Sonja Livingston is an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to her newest book, The Virgin of Prince Street (Nebraska, 2019), she is also the award-winning author of Ghostbread, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, and Queen of the Fall (Nebraska, 2015).
On Inclining the Ear of the Heart
It’s late autumn but the crickets are still going in Richmond. A camelia near the door to St. Stephen’s looks to be lit with a hundred moons. I bend into the blossoms on my way inside, light a candle and slide into a pew. My only decision is whether to sit to the left with a view of a mosaic-style side altar or closer to the center and face the main altar and great panel of stained glass. In truth, it hardly matters where I sit. The sense of profound quiet is everywhere.
Candles glimmer from iron sconces ringing the gothic columns, from recesses beneath arched windows and from racks near the entrances. Pillars of various shapes and sizes glow along the high altar. Those of us who’ve come are scattered like votives throughout the church, little flames lending the sanctuary another source of light.
We do not exchange greetings. There’s no chatter about work or family, no swapping of theological theories or political gripes. Instead, we sit together as day gives way to night, which happens more swiftly now that November is upon us.
The pitch pipe blows. A reedy sound signaling the beginning of the service. The choir is stationed black-robed and unassuming as monks near the back of the church. The first few notes unfold like silk. Other voices join in, their highs and lows weaving into a high-flying tapestry of sound.
The chanting is broken only by the soft flutter as the unseen singers turn the pages of their songbooks. Sometimes, there’s a cough or a creak of pew while outside the crickets chirp their own plainsong. Mostly, there’s the flare of human voices, spiraling upward, first in Latin, then in English, as the psalms are chanted:
You have put gladness in my heart, sings the lead voice.
More than when grain and wine and oil increase, chant the others.
Compline is the final prayer service of the day in the oldest Christian denominations. Though humans certainly gathered to pray their way from one day to the next long before the 6th century saint, the word ‘Compline’ was first used by Benedict of Nursia, who also provided the service its basic order.
“Listen,” St. Benedict wrote in 516. “And incline the ear of your heart.”
By the time I hit my mid-forties, I’d learned many things in life: how to add a column of numbers; how to reboot a computer when it freezes; how to make a vegetable-studded quiche from the Moosewood Cookbook; how to rub the velvet landing between a kitten’s eyes to make it purr—but somehow, in all my years, I had not learned to incline the ear of my heart.
Perhaps that’s why I returned to my childhood church. To discover the ear of my heart and tilt it toward a source larger than shopping lists and Facebook posts and faculty meetings. What a silly sentence, if taken alone. What a necessary sentence, all the same.
Despite early challenges, I’d managed to make a life marked by swaths of joy and occasional dollops of heartache, but which was permeated most of all by the ongoing hum of phones and laptops and meeting agendas. When I returned to the Catholic church in Rochester, NY a few years ago, I was thrown for a loop. Why return to a fading urban church and a tradition increasingly problematic and politicized? My head was so battered by questions, I transformed myself into a combination of Church Lady and Nancy Drew and undertook a series of journeys to investigate tradition with new eyes. I visited a mobile confessional booth in Louisiana. I searched for a missing statue of the Virgin Mary in Buffalo and accompanied my parish priest to Thanksgiving Mass at the county jail. I relearned the Confiteor and the Gloria and wondered at the strange but comfortable feel of them in my mouth. And while the church that reclaimed my heart is 500 miles away, I come to St. Stephen’s when I’m in Richmond for the tender strands of human voice laid bare, the wash of candlelight and slightly incensed air.
Now the old man in front of me is turning his head so that the shell of his ear receives the full force of the Salve Regina while the young woman to our right, all long legs and miles of glossy hair, sits straight-backed and the woman up front has taken to lying in the pew. How to describe this thing that joins us tonight—a beauty so close and astounding I can hardly name it?
Compline comes from the Old French complir, which means ‘to complete’ and is derived from the Latin word complere, for ‘to fill up’.
To fill up. That’s what I’m doing tonight. I look again to the man inclining his ear toward the choir. Inclining is only bending into, after all. I’ve spent the past few years bending into the space between nostalgia and possibility, skepticism and faith, sadness and joy—mining the pulsing terrain where the brain has so little jurisdiction one must learn to “hear” a new way.
I don’t know how long my childhood church can stay open. I don’t know how long I can comfortably attend Mass, given the politics and my ongoing misgivings. I forget what faith means some days and on others the mishandled language of Christianity tempts me to bow out. All I know is that, for now, I’m here, opening every pore as the choir begins the Conditor Alme Siderum.
From the 7th century, this final hymn is usually translated as Creator of the Stars at Night and the title is just right because of how swirling and celestial the voices as they fill the church. The polyphony swells and strengthens and soars before eventually beginning to fade as the choir files unseen from the church, the ancient hymn trailing them into the courtyard.
I close my eyes for the final Amen, and see the camelia, inclining its ear, blossoming light.