A Chapel in Berkeley

On this Second Sunday in Lent, my husband and I worshiped at St. Joseph of Arimathea Chapel in Berkeley, a block from the University of California campus.

It was not our first visit to the chapel, for our publishing group, the American Church Union, is headquartered in the adjoining building (where I spend considerable time…) along with our Anglican Seminary, St. Joseph of Arimathea Theological College. It is also the seat of our dear Archbishop Robert Morse.

It was the first time, however, that we arrived on a bicycle race day. After finding on-street parking, still free on Sundays (!), we stepped around the roadblocks, watching the cyclists fly around the corner of Durant and Bowditch. This particular corner was our destination as well and, as we approached St. Joseph’s Chapel, working our way through the gathering race-watchers, we heard the happy thunder of the pipe organ.

It was a traditional English hymn that poured out the open doors and onto Durant Avenue. Many race-watchers on the sidewalk paused, wondering about the music. “An Anglican church,” I heard someone say, approaching the sign near the front door. “Hmmm, interesting,” he murmured, and moved on to the corner’s edge and the flying cyclists.

The day was bright, a glorious spring day. The hills in my East Bay neighborhood have turned a velvet green. Balmy weather has returned as though last week’s welcome rain was a distant memory. Berkeley buzzed with the energy of youth enjoying a sunny Sunday morning.

We left the bright energy of the flying cyclists and their watchers and followed the music. We entered the chapel’s softly lit space and paused in a small foyer. A Madonna and Child opposite the doorway caught the light, glowing. Turning, we stepped into the barrel-vaulted church, a “collegial” church, meaning one with a choir and sanctuary but no large nave. The space, twenty by fifty, thirty feet high, reminded me of chapels we have seen in Europe, medieval parish churches dating to the seventh and eighth centuries. But I knew St. Joseph’s was built in the mid-twentieth century, designed by William Dutcher, who clearly had a good sense of history and acoustics as well as holiness. In this chapel, the eye is drawn first to the altar – the simplicity points there – then above to the sixteenth-century crucifix, and higher to the vaulted ceiling.

We were early, the first to arrive, and I appreciated the time to gather my heart and mind into prayer. Sitting on wooden benches, we listened to the organ. The music spilled onto the red-tiled floor, winging to the altar, the crucifix, soaring beyond. A hanging sanctuary lamp glowed before a rustic altar, and soon a gentleman entered from the side of the sanctuary and lit six candles on either side of a purple-draped tabernacle. The white stucco walls, unadorned, added to the simplicity, and I recalled a Cistercian abbey (much larger) we visited in Provence: Senanque, where the empty space channels vision, and thus heart, mind, and soul to the altar and its tabernacle.

The organ is on loan from the university in a happy collaboration with St. Joseph’s. It is, according to the website (www.anglicanpck.org/seminary) a “twelve-stop, two manual and pedal, mechanical-action instrument,” built by Herr Jurgen Ahrend of Loga-Leer, Germany, renowned for his work in Europe and America. The organ is especially tuned for liturgical music of the medieval and early modern periods, so that we enter history as we sing.

I’m not a professional musician but I am drawn into beauty, and especially beautiful music, and if I am allowed to sing hymns I know and love in an intimate space like this, I think I am in heaven and not Berkeley at all. If an organ such as this one leads me through the music of beauty, a mere fifteen feet away from my ears, I am sure I am flying with the angels, and my feet couldn’t possibly be planted on terra firma.

The Anglican liturgy, with prayers dating to the seventh century, with words translated from the Latin to Elizabethan sixteenth-century prose, is especially beautiful and stunningly poetic. Over the years the words have become part of me, as the beauty has soaked into my five senses. I hear the song, see the procession of acolytes and flaming candles, smell the burning wax and the billowing incense, feel the host upon my tongue, and taste the eternal as I receive Christ into my body.

But the liturgy in this small soaring space, the organ thundering its notes upon our ears, is intimate. It is the intimate experience of God among us, touching us, loving us. Outside, the watchers shouted and bicycles buzzed. Inside, we flew as well, soaring into the chapel vaults, winging with the music, the chants, the prayers.

It was a good morning, this Second Sunday in Lent. As I saw the Cal Crew process in as acolytes (one of their duties as residents in the chapel’s neighboring house), I smiled. The young men carried their flaming candles, stepping seriously, holding the crucifix with care. As the liturgy of the Eucharist began, we all stepped into time, past, present, and future, with ancient prayers and future glory.

And we left the chapel with a holier sense of the present, and our place in time, this Second Sunday of Lent 2014.

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