Suddenly the organ burst into a triumphal march; the Abbot entered the nave, preceded by two masters of ceremonies; between them walked the crosier-bearer, wearing an alb and on his shoulders the vimpa, a scarf of white satin lined with cherry-coloured silk, in the ends of which he clasped the stem of the crosier. The Abbot, whose long black train was borne by a novice, gave his blessing right and left as he passed to the kneeling throng of worshippers who crossed themselves.
He knelt at the prie-dieu, and his whole court of attendants, cope-men, and religious vested in albs, likewise knelt, so that all one saw was a golden note of interrogation overlooking a field of dead moons, the crosier dominating the big white tonsures.
At a signal from Father d’Auberoche all arose and the Abbot went to his throne, on each side of which his assistant deacons took their place; whereupon the prie-dieu was removed.
The choir was full, two upper rows of stalls being occupied by the professed and the novices in their black cowls, while in the lower ones were the lay-brothers in brown cowls. Below them again, on benches, were the choir boys in bright red cassocks; and in the empty space between, limited though this was, the servers deployed with absolute precision, crosier-bearer and candle-bearer and mitre-bearer all performing their duties without the slightest hitch.
The Abbot began the Office.
As Father Felletin had foreseen, Durtal was at once fascinated by the Invitatorium. It was the usual Psalm, Venite, exultemus, summoning Christians to adore their Lord, with its refrain, sometimes short “Christ is born to us”; sometimes long, “Christ is born to us; O, come, let us worship.”
This splendid psalm, with its tender half mournful melody, tells of Creation, and of God’s rights; the wondrous works of God are set forth and His lament at the ingratitude of His people.
The. voice of the cantors recounted measuredly His marvels: “The sea is His and He made it, and His hands prepared the dry land. O, come let us worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord, our Maker, for He is the Lord our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” Then the choir took up the refrain, “Christ is born to us, O come, let us worship.”
Then, after the glorious hymn of St. Ambrose, Christe Redemptor, the Office proper began. It was divided into three “vigils” or nocturns, composed of psalms, lessons and responses. These nocturns had a meaning. Durandus, the thirteenth-century Bishop of Mende, explained them clearly in his Rationale. The first nocturn deals allegorically with the period before the Law given to Moses; and, in the Middle Ages, whilst it was sung, the altar was hidden by a black veil to symbolize the gloom of the Mosaic Law and the sentence pronounced on man in Eden. The second nocturn shows the time that elapsed since the written Law, and then the altar was hidden with a white veil because the prophecies of the Old Testament already shed a sort of furtive light on fallen mankind. The third nocturn sets forth the love of the Church and the mercies of the Comforter, and the altar was draped with purple, an emblem of the Holy Ghost and of the Blood of our Saviour.
The service proceeded with alternate psalmody and chanting. The whole was splendid, but the finest was found in the Lessons and their Responses. A monk, led by a master of ceremonies, came down from his stall and took his place at the lectern in the middle of the choir; there he chanted or recited, for it was not exactly the one nor yet the other. The tone was even, the melody slow and somewhat plaintive, sounding like a lullaby of the soul, and breaking off abruptly on a mournful note, like a tear that falls.
“Ah! Dom Felletin was right,” thought Durtal. “It is a grand service for a grand night. While the old world is sinning or sleeping, the Messiah is born and the shepherds, dazzled, come to adore Him; and at the same moment those men of mystery, those dream-figures foretold long before St. Matthew by Isaiah and the Psalmist, set out from one knows not where and race on dromedaries through the night, led by a star, to adore in their turn a Child, and then to disappear along a road other than that by which they came.
“To what a mass of controversy has this star given rise! But to all the blundering hypotheses of our astronomers I prefer the view the Middle Ages borrowed from the Apocryphal Book of Seth and which we find in St. Epiphanius and in the Imperfect Commentary on St. Matthew. They thought that the Star of Bethlehem that appeared to the Magi showed the Child seated beneath a Cross in a glowing sphere and most of the early masters depict the star thus, for instance, Roger Van der Weyden, in one of the panels of his marvellous Nativity in the museum of Berlin.”
Durtal’s reflections were cut short by monks moving to and fro in the choir. The Abbot was being vested. A master of ceremonies, standing in front of the altar, removed one by one the vestments placed on it, the alb, the girdle, the stole and the cope, and handed them to novices who one after another presented them to the deacons at the throne, first bending the knee to the Abbot.
When his long black cappa had been removed and he was robed in his white alb, Dom Anthime Bernard looked taller still, as from the steps of his throne he overlooked the entire church and, after he had put on the girdle, as he moved his arm to adjust the pectoral cross, the ring on his finger sparkled in the light of the tapers. At a sign from Père d’Auberoche the mitre-bearer, covered with a shawl similar to that of the crosier-bearer, approached the throne, and, having donned the stole and cope, the abbot intoned the Te Deum.
