Tuesday, April 19, 2011



Out of the east window a storm
Blooms spasmodically across the moonrise;
In the west, in the haze, the planets
Pulsate like standing meteors.
We listen in the darkness to the service of Tenebrae,
Music older than the Resurrection,
The voice of the ruinous, disorderly Levant:
“Why doth the city sit solitary
That was full of people?”
The voices of the Benedictines are massive, impersonal;
They never fear this agony nor are ashamed of it.
Think...six hours ago in Europe,
Thousands were singing these words,
Putting out candles psalm by psalm...
Albi like a fort in the cold dark,
Aachen, the voices fluttering in the ancient vaulting,
The light of the last candle
In Munich on the gnarled carving.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Return ye unto the Lord thy God.”
Thousands kneeling in the dark,
Saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”
We listen appreciatively, smoking, talking quietly,
The voices are coming to us from three thousand miles.
On the white garden wall the shadows
Of the date palm thresh wildly;
The full moon of the spring is up,
And a gale with it.

--Kenneth Rexroth

This Wednesday, at 8:00 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Elkhart will be celebrating Tenebrae, an ancient Holy Week service of psalms and readings. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows.” Fifteen candles are lighted in a stand called a hearse. At the end of each reading one candle is extinguished, until all but one candle is left burning. And that candle is hidden behind the altar, putting the church sanctuary in total darkness. A loud noise (Latin streptius) is made, usually by slamming a book shut or stomping on the floor, to symbolize the earthquake after Jesus' death. After the great noise, the single lighted candle is returned to the hearse, signifying the light of Christ's resurrection.

Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his early childhood in Elkhart, was an Anglo-Catholic or High Church Episcopalian, and he deeply appreciated the service of Tenebrae. In 1943, depressed about the war and uncertain of whether his conscientious objector status would be approved, tried to persuade an Episcopal or Roman Catholic church in San Francisco to offer the service, but without luck.

But three years earlier, Rexroth and his second wife Marie listened to Tenebrae broadcast on the radio from a Benedictine monastery somewhere on the east coast. The early spring of 1940 was the time of the “Phoney War,” in which the Germans and their Soviet allies were busy consolidating their conquest of Poland while the Western Front was relatively quiet. In fact, French troops had penetrated a few miles into Germany but then withdrew behind the Maginot Line.

Everyone knew a German attack on France was coming—the question was when, and Rexroth juxtaposes the dark service of Tenebrae with the tensions in Europe and the approaching storm outside his window. Rexroth mentions three European cities in the poem.

Albi, in southern France, was once the center of the Cathar Christians, deemed heretical by the Catholic Church and all but wiped out in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) under Pope Innocent III. (Like other crusades this one had as much to do with temporal affairs as theological ones. The French monarchy gained control of southern France by participating in the crusade.) In any case, Albi brings to mind we now call genocide.

Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle in French, was the seat of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, and represents the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Many Nazi leaders wanted to exchange Christianity for a kind of neo-paganism. (I wonder whether the pre-Christian Germanic tribes would have recognized it as their religion.)

Munich, the principal city of Catholic southern Germany and Hitler's base of operations during the 1920s, was also the home of Cardinal Archbishop Michael Von Faulhaber, who spoke out against the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return ye unto the Lord thy God,” Rexroth pleads, quoting from the liturgy.

While we do not stand on the brink of world war today, the service of Tenebrae gives us an opportunity to reflect on the dark side of history and to take solace in the Light of Christ.

Image: Tenebrae hearse from Mainz Cathedral: Wikimedia commons