Chris had brought me into a room with these vagabonds, and now I heard them taking shots at God and each other. Chris was calm, and in one of the most inspiring--"spirit-filling"--series of moments I've been witness to for some time, he shared with them their own closeness to Christ. He likened them to the band of disciples that Christ gathered to follow him--those rejected by society: the sick, the sinful, the rebellious. He offered them the tools of love, the power that Christ was gifting to those he selected. The ability to heal all ailments, the means to cast out evil. Chris made it clear that these are things attainable in this world, through love. I believed him.

He was drawing on many things--his own studies, his experiences as the jail up in Skagit, but particularly the energy of the church where we found ourselves. These participants in "God-talk" were members of the congregation, along with college students, immigrants and middle-class families. It was obvious when I entered the chapel that this people thrives on the immediate, overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit. Some were on their knees. Others were raising their hands. Many eyes were closed. This was a visceral, full-bodied song that was clamoring up from their hearts. The service was dominated by this outspoken, musical worship. This was their experience of God. And that focus on spirit seemed to define the Seattle Vineyard.

The whole Vineyard church movement is relatively new. It developed in the late seventies out of evangelical movements in southern California, specifically the Calvary Chapel fellowship of churches. It has many characteristics of other non-denominational branches: focus on and complete trust in scripture, a call to accepting Christ specifically and outwardly, a strong emphasis on consistent spreading of the Gospel. What sets it apart, it appears to me, is the fact that not only do the Vineyard Churches recognize the legitimacy of the gifts of the spirit bestowed at Pentecost (speaking in tongues, healing of the sick, driving out demons) but they actively seek them in their daily and worship experiences. They believe the spirit must be present and these gifts must be functioning for a church to be vital:

We believe in the filling or empowering of the Holy Spirit, often a conscious
experience, for ministry today. We believe in the present ministry of the Spirit and in the exercise of all of the biblical gifts of the Spirit. We practice the laying on of hands for the empowering of the Spirit, for healing, and for recognition and empowering of those whom God has ordained to lead and serve the Church.

Part of this stems from an effort to actualize the Kingdom of God in the present day. Much of Vineyard theology is wrapped around this notion of Kingdom, and bringing it about is one of the prime objectives of the church. All Christian churches, of course, refer to the Kingdom of God, but the Vineyard folk seem--like laborers in one of the parables--to be actively preparing for the immenent return of their master.

These are all sweeping assessments of the much larger instution. Seattle Vineyard is just a part.

The Vineyard makes clear that every church is different--there is no desire to fuse all practice across the globe. But the core values are what must stay in tact. This seems to be achieved--if I can extrapolate from what I encountered--through community. There were no divisions in that room when I joined. All sang out. Most took bread and juice. People shook hands and greeted one another. There was a definite feeling of haphazardness; people scattered, some standing, some kneeling, some casual, some more serious. People entered constantly, but few exited. And yet they all seemed to know each other. So when the sermon was given by a departing member of the congregation--a sermon of about friendship and friendlisness, about the power for change within all present--the attention was unflinching and then the applause was continuous.

These are definitely the first people I have run into on my pilgrimage who are drunk with the spirit. They were lapping it up, and thirsty for more. Maybe it's the music, maybe the healing that is so eagerly offered. Whatever the case, it's worth a taste.