The mighty Fritts organ at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
It may seem odd to look forward to Good Friday with eager anticipation, yet I confess that this is precisely what I have done for the last several years, ever since my brother and I attended our first Office of Tenebrae at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Columbus. Intended as a somber reflection on Christ’s passion, the service features choral and organ music accompanied by the gradual extinction of candlelight. Near the end, the last remaining candle is removed from the altar, leaving the cathedral in darkness. The congregation then joins in the strepitus, a “sustained noise with hand or book” that evokes the earthquake described in the gospels. Finally, the lone candle returns, its presence a symbol of hope in the Resurrection, and everyone files out of the cathedral in silence.
When I read about Tenebrae in the paper, I knew I had to go. It sounded like the most wondrous mix of majestic architecture, thundering pipe organ, and meditative theater. David was similarly intrigued, and as we settled into a pew among the capacity crowd that first night, I thumbed through the program and noted translations of the Latin verses that were to be sung by the Cathedral Schola. Though my pronunciation of Latin is shaky, I thought it would be interesting to at least try to follow along.
After a procession and a few prayers, the congregation sat, and the schola began a sixteenth-century interpretation of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. In the dim light, it was already a little difficult to see, but I raised my program closer to my face and listened carefully to the disembodied voices that rose and fell in echoing phrases of overlapping Latin verse. Although it sounded like a confusing jumble of foreign words, I moved my finger along line after line, keeping pace. Then, at least a full minute after they had started, the schola abruptly stopped singing. I could not understand why, as they were right in the middle of the piece.
When they resumed after a brief pause, I soon realized what had happened. They had taken an entire minute to sing the Hebrew letter aleph, which simply designated that the first verse was on its way. It was a transformative moment for me as well as for David, who later told me that he had also misjudged the schola’s progress. In much the same way that I was once challenged by a performance of Music in Twelve Parts by the Philip Glass Ensemble, I was forced to confront my expectations of music and its relation to time. As with Glass, when I surrendered those expectations and simply began to live in the musical moment, I became transfixed by what I was hearing. Like the expansiveness of the cathedral itself, the music spread out before us and unfolded at its own pace, a centuries-old meditation that would not yield to the distractibility of modern minds.
From then onward, I was hooked. It was almost as if I had been given mental permission to dispense with my concerns and immerse myself in the experience. The hypnotic effect of the music was enhanced by the space that surrounded us. St. Joseph Cathedral, completed in 1878 with clearstory walls rising to a height of 70 feet, is now dwarfed by neighboring buildings, especially the 21-story Motorists Mutual skyscraper. Yet upon entering, visitors perceive a vast vertical space, almost as if the cathedral’s interior were magically taller than its exterior. The sensation is simultaneously inspiring and humbling. Whereas the music of Tenebrae seems to say “This meditation is more significant than your petty affairs,” the architecture of St. Joseph Cathedral appears to chime in with “You really are an insignificant little person, you know.” In such an atmosphere, whatever happens seems to take on weightier significance.
As if the haunting voices of the schola and the soaring architecture were not enough to inspire reverence and awe, we were also suitably impressed by the splendor of the mighty Fritts Grand Gallery organ. The Fritts certainly looks impressive, with its shiny metal pipes and polished wooden cabinetry dominating the choir loft. For much of the evening, it offered unintrusive accompaniment, and it even sat silent for long periods. When it wished to make a point, however, the Fritts proved capable of rattling the stained glass windows and vibrating the rib cages of cowering congregants. It did just that during an excerpt from the 22nd Psalm (“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”), creating a massive aural wall of dissonance that would have caused Lon Chaney’s bulging Phantom of the Opera eyes to pop right out of his melodramatic head.
And then there was the strepitus. You might be surprised to learn just how loud it can get when a cathedral’s worth of people starts banging its hands and books on the pews. If you didn’t know what it was all about, you would surely be alarmed. David and I joined in with everyone else, although it was difficult to overcome the nagging conviction that it is something of a sacrilege to behave so barbarically in a cathedral on Good Friday. Of course, that also makes it irresistibly fun, even though it isn’t supposed to be. It is, after all, a dramatic representation of the time when tenebrae factae sunt – darkness covered the land.
We walked out silently with the somber crowd and ambled toward the parking lot, inspired, sobered, and somehow exhilarated at the same time. As dark as the service literally and figuratively was, it was nonetheless life-affirming as well. It was also testimony to the richness of faith traditions and the immortal beauty of music and architecture. In that sense, even though it was not its purpose, the Office of Tenebrae provided the same sort of pleasure and challenge as an afternoon at the museum or any engaging encounter with the arts.
That is why I have been looking forward to today, just as I have anticipated Good Friday for the past several years. You can find David and me at St. Joseph Cathedral tonight, our eyes closed in blissful reflection while the Cathedral Schola sings its everlasting, intertwined and overlapping phrases. And that’s just for the letter ‘A’.