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2652: Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur: St Paul's Cathedral, London
St Paul's, London (Dome)
Photo: © Bernard Gagnon and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: St Paul's Cathedral, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of London.
The building: There has been a cathedral on this high point of the City of London for 1,400 years. It was rebuilt for at least the fourth time after being destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London. St Paul's is many things: a huge tourist honey-pot; the masterpiece of architect Christopher Wren; the mother church of London; owner of one of the most famous domes in Christendom; and a building with a very resonant acoustic. It has been covered many times in these pages. Their website gives the full history of this monumental building.
The church: St Paul's, as an internationally recognisable cathedral in a world city, has become a kind of global institution. This wide embrace is part of the pleasure of worshipping there. Parochial it is not.
The neighbourhood: As St Paul's is now mostly surrounded by banks and financial institutions, it is difficult to speak of a local neighbourhood. Those attending services seem to be at least as diverse as the tourists who pay to look at the building at other times – both come from all corners of the world.
The cast: Two unidentified members of the cathedral clergy read the lessons. The only one named was the organist and assistant director of music, Simon Johnson.
The date & time: Sunday, 12 January 2014, 6.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
The Nativity of Our Lord – Nine Meditations for Organ.

How full was the building?
About 350 people, mostly under the dome and at the east end of the nave. St Paul's is a huge building but it felt quite crowded in the seating areas being used.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher handed me a service sheet and was, I suspect, gently filtering out tourists who had no interest in the long service, as the cathedral was closed to general visitors at this time.

Was your pew comfortable?
The modern chairs are very comfortable. However, had I not chosen a spot where I was lucky enough to retain a vacant seat either side of me, I might have found it a tad narrow and short of elbow room.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet and reverential. This was worship, not a concert. There was hardly any chatter in spite of the large numbers present. The lighting in the cathedral had been somewhat dimmed, creating a sense that we were there to meditate, not to admire the baroque grandeur. This collective silence was a wonderful start to an event of the spirit.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O God, who by the leading of a star..." (the Epiphany collect).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the service sheets with notes on the music and all the readings in full.

What musical instruments were played?
The cathedral's Grand Organ. Dating from 1872, the Henry Willis instrument incorporated pipes from the previous Bernard Schmidt organ, but only a handful of these remain today. Reconstructed in 1972-77 by N.P. Mander Ltd while retaining the Willis pipes, it was again rebuilt in 2008 by Mander Organs Ltd.

Did anything distract you?
Just once or twice I was diverted by the organist, who played the instrument from a console under the dome in our plain view. He had a lot of stops and manuals to manage in a work like this, but I dealt with that distraction by closing my eyes.

St Paul's, London (Organ)
Photo: Armchair Travel Co. Ltd

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
La Nativité du Seigneur was written by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a composer whose work is best described as Catholic mystical. Sometimes described as a modern composer, he was never really part of the mainstream – a true original. The nine readings are all biblical and as prescribed by the composer. They suit Advent exactly right, as the work is about the incredibility and improbability of the Incarnation. There are several beautiful slow meditative pieces around themes such as the shepherds and Magi. They slowly, and mostly quietly, build over 80 minutes, interspersed with the readings, to a finale celebrating "God Among Us" which is both triumphant and cataclysmically loud. In our service sheets the organist had explained that "this is music of prayer and meditation." And so, in this liturgical setting, it was.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was none, just the readings.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Somewhere beyond the choir stalls, at the far east end, large quantities of incense were being burnt. As the first meditation drew to a close, a huge soft scented cloud crept toward us and imperceptibly unfolded into the dome and eventually down the nave. Recharged at intervals, the incense was sometimes thick, sometimes ethereal. It softened the dimly lit huge spaces of the cathedral and made them smaller, more manageable, just as the organ music resonating reminded us that we were in fact inside a canyon-sized stone building. Truly heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing. This was a heavenly experience, from the moment I sat down to wait among the gathered throng for the start of things, to the overwhelming climax to the organ music, which left me in slightly punch-drunk ecstasy.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Many sat in silence for several minutes at the end, clearly transported or moved. Everyone then silently and contentedly moved to the doors and out into the dark London night.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none on offer, although there is a restaurant below in the crypt.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I am an occasional Sunday worshipper at ordinary services here, which are quite different from this one.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely – and glad to be alive. My spiritual high of the year.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The miasma of incense and the unbelievably triumphant finale of the music.
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