The echoes of Chartres allow whispers to sound like angels beating feathery wings.
She is a reed,
Straight and simple,
Growing by a lake in Nazareth;
A reed that is empty
Until the breath of God
Fills it with infinite music;
And the breath of the Spirit of Love
Utters the Word of God
Through an empty reed.
The word of God
Is infinite music in a little reed.
(excerpt from "The Reed," by Caryll Houselander)
"Chartres is not only a place where music is played. Chartres is music. The cathedral echoes the slightest sound. Even whispers sound like angels beating feathery wings through heavenly space." (Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places, by Susan Elizabeth Hale)
Here in Chartres Cathedral we have an echo of what can be heard in the silence of nature – the distant flap of wings of geese, the thumping of prairie grouse, the sway of grass in the wind – all tiny whispers and angel wings announcing divine presence.
The music heard in great gothic cathedrals can also be heard in nature that has remained free of utilitarian use, be it ancient ruins that speak of voices past, or mountains, streams, forests or deserts of no market value.
This music makes me humble; it puts me in my proper place in the cosmos – walking in awe of sacred space. Music delineates sacred space.
Emptiness also delineates sacred space. "The cathedral makes use of resonances: this is certainly why its principle part is emptiness, which constitutes its sound box. All the master craftsmen's art and science went into the tuning of this emptiness, its quality, volume and tension, of the stone that gives dimension" (Hale; Sacred Place, Sacred Sound).
Musical instruments of many kinds: guitars, clarinets and flutes make use of emptiness – an electric space vibrant with possibility. The emptiness of Chartres Cathedral is of this nature. Here it might be possible to hear God's voice.
Early in our marriage, my husband and I travelled to Europe. I wanted him to meet my relatives. We happened to be in Brussels, Belgium, for Easter, and participated in the Easter Vigil ceremony of fire, water, earth and wind that surpassed anything we had previously experienced in the more utilitarian space of the churches of North America.
This European church was centuries old. It was as if the stones themselves were singing, echoing our songs and those of the many pilgrims of ages past.
Candles flickered in the dark hall leading from the outdoor courtyard to the interior of the church. We left the light and heat of the outdoor fire for the darkness of stone, each pilgrim carrying a flame. The air was electric.
Soon, in the interior of the Church, the great candle from which our tiny flames had been lit was immersed in water – symbolizing the sacred unity of fire, water, earth and wind.
Here again, the sacredness of nature and the sacredness of ritual in a space of emptiness became one.
On one of my many trips to Brussels as a child, I was taken by my aunt to a monastery whose name I no longer remember. The experience, difficult to describe, would be similar to the experience of the children walking through the wardrobe of Narnia.
Here was a world of peace and beauty that seemed to live by a rhythm embedded deep in nature. It was a world so different from the hurly-burly of modern life.
I was enraptured.
The human being must enter useless space, space seemingly empty and silent, to hear echoes of the divine. These echoes have a home in the deep interior of our being, our soul, where the remembrance of Paradise Lost is alive and well.