Nunc Dimittis

Monday, 8 March

It was a particularly enjoyable Evensong at St. Bartholomew’s Church yesterday evening. I have always thought that even the most ardent atheist would find something comforting about evening prayer; the gentle tone of the service, the creak of the old wooden pews, the smell of the slow burning incense and the flickering flames of the candles in the prayer-stand. The peacefulness of an evening service is the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern-day life and the cosy ambience of a candle-lit church contrasted against the brooding darkness of the night outside reflected through the vibrant stained glass windows almost feels like cuddling up with a loved one in front of a warm log fire. 

Unfortunately the local parishioners do not share my appreciation of evening services and Evensong at St. Bartholomew’s Church is always poorly attended, often to the extent that the choir outnumber the faithful few in the congregation. Either quiet contemplation and reflection upon the face of God no longer has a place in contemporary worship or the thought of venturing outside on a bitterly cold night and sitting in a dark church is not appealing enough to tempt people away from the warmth of their centrally heated homes. I like to think that the latter culprit is to blame and congregations haven’t sold their souls entirely to the brash and gaudy, guitar-strumming and headache-inducing school-assembly-like gatherings that I am forced to endure on the occasional Sunday morning. Besides, while the raucous thanksgiving of a family Eucharist might satisfy some infantile and hearing-impaired deities, I have always found that words spoken in silence resound loudest.

Yesterday’s Evensong began as normal: it was a damp and dreary evening and the regular faces had turned out, the choirmaster was scolding the boys in the choir for whispering and I was scribbling last-minute notes - of both the typographical and musical kind - onto my hymn book in pencil. Leonard had implied during our phone conversation on Saturday afternoon that he would come to the service that evening and, although he had not explicitly revealed that he would be there, we had not made arrangements for our next portrait sitting and he had hinted at attending with the mischievousness of a naughty boy who could not keep a secret. I didn’t have the heart to spoil the surprise by asking him directly. 

Sure enough, about ten minutes or so into the service the metal latch on the church door clicked open and Leonard shuffled in carrying a large rucksack and looking windswept and bedraggled from the drizzling rain and cold night air. Taking a seat on a pew midway down the aisle, he squinted through his steamed-up glasses towards the organ loft and raised his hand slightly to draw my attention. I nodded in acknowledgement as I shunted open the coupler stop and the choir stood for the opening bars of the Nunc Dimittis.

‘Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine,
Secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum…’

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Leonard knew the words and he was able to join in with the singing of the canticle, although his fluency was presumably attributable to his interest in choral music rather than his familiarity with the liturgy of evening prayer. He followed the remainder of the proceedings while peering quizzically through his small, gold-rimmed glasses at the service sheet and, although his frown revealed that he was clearly at odds with the content of the sermon, he sat throughout the service with the quiet resolve of an obedient schoolboy, which I found extremely endearing.

At the end of the service the vicar gave the final dismissal and I began a gentle improvisation on a psalm from the psalter, pulling the four-foot gemshorn stop as the choirboys filed out of the stalls to cover the usual sound of shuffling feet and mumbled swearing. The vestry door closed behind them and I rested my foot on the swell box as it sank shut and the hum of the Swell died away. Then, after a brief pause, the buzz of chatter broke out in the congregation and the choirboys came hurtling out of the vestry, fighting with each other and shouting loudly down the church as usual. 

As I collected my music together I heard a crack from the balcony rail and I turned on the bench to find Leonard standing behind me with his arms tightly folded and beaming with pride. He leaned towards me and whispered “it takes a very special organist to get me to church on a cold and miserable evening in March...but listening to you has certainly made it well worth the journey.”
I smiled and thanked him for coming to hear me play, to which he replied “thank you for inviting me…”
“It’s a church,” I laughed, “everyone is invited.”
“Don’t be so sure…” he replied, then added “why are we whispering?”
We giggled like two naughty children.

Leonard explained that he had hoped to take some photographs of me while I was playing the organ but he didn’t think that it was appropriate to interfere with the service (I was pleased to hear this - I get nervous enough when playing the organ without having Leonard’s lens focusing on me as well!). He asked if I was willing to sit for some staged photographs at the organ instead and when I agreed he set about rummaging through his rucksack, took out his camera and began cleaning the lens. To my surprise, he paid no attention to the organ itself - even though the detail on the console would, to my mind at least, have made an amazing photograph - and instead he chose to take a portrait shot of me and to capture the way that the golden glow from the console light lit my face. Once he had taken two or three photographs he thanked me profusely for being patient with him and then sat down beside me on the organ bench. 

We chatted briefly about the church building, the mass setting and my choice of organ registration and Leonard revealed that he also harbours a fondness for Evensong because ‘there is something mystical and almost secretive about an evening service that is satisfying to the soul’. I gestured towards the empty pews in the main body of the church and joked that the service was so secretive that no-one knew to come! We laughed and then Leonard shifted uncomfortably, causing the wooden bench to creak beneath us. The conversation became a little clandestine from that point onwards and I recall our bizarre exchange almost word-for-word.

“Do you know what the French poet Jean de la Fontaine said about secrecy?” he asked.
“No,” I answered.
“He said ‘Rien ne pèse tant qu'un secret’.”
My French is rudimentary at best, so I looked puzzled at him and waited for a translation.
“‘Nothing weighs heavier than a secret’,” he obliged, then added, “can you keep a secret, Helen?”
“Yes, I would like to think so.”
“Good, because some things should be kept secret at all costs…and he knew this more than anyone...” he said as he gestured towards the crucified figure of Jesus hanging above the organ console.