I was raised with the barest trappings of religion. My mother is a ‘reformed’ reformed Jew while my father is a lapsed Anglican who made the leap from agnosticism to atheism at some point during my early teenage years. I had candles in my menorah and lights on my Christmas tree but that was about it. No baptism, no bat mitzvah. I didn’t think that my people were chosen, that Christ was my savior nor did I, as a Los Angeles native, entertain any new agey ideas about yoga, reincarnation or chakra realignment.
I guess it was only a matter of time until I decided I needed to “find God.” Actually, “I’m going to find God” is the exact phrase I used, listing it as one of the main goals of the gap year I took between high school and college. I didn’t know precisely what “finding God,” meant (I still don’t). I think I had a vague notion that, at some point during that year I would perhaps have some work of divine literature in my pocket at the time of, say, a drive-by shooting and the book would catch the bullet and save my life (and conveniently demonstrate to me God’s or Yahweh’s or perhaps Allah’s or Krishna’s providence).
Well, that didn’t happen. And I didn’t find God, either. At least not in the way I had hoped for.
What I did find was choral music. Not the Christmas carols I had grown up signing until my school decided to avoid lawsuits by switching to non-denominational winter concerts. But real choral music, which I first heard live when I was staying in London.
It all started when, on a whim, I went to an Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Evensong is an Anglican ceremony of early evening worship that lasts about an hour, features a few prayers, a couple of short readings from the bible, and a healthy dose of singing: some psalms, an anthem, and two canticles (a Magnificat – the song of Mary, taken from words she used to describe her pregnancy with Jesus; and a Nunc dimittis – from the passage in Luke where Simeon looks on Jesus and then dies). I had no idea what was going on the first time I went but I quickly decided the Lord’s Prayer sounded better recited in an English accent. And I loved the music.
There are no long sermons or apologies. Nor are there calls upon the listener to recognize that she or he is sinner. It is religious without being uncomfortably so – in that stifled yet unexpectedly sentimental way that only the English have mastered. What they cannot stifle is the music, which seems composed and sung with such an intensely pure desire to glorify God that I certainly cannot understand but can still appreciate. Although I would occasionally wonder cynically if Jesus was ever merely only a profitable excuse to compose beautiful music, I loved the experience of sitting in a Gothic cathedral and listening to angel-voiced boys sing too much to let it bother me.
I became something of an Evensong groupie and started going to different services all around London; once I even ventured down to Cambridge to listen to the Kings College choir. But it didn’t work back in Princeton. There, I was only able to find one church that had Evensong. Once a month.
So here I am relegated to listening to itunes music store downloads (despite my lack of serious religious conviction, I feel rather guilty downloading religious music) and staring at my faux-gothic dorm room window, vainly attempting to stop myself from multi-tasking and instead allowing myself to enjoy the music sung by robed little choristers I cannot see.
The experience is not quite the same, but the power and beauty of the music is such that it almost doesn’t matter. Without even realizing it, I often find myself listening to the King’s College choir’s Nunc dimittis on repeat. The words themselves are simple:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Conservatively speaking, this takes about thirty seconds to recite, including the requisite amen. The choir stretches it out to a glorious four minutes and forty seconds. You can almost hear the voices – both the purity of the boy sopranos and the richness of more mature males – echoing off the carved stone walls of Kings College Chapel. It starts out softly, the men singing, almost murmuring, “Lord” on their own. Then the boys’ voices pitch in and establish the beautiful polyphony, the combination of two or more melodic voices. The boys and the men sing to each other, stretching out words, repeating phrases, gently volleying them back and forth, sharing the burden of the message. While it helps to know the words, I think it best just to sit back and let the music pour over you. The voices unite for the beginning of the Anglican Rosary (“Glory be to the father…”) then split again, the men’s voices keeping the melody anchored, the boys’ soaring somewhere far above my plaster ceiling. Following the flowing evolution of the canticle induces a near-meditative state. At the end, an organ pitches in very gently, almost unnoticeably. It is only when the next song – the only Magnificat I could find since Bach flooded the market with his sweeping orchestral version – comes on that I realize just how much can be achieved with voice alone. The violins sound jarring. The larger choir is overwhelming. I retreat to the Nunc dimittis.
Evensong finally made me understand why Christians spent inordinate amounts of money and sometimes decades building these great cathedrals. There are few experiences so transcendent as sitting in the Westminster Abbey choir, listening to robed little boys with voices like angels, looking at the dying sun gleaming through stained glass windows, and glancing heavenward at a vaulted ceiling.
Listening to this music on my computer cannot be the same as in a looming Gothic cathedral, in spite of my closing my eyes, clicking my L.L. Bean slippers, and wishing I were there. But the pure beauty of what human mind and voice can accomplish remains. I still don’t know if I believe in God or organized religion. I do know that this glorious celebration of voice and music has taught me to appreciate creation in a new way. It offers the reminder, much-needed, that humans are still capable of producing truly beautiful things. Even my atheistic father concedes that he misses being a choirboy, misses the experience of the music. Unfortunately this generally leads him to insulting Jewish music and telling my mother that her people killed Jesus (that’s just how my family jokes). And that’s usually when I put on my headphones, retreating back into my own private Evensong.