by Daniel Simons
Last week I pulled out my walking boots and set off on another journey with the same group of Trinity pilgrims who last year walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. This time we were making an urban pilgrimage in our own city, and we walked for a couple of late-autumn/early-winter hours up the greenway of the west side of upper Manhattan to The Cloisters, a museum outpost of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sits high on a hill and deep in a park at the tip of the island. This museum is a stunning assemblage of several medieval Spanish cloisters and chapels, purchased, shipped over, reassembled, then filled with glorious art of the period by John D. Rockefeller.
In addition to the simple pleasure of again walking a common path with one another, our destination was one particular cloister chapel, where an installation was about to close. Motet for 40 Voices, an 11-minute piece by Thomas Tallis, was being performed there, electronically, in a recurring loop. The artist, Janet Cardiff, had gathered together the Salisbury choir, separated them into the needed eight choirs of five singers each, miked each singer independently, and created 40 tracks, one for each voice. In the cloister chapel each voice was being played separately and simultaneously on 40 speakers mounted around the perimeter of the room.
I explain this in such detail to give you the best setup I can for an experience that to the ear was ineffable. Imagine listening to a forty-PART piece of music by a master—that in itself was transporting—and then imagine being able to walk among the singers in the choir as they each sang their part. Each step changed one's position and relationship to the music. It was both engaging and arresting.
What I remember most vividly now though was not what I heard but what I saw. The room was pretty crowded with people, maybe 60 or 70, but all of them were lost in various states of deep listening to the point that it looked like a whole roomful of drugged medical patients! Slack jawed, drifting and gently bumping around the room, eyes unfocused, we all were captured in a spell of human voices that creating a sound envelope that was almost never resolving but completely harmonious at the same time.
The Celtic Christians often imagined heaven not being merely a someday-place but rather as another dimension alongside this one, with a veil, often gossamer-thin, between this world and the next. We get glimpses of it from time to time. This was one of those times.
The best word that I can fit to people's response to their experience is Reverence. Everyone, no matter what their creed, realized that they were in the presence of Something that deserved their obedience, their deep listening. Many listened with bowed heads. It was such a different energy that the churchy-type of reverence, which often comes across as "how I OUGHT to behave." This was not a conformity to an external set of expectations, whether from the deity or from one another. This was a discovery of an inner disposition. People were not behaving as they ought, they were behaving in the only way they authentically could in the present moment. They were worshipping.
In one of my jobs at Trinity as Director of Liturgy, perhaps no one is more deeply aware than I of the technical logistics involved in putting together a worship service, but the question "What's the work of curating liturgy FOR?" was answered for me in that chapel moment. We don't really create worship events so much as we fall into them, they overtake us and we see through the veil.
The energy in that little chapel at The Cloisters is what I want to see and experience more of in church—a bunch of shoulder-to-shoulder strangers, none of whom really fit well together, just dumping down all their internal baggage and going slack-jawed for a moment in the presence of Beauty and Truth. It might not always be as ethereally transporting as that afternoon at The Cloisters, but when it happens it is always equally truthful and equally beautiful.
Daniel Simons is Priest for Liturgy, Hospitality, and Pilgrimage