The Cathedral of St. Philip - Atlanta, GA

2013 Choir Pilgrimage

Reflection on our Pilgrimage

In the time since we returned to Atlanta, I have continued to reflect on what we experienced during that wonderful two weeks in England.  All of the photos friends have posted on Facebook call to mind shared experiences.  I have been reading guide books that I purchased at the various places we visited and soaking in the significance of those historic locations.  When we gather as a choir, we continue to recall exciting events that we all shared.  The natural inclination is to examine the ways those places and experiences affected us.  But I have also been recalling various interactions I had with people we met around the country and noting the ways that we affected them.
 
I mentioned in a previous post that physical issues precluded me processing with the choir for our services.  One of the unexpected joys of this situation was that I was able to remain in the Quire after the choir processed out, and was thus accessible to members of the congregation who wanted to express their feelings about the services.  While comments were always positive as people thanked us for singing and asked us to convey their thanks to the choir, there were some interactions that were particularly memorable.  On Tuesday in St. Paul’s, after we sang a Choral Eucharist for the Feast of the Transfiguration, an older lady approached me with tears in her eyes.  She grasped my hands in hers and said simply, “I was blessed to be here today.  Your choir gave me just what I needed.”  She walked away without explaining any further, but the moment felt very holy.  There was a man in St. Paul’s who attended just about every service that we sang and he always waited at the steps leading down from the Quire to help the two of us who were mobility-challenged.  He smiled broadly and repeatedly thanked us for our musical gifts to the congregation, adding that his helpful actions were his way to give back to us after we had shared our music with him.
 
In Canterbury, I had a delightful conversation with a man who is a regular at the services there.  He noted that we had “girls” (i.e., women) singing the treble parts rather than the boys he was accustomed to hearing (their regular choir is comprised of men and boys as is the tradition in many English cathedrals).  He was amazed that our women made such an “English sound”, and I joked that women are “just as good as boys and maybe even better when it comes to singing with emotion”.  “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” he said, “but they were really good”.  So much for striking a blow for girl-power, but he was impressed nonetheless.
 
One comment that I heard repeatedly, both at St. Paul’s and at Canterbury, was, “Who was that playing the organ?  Is it one of our regular Cathedral organists?”  When I bragged that David Fishburn was our very own St. Philip organist, people were impressed and exceedingly complimentary, and I always agreed.  One joy I experienced as a result of my invalid status was that I got to sit in the Quire and listen to David’s opening and closing voluntaries as well as his improvisations as the choir was processing into the stalls.  I am regularly impressed by David’s playing here at home, but his skill at bringing gorgeous sounds out of the historic organ at St. Paul’s, and his artful handling of an organ at Canterbury that is literally on its last leg was just amazing.  Seriously, that organ in Canterbury is due to be pulled out and replaced as soon as possible, yet David made it sound like a brand new gem.
 
One sermon that we heard at St. Paul’s noted that the unique combination of people assembled on that day in that location would never be repeated again.  We were hundreds of individuals from an assortment of countries and an assortment of backgrounds and belief systems.  Some had intentionally made their way to that service and others had happened upon it by a series of events.  Nevertheless, for that hour, each of us brought our individual threads to the fabric of worship that is constantly being woven in that holy place.  And when each of us walked out of the Cathedral that day, we had shared something of ourselves with each other and were all changed as a result.  For me, that was the greatest gift of this pilgrimage.
Brenda Pruitt (Cantoris alto)
 

Posted 9/15/2013

Reflection

At the 11:15  Sunday Eucharist at Westminster Abbey on our first morning in London, the sermon focused, with almost eerie relevance, on the subject of “pilgrimage.” We were urged to detach ourselves  from the digital devices which clutter our daily lives and, instead, to “feel the soil” beneath our feet.

Ousted the Abbey, tidal waves of cyclists charged towards the Thames in an annual race and festive crowds churned in all directions. It was exhilarating, joyous, contagious and I greedily inhaled it all. I’ve been in love with London my whole adult life. Then, after a while, I made my way over to St. James Park, spacious and serene on a gorgeous summer afternoon.  I  have no idea how long I sat there under the trees  -- one hour?  two? --but I know that I began to understand the words I had heard that morning at the Abbey. 

I was, I think, the oldest member of the 2013 Cathedral Choir pilgrimage (any challengers?) which may have slowed my step somewhat but did not, for a second, diminish the all out wonder of singing in St. Paul’s. I was 19 years old when I first sang there and at Canterbury with the Smith College Chamber Singers --  a six-week concert tour that changed my life. I understood even then that while it is fabulous and uplifting to visit the historical landmarks of Europe, that experience does not even come close to being a participant. It is wonderful to tour St. Paul’s but to sing there is sublime.

