“The way that we can actively bring the spirit of Vespers into everyday life is to light whatever lights we can in this dark world. As the Paulist motto has it, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” What candles can we light? A smile, a kind word, a visit?”
– Brother David Steindl-Rast
Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk who has done extensive work furthering inter-religious dialog, especially between Buddhism and Christianity. With an emphasis on gratitude and a deep appreciation of silence, Steindl-Rast’s writing is poetic and reflective, and interwoven with references to poets, stories from the Bible, and spiritual masters of all creeds. This excerpt from his book Music of Silence hones in on a very particular moment in the day which in the monastic tradition is a time of reflection and healing. Following on from Helen Macdonald’s mediation on the vesper flights of swifts, Brother David Steindl-Rast’s ode to the transformative moment of twilight invites a settling and a coming together of contradictions at the end of the day. When it gets dark, he says, we move closer together, and closer together is the warmest place for us to be during this dark moment in history.
Vespers celebrates the lighting of the lamps as evening descends. It is a counterpart to Lauds, in which we celebrated the coming of the natural light.
At Vespers you’ve put your tools away, taken off your apron, your work clothes, washed up, and put on your robes again. Now you come freshly dressed for the solemn evening celebration at sunset, when darkness descends and the monastery is lit with lamps and candles. It is the hour of peace of heart, of serenity.
The time just after sunset has a magical quality. In the evening light, trees, figures, even faces, are “silhouetted against the dim sky,” as T. S. Eliot saw it. The world seems perfectly framed, intensely beautiful. Sometimes, after the sun has set, the clouds begin to glow with colors of water and colors of fire. Buildings and mountains also glow, and the sun is reflected like molten gold in the windows of far-away houses. It is a wonderful time to take a walk, as monks often do after dinner and, of course, on the way to the oratory to sing Vespers.
The monastery garden is the place I associate with Vespers. Usually, a monastery is built in a square with a garden in the center. Often, a covered cloister walk surrounds a grassy enclosure, with a fountain in the center and a trim herb and flower garden around it. The monks call that enclosure with the fountain paradise, given its simple, tranquil perfection, its delicious fragrances, its multicolored blooms in summer, and its coating of pure white snow in winter. Placing a garden in the center of the monastery conveys the centrality of nature and her rhythms in monastic life. The garden teaches us each day that life is a round of gestation, birth, growth, flowering, fruitbearing, fading, dying, and new gestation in the dark of winter.
“At Vespers you’ve put your tools away, taken off your apron, your work clothes, washed up, and put on your robes again. It is the hour of peace of heart, of serenity.”
At eventide, the daylight fades and the distinct silence of night descends. The only sounds are those of nature-crickets and frogs—and little white moths fly up from the grass.
The angel of vespers, in the evening blue robe, has stopped playing and serenely holds the tambourine with the evening star on it. The angel reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s lines from the last of the Choruses from the Rock: “In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light. We are glad when the day ends, when the play ends … the day is long for work or play.”
Vespers is the hour that invites peace of heart, which is the reconciling of contradictions within ourselves and around us. Rilke has a beautiful poem in The Book of Hours in which he speaks of someone who makes peace among his life’s many contradictions. It defies translation, but I will paraphrase it here.
Whoever gathers his life’s many contradictions into one, gratefully makes of them a single symbol, expels all the noisy ones from his palace and becomes in a new way festive. Then you, God, are the guest whom he receives in gentle evening hours. You are the second to his solitude, the quiet center of his monologues, and every time he circles around you, you stretch his compass beyond time.
“Vespers is the hour that invites peace of heart, which is the reconciling of contradictions within ourselves and around us.”
Within time, again, we receive that which goes beyond time. Within this evening hour, when we become festive in a new way and receive God as a guest, we stretch that compass of time beyond time and embrace the now. That’s the serenity, the peace of heart, the ability to embrace the inevitable contradictions the day leaves behind, which is the mood of Vespers.
When evening arrives—no matter what happened during the day, whatever sturm und drang occurred, whatever challenges were unmet, whatever disappointments and regrets—people have a universal desire to find a serene place where they can put all the parts of the day together in some tranquil way. Given the spirit of forgiveness of the prior hour, at Vespers we are free to let go of the day and to luxuriate in the quiet beauty of the evening.
The serenity of Vespers, wherein we gather together all the day’s contradictions, is truly healing, since healing essentially involves a knitting together of what is apart, what is broken.
In J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, there’s a beautiful passage: “In the evening when it was cool.” In it, Bach recounts the various biblical events that happened in the cool of the evening. It was then that God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the evening, the dove came back to the ark of Noah, bringing the olive twig of peace in its beak. In the evening, Jesus is put into the grave, like a seed, to be reborn in the resurrection. Bach captures the consoling spirit of this blessed hour, which is also beautifully conveyed in the chanting of Vespers.
“The serenity of Vespers, wherein we gather together all the day’s contradictions, is truly healing, since healing essentially involves a knitting together of what is apart, what is broken.”
The way that we can actively bring the spirit of Vespers into everyday life is to light whatever lights we can in this dark world. As the Paulist motto has it, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” What candles can we light? A smile, a kind word, a visit?
Our society prizes rugged self-sufficiency, being able to handle things on our own. But this individualism yields so much loneliness and despair. It is remarkable how much people simply want to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be appreciated. We pretend that we don’t need others to take us into account and to care for us. But as soon as someone shines the light of caring attention on us, our stoic facade melts away.
We move closer together when it gets dark. The hour of Vespers is a call to neighborliness. We all need to move closer to our neighbors in this dark hour of history. If the community singing that informs chant can promote an enhanced sense of common caring in its listeners, then it will be a great monastic gift to the world.
Brother David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell
From: Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day