As a secular-minded student at Cambridge University, I discovered the beauty of its chapels. The soothing rhythm of evensong and its perfect aesthetics – the choir’s hymns, the minister’s oratory, the spiralling arches of King’s College chapel – yield a contemplative liberty, and a pathway to peace and focus of mind. Sat on mahogany wooden benches and sheltered by candle light, I for the first time clearly sensed a unity with life’s ebb and flow, and humanity’s wider congregation.
Although initially I would not pray, or speak in cadence with other believers, there was no pressure to conform. The absence of dogma and theatrics in Anglican service allowed me to find my own meaning. So that now every once in a while when I go for evensong, I too kneel to pray, and recite the 1662 Common Book of Prayer’s elegant verses – ‘He shall come to judge the quick and the dead’. The meaning I found consists of three simple tenets.
One, in trusting in life’s swift and sometimes cruel moves, I relay my trust in god. I am aware that the spiritual starts where the limits of my cognitive understanding and control end. And, much as I relish the cognitive, I therefore find sustenance in my prayers, to feed the little flame in my heart while the wind tucks at it.
Two, I try to maintain an open and gentle heart to the world, to reduce unnecessary suffering. In short, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Three, in the church’s calendar, so closely linked with the seasons’ cycle and our culture, I find greater historical grounding in my society’s values and habits. I now understand a bit better that advent is an occasion to contemplate suffering before Christ was born, during the darkest time of the year. I now see why we bring light trees into our houses to defy that darkest time. Or why some fast while the land awaits Easter’s spring, the year’s bleakest time.
Some may challenge the individualism or simplicity of this point of view, yet I relish my evensong insights. If you’re curious too, go and explore London’s chapels and churches yourself. My top tips are:
- St Paul’s Cathedral, Sunday choral evensong at 3.15pm – gorgeous architecture, sumptuous interiors and the sermons exhibit the best of English oratory;
- St Bartholomew-the-Great Church, Sunday choral evensong at 6.30pm – dark and medieval interiors and beautiful voices in one of London’s oldest churches, and the décor for ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Four weddings and a funeral’;
- The Round Church in Temple, special services such as today’s All Saints evensong – the Templars’ old church hidden in inner Temple, now an active lawyers’ parish with an excellent choir.
Or in Amsterdam, there’s an Anglican evensong in St Nicholas’ Church right outside Central Station every Saturday at 5pm.