It is 0422, pitch black outside and pouring with rain. The candles are being extinguished one by one as the last of the congregation leave the chapel. They look tired but determined. I notice that, for the first time in my adult life when awake at this hour, I am sober.
We have just sung the night Office of Lauds, which began at 0400, in the chapel of Keble College Oxford. Matins, which we sang at 0100 in Christ Church, is already a dimming memory, soon to be further overlaid by Prime, Terce and Mass, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, each sung at its traditional time throughout the 24 hours. Since those times are spaced, punitively, at approximately every three hours for 22 hours without ceasing there is going to be little chance for sleep. I read recently that our current imperative for eight solid hours of sleep is a relatively modern fad — the earlier version was two four-hour slots. In the monkish regime we were adopting two four-hour slots would have been a luxury: those of us who could fall asleep on command might manage an hour between each service. Not being a medieval monk, and never having experimented in this way before, the prospect of a further six services after Lauds on no sleep was daunting.
Clearly the members of the religious communities who premièred this regime got used to it. They would have known how to relax in between times — tend the herb garden, ferment interesting liquids, catch up on some serious reading, cat-nap professionally. And once they were all in choir for the services, they would have needed no special instruction. The reams of Gregorian chant they were to sing would have been learnt over a lifetime, the novices given years to acquire the procedures from the more experienced. We, by contrast, having sung a beautiful service, were thrown out of our chapels into the Oxford night, where we were greeted by skimpily clad young people smoking around the entrance to Lola Lo and eating kebabs bought from a van parked nearby. We walked through them, dressed in black, for once glad to have a serious reason for being up late, keener to sing shedloads of chant and polyphony than to be youthful and smoking.
Like a schoolboy I enjoy collecting things. One of my more hopeless ambitions was to experience all the Pimm’s cups: I am just old enough to recall seeing the last bottles of nos. 2, 4 and 5, which disappeared in 1970. But to take part in all the monastic hours was a dream that had been with me ever since I first sang Compline regularly. To end the day with the liturgy of that service, which includes the Nunc dimittis and the hymn Te lucis ante terminum, was an inspiration that led me to wonder whether it would be equally inspiring to sing Prime at 0600, or Sext at midday, or Vespers at 1830, to mention only a few. They each have their own liturgies, their own succession of psalms, hymns, antiphons and canticles: maybe in time they would each come to mean something individual and special.
So Martin Randall and I put together a package that would invite people to stay up with us, moving from one Oxford chapel to another as night gave way to day — the light actually breaking through during the singing of Prime. Martin Baker of Westminster Cathedral made sure that the chant we actually sang was appropriate, and a number of professional and college choirs provided the part-music. Of course in one night we could do no more than dabble in a great tradition but that takes nothing away from those hundreds, unused to hearing sacred music sung around the clock, who were still there 22 hours later. The feeling at the end was not just that marathon-like we had done well to survive, but that the rhythm of repeated sung services, with scarcely a spoken word involved, had got into our systems.
That rhythm was based on the constant chanting of the psalms. For unmonitored passages of time eight men, singing antiphonally, wheeled in verse after verse, numbering into the hundreds. And we didn’t do all the psalms we could have done, at least not in Matins which traditionally lasted two hours, because it was thought our public would get restive. I wonder. In the end we discovered that what we had all enjoyed most was the understated drama of it all: the candles, the lack of formal presentation, the sense of a routine. Everyone preferred the night hours to the daytime ones — the darkness helped our imaginations to work. And indeed, now that I’ve had some sleep, I remember that 0400 moment with particular pleasure. The beauty of it was enhanced by being wrapped into myself. Liturgies are wonderfully curative things.