Mystery Worshipper: PaterFamilias
Location: Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 6 March 2009, 7:30pm
A mid-sized cruciform Romanesque structure dating from the 1920s. Its various rooms and spaces have undergone quite a bit of repurposing over the decades, and an extensive renovation project was begun in 2003. A concise history of the building can be found on the church's website, including a description of mosaics and frescos that, alas, no longer exist. The altar has been brought out quite close to the congregation. For this service, the lights were dimmed and the altar was surrounded by candles, icons, and clay pots filled with sand (see below).
This is a large parish with a fairly typical mix of social justice outreaches, liturgical ministries, and social activities. Ascension is known for having an excellent music program; their choir has issued four CDs to date. They celebrate five weekend masses.
Oak Park is a suburb on the western border of Chicago. It is a racially diverse, largely middle-class community of about 50,000 residents. It is perhaps best known as the community where the architect Frank Lloyd Wright began his career, and there are several examples of his early work here. Ascension is in a residential neighborhood with single-family homes and tree-lined streets.
This type of service does not require clerical leadership, and if any clergy were present, they were not in clerical garb. None of the musicians were identified in the service leaflet, and, as we were enjoined to silence both before and after the service, I did not inquire. I suspect that the pianist and cantor was music director David Anderson.
What was the name of the service?A Time of Prayer in the Spirit of Taizé
How full was the building?
Full to overflowing.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived early, as I had anticipated a large attendance. I was handed a candle and service leaflet as I entered, but, as the leaflet stated, "Silence is observed by all prior to the service for prayer and reflection."
Was your pew comfortable?
Fairly standard wooden pews, with pull-down kneelers (not used in this service).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Extremely quiet and reverential.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome" prior to a brief rehearsal of a couple of songs the congregation would be singing in the service. The first spoken words in the service were: "A reading from the Gospel of Luke" (this after quite a bit of music). The one reading, and a portion of the intercessions, were the only spoken parts of this service.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the service leaflet.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano, oboe, cello, plus flutes and recorders of various sizes.
Did anything distract you?
The service began with several songs from Taizé. In the third of these, the pianist signaled to the other musicians to keep playing as he walked to the back of the church. There were quite a few people standing in the rear, and he invited them to the front where some seating was available. The other musicians kept on playing, and we kept on singing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Neither of these terms applies. This is a distinctive type of worship developed in the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé, in Burgundy, France. It was described in the leaflet as: "Gathered in the presence of Christ, we sing uncomplicated, repetitive songs, uncluttered by too many words..." We began by singing three short refrains which we repeated over and over again. Next, we sang Psalm 27 (with a Latin refrain) as three young children assisted in lighting the congregation's candles. In the cosmopolitan spirit of the Taizé community, at various times in the service we sang in English, Latin, Greek and Spanish. Then a lector read a lesson from Luke (Jesus telling his disciples that he must suffer many things), first in English, then in (I think) Polish. Two more Taizé songs were sung, during which the congregation was invited to come forward and place their candles in the clay pots mentioned above. Then followed the "great silence" – fully 10 minutes of silence, "to listen to the voice of God deep within..." Intercessions in litany form followed, culminating in the Lord's Prayer and a collect. The service concluded with "Prayer Around the Cross." The wooden cross which had been set up in front of the altar was laid horizontally on two stools; as we sang four more songs (including one from the Iona community in Scotland), members of the congregation were invited to come forward and kneel in prayer while kissing, touching, and pressing their foreheads against the cross.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was none; remember, this is worship "uncluttered by too many words."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I have always loved the music of the Taizé community; hearing so many voices singing this extraordinary music in such a beautifully arranged worship space was indeed a foretaste of heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It's been a rough winter in the Midwest, and the "great silence" wasn't nearly as silent as I remember from a couple of years back when I attended another Taizé service here, that time in the summer – lots of folks still nursing their winter colds, and quite a bit of coughing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The leaflet directed us to leave the church in silence. After saying my prayers at the cross, I went back to my seat and joined again in the singing. I decided to leave before the final song was completed (we were invited to leave at any point during the final songs). I lightly touched the shoulder of the woman who had been sitting next to me for an hour and a half, whispered "Peace," and left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This is a special service which Ascension offers on a monthly basis. But if they prepare their Sunday liturgies with the same degree of care, it would be a wonderful community to be a part of.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The beatific look of the young girl (7 or 8, I guess) who lit my candle.