The Smith permance at St. Paul’s all those decades ago was an evening recital --not a service--and we sang Pergolesi (Stabat Mater) Byrd, Mozart, Fauré and others, ending with a simple American spiritual “Jesus Walks  This Lonesome Valley”  which we later sang for the Pope at his summer palace. A sophomore with a voice like a boy soprano did the solo.  At the end, a palpable hush  spread over the crowd. It was an incredible feeling that I remember to this day. American singers singing American music in that historic place where, as was pointed out, worship has taken place for 1400 years.  I felt it all again when we sang Chuck Beaudrot ‘s  lovely Come Down O Love Divine. And the same hush came over the crowd.

I have been lucky enough to sing in Europe many times -- with the Smith tours which went all the way to Istanbul, with the Berkshire Choral Festival, and with the Cathedral Choir.  But there was something abidingly very special about this  experience and I am hugely grateful to have had it.
Gail Wescott (Decani alto)

Posted 9/4/2013

We will remember

Prior to our pilgrimage, I happened to be reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, there is a good bit about FDR's relationship with Winston Churchill and the events leading up to our entry into WWII. It was time well spent, helping me to prepare for what I would see in London and experience in Canterbury.

There are reminders everywhere of the significance of that war and its impact on the city of London and surrounding areas. A few of our group visited the Churchill War Rooms, where the impact of the Blitzkrieg comes alive. Many of us went to Chartwell, Churchill's beloved family home; the gift shop is full of reminders -- "Never Was So Much Owed By So Many To So Few." And a large group of us took a guided tour of St. Paul's Cathedral, where we learned that there were brave souls who camped out in the cathedral around the clock, watching and waiting for the bombs to drop, ready to run into danger to save St. Paul's from its fires.

This huge place is dripping with historical significance, architectural importance, and symbolism; Christian worship has been offered on this site since 604 A.D. But I was struck by the prominent location of the Jesus Chapel: The American Memorial Chapel. Reading from my guidebook:

"Behind the altar is the Jesus Chapel. As part of the post-war restoration it was decided that the people of Britain should
commemorate the 28,000 Americans who were killed on their way to, or while stationed in, the UK during the Second World War. Their names are recorded in the 500-page roll of honour encased behind the high altar."

The restoration of the high altar took place in 1958, the same year of the dedication of the Jesus Chapel. Every day we turned to face East - the location of this chapel - to recite the Apostle's Creed together.

We remember them.

Our tradition is full of smells and bells, brass plaques, and feast days. We were aware that we would be in Canterbury for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I was prepared for the appropriate selection of music. What I was not prepared for was the last Evensong service of our stay.

At some point during the week, we were told that this service would be attended by the Japanese Ambassador. Our service leaflet explained more:

"The International Friendship and Reconciliation Trust encourages and support efforts which while remembering the sacrifice of those who died in war and other conflicts, promotes reconciliation between the former adversaries, and looks forward in hope and friendship. In particular, it helps Canterbury Cathedral in organising this service of friendship and reconciliation, held annually on the anniversary, or on the first Sunday after, of the end of the Second World War..."

We remember them.

In addition to the Japanese Ambassador, who read the second lesson (Romans 12.14-18), the service was also attended by the German Charge d'Affaires ad interim. The anthem for this day, And I Saw a New Heaven by Edgar Bainton was set to the text from Revelation which ends "...and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away."

Sung by an American choir.

A veteran of WWII very emotionally closed our service with these few words: "When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today".

We will remember.
Ellen Wilson (Decani & Cantoris alto)

Posted 8/18/2013

Canterbury homecoming

This morning we sing under the tower of Canterbury Cathedral in the Nave. High above us in this beautiful space is a golden medallion with a white cross - one of my favorite "treasures" from Canterbury. We will sing the Palestrina Missa Brevis for Holy Eucharist and then finish our pilgrimage with the Herbert Howells' Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (St. Paul's Cathedral) at Evensong. It will be a lovely conclusion to our two weeks of singing as a Choir-in-Residence at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, and at Canterbury Cathedral.

Today is also Homecoming Sunday at our Cathedral of St. Philip and the congregation will be welcoming home Canons Beth Knowlton and Carolyn Williams. Beth, prior to leaving us on Friday morning, left us a very touching gift - prayers for each day, so that our tradition of having her pray with us could continue. Carolyn shared how important it was for her to be "present" with us in this experience, and that gift is also a treasured one. Canterbury Cathedral -- for more than fifteen hundred years the site of pilgrimages of faith and hope -- has been the final destination in our pilgrimage. The response to our singing has been wonderful and the buzz about the American Choir that sings so well has drawn others to stop and listen, and hopefully be fed in some way from our music making. Dale Adelmann shared with us last night that the commitment and dedication of our Choir has made the difference in our ability to not just sing the notes on the page, but to actually communicate the text with music to many. Some will come up and tell you they enjoyed the music or it was meaningful in some way, and some will not be able to, but will leave fed at a much deeper level. This is what inspires and challenges us as church musicians. The Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) motto which we follow is Psallam spiritu et mente - "I will sing with the spirit and with the understanding also."

