notes from an urban hibernation

Paris : Simon Cutts & Erica Van Horn

Saint Gervais


Early on in our stay, we were reminded by a friend of the beautiful evening singing at Saint Gervais.  It is so easy to forget things when first arriving in a city as there is so much to notice and see and remember.  It is good when things once familiar can become brand new again.

The religious community at Saint Gervais is an unusual one as the nuns and monks go about their days earning their living and renting their apartments just like everyone else in the city.  They are  religious people only part-time.  Their goal, as I understand it, is to be part of the city not to be separate from the city. They are a young community, in existence for maybe 40 years or so, although the church itself dates from Gothic times.

At various times every day, they gather for services and for song. They do morning, lunch time and early evening going-home-from-work singing.  I think it is probably different people who arrive for the different singing as they are all supposed to be employed in various ways and places at least part-time out in the world.  Unless they worked exactly in that neighbourhood, they could not do a job and be present for singing three times a day.

If we are passing, we often stop for evening vespers at 6 o’clock.  Ten or twelve men stand on the left and the same number of women stand on the right with their backs to the congregation.  Both sexes wear plain white robes over their ordinary clothing.  The men have their heads bare, although they could cover their heads as their robes have long pointed hoods.  The women have their heads covered.  Everyone has sneakers and jeans on under their robes, and with the men, it is easy to see that they are wearing hooded sweatshirts or sweaters. There are ordinarily two or three people standing just behind those singing.  Again, men on the left and women on the right.  These people are also in jeans and heavy winter garb, but they do not have white robes.  Maybe they arrived too late to get changed or maybe there are only a certain number of robes available. The singing is beautiful and there are no instruments involved.  There are voices in layers and voices together.  Sometimes the audiences joins in. These are no hymns as I have heard hymns before.  Maybe they are written by this community for this community and when the audience sings they do so from small bound hymn books.  Some songs involve everyone sweeping down to touch the floor.  Sometimes the people in the robes go down on their knees and stay on the floor like that while one person goes to the front, faces outward and sings alone.

It is beautiful.  I wonder if a requirement of this sect is that they are all able to sing.  I never hear anyone singing off key. I am not very bothered to understand the whys of it nor to learn or even to sing the songs.  If we are near Saint Gervais at that time of day, we stop in and listen.  Sometimes we detour especially to hear the singing, even if  only for ten minutes.  EVH


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This entry was posted on February 16, 2014 by .
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