Readers may remember my writing about a small group of us making the commitment to sing Vespers and Compline at the Veterans hospital in Manchester, NH. We have been singing there fortnightly now since September last year. One of the things that I stress to those students from Thomas More College who go with me is that all are benefiting from this even if no one is able to come. Sometimes it has been down to Fr Boucher, myself and Dr Tom Larson and just a couple of others with no one else from the hospital in attendance. Most patients are so ill and incapacitated that they cannot make it without help and sometimes for very good reasons that help just isn’t there at that time in the evening. Undaunted we had kept the commitment going; and we always take care to sing well. The prayers on these occasions are often directed towards the souls of those who had died that day and for their families.
Slowly things have begun to develop. Gene, who heads the team of chaplains (and who is not Catholic) has been very supportive and has moved the times around slightly so that a regular prayer group that visits, does so when we sing Vespers. Because this is, for the most part, just singing the psalms and canticles from scripture, this is a genuinely ecumenical form of prayer. This dedicated group of visitors are then able to bring a small number, in wheelchairs, into the chapel and this has happened the last couple of times. Also, a nurse who had heard about what is happening has taken it upon herself to bring some patients to the Vespers. She came for the first time a month ago. Each time we hand out printed copy so that people could sing along with us.
We heard from Fr Boucher that she was so moved by the 4-part arrangements of the Our Father and the St Michael Prayer (by Paul Jernberg) that she brought these patients back. This time he asked if he could keep a copy of the music, and especially the St Michael Prayer (his name was Michael).
When we had finished the Office, we were asked if we could go down to the floor below and into the room of a man who was with his wife and close to dying, so about eight of us walked into his room and sang the Our Father and the St Michael Prayer. If we needed convincing that what we were doing had value, then this experience alone has provided it.
There are a number of things that make this a good thing to do at different levels. I am convinced that what is contributing to the fact that it does seem to be connecting this is a harmony of substance and presentation. The substance is scripture; and in our presentation I think it is that we are singing the psalms in the vernacular and in such a way that just about anyone can join in with the singing of the unison parts at least. The four part harmonies arranged by Paul for the gospel canticles, the St Michael Prayer and the Our Father (which he also composed) are easy to perform. This means that we don’t need expert choristers in order to offer something that is accessible and beautiful which allows for moments of quiet meditation from the congregation. (You can access the music through the page heading ‘Psalm Tones’ above.) And here are recordings of two of the four-part harmonisations, first the Our Father, and then the St Michael Prayer.