On this Homecoming Sunday for our own Cathedral, we are preparing to come home ourselves. We will be thinking today of all our St. Philip friends and supporters that made this journey possible. We have carried you with us, shared our pictures and thoughts, and will return with a renewed and refreshed spirit. Your gifts - which have supported us - have fed us spiritually, and inspired us to reach new heights. For this gift of a lifetime, thank you.
Josh Borden (Decani bass)

Posted 8/18/2013

Musical bridges

We all have distractions that threaten to tear us from the task at hand: concerns at home, 'so much to see, so little time', fatigue, and more. But when it's time for Evensong, it seems that all cares fall away, and the focus on making a joyful sound transcends all. One positive distraction I've encountered on this pilgrimage has been making music connections with local folk. A docent in the torture/execution room at Hever Castle spoke of the ability of music and the arts to transcend the bad in human nature. A Thai shopkeeper told me she could not live without music. I love it that folks around here ask us to "give us a song," and many sing with gusto themselves. This Sunday I know it will be thrilling to join our voices with the locals as we sing the hymn "O Praise ye The Lord! All things that give sound; each jubilant chord, re-echo around; Loud organs, his glory forth tell in deep tone, and sweet harp, the story of what he has done." Sweet music! And with sweet memories of this trip in tow, we prepare to return to Atlanta on Monday, ready to continue our music ministry at home.
Marion Hopkins (Decani alto) 

Posted 8/17/2013

Finding grace

My pilgrimage experience of 2013 has been quite different from the one I had originally expected to have. Since 1988, I have been incredibly fortunate to have 12 previous experiences as a choir in residence in cathedrals in England, Wales, Ireland and France, so I thought I knew what to expect. Those residencies were transformative as I experienced the centuries-old fabric of daily worship in these places. I have felt a part of that giant tapestry of daily worship on this pilgrimage as well. There is something so serene about focusing each day around the time that we assemble as a choir, rehearse and then sing a worship service. The rest of each day may be filled with exciting events, but they all take a back seat to the act of corporate worship.

This time, however, I have been going through this trip in the unwelcome position of one whose health has deteriorated in recent years. This is not a mantle that I wear very well. I have always been fiercely independent and prided myself on being able to “do it all” and take care of myself. I am also a caretaker, and I love ministering to others in need. To be the one in need has been exceedingly frustrating and embarrassing to me. I have to rely on a wheelchair at times, and I need for others to push me around. Friends have to wait on me in cafes. I have to have concessions made for me because I am unable to walk or stand at times (and how interesting that the term used in the UK for special admission rates for senior citizens is “concessions”).

So here I sit in my room at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, gazing out on the ancient Cathedral that has been the destination of pilgrims for centuries. People have traveled to this holy place to seek a closer relationship with God and to seek healing for all sorts of physical, mental or spiritual afflictions. I feel that there is a divine intervention at work here, pushing me to a place where I can find the grace to allow others to minister to me, to give up some of the control I so desperately want to keep.

Because I have difficulty navigating the many stairs in the Cathedral, I have not been processing with the choir. Instead, when we end rehearsal I take a reserved seat near where the choir sings, and then wait until the choir comes in to join them in the Quire. Today we had a longer break than usual when we finished our rehearsal, so I spent some time looking through the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I happened upon the section for the visitation of the sick, and was struck by this passage: “Dearly beloved, know this, that Almighty God is the Lord of life and death, and of all things to them pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness, and sickness. Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly, that it is God's visitation. And for what cause soever this sickness is sent unto you; whether it be to try your patience, for the example of others, and that your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious, and honourable, to the increase of glory and endless felicity; or else it be sent unto you to correct and amend in you whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father; know you certainly, that if you truly repent you of your sins, and bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God's mercy for his dear Son Jesus Christ's sake, and render unto him humble thanks for his fatherly visitation, submitting yourself wholly unto his will, it shall turn to your profit, and help you forward in the right way that leadeth unto everlasting life.”

