The booming sound of men voicing liturgical responses, creeds, and confessions has lingered in my memory over the weekend. For St. Joseph’s Collegiate Chapel was fulsome with the sound of unison chants and prayers these last two weeks in our Seminary Summer Session.
I was blessed to be able to attend the Noon Masses daily in our Berkeley chapel, and the images of those hours are carved into my mind and heart – the men in black cassocks, lined on benches against the cream stuccoed walls in the style of an abbey choir. The russet tiled floor gleamed, drawing the eye to the simple slab altar and flaming candles that framed a tented tabernacle. Above, a primitive crucifix hung near the Sanctus Lamp that burned steadily. All was domed by the massive red barrel vaulting and high clerestory windows that sent shafts of light toward us.
Each Mass was celebrated by a different priest, and his unique person tinted the liturgy – his voice, his manner, his stance, his desire, his love of God. Each day we said the same words, prayed the same prayers, sacrificed the same Mass, but each Eucharist was slightly different, enriched by the man celebrating. The liturgies also reflected the Church Kalendar, honoring St. Vincent de Paul, St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Mary Magdalene, St. James, St. Anne, St. Martha. The acolytes and deacons took turns during the two weeks, and we heard varied voices reading the appointed Epistles and Gospels each day.
Again and again, I prayed for these postulants and discerners. For the students were largely seekers, searching for God’s will in their lives. As bells rang and the Host was lifted high, I prayed for these men who were discerning their future. Did God call them to be priests? Deacons? Laymen? I knew that the discipline of the residential program would test them as they fitted their lives and bodies into the schedule and demands of living in community. I knew that the discipline of their studies would challenge their minds and memory. And in this process of trial, they would hear God’s voice.
The laity that attended classes and liturgies also were seekers. They too, myself included, were listening for God’s voice. For indeed, the Lay Order is a holy ministry, made up of all believers, a kind of priesthood. We have been given the gift of life. How do we honor that precious gift? How do we allow the Creator to live within our gift, his presence in his present? It is not always easy to hear the answer. And the answer can be hard to accept. But God’s voice is present, in Scripture, in Sacrament, in love, in one another in the Body of Christ the Church. It is present all around us if we pay attention. And the Church helps us, trains our ears, so that we can recognize, like sheep, the call of the Shepherd. We can discern his voice. Without the Church we are deaf. Without the Church we live in a silent void.
The clergy came to the Summer Session also to listen, to be renewed. They too were discerners, seeking the next step, the next turn, the next leap of faith that love required. They knew God’s voice could be demanding, could lead to sacrifice and suffering, but they also knew the immense joy of saying yes. They came to instruct and to lead and to listen to their students, but they also came to be led, to be fed, to support one another in this great and grand adventure of holiness.
And so this morning in our parish Sunday School, as the children sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” and twirled and praised and laughed, dancing in the circle, on the edges of my hearing I discerned the lilt of men chanting in a barrel vaulted chapel. I heard their silence linking the words and phases. I saw them kneel on the hard glimmering tiles. I heard them listening.
And this morning, as the children settled into a quiet moment, silently nibbling on raisins, and an older child read a picture book to the younger ones, I knew it was all the same, it was all somehow seamless, the seminary chapel and the Sunday School. The children were discerning too, their eyes large, entranced by the creation that God created, by the pictures of the great heavens, the dark night and the bright day, the sun and the moon and the stars, the infinitely varied birds and beasts, the wondrous making of man and woman. They heard God’s words, “It is good.” The children were discerning their own place in this world created by this God who loves them so. And they will go on discerning as they grow in grace, learning to listen with heart and mind, becoming holy and wise in their choices, as they hear their Heavenly Father speak to them.
I look forward to next summer’s Residential Summer Session, usually held the last two weeks of July. I look forward to a rhythmic, poetic, holy time of discernment. But in the meantime, I shall sing and dance with the children on Sunday mornings and, with them, step into the pictures on the pages that are turned by a small hand, as we discern the divine.