Sailing to Byzantium

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“O sages standing in God’s holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing‐masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.”-“Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats

The words of this poem fittingly apply to my visit to the Byzantine/ Eastern designed Westminster Cathedral. The words are extremely appropriate for this cathedral though Yeats, who was not particularly religious, did not write it with this cathedral in mind.This Catholic cathedral is not to be confused with the Anglican Westminster Abbey. They both have Westminster in their names because of their location in the Westminster area. This home for the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster was completed in 1903 and stands out in the London skyline because of its unique architecture.

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Detailed photo of the front

The design of this church is a product of the final phase of the Byzantine Revival in Western Europe (1840-1890’s). Its style is unique for a country dominated by Gothic, Victorian, and Romanesque architecture. The design which is commonly found in Eastern Europe/Middle East was one of the reasons in which I wanted to visit this relatively unknown spot. The cathedral was on the news a few years ago when Pope Benedict visited it in 2010. There is a large tile at the front of the church with a Latin inscription commemorating his visit.

aaYou are transported to a different place when walking in. I felt like I was in a different place due to the interior Byzantine style. The inside resembles churches of Eastern Catholics and  the Greek Orthodox. The Byzantine elements from the multiple dangling candle chandeliers, the numerous mosaics and icons, the massive crucifix icon which hangs near the main altar form this church into a must see.

Many people were filing inside the church. Some locals, some visitors, some Catholic, some just curious. Attire ranged from business suits to blue jeans. Some light candles at side altars while some just merely observed the mosaics and icons among the walls. Towards the back of the cathedral stands a statue of St. Peter the Apostle, the first pope. It is a replica of one found in the Vatican. It stands as an important reminder and symbol of unity with the Pope and Rome.It’s iconic because England was one of the first major Catholic countries to break with Rome during the reformation. This break happened during reign of Henry VIII who split because he was not granted an annulment. So instead he broke with Rome and formed the Church of England and making himself its head. Catholics would face severe persecution in England for years and years to follow. There is a certain special type of devotion that can only be found in English Catholics despite their rocky past. And one element of their devotion can be found in their care and love for traditional sacred music.

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Blessed Mother Chapel-where Evening Prayer was sung

Cardinal Vaughan, mastermind of the cathedral’s construction, wished for the liturgical music to be as grand and beautiful as the church. Today he would not be disappointed for the cathedral’s choir is considered one of the finest in the world. The church keeps traditional music for services. And I was fortunate enough to hear it. aa4

Everyday at 5 pm they have Evening Prayer in the side chapel of the Blessed Mother. They invite everyone to come and partake in it. A majority of the 15 minute prayer service is sung by the choir. Some parts of the service were sung in Gregorian Chant and others in polyphony. Polyphony seems to have a special place in the heart of both Catholic and Protestant Englishmen. They both beautifully perform this music to a tee. Latin, not the vernacular, was used during the service. The voice of the seven choir members echoed throughout then entire church, lifting their voices up like incense. No instruments were used beside the occasional organ. Half the choir sat on the left and half on the right. During certain prayers one side would chant and then the other side would respond. The right side would sing: Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Then the left responded: Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. The saints of early Christianity enshrined in the tiny tiles of the mosaics looked down upon the choir members as their voices blended together to form an excellent version of the Magnificant. The service ended with the chanting of the Salve Regina in which the rest of the congregation partook in. Some of the worshipers around me had their eyes closed and others murmured prayers. You could tell that the congregation was truly lifted in a reverent and devotional spirit. They didn’t need to sing along with the choir or even have it be sung in their local tongue. Music, especially sacred music, transcends the language barrier. It lifts the soul and mind. Sadly many today view these older, traditional hymns and musical styles as something from medieval times.This cathedral knows the importance and benefits of classical sacred music. It’s found a home in the heart of London. For what’s a beautifully designed church if it doesn’t have beautiful and appropriate music to complement it? And fortunately this church has both!

Yeats describes his yearning to live in a world which honors its traditions and classical history in Sailing to Byzantium. Just as this church actively keeps its yearning for liturgical patrimony alive today. He uses Byzantium as a symbol of youth and prosperity because of its richness in history, music, and art. So this church today stands as a place of ever old and ever new through its music and art. The “gold mosaic of a wall” are the cathedral’s walls adorned in the mosaics which depict the early scenes of Christianity in England.The “holy fire” are the candles lit with the hope their prayers and intentions will be answered. The “singing masters of my soul” is the choir which sings songs which ignite inside the soul a desire for heavenly things. The music “gathers me into the artifice of eternity.” The golden bird crafted by “Grecian goldsmiths” is art and history. For this bird sings of “What is past, or is passing, or to come.” For it is in keeping traditions, art, and music alive while simultaneously expanding upon them in which we continue to stay mentally young despite biologically aging.

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Sailing to Byzantium-W. B. Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come

 

 

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