Sanctuary

Walking in through the side entrance, I sit down in darkness,
a hushed shuffling of feet around me the only sound. Dozens of
candles and the heavy smell of incense bring my mind to a strange
calm. Then the singing: One male voice takes up a half-song,
half-chant; a chorus soon joins in. The voices are strong, the
notes clear and unwavering. The songs are prayers, pleas for
mercy, and hymns of praise. Between each song, all is silent;
only candles and bent heads are visible.
This is Compline, a service held at Christ Church on Broadway
every Sunday night. Compline is the name for both this Episcopal
public prayer service and the hour, ten pm, at which the service
is held. It is the last of the Liturgical Hours, when a small
choir sings scriptural hymns based on Old Testament psalms. Other
services–Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers-are
held throughout the day.
The idea that half an hour of hymns could attract a large follwing
of Yale students is not necessarily intuitive, but Compline attracts
more than just Episcopalians: Many Compline regulars practice
other religions or are atheists. But Christ Church does not seek
to convert. "We’re deliberately non-pressure, non-proselytizing,"
says Rob Lehman, choirmaster of the Church. "We’re not trying
to sell anyone anything." That the Church welcomes people
of all denominations and does not demand religious worship may
explain why attendance at Compline, but not Church membership,
has swelled since the service was opened to the public at the
beginning of September. As news of Compline services has spread
through word of mouth and public announcements, the usual attendance
has grown from about 40 to over 160 people.
Having been a Compline regular for the last month and a half,
I’m beginning to understand the broad appeal. Since high school,
I have passed through the gates of more religions than I can
name. I’ve attempted to "become a flower" under the
low-voiced exhortation of a Buddhist monk, fed the cows outside
a Hare Krishna geodesic dome, and joined a group of whirling
dervishes at a mystical gathering of Sufis, spinning and chanting
the names of God. I’ve even spent a week at a monastery in Conyers,
Georgia, waking before four in the morning to make it to the
first service of the day. Compline is another way of satisfying
my curiosity about other religious cultures.
For 30 minutes, the service continues; then, with no fanfare,
it ends. People get up slowly and seem unwilling to leave. Some
genuflect and cross themselves; others walk straight out.
Compline is moving, but it’s hard to say exactly why. People
leaving the Church don’t provide answers in their parting conversations;
walking down the Church steps, I hear mostly small talk: "I’m
cold" or "I like the music here." But it seems
that something deeper is happening that no one is expressing.
Perhaps this traditional prayer service provides a needed spiritual
ritual for students immersed in a secular world; perhaps Compline
is a way to clear the mind before reentering Yale; or perhaps
it is simply a quest for relief, a quiet haven within New Haven’s
much louder space. And so each Sunday we take half an hour in
Christ Church before spilling out onto Broadway, where we are
greeted by the sounds of screeching brakes and car horns. It’s
the last night before the workweek starts up again, one among
many brief vacations, hundreds of urban nights.

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