One of our family legends is a story that my Aunt Sarah told on herself about one of the years on which she had a New Years party at her house. On this particular year every one had a particularly marvelous time. There was lots of laughter and lots of drinking and eating and many jokes and even some singing. And everyone was having such a good time that they didn't depart at the usual post- midnight hour. They stayed on and on - and on. The night got longer and longer. The family got tireder and tireder. And still the guests lingered and drank and talked and joked and laughed, and drank. Finally, as the light of dawn was beginning to show, some people began to make a move to leave. My Aunt extended her hand, and bleary with exhaustion said, only half consciously: "Oh, you're not leaving now, thank God."
It is not at all an infrequent happening for one or more of the guests to stop on their way out of the door on Sunday afternoon to express their appreciation. In the course of this, a very frequent remark that gets made is: "I'll bet you're glad to see us leave!" Often enough there is then an awkward pause, which acknowledges the impossibility of giving an honest answer to that question, or more importantly, an answer which is complete enough to be true.
Sure, there are weeks when we would be happy to say: "Oh, you're not leaving now, thank God". There are weeks that have been long and full, weeks that have been difficult for any one of a number of reasons, weeks when we are really worn out by the time Sunday arrives. But just as often there are also weeks which have been full of tremendous joy and creativity and have given us a great deal. We are very privileged to have such a range of people come here, with such a range of talents and interests. We are stretched and engaged, and sometimes confused. We are exposed to a tremendous variety of human experience in the course of our guest ministry. So, are we glad to see them go? Well, yes - and no. It's usually both.
There's a lot more that could be said about that, and I probably will at some point. But where I'm headed this time is towards the part of Sunday afternoon after the guests have mostly departed, and especially towards Vespers, the very favorite time of my week.
By 2:00 on Sunday afternoon things have begun to quiet. There may be no one left, or only a few stragglers. Many of the monks are napping. The guesthouse and the bookstore are going through their financial closing for the week. The pace has slowed. All of a sudden the sound of boats on the river and birds in the trees are more prominent than they have been since last week at this point. There is quiet, and a sense of spaciousness where quiet can become peace. You can almost hear the buildings go "Ahhhhhhhhh."
At the end of the afternoon we have an event which is called Tea - and to be sure, there is tea to be drunk and usually some sort of snack. It's a time when we can just be with each other and relax. We meet in the north end of the library, surrounded by windows that offer a view of the Hudson River and the surrounding forest or, when the weather permits, out on the porch, which overlooks the river. The conversation is quiet and reflective, rarely either penetrating or insightful. It's just a time for us to share our tiredness and our relief and just to be people, and community, together.
And then at 5:00 the bell sounds for Vespers. Going into the church is a time of real joy for me. It's so quiet. Remembrances of the guests are there - the candles they have lit, the pieces of paper still lying about, a few things out of place. But it's empty, except for us. Now it's all ours. On days when it's sunny, the rose window at the west end of the church is letting in light that is suffused with reds and yellows, in contrast to the blues that it shows in the mornings. The quiet and the emptiness make the sense of the holy, which our church radiates so clearly, even more apparent. My heart catches just a bit whenever I enter our church, but never so much as on Sunday at Vespers.
Usually it's only us. The guest court is empty except for our Residents. We're singing to God with no audience. It's so clear at these times just what our worship is about. Even when there are people present, they are most always people from the neighborhood whom we know and whose presence we treasure. They are part of this movement towards quiet.
The incense wafts upwards. The Gregorian Chant is marvelous. You would think that people tired after a long week would let the tones and the tempos slip a bit, and that can happen, but even more often the sound is nearly ethereal. It is a mystery to me where we get the energy to sing that beautifully and so much in unity with each other at that particular time of the week. But so often we do. It's one of God's nice gifts.
Just last week I was thinking of the quality of my attention at Sunday Vespers, and it's quite an interesting thing. I'm not riveted on the meaning of the words, I haven't got the energy. Sunday Vespers is not the time for intense prayer, at least for me. It's a time for sitting in God's lap. I'm not absent from the words of the Psalms and the readings, but I'm not closely focused on them, either. The years have given me the Psalms as a part of my consciousness and they are never absent from me. But at this time I'm conscious of them pretty much in the way that I'm conscious of my bones or my toes. They are there, they are crucial, they carry me. But at this point, they aren't the center of my attention. My attention is more diffuse. I'm taking in the light, the smells, the sounds, whatever is there.
It is so hard to explain what a feeling is like. When I thought of writing about Sunday Vespers, I thought I would do it to tell you how I feel about that time. Then I immediately thought how impossible that would be. What does Sunday Vespers feel like? Well, it feels like everything I've said, and much more, not all of which would go into words very easily. The experience of God always goes beyond words.
To sum it up - Sunday Vespers is God's benediction on our week. It's God pulling up the covers over us as we say farewell to the labors of the week and prepare for our Sabbath time on Monday. It's a big sigh as we pray our relaxing. It's joy for what we have offered and received this week and happiness in being free to play for a bit and do nothing for a bit. It's a time to pray those half-hidden and unseen parts of us that aren't sensed during the rest of the week. It's the best time of the week for me, and I think that's why we sing so well. It's easy to sing when you've just received such a nice gift.