I looked up from the pages of Dog Days, and saw that I had missed my stop. I was on Rectory Street, one stop past my connection to the 2 or 3 that would take me to Brooklyn, in unfamiliar territory. Stashing the book, I climbed up the steps and emerged into Downtown Manhattan, a fine mist of a rain falling, and low scudding clouds obscuring the tops of the skyscrapers.
Walking along the pavement to the Uptown entrance on Rectory St, I steeple rising above the building across from me, and decided to investigate. People were streaming towards the subway entrances, brandishing umbrellas and striding in that no-nonsense NYC manner, and I no doubt infuriated several of them as I wandered along Rectory St. until the church came into view.
It was beautiful, with vast, ponderous office buildings of white stone rising up in a dramatic, geometric background behind it, an island of antiquity and grass in the center of the city. I walked along its black, cast iron fence, enjoying the bleached and somber cast the weather gave it, and then reached the entrance and decided on a whim to duck inside.
Except something was afoot; people were being turned away at the door within the vestibule, or choosing not to enter. Through the glass doors I could see the dark fastness of the church, sans illumination and mysterious. A sign to one side announced the 6pm ‘Tenebrae’ service, and intrigued, I entered.
The interior of the church was made mysterious and august by the darkness. The distant, vaulted ceiling was the color of freshly fallen snow lit by a new moon, with a latticework of iron-hued beams following the edges of the vaults. Vast, fluted columns arose to support it, the walls beyond them dim, features and details obfuscated by shadow. Dark figures sat in the pews, awaiting the service to begin in silence. Shucking my coat and unshouldering my bag, I sat down a third of the way in, and waited.
The altar at the front held the only source of illumination: nine candles set in a triangular support, each impossibly tall, their flames so steady as to seem false. Two seperate altar candles stood beside this collection of small flames, and all else was dark but for the vast stained glass window that covered the back wall, a huge creation of intense colors that seemed to smolder even in the gloom.
The priests entered, and the service began. Rustling and cough as people arose to their feet, and the service began. Between each song or psalm a candle was extinguished, and as dusk fell outside the darkness within the church grew deeper. One by one the nine candles were extinguished, the moments between filled with the beautiful sound of the choir singing above and behind us. I was enthralled; their voices were rarefied, pure and seemed to curl up and into the heights of the building like sinuous trails of silk.
I glanced at the program, barely able to make out the words. After the final candle had been extinguished, there was a final entry before the service ended: Great Noise, it read. When all went dark, would the somber figures about me begin to gnash their teeth and wail? Would I be expected to join in? Would the priest let out a harrowing cry?
Finally the last song ended, and the final candle was extinguished. My heart beat began to increase as I awaited. A large truck rumbled by outside, and then I realized that the sound was coming from within the church. The rumbling grew deeper, louder, and discordant sounds began to pipe and emanate from the vast organ. It grew in volume and complexity, and standing there in the darkness, in that vast and shadowy church, surrounded by people of faith and listening to that hellish racket, I was perfectly able to envision a vast rent cracking open down the center of the aisle and the minions of the devil beginning to spill out and cavort. The sound was vast, beguiling, fascinating, terrible.
Finally it stopped, and the priests held aloft the final candle that had been hidden behind the altar, and exited. Everybody rose, and in silence they left the church.
Emerging back outside into the rain and pale light of the gloaming, I was surprised to see that it was not yet completely dark. A haunting ceremony, beautiful and surprising, dark and laden with powerful symbols and imagery. I’m going to investigate the ‘Tenebrae’ service further, learn of its origins and purpose, and report back here what I find.