Rohan—an old friend, raised Hindu, now not-so-much—leaned over to me at our sophomore year Vespers and said, “This is aggressively Christian.”
“It’s a Christian ceremony, bro,” said Lutfi, older friend, former roommate, raised Muslim, still Muslim.
Chappy, my roommate, a Hebrew glyph on his necklace, deflected to a lesser conflict: “Ecclesiastical and jazz are the only two acceptable types of Christmas music.” He cut himself off once the next hymn began and resumed once the echo of the organ faded.
Vespers, the oldest Trinity tradition, it is also one of the few traditions here whose history doesn’t disappoint. Unlike the curse of stepping on the seal, for example, the student government didn’t invent Vespers in 2004. Because it’s the only religious tradition Trinity has kept, it doesn’t take much digging to understand that Vespers has been around a long time.
The challenge for Trinity of late (the past few decades) has been keeping Vespers in a time when our world doesn’t want faith to grow beyond culture. Instead of treating religion as a search for our Creator and His purpose for us, it’s tidier and easier for us to see faith as a cultural expression of identity, a subject of anthropological dissection.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not hearkening back to some supposed better time when everybody who attended Vespers believed the same thing. It’s a safe bet that such a time doesn’t exist, even when Trinity’s student body was all Presbyterian; every Vespers has probably heard at least one choir singer who doesn’t believe the lyrics.
Chappy’s phone vibrated. It was Rohan, group-texting us: “We going to Oakmont after this?” Was it even a matter of debate? Hot cider and President Anderson’s piano. Of course we were.
“So let’s skip this last song,” he suggested.
None of us stood.
The difference today is one of attitude toward faith. Even to an atheist, faith can be real, even if only as a concept. It stops seeming real once we treat it as a collection of cultural customs instead of a mysterious journey heavenward.
To some extent, all universities that aren’t seminaries have to treat religion that way. We avoid attachment to our subjects of study. During class, Trinity’s attitude toward faith is generous but studious, distant, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes critical, always experimental, always confident that Lakota Shamanism or Judaism or Pentecostalism are small, contained samples on a petri dish, and then it’s onto macro or organic chemistry with a bright blue sky and a smile and the world at rest with reason in charge.
But at Vespers, once the lights dim and the candle flame trickles one by one through the chapel, the sun-washed world of the campus in daytime disappears. Maybe it’s the quietening allure of flame, the same kind of silence that falls around campfires and hearths. Whatever forces are at work, one moment passes each year in Parker Chapel in which the campus rests in the knowledge that something important has happened. It feels real.
Obviously it’s not unanimous. People whisper. Ringtones echo. Somebody makes a joke, somebody else laughs, somebody shushes. But the atmosphere is different. The whispers and ringtones and jokes feel like interruptions instead of expected background noise.
“Come on. Y’all can’t even understand this song without the program. Shit’s in Latin.”
“So? It’s beautiful anyway,” Chappy said.
For students and faculty and all those who live their lives by the Trinity academic calendar, Vespers is like the annual equivalent of the moment between going to bed and falling asleep. It means the end of things for a while. It’s the downbeat in a yearlong rhythm, the start and finish line, when you can’t help but think about all the things that have happened since the last time the lights went down. This year is my last time arriving early but still too late and sitting in the high back rows below the trumpet pipes and spilling candle wax on my boots in the dark and leaning forward to hear the harpist and trying to sing along to the hymns. It makes me think of the last beat, the last time I rounded the starting line, and how much has come and gone since then: sneaking into the sanctuary to play the harpsichord they had left for some concert, kneeling at the stone benches in the chapel garden, leaving the chapel after Vespers to breathe fog in the cold December air and play “Silent Night” on banjo at Dean Tuttle’s house and “O Tannenbaum” on piano at President Anderson’s the next year (both men more patient with me than I deserve), leftover cider and unfrozen taquitos at somebody’s house on Oakmont, string lights and handbells and bundled children tugging elderly hands.
We don’t come to Vespers for the short sermons. The swell of the organ, the choir singing lyrics we don’t understand, the harp trilling soft and almost indiscernible, the candles flickering as night falls–that’s why every seat is taken at Parker Chapel by 6pm. Even to those for whom the good tidings of great joy stir no feeling, the beauty of Vespers can make the coming of Christmas seem real.