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Evensong: Allowing Time and Space for Awe

I went to my first ever Evensong service recently, at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

For the uninitiated, as I was, Evensong as it's known today has a tradition of about five hundred years in the Anglican church. The service is liturgical, which means it follows a structured format, much of which is often sung by a choir and accompanied by an organ.

According to Anglican Bishop W. K. Loather Clarke, whose 1922 notes I read about the history and meaning of Evensong, the basic framework of such a liturgy can be traced all the way back to Jewish tradition of worship through the Psalms, which would later have been used by the Apostles and early church as they incorporated Christian elements. However, the “modern" form of the service was devised during the English Reformation by then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.

The congregation is led through the service by the choir. (At St Paul's, all the singing was in Latin and we were provided with a translation in English.) The choral themes are set to the Psalms and also include several prayers and responses to two readings (“lessons”) - one from each of the Old and New Testaments. The liturgy intentionally leads the congregation through a statement of Christian faith.

Our service included people from many backgrounds, ages, languages. We all sat, stood and sat again in turn, listening to the choir lead us. What gave me tickles down my arms was knowing that we were connecting with a ritual in which people had been participating for half a millennia. I relished the chance to hear musicians making beautiful music and I let myself pause and prepare for a quieter part of the day.

Through the rhythm of the sitting and the standing and the listening, I was reminded of the important place of sacredness and mystery in our lives.

This experience made me realised that sacred moments and places and events help us keep awe and wonder alive. So, it follows that it would be a good thing to cultivate but 'sacredness' is something I actually have little time for. And not because of any deliberate decision I make but probably a result of trying to be a responsible adult and dealing with the details of each day - the bills, the schedules, the doctors appointments. We often measure the value of what we do through the double-lens of practicality (Will this meet my needs?) and immediacy (Will this meet my needs right now?). This is inevitable to some degree but I think we risk missing out on the richness of life if this is all that we let ourselves think about.

During Evensong, I was able to look at the breathtaking artwork and architecture of the Cathedral. The voices enhanced my physical surroundings - the music provided a proper setting, displaying the architecture even more completely, more wonderfully. In that hour I felt very small, a minuscule part of a much bigger and more magnificent universe than we usually have time and space to think about. I also felt very peaceful. It was nice to feel at peace with my smallness and it actually felt appropriate to spend time admitting the limits of my understanding. Awe led me to those limits, way beyond mere practicality, and through it I experienced something more magnificent of life.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t allow much time for this sort of thing. The good news is, I can work on finding time and space to cultivate awe and embrace the mystery and the richness it brings into my life. I’ve listed some ideas I had which which I thought I’d share. I know that finding time is really challenging - if you have a family who needs you, ask your spouse or you mother or your best friend to cover for you for an hour, or see if you can share one of the following experiences with your family.

1) Find an Evensong service near you and go one evening instead of rushing home - St James and St Andrews Cathedrals in Sydney’s CBD both have weekly services.

2) Go to an observatory, or to a high place at night, and look at the stars.

3) Visit a state or national art gallery near you - allow yourself to wander around and stop in front of something you love for longer than you normally would. Resist the urge to analyse, just enjoy.

4) Buy some goggles and go snorkelling - try Clovelly or Shelly Beach at Manly: you will never think about swimming in the ocean the same way again!

5) Grow a rose, grow strawberries, grow a plant you love.

6) Watch a documentary about something amazing that you know nothing about.

7) Watch someone you love, while they’re sleeping.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: when have you experienced awe and wonder? Share other ‘awe-cultivation’ ideas with me!

“The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” C. S. Lewis

Emma is a writer and lives with her husband in Sydney. She is passionate about living a full life. She loves things of beauty and honesty – especially where they combine, like in the writings of C.S.Lewis and Virginia Woolf. Emma writes on her blog More Precious than Gold.


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