The first thing one notices upon entering the chapel is quite a low ceiling. There is a simple wooden altar on a slightly raised platform in the center of the space. Seating, in chairs, is on all sides of the altar. The altar party sits to the left of the altar, instrumentalists are to the right, and the choir sits behind the altar. The space is simply appointed.
This congregation of Dominican sisters has served the West Michigan area since 1877. Their extensive ministries in the areas of spirituality, education, social justice, and health care are amply documented on a well-designed website. Their 10.00am mass on Sundays is attended by Catholics from all over the Grand Rapids metro area. The Center for Spirituality offers a three-year formation program for clergy and lay people of all faiths seeking to become spiritual directors.
Grand Rapids, in the west-central part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is the second largest city in the state. Long famous as a furniture manufacturing center, the city is home to five of the world’s leading office furniture companies. Bissell Inc., the vacuum cleaner and home care product manufacturer, is headquartered in a suburb of Grand Rapids. The campus is perhaps two miles from the center of downtown Grand Rapids. Just west of the campus is Aquinas College, a liberal arts college of some 1900 students, which the Dominicans helped to found in 1931. On the Marywood campus are health-care facilities, an assisted-living facility, four chapels, an art gallery, administrative offices, and a bookstore.
There was a presider, cantor, pianist, and choir. A faculty member from Aquinas College gave a short reflection after the reading. Members of the choir chanted the seven short prophecies that occurred near the beginning of the service.
What was the name of the service?‘O’ Antiphons: Evening Prayer.
How full was the building?
Perhaps half full. Quite an impressive turnout, I thought, for a weeknight service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two nuns were handing out service leaflets. As I sat down, a woman two chairs over greeted me warmly.
Was your pew comfortable?
Chairs, and they were quite comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of chatter until the appointed hour of 7.00pm, when quiet seemed magically to descend on the congregation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good evening and welcome,’ followed by instructions on (1) how to light your neighbor's candle, and (2) how the opening hymn would be sung.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the service leaflet.
What musical instruments were played?
A baby grand piano.
Did anything distract you?
Since this is a service perhaps not familiar to your average churchgoer, there were more than a few instructions on how to sing the various antiphons and refrains.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal (none of the participants were vested, for example) but reverent. This beautiful service is offered each year from December 17 to 23, with each service focusing on one of the ‘O’ Antiphons (the seven antiphons to the Magnificat in vespers, each beginning with one of the names of the Messiah: O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, etc.). It was basically a service of vespers, but with an opening hymn, call to worship, and seven brief, chanted prophecies to begin the service. The ‘O’ antiphon for December 19th was sung before (but not after) the Magnificat. The peace was shared at the very end of the service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The preacher was a superb public speaker. In content, it was a bit dense and strongly-packed with ideas.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
‘O Jesse’ speaks of mystery passed from generation to generation, from Jesse, David's father, to (exponentially) his grandson, Joseph. We encounter winters of grief; the Advent season promises us hope of new life. We are impatient, but we are called to wait. She made a contrast between our time of hours, minutes, days, and God's time.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Granted this is not a typical parish service, but the singing of this congregation was simply extraordinary.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing the Dominican sisters do is either hellish, or even purgatorial. But I do confess I couldn't quite understand why we lit candles with the worship space still brightly lit. And the Gregorian Chant ‘O’ Antiphon was followed by a setting of the Magnificat (actually, the text was a fairly free paraphrase of the Magnificat) by one of the St Louis Jesuits. The juxtaposition was a bit jarring.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I noted, the service ended with the peace. I was surprised to find that I knew the couple standing behind me; we had not seen each other in a few years, and we chatted briefly. And a nun seated next to me welcomed me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I definitely hope to make a couple of return visits before Christmas.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How beautiful a singing congregation is, and how I often miss that when attending other Catholic communities.