Mystery Worshipper: LQ
Church: Oratory of Our Lady of Glastonbury
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Saturday, 26 April 2008, 7:30pm
Christ the Savior Monastery, of which the oratory is the monastic chapel, is also known as Christminster. It is a single plain brick building on a residential lot. It is extremely small, and there are no grounds around it to speak of. There are separate entrances for the oratory and the monastic residence itself. The left entrance leads into the bookroom and the chapel. The chapel is small, and looks like it could seat about 30 people in the pews. It features a small, traditionally-appointed chancel with an eastward facing altar and an ambo. The bookroom features publications of the Lancelot Andrewes Press, the publishing arm of the Fellowship of Saint Dunstan, a non-profit organisation for the advancement of historic Christian orthodoxy.
The Oratory is a Benedictine Western Rite Orthodox chapel. The monastic community consists of two professed brothers and is primarily contemplative, but has an oblate programme for Orthodox Christians called to participate in the monastic life in a Western Rite context, but not called to religious profession as such. On the day of my visit, the small congregation appeared to be made up entirely of converts from Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism.
The monastery sits on Cannon Street East, a long, rather seedy thoroughfare mainly comprising car dealerships, service stations, and sad-looking duplexes. I walked from number one to number 390 (the monastery) without passing a single Tim Horton's coffee franchise surely this is wilderness according to the Canadian definition.
The Rt Revd Dom James M. Deschene, Abbot, was the celebrant.
What was the name of the service?The Great Vigil and First Mass of Easter, with the Office of Lauds and the Sacrament of Confirmation.
How full was the building?
There were nine of us in the intimate nave. I had a pew to myself.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Everyone welcomed me personally, including a young married couple who were being received into the Orthodox Church that night.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was possibly the best pew I've ever experienced. However, there were great stretches where it was not used, which tested the strength of my legs.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very friendly and there was a real sense of fellowship. We waited in the bookroom while Dom James finished hearing confessions. Everyone present took time to introduce themselves to me, solicit (kindly) information about me, and in a couple of cases, tell the stories of their journey to Orthodoxy. I made it clear that I was Anglican, not Orthodox, yet was not made to feel the liberal Anglican bogeyman. Then Dom James came in and I introduced myself to him. It turns out that we have a mutual friend! Dom James invited me, and everyone else, to read one or two lessons since the twelve Old Testament prophecies outnumbered the congregation. I inquired about receiving communion and was told that I was welcome to receive a blessing.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us pray."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A homemade leaflet entitled "Holy Saturday" contained almost everything I needed to know. At a couple of points, I needed to refer to the Orthodox Missal, which contains the Western Rite liturgy, of which there were copies in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
None at all. The plainsong of the service and the two hymns were hauntingly sung a cappella.
Did anything distract you?
The lectern from which the prophecies were read was at the rear of the chapel, and it was tempting to turn my head to hear the source of the voices (that is, when I wasn't reading myself). There was a spate of sirens at one point that could very clearly be heard from outside. I made a mental note to take a cab back to the bus terminal that night.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Christminster's website explains that their liturgy is similar to what one would have found in a Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic parish before the Second Vatican Council. That about sums it up. It was not a "spiky" experience, given the intimacy of the occasion, but it was certainly formal and reverent. The service began in the bookroom with the blessing of the new fire, and continued with a procession into the chapel, followed by the longest version of the Exsultet I have ever heard. The prophecies were read, the litany of the saints sung, and the sacrament of confirmation administered. We renewed our baptismal vows, were sprinkled, and then sang a psalm before the mass proper began. Parts of the liturgy were sung that I have never heard sung before: the prayer known as the Secret that precedes the eucharistic prayer; the "Lord, I am not worthy" prayer before communion; and so on. There was the occasional use of Latin, including a congregational Regina Coeli to plainsong. The service ended with lauds, which consisted of a single psalm with antiphon and the Benedictus.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Dom James spoke with a very comforting tone.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He welcomed the confirmands and assured us that our sins had been defeated by Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The joy and trust of the two people being confirmed into the Orthodox faith.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The saddest manifestation of our Christian faith is the fact that we cannot all join as one around the altar of the Lord. I long for the day when that will be possible, as I imagine all Christians do. Meanwhile, I must say that my irregular status was handled with acute pastoral panache.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a chance. We all began to "lighten it up" after the Lauds had concluded, but were reminded that the house custom was to "take it outside." And so we retired back to the bookroom for further conversation and the repast.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was a very respectable-looking spread of fruits, cheeses, cakes and cookies – but nothing to drink! As I was ready to leave, a discussion about whether to make coffee or tea was, erm, brewing. I thanked everyone and called my cab. I would have liked to stay and bask in the afterglow, but the liturgy had gone on for over three hours and I had to catch the last bus home or risk being stranded in a strange city. I handed a monk an envelope containing a donation and my Mystery Worship calling card, and promised to return. Settled in the back seat of my cab, I made a mental note to purchase a copy of Ritual Notes for myself.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – While I wouldn't seek membership in the congregation, I would gladly attend vespers and benediction there every Sunday if I lived in Hamilton.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Ecstatic and even, dare I say, a little envious of Orthodox Christians.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The solemnity and joy with which a gathering of two or three can proclaim the Lord's death and resurrection until he comes.