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  • Writer's pictureJon Johnson

Two Cathedrals in Two Countries

The Song of Mary (Magnificat)

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations. He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen. (Luke 1:46-55)

The Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis)

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

You may have heard the phrase by St. Augustine, “those who sing pray twice,” meaning that singing adds to our praise and worship of God and binds us as a community. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are the two canticles sung at Choral Evensong every day in cathedrals across the United Kingdom, and they represent the core of the service in addition to sung prayers and a choral anthem. These two canticles have been married to musical settings for centuries, much like the Mass ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei). Choral Evensong has greatly increased in popularity over the past 10 years in the UK and here in the States, perhaps because it is a chance for people to gather in silence, seeking a spiritual experience through music—sung prayer that washes over them. Yes, this has been the tradition of choirs for centuries in these resplendent structures. Each summer the cathedral choirs take a holiday, and guest choirs usually fill the vacancies for a week-long residence. St. Mark’s Choir was fortunate to be in residence at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, and the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. It was a pilgrimage none of us will ever forget, having sung a total of 10 Evensongs and three Choral Masses.

We began our time immersed in beautiful Edinburgh with its breathtaking Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, museums, city parks and monuments, and fabulous restaurants. We were quickly spoiled by the much cooler temperatures and rain showers each day. St. Mary’s Cathedral, which only dates to 1879, was built in the Gothic Revival architectural style. The interior of the cathedral is tall, angular, and mysteriously dark as the eye traces its lines to the ceiling. The clergy were gracious, warm, and thrilled to have a choir of our size continuing the daily rhythms of prayer.

The pilgrimage began and ended with delicious group dinners as a way to celebrate all we had accomplished. A typical day could be flexible or planned out, depending on the activities one sought out. The choir and travel companions built community through various interest groups that included historic sites, walking and Peloton workouts, wine tastings, musicals, theater, and so forth. On Saturday in Scotland, the group journeyed to the Highlands in hopes of ending up at Loch Ness. The bus, however, encountered a road closure because of a car accident ahead, so our tour guide took us down a single-lane road with fantastic views. He did the best he could, considering the circumstances, and we still enjoyed the splendor of lush green rolling hills and streams.

Our time in London was, of course, stimulating. The week began with morning and afternoon rehearsals in the choir room down in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The choir was excited and anxious to make a great impression. When we walked up to the cathedral floor for the first time, I witnessed several choir members and our treble choir with expressions of astonishment and tears of joy; my heart was full, and I knew they realized the significance of this great space and the big shoes they’d fill.

The present structure, designed and built (1675-1710) under the supervision of Christopher Wren, has been the site of royal weddings, jubilees, royal occasions, and funerals, and where great music has been composed and performed for ages. Each day in that magnificent space was surreal and a total glimpse of heaven, especially with the nine seconds of reverberation spinning around us as we made beautiful music together. We observed and were inspired by the rays of light that shone through the dome into the cathedral as we sang each day. All of us were truly knit in community; transformed through visual and musical beauty, this was a life-giving experience to serve together.

Friends, I am so unbelievably proud of our music ministry here at St. Mark’s. We have grown and come away from this pilgrimage stronger than ever, ready to pursue the important work in our parish and this city. I’d like to close by sharing some thoughts so well said by a colleague recently after taking their choir on pilgrimage:

As classical music and ancient liturgy seemingly drift further into the periphery of our modern culture, I am reminded of the grave importance and relevance of our work. Formal, composed music exemplifies the great breadth of our God-given gift of human ingenuity. As a society we often relegate music and arts education to second-class status in favor of STEM disciplines. In so doing, we are devolving our corporate ability to process and express the complexities of human emotion. The arts are central to our daily experience and are a core facet in the evolution, success, and survival of our culture. It is a gift to be reminded of this and come away inspired to continue playing our part, via parish ministry and the proliferation of the Anglican choral tradition.

On behalf of the entire music ministry here at St. Mark’s, we are truly grateful for this community and for your support of our pilgrimage. On September 1 I will mark five years as your Director of Music, and I’m so excited to enter this next season of ministry with you. Our music program continues to serve as a beacon for all who enter our doors and all who value great music in San Antonio.


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