I am still trying to discern the lessons to be learned from the physical ailments I am experiencing. This pilgrimage has been quite a journey of learning about myself, and I suspect the journey will continue long after the actual trip has ended. Sometimes we set out on a pilgrimage with a particular goal in mind, but the unexpected things that come our way become the real treasures that we find. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been on this journey with my choir family.
Brenda Pruitt (Cantoris alto)

Posted 8/15/2013

Bring us, O Lord

As our tour guide said, "St. Paul's has big; we have old." Indeed!

We have been joined daily by other pilgrims in a cathedral that has provided worship for over 1400 years and where every bit of architectural design has meaning and purpose. One historically important figure after another is honored and memorialized here.

Each night as I return to my room and open the drapes to reveal the majesty of this structure, I am filled with awe. I close my eyes and try to get my arms around the fact that we are sharing space with the likes of St. Augustine, Benedictine monks, the black prince, and Thomas Becket.

And then there was the musical experience!

Yesterday, we sang an anthem by Paul Halley. He masterfully architects a piece combining two poems, one by John Donne and the other by Isaac Watts. It moves me each time I sing it but this time I was brought to tears by the new meaning and purpose I found in these words.

Bring us, O Lord God,
at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven,
To enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music.
No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
In the habitations of Thy glory and dominion world without end.

John Donne (1572-1631), Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, London (1621-death)

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
Oh, may thy house be my abode
And all they works be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
And gaze on thee alone;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

We will be privileged to sing in this space again, but Friday evening we will have it to ourselves by candlelight. I'm bringing extra hankies.
Ellen Wilson (Decani & Cantoris alto)

Posted 8/14/2013

Elevation

As part of Canterbury Cathedral's hospitality to us as choir-in-residence this week, we were treated to a guided tour of the Cathedral this morning:

Today our tour guide, a retired Anglican priest called David who was himself ordained at Canterbury Cathedral in 1974, told us that whenever you see stairs in a medieval church or cathedral, it is intended to make one feel as though they are moving higher toward Heaven with each step. At Canterbury there is a progression of steps leading up to the High Altar. The pilgrims of old would begin this ascension on their knees after having walked to Canterbury barefoot.  First one ascended to the quire, then higher to the chancel, and finally up to the High Altar where there is a stained glass Jesse window depicting the family of Jesus, with His lineage progressing straight up the middle. The eye is immediately drawn upward to the figure of Christ at the top, and David called this the "whoosh" effect (complete with sound effects and illustrative hand gestures). I experienced this effect firsthand upon my first steps into Canterbury, as did many members of the Cathedral Choir.

During my time as a staff singer at the Cathedral, I have been inspired in many ways.  My musical skill has certainly been put to the test, and I am a better musician due to my participation in the Cathedral Choir.  My knowledge of and appreciation for the incredibly rich and varied tradition of Anglican liturgical music has been expanded immensely.  But the most important way in which I've been changed by being a part of the Cathedral Choir is that I have more and more begun to seek the experiences and opportunities which elevate me, both personally and spiritually. 

It is easy to allow ourselves to be denigrated by our daily experiences and to focus on our negative encounters, taunted by our vision of the way things should be, if only...  I have been challenged by my colleagues at the Cathedral of St. Philip to continuously strive for that elevation, not just in the notes and words but in the expressions of faith contained within them.  We have all been elevated by this pilgrimage, and it is my sincere hope that we return to Atlanta able to recall this feeling when we are weary or discouraged. 

Claudia Corriere (Cantoris soprano)


Posted 8/13/2013

Remembrance, healing, and hope

A stone's throw from St. Paul's Cathedral is Christchurch Greyfriars, a church mostly destroyed during the Blitz. The steeple still stands but what was the interior is now a public garden that echoes the former space. I paused here one afternoon last week on my way to rehearsal; one of my few quiet moments amid the hustle and bustle of London. Life seems much more laid back here in Canterbury, but during today's tour of the cathedral, I was reminded that this area also was in the path of the Luftwaffe in WWII. And like at St. Paul's, a team of brave men and women served as firefighters to prevent destruction from incendiary bombs.

With images of war and hostilities on my mind, and after hearing the stories of the murder of Thomas Becket here in this cathedral, it seemed oh-so appropriate that this evening we sang Paul Halley's ethereal (to borrow Josh's word) setting of John Donne's poem "Bring us, o Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of Heaven... Where there shall be no darkness, nor dazzling, but one equal light." The anthem, which we also sang last week in London, ends with stanza three of Isaac Watt's metrical hymn version of the 23rd Psalm, "...there would I find a settled rest...no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home." To borrow Beth Knowlton's imagery from our centering prayer today, I felt like I was helping to weave a part of the tapestry of remembrance, hope and healing that is so much a part of these holy places.

Marion Hopkins (Decani alto)  

Posted 8/13/2013