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.


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