In Both Past and Present

Vincent Chang and Amy BaiSeptember 11, 2023Now and ThenInterfaith Connections

Artwork by Iryna Tsisaruk, age 15

The smell of the sandalwood was overbearing.

In front of and behind me, all dressed in deep blue cassocks and snowy surpluses, the train of choristers ambled down the long aisle. I tried to keep my pace steady and held my gaze high. Soft coils of smoky incense rolled away from a censer in the reverend’s hands, swaying back and forth in a constant motion. As I finally got to the choir stands, there was a thunderous rumble as everyone stood — and the Eucharist began.

This was my first Choral Eucharist as part of my school’s Chapel Choir. When I first walked into the audition room, I had no prior religious training, no knowledge of ecclesiastic songs of praise, and no spirituality. But I did know how to sing, and I jumped at the opportunity of choir from days sitting in the nave and listening to all the beautiful festival hymns. Sometimes, alone, I would sit in the school chapel and marvel at the stained-glass windows at sunrise, the light filtering through the faces of saints and seraphim. I knew that the school had a long Anglican tradition, and found a passionate desire to learn more.

One of the first songs I was introduced to was the Kyrie eléison (“Lord, have mercy”) as part of the Missa Simplex — a liturgical hymn in Ancient Greek, bound in a scorebook with a Latin title. And as I quickly found, Ancient Greek and Latin worship songs were no small part of our repertoire, comprising almost half the songs we were taught. Historically, Ecclesiastical Latin was a staple language for hymns, and its inclusion did not surprise me. But it was the humanity that such an archaic language could convey that sent shivers down my spine whenever we performed for service. There is a strange unity with the past when tradition is enlivened by personal experience. I could plainly see how, by singing the words of scholars and choirboys long since passed, I could find my own place in this long history of tradition. I became more aware that history is not something disconnected from the present (as it can oftentimes feel when one is reading a textbook or watching a documentary), but is found in the lives of countless individuals interwoven in monuments, on paper, and in places of spiritual worship.

Indeed, telling stories of individual experience is a keystone of dynamic tradition. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one such example, recollected in the gospel to illustrate the universal virtue of compassion. The story revolves around a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left waiting for death on the side of the road. Although considered holy men, neither the priest nor the Levite offered to help the dilapidated man. Yet a Samaritan did: he not only stopped to patiently help the poor man, but also generously paid for his care, ensuring that the man could re-enter society again without being shunned. The Samaritan, often portrayed as an enemy of society in the Bible, holds the capstone virtue within this story. He demonstrates how, regardless of one’s identity, social status, or religion, one should treat one’s neighbor with kindness and compassion and establish a healthy relationship with others whenever possible. With this belief in mind, we are taught to always be ready to help and sympathize with others, or as Jesus claims, “to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

The choir performed Eucharists every Friday, and after frequently attending, I gradually found spirituality in my life where there previously was none. The reverend, both a theologian and a teacher of philosophy, stood at the altar countless times to offer the homily after gospel reading. In his sermons I found another part of tradition exemplified — that history is very much a flexible thing, and that stories of the past can guide us toward better relationships in the future. Look above, he once told the congregation, and see the crossbeams of the arched ceiling — that is the nave, the Latin word for a ship and its hull. He went on to explain that although sometimes we might feel lost without community, we are all passengers in the same “ship.” The ship of the church which had carried the first congregation since its founding was the same space we were sitting in now. I then imagined those schoolboys sitting underneath this very nave before voyaging across the seas to fight in the World Wars decades ago. I asked myself if the very stones I leaned against still contained fragments of the school’s past, sermons and hymns that once reverberated through these halls. I turned to my friend beside me and took his hand, and in that brief moment I realized how reflecting upon the past gave me the courage to embrace my present relationships: my friendships, my family, and my school.

The stories in the Bible were written thousands of years ago, yet their messages and doctrines are still highly relevant and valuable for people today. This is amply demonstrated through the Ancient Greek and Latin liturgical hymns that help individuals to feel a sense of connection to the long tradition of spiritual worship, encouraging us to face the present with optimism and determination. From the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the Kyrie, I could plainly see the transformative nature of spiritual tradition. And in careful reflection on these ancient traditions, I am encouraged to grapple with that set of fundamental virtues so integral to the human experience.

Vincent Chang is a Year 10 student from Australia. When he isn’t preparing for a debate or rehearsing at choir, you can find him reading and writing about literature and the arts, history and linguistics, theater and poetry. He is especially interested in narrative: because a story isn’t about “what happens,” but about how what happens transforms the characters. Amy Bai is a Year 10 student living in Melbourne, Australia, with a deep passion for photography. She also loves reading and writing short stories and essays that convey her unique ideas.