Recently when I went home to England we had a reunion of old college friends of mine. Most were not believers of any sort – I had known them since I was eighteen and so the friendships pre-date, by a long way, my conversion (I was 31 when was received into the Church and have just turned 50 fyi). It was great to catch up with everyone and see how they were getting on. I was interested by a recent decision of one. She had given up teaching genetics at Imperial College, London and was now working for a company that would go into investment banks in the City and teach executives how to meditate to help them deal with the stress of the job. She been introduced to meditation when she took up yoga for the physical benefits and then was attracted to the ‘spirituality’ that is attached to it.
In order to convince the executives that there is something to this Eastern meditation, they would be armed with statistics from scientific research. She said that there had been observable improvements in the condition of heart patients in hospitals when people meditated. The research shows, she said, that even if the patients did not meditate with the visitors or even if they were unaware it was happening, just have meditation going on in the building seemed to have a positive effect.
I was happy to believe that she was right and that the research backed her up. However, my reaction was that if anything good was coming out of this, then it was because it was participating in some way in Christian prayer, whether they knew it or not. I would contest that the fullness of what they are doing is in the traditional prayer of the Church and there is every chance that this would be even more powerful if done.
When I got back to the US I contacted local hospitals and asked if they would like a small group of people to come and sing Vespers on a regular basis. What is surprising and some ways dismaying, is that I couldn’t find anyone who had ever heard of this being done before. There are Christian prayer groups who visit hospitals, but I don’t hear of people making regular commitment (beyond the occasional concert) to pray the liturgy. Shouldn’t the liturgy of the hours be one of our most powerful weapons as part of the New Evangelisation?
I didn’t expect anyone to welcome us with open arms. All I wanted was for us to be tolerated, so that we could pray the Office for them. If nobody wanted to come we didn’t mind, we wanted to pray for them regardless. The point in my mind was to make the personal sacrifice in prayer, praying for the well being of the patients and for the hospital as a community. Having said that, we would make every effort to chant beautifully for God regardless of how many others attend.
I was delighted when the Catholic chaplain at the VA Hospital, the American armed services veterans hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire, invited us to come in every other Monday evening. Fr Boucher is an old friend of mine and the college. Since September, myself and Dr Tom Larson from Thomas More College have been leading a group of male students in Vespers and Compline on Monday evenings. Because we were singing the psalms, we have presented it as ecumenical and administratively this enabled us to fill an available slot in the chapel and it has attracted a few non-Catholics
The veterans at the hospital know that we are there but very few have been able to come each time. Most are too ill or injured even to be able to get up one floor from the ward without someone dressing them and bringing them up and those helpers aren’t always available. Even then, I am not fooling myself that large numbers want to come but can’t make it. This is an unusual thing. But we are undaunted. A regular group of up to a dozen guys has been going in and singing the psalms. We keep the door open and sing loud enough so that it floats down the corridor for the wards to hear. They are always surprised at the effort we make to sing well on their behalf and in order to praise God. It has been gratifying to hear how readily those who come, many who have never been to any Office before, can sing with us, and want to. We are singing in the vernacular so that any visitor can understand and join in. Nevertheless the tones are modal and have the feel of the plainchant tradition and this I think draws them in. (They were developed for the liturgy at the college).
I am not usually the sort for public prayer. I wouldn’t go out and sing in public, in this way if I didn’t feel that we have is is beautiful and accessible and fits naturally with the language I have done processions in public before, cringing with embarrassment at the songs we are singing and having to offer it up as a penance in order to keep doing it. Unlike those, I am happy to sing these in a in the range that is natural to me. They feel vigorous and masculine, yet pious and respectful of God, so we hope promoting the right internal disposition. We are doing this for soldiers after all.
For any who are interested we did some very recordings of what we have been singing (the recordings below). Some are in unison and some are harmonised.
Although I would love to see this tested, I can’t comment on whether or not it measurably reduces the stress levels of heart patients, but regardless I am happy that this is benefitting these people and this community in ways that cannot be measured. I make the point to the students who come along, that one thing we can be certain of is that this is a sacrifice that is worth making. We jokingly call ourselves a crack squad from the ‘L-team’ (L for liturgy!)
I would like to finish by acknowedging how gracious and positive the hospital staff and the priests and ministers of various denominations at the hospital have been towards us, in allowing us to come and offering personal encouragment.
Here is the Our Father we sang (which was originally composed by Paul Jernberg, Thomas More College’s Composer in Residence for his St Philip Neri Mass)
…and the Magnificat sang:
as you listen to these, try to remember they are not professional recordings. They are recorded on a cell phone by a group of amateurs. One of the great things about Paul’s arrangements is that someone who sings as badly as me can learn my part and sing it.