• Vested Interest

Monastic Madness at Trinity! (Sort of...)

Colin Lynch
October 18, 2015

As a timid and awkward seventh grader, I went against my will to an all-boys Catholic school, run by Benedictine Monks, habits and all. I still remember going for my first piano lesson at my new alma mater with Dr. Horton, a lovable, disheveled man who changed my life when he offered to teach me to play the organ instead of the piano. I was not thrilled about the idea but accepted the invitation for fear of being impolite. My next four years were spent practicing the organ and regretting my commitment each afternoon in the Abbey Church. I hated it. If you’ve ever supported a son or daughter in learning a new instrument, you might imagine the horrendous tonal results possible only through the unfortunate combination of a 12-year old boy and the sonic capabilities of the pipe organ. And yet every afternoon, the monks would sit and listen to me struggle through the most basic of music, much to my embarrassment. My social status at my new school also took a big hit, but I think that’s a story for a very different blog! 


By my junior year, I had figured out how to wrestle this giant box of whistles into submission and Dr. Horton asked me to assist in musical duties at the monastery by playing for their daily offices marking the canonical hours. Lauds at 6am, Vespers at 5pm, Vigils at 7pm, Compline at 9pm. Every. Single. Day. Tracing roots back to ancient Jewish practice, this practice of prayer to mark specific times of the day was adopted by St. Benedict and carries on in various Christian traditions today. (If you look up “canonical hours” on Wikipedia, the first picture is actually from this very monastery.) 


One of my personal daily prayers is that no recording exists of the first time I played for Vespers. It was an entirely new and bizarre experience as I struggled to know what to play when and how. I also couldn’t get past seeing my high-school teachers, these monks, outside of the classroom and in their cassocks praying. Remember that feeling as a kid when you ran into your school teacher at the grocery store and were shocked to realize they existed outside of school? But perhaps the thing that bewildered me the most was how these holy men could spend every day saying the same words, over and over again. These offices seemed like a mantra on a massive scale. 


But something stuck with me, and here I am still playing the organ and still taking my part in daily offices. We are blessed here at Trinity with a musical and liturgical heritage that allows us to live into these timeless monastic prayer rhythms, cloister not included. During the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer combined St. Benedict’s monastic offices in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer to offer a more manageable prayer schedule for the lay person. The appearance of these new offices also conveniently coincides with Henry VIII dissolving all of the monasteries and confiscating their assets…but I digress. In this new Protestant prayer book, the monastic offices of Matins, Lauds and Prime were mashed together into Morning Prayer (or Mattins) and Vespers and Vigils were merged into Evening Prayer, or Evensong when sung. You can read more about the shape of these services here.


Today, at Trinity Church and around the world, these offices of the Anglican Church are often combined with the musical treasures of the English choral tradition. Have you experienced Choral Evensong, sung each Wednesday at 5:45 by the Trinity Choristers? Or basked in the beauty of choral music and silence at Choral Compline, sung each Sunday at 8pm?


Next summer, the Trinity Choirs will once again immerse themselves into this ancient, monastic rhythm of daily prayer as they travel to England to carry on the tradition of daily Evensong for one week at Westminster Abbey (a Benedictine Abbey before the reformation) and at Winchester Cathedral. Preparing for this pilgrimage is a massive undertaking, learning music for sixteen services of Evensong, Mattins and Eucharist. You will have many opportunities to support us in the months ahead, both financially and prayerfully. We invite you to be a part of our journey beginning next Sunday, October 18th at the 6pm service, where the choir will offer Choral Evensong, followed by our usual Holy Eucharist. (Some of us at Trinity have been calling this the “Mash-up Service.”)


I now look back at the skeptical 12-year old me and think about how my first organ lesson with Dr. Horton, the monks whom I still count as friends, and the comforting words of the daily offices have shaped my life’s path in many ways, some quite obvious and some quite personal and spiritual. Come immerse yourself in this way of prayer and see how it changes you.


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!