Here Durtal was obliged to moderate his enthusiasm, for he remembered other Te Deums heard in the great Paris churches; he said to himself that, for instance at St. Sulpice, the hymn sounds far grander, sung to the blare of a great organ by a full choir reinforced by the whole body of the seminarists. The “Royal” Magnificat, also, had a majesty and a fullness lacking to the jejune and feeble settings used by Solesmes. But, indeed, to give such splendid pieces their full significance, it would need hundreds of voices, and in what monastery could one hope to find so large a choir?
His disenchantment, however, did not last long, for the Abbot, surrounded by cope-men, thurifer and candlebearer, began to chant the genealogy of Christ from a Gospel-book held by a monk in his two hands and resting against his forehead; the strange, sad monotonous cadences seemed to evoke a procession of the Patriarchs who each at the mention of his name flashed past, and then sank back into the gloom.
When the reading was at an end and whilst the Abbot was changing his cope for a chasuble the choir sang the short hymn, Greek in origin, the Te decet laus and the Office closed with the prayer of the day and the Benedicamus Domino.
The four principal cantors who had gone to robe themselves in the sacristy now returned and Dom Ramondoux, the Precentor, had stuck in a ring near his seat surmounted by a statuette of St. Bénigna the copper rod which was his sign of office.
He and the others were now seated on low-backed benches, just inside the communion rails at the entrance to the choir and opposite the altar. Thus their coped backs were turned to the public, backs splendid in shimmering velvet, interwoven with silver and with cherry-silk, on which the Gothic monograms of Christ and our Lady were embroidered in gold.
Leaving their benches and standing in the middle of the choir, they chanted the Introit, whilst the Abbot, attended by his court, began Mass,
When they had reached the Kyrie Eleison, the congregation joined in, the girls and boys of the village being led by the parish-priest. The same happened at the Creed.
Durtal, for a moment, seemed to get a clear glimpse into the past, and to see and hear villagers singing the melodies of St. Gregory in the Middle Ages. Obviously such chanting was not as perfect as that at Solesmes, but it was something different. It lacked art, but it had vim; it was an outburst, an effusion of the soul of the people, the fervour of a mob that for a moment is touched. It was as if, for a few minutes, an early Church had come to life, in which the people, throbbing in unison with its priests, were truly taking a part in the ceremonies and praying with them and using the same tongue and the same musical dialect, and this, for this to happen in our own times seemed so utterly unlooked-for that Durtal thought that he must once more be dreaming.
Thus the Mass went on while the organ flooded the church with sound. The Abbot stood before the altar, or took his seat on the throne; he was shod and gloved in white; he was now bare-headed, then wearing the gold mitre and then the precious mitre all edged with gems; his hands were now clasped, now held the crosier, then restored it to the kneeling novice who kissed his ring. The smoke of incense hid the altar-lights and the two lamps on either side of the relics each looked like a topaz glowing in the blue mist. Through this perfumed haze which was rising to the roof could be seen a motionless figure in gold at the foot of the altar steps; of the sub-deacon holding up before his eyes the paten veiled, waiting for the end of the Paternoster; he was the symbol of the Old Testament, of the Synagogue which had not eyes to see the accomplishment of the mysteries. And the Mass went on, all the serving boys kneeling in a row with lighted torches in their hands during the Elevation which the sound of bells proclaimed to the night outside; finally, after the Agnus Dei, the Abbot gave the Pax to the deacon, who went down the steps and gave it in turn to the sub-deacon, who, preceded by the master of ceremonies, went to the stalls and there embraced the senior monk who transmitted it to the others, each leaning over each other’s shoulders and then bowing to each other with hands joined.
And now Durtal watched no longer; the moment of Communion was at hand and in the apse the little bell was ringing loudly; there was a stir among the novices and the lay-brothers who began to range themselves in double file; the deacon chanted the Confiteor in a tone hardly expressive of contrition, and, while two monks held an outstretched long white cloth, all knelt down to communicate. Then the Abbot came down the altar steps with all his following and gave the Blessed Sacrament to the faithful, while behind him stood the serving boys, each holding a torch.
A noise of rough boots and clogs filled the church, making the Abbot’s voice almost inaudible; one could catch the words “Corpus Domini,” but the rest was lost in the clatter of feet; coming back to his place, Durtal forgot the Liturgy and the Mass, caring only to implore God to forgive him his sins and deliver him from evil. He came back to the world when he heard the Abbot chanting the Pontifical blessing.
“Sit nomen Domini benedictum.”
And all the monks responded:
“Ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum.”
“Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.”
“Qui fecit cælum et terram.”
And the Abbot, staff in hand, gave the blessing:
“Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus.”
And at each invocation of the three Persons he made the sign of the cross over the people, to his left, towards the centre, and to his right.
— from Chapter VII of The Oblate (1903) by J.-K. Huysmans