Peace Together

Peace Together

At a moment when we can’t safely gather, this 2017 story brings the gathering to you.

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Large, heavy doors. A long, arching space, both chilly and warming. Foggy air and spectral dots of light.

You’re in a church. It’s Sunday evening. And whether you’re riddled with the “Sunday night blues” or still in a relaxed weekend headspace, you’re likely to welcome the peace of this place.

By the time you find your seat, barely visible in the candle-lit darkness, you sense that the peace welcomes you in return. There’s no pressure to make conversation with fellow service-goers. Indeed, it’s just the opposite: the silence feels sacred. The stimulating scent of frankincense blends with other more subtle aromas, its fog hanging in the air and catching the candles’ glow.

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Amid all of these sensations, there’s an implicit invitation to be still. By the time the service begins—always at 9 p.m. on the dot—a near-total sense of calm settles in, like a light snow freshly fallen. Then the wind begins to blow: disembodied voices filling the air with smooth hymnal tones.

If it’s your first visit, and especially if you aren’t religious, you may wonder what you’re supposed to do. The answer is nothing, or anything. You might pray, meditate, think, not think, remember, dream. You might reflect on your relationship with yourself, or your god, or your loved ones.

It’s the Sunday “Compline” service at Christ Church on Broadway, and it’s a trip—into a lofty space, and into yourself, yes, but also into the past. The service invokes a ritual that dates back to the 300s, I’m told, in which monks would sing their final prayer of the day, and it involves songs, or “chants,” from pre-medieval times.

Inspired by a very popular Compline service at Saint Mark’s Episcopal in Seattle, Christ Church’s then-choir master Rob Lehman initiated the local version around 1998, hoping the short (it’s only 20 minutes), effortless (you just have to show up) and ecumenical (everybody’s welcome) service might better engage young New Haveners. A little less than 20 years later, the Compline service is now regionally known, reverend and Christ Church’s rector Stephen C. Holton says, with people of all ages coming from as far as Fairfield County. Whatever their reasons for attending, Holton says he wants the experience, which he describes as “an ancient way of praying together in a contemporary context,” to be beautiful, welcoming and accessible.

Some would argue that, even compared with the otherworldly setting, the chants are the main attraction. They’re sung with great care by a small choir, a group of six to eight individuals who are a part of the larger Christ Church Choir. From a hidden, second-floor loft in the church, they sing English and Latin prayer chants.

At exactly 9:20, the singing simply stops. There’s a click like a lamp turning off, followed by the polite descent of the small choir from the hidden loft. The candles still flicker, the frankincense still hangs and the crowd lingers for a moment. The blanket of stillness begins to peel away as fellow service-goers quietly stand, one by one, and walk toward an exit. There’s no rush to leave right away, and many don’t, as if trying to soak up as much of the experience as they can.

Until next Sunday.

Compline Service at Christ Church
84 Broadway, New Haven (map)
Sundays at 9 p.m. when Yale is in session; currently suspended due to COVID-19.…

Written by Amanda Donovan. Photographed by Dan Mims. This story originally published on February 2, 2017.

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