Hoofing it down Wisconsin Avenue on the hot and dandy day I got wind of the big bells at 3:10 and gave my ticket at the main door of the cathedral at 3:20, not expecting a three-hour service but what the hell, they don't dedicate the biggest church in town every day.
After 83 years of building and futzing about and dawdling, the Washington Cathedral was at last finished. When we started going to Evensong there in the late '40s there was no nave and you sat under a tin roof that leaked when it rained. On this day, however, shipshape city.
When I go into that church now I look first at the altar, then at the best thing in it, the four vast piers that hold up the tower.
The boys up there were still ringing changes and there was hubbub in the audience with much babble so that when the Toccata and Fugue in F began, it sounded distant and pale like a shepherd humming off on a hill somewhere. It turned out that most of the people present had never been in the cathedral before, so it was all right, and they stopped jabbering once the bagpipes started. They led the procession with 891 people in it.
They were supposed to divide into three processions, one down each of the aisles, but they all came down the middle. I suspect they objected to second-class status if they had to march down the side.
Anyway, there they all were, the St. Andrews pipers and drummers followed by the torchbearers and everybody and his cousin Ned. I was much gratified to note within the procession the laundresses, janitors, security guards, old headmasters (who probably put up a fight to bring their dogs but lost) and old boys from choirs past and zub, zub, zub.
Once they all got in, which took 15 minutes, the festival screeching of the pipes stopped and a fanfare began, followed by the subdued and yearning hymn of Bernard of Cluny.
It was a Victorian translation and a Victorian tune but the dream (in Bernard's case the faith) of the words from 1100 was still as hopeful as ever, when in his vision he saw "the throne of David, and there from care released, the shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast."
The world has always been a large wad of baloney for the fortunate and much worse for them that have only pain and anxiety to deal with -- a thing Bernard knew well and contrasted with the heavenly Jerusalem.
The magic of Evensong used to count on the dying of the afternoon sun, but the church was lit up with every watt Pepco possessed, probably for the TV cameras. There were no altar lights, since no matter how festive this service was supposed to be, it was small potatoes compared with the central liturgy, when they are lit.
Part of the service was sung, as originally intended. It would be good, some day before Jerusalem is at last beheld, to go to an Evensong in which the words, the music, the lighting, the pacing all work together. Nowadays there are strong and successful efforts to play down drama and magic and to make certain the electric force of art does not make anybody's hair stand on end.
The ancient canticle of the Virgin, like all the rest of the music, was superbly presented, as if from another and better world -- "He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek, He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away. He, remembering his mercy, hath holpen his servant" and so on.
She could sing it honestly, in her hour of glory, but it does not describe the world we know. It does not even describe the world we want, except in rare minutes of innocence.
The goings-on were held on the eve of the church's feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
Michael, who fought the dragon in Heaven and threw him down. Michael, who drove us from Eden and forbade with his flaming sword our going back. And all angels. Like Michael, they are not always sweet.
Santayana, in one of his novels, has a brief homily on angels as delivered in a village church. For brevity and clarity, for insight and beauty, it could with profit be drilled into the heads of seminarians. There are dark angels who bring terrible gifts. They are messengers, as the Greek word imports, and messengers do not always bring comfortable news. The difference between angels and other messengers is that angels can't be argued with, armed as they are with ultimate warrant. Not that we recognize them as a rule. So the Evensong went on, with the old lesson of Jacob, whose pillow in the field was a stone, and as he slept a ladder was let down from Heaven and angels, I guess of all kinds, descended. So when he woke up he said the Lord is in this place and I knew it not. So say we all. We think we're fighting traffic and arguing with editors and bitching about taxes and (as the lesson says) all the time we're in a holy place and we sure as hell didn't know it.
So it ended and you could listen to the bells again in the Bishop's Garden. I guess they flubbed the full peal as the bells stopped, or maybe the neighbors complained. Roses, Michaelmas daisies, anemones all in pretty fair shape in the garden. And on the avenue, a miracle. The bus came in four minutes and the driver asked how things went in the cathedral.
Caught off guard with insufficient time for analytical faculties to kick in, you heard yourself say, man, it was glorious.