Thursday, March 29, 2012

Of plainsong, penitence and nightly fears and fantasies

We were practising plainsong this morning - a group from the congregation learning the Tonus Peregrinus and familiarising themselves with the twiddly endings of the second part of the psalm, which had a few interesting ligatures to confuse and delight. And as a result, I've been singing plainsong in my head ever since - not just the chants we were doing, but somehow, mysteriously, parts of Compline as well as whatever ideas flitted over my brain wedded to a succession of neumes.

We're doing a basic Prayer Book evensong for our contribution to the Holy Week services in the town, and so we're singing all the syllables and using traditional language - and I have to say it was fine, and that I was happy to do this and let it wash over me without a qualm. But what strikes me in these moments is how conscious of sin and unworthiness the church was, how insistent on human sinfulness and the need to repent, and how aware of frailty and vulnerability. This is backed up by the collection of spiritual readings that I tend to digest before bed - last night's homily from the early church was full of the need to contrast sinful me with the purity of Christ. And they were so afraid of the night - of nightly fears and fantasies, of all perils and dangers of the night. The nights must have been so very dark, and so full of the unknown and the feared, when life was short and surrounded by threat.

Are we so sure now that we've got it all licked? With our electric lights, our computers transmitting our late-night ramblings to anyone who cares to read them, our antibiotics and skilled surgeons? Is the universe really tamed, the night purged of fear? And sinfulness? Let's not even go there.

But if we waken at four to soundless dark, what do we think of? Unresting death? I can't think that Philip Larkin was alone in this. I shall continue to love Compline, to plainsong, above any other service of the church.  And now it's past midnight ...


  1. Lovely post, resonated with me as we are also singing compline for the first time for holy week. I won't go near the sin question I promise, but I'll be thinking of you as we sing this week. It's been a great way to bring some peace, stillness and thought in advance of all that's momentous about this week.

    1. Thank you for this, which came just before I went out to that Evensong we were practising for. May the stillness prevail for us both, and for all who sing in the service of that stillness this week.