Every year, on the first Sunday of October, the animals of New York City are invited for blessing to the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.
On St. Francis Day, a crowd gathers outside the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York before it is quite light, to wait for a seat. The choir and orchestra is in rehearsal for two days prior. Their fingers smell like dusty hymnals, violin strings, brass fittings. We run through the processional of Missa Gaia one more time.
The church is rigged with lights and the pulpit, altars, railings are clothed in living green ivy, everygreen and ribbons of every color of light. Last call, the girls and women are rehearsing their dance, white dresses, barefoot and flying flags and ribbons of pink, red, purple, grass, mustard, tangerines, tree trunks, clam shells, and blue. We assemble in the sacristy and wait for the audience to calm.
The organist changes mode, barely perceptible to those unfamiliar with the music, but everyone in the choir pews draws a breath and holds a consonant at the edge of their lips, poised, waiting for the nod, the twitch, the opening of the conductor's mouth.
We begin to sing and the world changes color with our voices.
For the beauty of the Earth, sing, oh sing today.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
The theme of the day. As a religious exercise, we are here to celebrate the life of this planet. The color is gold and every color, and the emotion is joy.
I am not normally comfortable at church services, even UUs make me a little claustrophobic. But here, the welcome exudes from the woodwork, hangs in the air, rests in the laps of kids trying to hold their pets still and reverent. Most of the songs in this Mass are written with a specific style of heritage or "ethnic" music in mind. There are traces of Samba, of Native American wood flute, of African and Gregorian chant. The piece focuses on cello and on alto saxophone specifically at several points, The singers are dressed in "something colorful," and it's difficult not to sway, or outright dance to the music.
The whole of Missa Gaia, the Earth Mass, was written by Paul Winter, a jazz composer and sax-player in his own right, and at this spectacular mass, he is in the front, playing the hell out of an alto sax. His wife came out to listen to us rehearse back in Worcester, Massachusetts, and encouraged us to come out. She is watching raptly, as if she is listening to the piece for the first time.
We progress through the Mass, but I want to pause at the Ubi Caritas.
Ubi Caritas et amor, deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Where there is charity and love, God is there.
Let us gather together as one in God's love.
This phrase is sung, or chanted, by the men, unaccompanied. After a repeat, the altos join them, in tenor range. Then the piano becomes the focus. I can't describe a haunting piano piece, it's still beyond my vocabulary, but this piece brought me to tears. I can't listen to this track in the car because it puts me in a trance. It gradually builds until the women break out in the same chant, but frenzied, excited, building, then the drums begin. Djembes, dumbeks, Ashikos, rattles, bells, in older rhythms, reminiscent of "Africa". I know that we make a bastard sound out of the rhythms of many nations, tribes, countries, but for now, it is good enough. The solemn coolness of the chant, and the melancholy of the piano are forgotten now and the choir is *dancing*. A man walks to the center aisle of the Nave and begins to dance, slowly at first, then building with the musicians. The dust in the air is obeying the rhythm, and the singers and belting out and a new chant has emerged.
Obayay Obayo Yemanja
Obayay Obayo Battalah
Obayay Obayo O Rauassar
Obayay Obayo O Yemanja
The whole congregation is struggling to remain seated. In the space of ten minutes, they have been brought from cool, green flecked stone walls, acceptance of their fates, to the heat of joy, to passion, to orange and red and lifting their heads to the ceilings, though to the sky. The chants are mingling. They meet up and separate in dissonance, the Latin just as joyous now as the singers, facs bright, effortlessly streaming with passion. The movement ends in Hallelujah, and it's never been so true for me.
There is something so warm about this gathering, even before they walk the animals in. All the singers, plucked from organizations clear across the country, are suddenly friendly, and sharing music as if we genuinely trust each other. Fear is eradicated, a good thing in light of the recent events in the city- 9/11, the fire that burned down the steeple of St. John's months later, and within the year we are here again, filling the space with thanks for what is still here. But the animals still come, snakes and hawks, sheep, doves, predators and prey, with their human escorts.
The Agnus Dei is another beautiful slow piece, sopranoes breathy and altos rusty, we women are the wind in the screendoors of the country, the rattling window-screens, pebbles thrown against the panes, trying to gently wake the congregation.
Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who take away sins of world,
have mercy on us.
grant us peace.
The ending is an unresolved minor 7th chord, as if a resolved chord might confuse us into thinking that "the lamb" had granted our request. The air is still as the congregation takes in the weight of this chord.
To the Song of a Fisherman we process out, singing all the way and coaxing others to join us. The doors open and sunlight pours into the previously dim cathedral. The day is noisy and full. In the back there is food, tables for charities and other organisations, folk dancers, jugglers and musicians to help us carry out spirit of movement out into the world. It gives us a little buffer, a speck of time that we can take this spirit and lock it away for rainy nights when the world seems so cool and unfriendly. I keep the song just behind my ears.