In the ancient world people believed that heaven was like a dome resting above the flat disc of earth. The lights in the sky at night were thought to be tiny holes in the dome’s surface, the same lights we name stars. On Block Island, the nightscape is especially beautiful because we have far less artificial light than the mainland. We can look up at night and experience the awareness that we are connected to those who were on earth thousands of years ago. As we gaze above lesser lights of streets and commerce it is a reminder of choices we make all day long and the ways we can be distracted from the important by more urgent claims for our attention.
As winter begins to give way to warmer days, the season of gathering light grows in time and scope. I am especially aware in the season of Holy Week and Passover of how changes in the natural world inform the liturgical seasons and the awareness of new life about to be visible.
Years ago, I gratefully left the frozen plains of the mid-west to study liturgy at Canterbury Cathedral in England. My particular interest was the liturgies of Holy Week, it was on a pilgrimage to this sacred, historic place. My time there during Holy Week is still something was transformational. I was there to learn but not as an observer. I went there to be part of something that began before I was born and will go beyond my lifespan. I was there to worship and to be changed by the “community of saints,” —to use the word saints in the sense that St. Paul used the term.
The liturgies of Holy Week were filled with the spiritual consolations and desolations they are intended to frame. Beginning with Palm Sunday each day was different and yet part of something larger and more mysterious. The choirs of Canterbury and the spiritual gravitas of the prayers and readings allowed me to linger in the kairos time of the Divine Hours.
Late on Holy Thursday, long after we had concluded the worship services of the day, I felt unexpectedly restless. I tried to sleep but was unable to rest. It was unusual for me to walk at that hour but it was better than pacing in my room. I decided to enjoy the beauty of the Cathedral close and the silence of the stars. I could see that the windows to the rooms where the Archbishop of Canterbury was in residence were shuttered and dark. No one else seemed to be awake but there was enough ambient. light for me to walk inside the cloisters. The stars were vivid and shimmering in the heavens. I enjoyed the silence and could see that no one appeared to be inside the Cathedral because everything was dark.
So I was startled when a light came on from within the cathedral. I paused to try and think who might be inside and then the magnificent sounds of soaring Easter music began to fill the night. The organist was practicing the church’s hymns and anthems of triumph and resurrection hope. He began to pull out stop after stop and he played with full voice a response to the lament of the Passion— the music of Holy Week’s anguish had become fused with the praise of an ancient cry o “Alleluia”.
It speaks to the pastoral sensitivity of the musician playing that night that he would not practice such Resurrection music in the daytime — a time when the church was “remembering” the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. His solitary, dedicated work that night was a sermon to the ways in which we are part of a community even when we feel that we are alone.
The religious imagination is able to hold the tension of light and darkness, death and life, but it is elusive to live out the paradox. I think of this night from those years long ago as “the parable of Easter music”. A reminder that hope comes to us in surprising elements and conditions. St. Francis de Sales said that “the mortifications not of our own choosing are the most efficacious.” Perhaps that sentiment is equally true of the things that heal the soul. What I know from my own experience and from accompanying the experience of others, is that in life’s deepest dislocations, Easter music may be hidden but it is very much alive.
The prophet Habakkuk wrote, “ Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. Hab. 3: 17-18
Centuries later, St Paul will echo this same consciousness when he writes in Romans that “nothing can separate us from the Love of God”. Paul understood that pain, want, suffering and even death do not have the last word. That Word belongs to God. On this snow filled Palm Sunday I am grateful for the consolation of fierce landscapes.
Spring is not absent it is only hidden. The sound of the surf and the roar of the wind are my Easter music. As we await the promise of Passover and Easter and the chance to sing together- I say Alleluia to it all.