Ely Cathedral, 28th February
As soon as you walk out of the chilly evening air through the West door,
you know that something is about to begin.
The pool of light in the Octagon draws you closer,
and you walk the length of the darkened nave,
your quiet footfalls on the stone floor.
As you approach the light,
you see that there are others sitting, waiting,
and you pause, wondering…
The air of expectation is palpable.
It’s then you notice that the lit space in front of you is not empty:
there are people standing, forty of them,
in a loose circle around the octagon,
each of them holding what look like a broadsheet newspaper.
Some kind of performance – but what?
Intrigued, you draw closer – almost afraid to come into the light,
and stop just short, taking a seat behind the nearest performer,
and you can just make out what she is holding:
it is no newspaper, it is music,
forty staves, most of them blank and empty,
with just a handful of dots floating among the top few lines,
as if they are yet to succumb to gravity.
As you sit the silence becomes so intense you can almost hear your own heartbeat.
It’s the silence of the Spirit of God sweeping over the deep,
before the universe is spoken into being.
The potential, of all that might be,
and is not yet.
You hardly dare breathe.
And then, into the silence, comes a single voice,
joined by another, and another, like an echo:
‘Spem in alium’ they sing to one another.
Spem in alium – all my hope on God is founded.
The Spirit moving over the face of the deep
gives breath to the dawning universe,
and it speaks its first word,
sings its first song.
The music grows.
The singer in front of you turns a page,
and the you see the notes falling further down through the lines of music,
like raindrops down a window pane.
You risk a glance around the circle of singers
– the sound has swelled and fills the space,
but still not all are singing.
On the vast sheet of music that those last few lines are still empty.
There they are – the singers who have yet to sing a note.
Are they waiting, perhaps as you were waiting, before it all began?
But watching them, you see that their silence is active, attentive,
hanging on every pulse of every bar.
It is their silence that allows the others to be heard.
It is their silence that gives hospitality to each new voice,
each soaring phrase that belongs to another.
It is the silence of listening, the silence of generous give and take.
It is the silence of the forgotten people of God
– the women and men whose stories were never told,
and yet whose very presence has hosted the story of salvation.
As you listen to the music ebb and flow, and swell and grow,
your own silence joins the performance,
you feel your own heart start to beat in time with the collective pulse,
you breathe with the arc of each new phrase.
Your silent listening gives a voice to hope, to beauty, to the praise of God.
And so the music flows, and grows, until all forty voices sing,
each line unique, the sound intense and complex
– tiny phrases escape like tendrils of flame caught in echo,
before the music subsides a little, only to build again
into a near-cacophony of disparate voices.
Then suddenly, there’s a single beat of silence when all forty singers breathe as one.
It’s not the silence of potential, nor of generous hospitality,
but a silence that enables common purpose,
a silence that draws many voices into one voice,
the silence that says, ‘here we are, and here is God, with us:
‘spem in alium: my hope on God is founded’
but it is no longer my hope alone, our separate hope,
it is the hope of all humanity, and that is why we can sing – why we must sing.’
The silent breath is the silence of the Bethlehem hilltop
in the moment just before the angels sing their Gloria,
the silent breath that draws shepherds and magi alike
into the common song of all heaven touching earth.
The music goes on, the voices soar
and each new phrase flies upwards,
settling like doves in the high arches and carvings
of the lantern above you.
Amid the oscillating chords and echoes,
another sudden silence breaks the pattern,
and a startlingly different chord, as if from nowhere, takes us in a new direction,
snapping your attention from the lofty arches back to the ground.
This silence was less a gathering, a collective sigh,
and more an abrupt halt that allows the turning of a corner,
a choice, a new direction.
It is the silence of Elijah’s mountain,
the momentary retreat from the cacophony of warring factions
that lets him hear the still small voice of God speaking:
‘This is the way that you must go’ it says,
‘the way is hard, the path is new,
but take heart, and do this new thing that I am giving you’.
Without the silence, there could be no change,
no strange and striking chord,
no new revelation of God’s grace…
One final silence emerges from the sound, the longest of the three.
A long, long breath, a sigh.
It is almost the silence of Gethsemane, or even of the cross,
it is the silence into which Christ prays, ‘Thy will be done’,
the silence of obedient acceptance.
The choir breathes in: ‘Respice’ they sing,
‘respice’ – be mindful of us, O God, in our humility.
It is the silence when we take all that has gone before,
and place it into the hands of God.
It could be the silence of our own Gethsemane, our own cross.
It is the silence in which we see that we are not forsaken,
but that God is mindful of us,
and that, despite everything,
we are held.
All forty voices reach a final cadence,
and one last chord soaks slowly into the stone walls.
There should be a moment when the last sound is gone,
when one can say at last that ‘it is finished’.
But this silence speaks not of ending, but of beginning,
the anticipation palpable as before it all began.
It is the silence before applause,
before we all start to breathe and move again
and go our separate ways.
It is the silence of the first dark Easter morning,
the silence of the empty tomb,
before the resurrection was made known.
It is the silence into which God speaks your name,
and sends you from the garden, like Mary,
to share what you have heard.
It is the silence into which we speak our own Amen,
our own ‘thy will be done’ to all we’ve heard:
our excitement at creation and re-creation,
our willingness to change and grow,
our desire for the grace to listen generously and be heard joyfully.
O God, give us breath and speech,
that we might join with angels and archangels,
and echo the silent music of your praise.