It’s a Seattle tradition. Every Sunday night at 9:30 pm, people pour into the candlelit nave of Saint Mark’s Cathedral to listen to the Compline Choir sing meditative plainsong. Thousands of other people fill the mystical space by listening to the service on the radio. The audience is diverse, interfaith, and intergenerational—this service is special. The founder of the Compline Choir, Peter Hallock, was unsure why the service is so successful, and he didn’t really feel an urgent need to explain its success. “It is what it needs to be,” he stated.
There is something about the art of music that is unifying though. It transcends lines of difference and choral music is inherently collaborative. I wonder if this is the reason why the “Week” of Prayer for Christian Unity is an octave—an observance lasting eight days. The octave is also the most consonant interval of the diatonic scale.
Despite the music and the diversity, there is clear separation between the Compline Choir and their audience. The choir, made up entirely of white men in white robes, enters in silence; sings and recites the service to a passive audience; and leaves in silence. After the choir leaves, most of the audience leaves too.
But a few audience members stick around for the best-kept secret of Compline—the intimate organ concerts that come after the service. As if we were huddling around a campfire, those that remain go up to the organ loft and sit in a semicircle around the organist sitting at the console of the famous Flentrop organ.
When we listen to music, we are often deceived by an illusion of distance. Music is thought of as a pure idea outside of us that we perceive with our ears and understand with our minds. The Compline Choir gathers in their corner, their white, male privilege distancing them from their audience. This makes sense—distance feels safe.
When we listen to organ music though, it shatters that illusion of distance. Organ music is music that touches us and reverberates inside our bodies. This touch can often feel unsettling and invasive to those who are most at home in their minds, but music always touches us even when we insist that it’s something that is just aurally and mentally perceived.
Oppression is about bodies—Black bodies, female bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies…The social sin of systematic oppression makes privileged bodies untouchable and no more substantial than an idea. If Christians are to return to unity, we must return to our bodies. In the Gospels, Jesus Christ is constantly touching others, and this touch is healing.
Richard Rohr says about the Word made flesh, “In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. While God can be described as a moral force, as consciousness, and as high vibrational energy, the truth is, we don’t (or can’t?) fall in love with abstractions. So God became a person ‘that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands.’ (John 1:1).”
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, return to your body and pray through touch and the senses. There’s a reason why the Sign of Peace in our worship services is about touch. We reach out to touch the bodies of our neighbors with love and not fear or hatred. This week, experience music with your whole body and not just your ears and minds. In reaching out to touch, there is dissonance and discomfort, but there is also resolution into peace as we encounter our humanity and the humanity of our siblings in Christ.
Thank you to Paige Foreman for this reflection.