Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Be the Day Weary, or Be the Day Long...

...at last it ringeth to evensong. And so it did this past Sunday, as the Christ Church Choir of Men and Boys sang the annual evensong in memory of The Rev. Craig Walter Casey. Your scribe first met Craig some twenty years ago (sounds like a song out of "Princess Ida", no?), when we were chaperones together on the Choir's trip to England. Being the prickly sort he sometimes can be, your scribe exuded less-than-cordial vibes towards Craig on the first half of the trip, inasmuch as he was an incessant smoker, who was forever lighting up in restaurants, buses, hotel rooms, and wherever else we went. And further being a reformed smoker who cannot abide the smell, your reporter threw non-verbal hissy fits every time a match flared in Craig's hand. Moreover, never much given to subtlety, he made sure that his unspoken opinions were loudly heard.

The loss was mine, of course. Craig, being the good Christian he was, worked to overcome my silent treatment, and finally broke through with the help of a bottle of J&B scotch. Taking the bull by the horns, he said it was silly for us not to be acting in a more collegial fashion, and would I please share a drink with him. Ah, dear reader, he had found my Achilles' heel - or rather, both of them. I hate to look silly (which it was increasingly apparent I was being), and I love J&B scotch. I immediately decided that Craig was a person of at least some refinement, and gladly helped him make inroads into the bottle.

It developed that we had many friends in common, and shared many attitudes and interests as well. Over the second half of the trip we became good friends, to the point where he was trying to recruit me into the ministry. Whatever this may say about Craig as a judge of character, it was flattering that he seemed to think I had the talent and the personality to become a pillar of the church. It is true that I had served as a lay reader for many years, taking communion to the elderly and shut-ins, and that I had once been asked - with no advance warning or preparation - to give a sermon in Washington Cathedral. (I just opened my mouth and let God supply the words, which, fortunately, He was happy to do.) However, I had recently decided to reinvent myself as a writer, and I told Craig that I felt my vocation lay in that direction instead.

I remember one evening in particular, as the choir was gathered for dinner at The Jolly Friar, our favorite eating place in Wells, where the boys had replaced the vacationing choristers at Wells Cathedral for a week. (The greatest compliment they received was that nobody noticed the regular choir was gone.) It was our last evening in that bucolic city, and Craig as Chaplain decided to give the boys a brief homily at the end of the meal.

He described noticing a boss on one of the Cathedral doors that afternoon: a large, round face carved in ancient bronze. As he looked at it, the face spoke to him: "What are you doing here?" Startled, Craig replied that he was here as the Chaplain to the Choir of Men and Boys at Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut, USA. "No," said the face: "I asked, what are you doing here?"

Craig tried again. "Well, we're singing the Cathedral services, and I'm the precentor." The boss spoke once again: "Tell me what you're doing here." Finally, Craig said, the penny dropped: he was being asked what he was doing with his life on earth. And he told the boys, and the rest of us, that we should always remember that wise question from this medieval carving, and be ever mindful of what in fact we are doing with our earthly lives.

I thought it was gangbusters. I wonder if any of the others who were there that evening still remember Craig's brief sermon, which is one of the best I've ever heard. The next day we went off to Bruern Abbey, where the boys had their week-long music camp. And then it was back to the USA and life as usual, after an unforgettable sojurn in the West of England.

Craig died within the year, at the young age of 52. Sadly, the cigarettes got him, all too quickly. After we returned from England, his health started to deteriorate rapidly. Six bishops and a flock of clergy attended his funeral in an ecclesiatical procession the likes of which Christ Church had never seen before, and likely will never see again. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury didn't come close to outdrawing Craig.

The Casey Memorial Evensong began with an organ recital by the ever-estimable James Kennerley, who started with a vigorous rendition of Bach's Prelude in E-flat Major (the "St. Anne"). Using both the gallery and the chancel organs, James allowed us to hear this masterpiece the way Bach intended it to be heard. Sometimes I think he channels old J. S. directly, the way he gets inside each piece and brings out its musical essence. Talk about genius!

Then he played Boellmann's "Suite Gothique" in a sonorous and stately interpretation, letting the tonalities of the organ carry the weight of the music. This is an easy suite to play, but a difficult one to play well. James took it just a little slower than one usually hears it, and in so doing he essentially called attention to each note and chord rather than letting them blur together as other organists tend to do. Rarely has this old chestnut sounded as fresh and exciting as James made it do.

The Mag and Nunc were Stanford in B Flat - pleasant enough, but a pale shadow of his splendid Te Deum in the same key. The Nunc Dimittis (the "Song of Simeon") was set for men only, but the boys joined in for the Gloria Patri. The offertory anthem (whoops - somebody goofed - they forgot to take up the offering, which traditionally benefits the Casey Memorial Fund) was Parry's magnificent "I Was Glad", composed for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The choir did a wonderful job on the soaring choral lines: "Our feet shall stand in thy gates, O Jerusalem...Jerusalem is builded as a city that is at unity in itself...peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces." Simply gorgeous. Utterly ethereal. Much too good a piece of music for that old rake Edward VII, but Parry was writing not for the moment, but for the ages. His anthem is still sung at every royal coronation, and every enthronement of an Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Rector, Jeffrey Walker, gave the homily, and reminded us of Craig's life of service to others. He ran the Church Pension Fund, which under his aegis actually began to live up to its name. Before Craig, church pensions were a joke - and a bad joke at that. Thanks to him, ministers can now retire with economic security, and focus their careers - as Jeffrey was quick to share with us - on things of the spirit rather than worrying about how they will survive in their old age.

Sadly, there was one flagrant omission in the service. Traditionally, we always stand and belt out "Jerusalem" - Parry's best-known hymn - which became a signature piece during Craig's chaplaincy to the Choir. Yikes! It's like the missing step at the bottom of a staircase that makes you almost lose your balance and fall over. What gives here?! Oh, well, there's always next year....

James finished up with the stirring "Finale" from Vierne's first organ symphony. Many of us remained until the final chords, after which there was much applause and woo-hoo-ing. And thus, dear reader, another memorable evensong passed into the history books; but fortunately, the ever-reliable Neil Bouknight has recorded it for posterity. No doubt a call or email to Christ Church Greenwich would result in a CD being sent out to you, gentle reader, should you be so minded. After all, your scribe's reportage is but a pale shadow of the real thing.

And now it's off in search of the next story about life here in this never-dull town....


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