Each summer, the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale holds a week-long seminar for several parish leadership teams. They come together around a theme to share a specific project they have undertaken and to gain new insights about worship and music from faculty and one another. It’s called The Congregations Project, and it’s now in its fourth year. We always have a stimulating week together. This year was no exception. The experience I want to share here, however, took place outside the program.
Glen Segger, the project coordinator, arranged for a group of us to visit the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to see the prayer book of St. Thomas More (1530). We would also be shown a beautifully illuminated Sarum Missal (1385), and a small scroll of Ambrosian chant such as would have been used for singing in processions.
We had just come from evening prayer in a nearby historic cemetery. (This year’s theme was embodiment, and we prayed in an awareness of our own mortality.) As we came into the cool dimness of the library from the late afternoon sun, we breathed deeply. An adventure was beginning.
I thought we would see these rare books under glass, from a distance. Not so. We were brought into a private room where they were set on a table before us. We got to hold them in our hands! What an awesome experience. To focus on just one: We were able to touch and read the very prayer book that St. Thomas kept with him in the Tower of London. The book is a printed volume, with marginal notes written in his own hand (in English).
The eldest member of our group was a Catholic priest, a spirited and much-loved pastor (now retired) of St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, IL: Fr. Bob Oldershaw. As he paged through the book, looking for familiar texts, he came upon the Litany of Saints. Spontaneously, he began to sing. We all began to sing.
Libraries, like art galleries, lift their treasures into a space for study and admiration. But they don’t do this. We brought something into this glass enclosed room, something more than an interest in history or respect for the material traces of famous people. The moment, the people and the things, together with their attentive viewing, rose into song.
It was a magical moment. I’ll never forget it. Four Episcopalians, four Catholics, and a Baptist, singing the Litany of the Saints and its responses from Thomas More’s prayer book. It was, for me at least, a moment “given to us”—a time outside of time in which, despite the historical divisions of Christianity, we were one.