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In Oakland, a 1,600-year-old ritual of serenity and silence

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

The search for solitude without loneliness, serenity without indifference, a campus gathering without beer, leads through the doors of Heinz Chapel Sunday evenings, where a century measured in nanoseconds reverts to a Medieval way of telling the time of day.

It is called Compline.

At the beginning of the sixth century, before time was cut up into 60-minute segments, St. Benedict installed Compline as the final hour of a day marked out in prayers.

"This is not a performance choir. This choir actually, really prays," said Stephen Schall, who took over this year as director of the Pittsburgh Compline Choir.

None of the prayers is spoken. Everything is chanted or sung in the near-darkness of Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus every Sunday night at 8:30. There are the long, silent moments, the intervals in which the wind in the trees outside becomes perceptible and the hum of a city winding down after dark speaks to the hopes of a new week.

Explaining why her staff at The Catholic Worker preferred Compline to evening rosary, Dorothy Day wrote: "Because we are praying together, we are loving each other. Margaret may have just had an argument with John about money for carrots ... John Cort and Bill Callahan may have been combating each other over what is a just war. But just the same, we know that when we are united together in the community room in this evening prayer, we are conscious of a Christian solidarity."

A group of professional church musicians sang at a recent Compline service and emerged, Schall said, talking about "how wonderful the silence was." No one can become more jaded about church than those who work there, but that silence in Heinz Chapel, broken by thousand-year-old chants, can reanimate a rock.

On a Sunday night just passed, the chapel drew about 50 worshippers. A surprising number were in clerical collars and a few others were professional church musicians. This is no accident.

Schall, who has spent his adult life earning his wage by singing and playing in churches, was first drawn to a Compline service as a worshipper.

"It's a time of the day when they can come to church and actually pray," Schall said.

St. Benedict, in his list of rules for monastic life, specified in the title of Rule 42 "that no one speak after Compline."

"And if anyone should be found evading this rule of silence, let her undergo severe punishment," Benedict wrote. Then again, Benedict did not anticipate that 1,600 years later, Compline would be held against a background of city traffic, kids tossing something called a football on the lawn outside, or that Compline on a university campus would be sponsored by something called Lutheran Campus Ministries under the musical direction of a Methodist-turned-Episcopalian-become-Roman Catholic.

Another innovation is the organ. Compline originally was sung a cappella -- voice only -- but Schall and his predecessor, John W. Becker, include an organ prelude and an anthem for worshippers to join in.

"For some people, this is their only churchgoing," Schall explained. That also explains the inclusion of a list of intentions. People entering the chapel are asked to list intentions. This results in a somewhat curious chant of one and two syllable names.

Joe, Sam, Abby, Doug ...

"It's a long time to sing a cappella. It's a long time to sing without getting a new pitch. To just try to remain on the same note is tough," Schall said.

And then there was the case of the baby in the tree. A few years ago, newspapers carried the account of a flood in Africa and told of a woman who gave birth while clinging to the upper branches of a tree while the water rushed below her. One of the students entering the chapel included that intention and Schall -- who keeps with another Medieval tradition by not reading newspapers -- was caught by surprise when a bell-clear voice intoned: "For the baby born in a tree ... ."

"I just had a little moment of, um -- you know how it is when you get to laughing in church. Some things sound very elegant when they're sung. Other things sound different."

And the silence interspersing these things can thunder.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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