Vespers: Sometimes, You Don’t Have to Understand to Know

By Michael Erving

The magnitude of things often escapes me on my travels. I carry a travel journal with me to try and capture everything I can when I’m abroad, but oftentimes, I miss things of significance, dismissing them as trivial or inconsequential. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love traveling–because as much as it’s the big things that you experience that stick with you, it’s the little things that seem to change you; I have four words in my travel journal carry more weight than I ever imagined: “we went to vespers.”

Vespers: Santa Maria della Scala - Rome

Santa Maria della Scala – Rome

I’d never been to vespers, and haven’t since. I’ve spent my church days in shiny, new Reformed buildings with their repurposed walls dripping with mere drops of history in the bucket of church history. I grew up sitting in cushioned chairs, not generation-worn pews; staring at stage lit backdrops, not stained glass and frescoes; understanding every word from the pastors’ lips, usually not grasping what was behind the words.

We shuffled in awkwardly, the sound of our feet clicking and flicking off of the vaulted ceiling, and the not-quite-muffled sound of our pants swishing self-consciously as we slunk into the ancient, creaking pews. Around us, a scattered few: a smattering of old, young, content, and shifty, placed at random throughout the rows. We sat, waiting for the brothers to come.

Santa Maria in Vallicella / Chiesa Nuova - Rome

Santa Maria in Vallicella / Chiesa Nuova – Rome

They arrived within a few minutes, singing ancient, burbling melodies. One or two of the brothers paced the aisles, swinging billowing incense from a chain, singing with their brothers. It’s a strange sensation feeling so at peace while completely enveloped in something unfamiliar, something dusty and time-worn. Latin rang in our ears, the ghostly incense filled our lungs, the pews pushing stubbornly into our backs, my eyes shut closed to the frescoes–the hand painted depictions of Eternity that surrounded us. All was unfamiliar; I was lost and completely at ease.

Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio di Loyola - Rome

Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola – Rome

The Sisters entered, bringing with them their piece to the music: haunting, shimmering, chasing the brothers’ tune, and often overshadowing it. Their harmony brought more gravity, sinking me deeper into my pew, pushing me under the surface: I didn’t understand their songs–their words, their parts, or their harmonies–but I knew them. That was all I needed to realize: sometimes, you don’t have to understand to know.

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