The All-Night Vigil

Be very diligent in coming here early in the morning to bring prayers and praises to the God of all, and to give thanks for the benefits already received... and so pass the time of day as one obliged to return here in the evening to give the master an account of the entire day and to ask pardon for failures... Then we must pass the time of the night in sobriety and thus be ready to present ourselves again at the morning praise.
- St John Chrysostom

Until recently, I used to dread the All-Night Vigil.  This may seem a strange thing for a Christian to say.  In fact, it was last year during Lent that I was serving for my bishop in the cathedral one Saturday, and had been in church all day.  There had been the Divine Liturgy in the morning, a brief repast, then the service of the Great Anointing.  Having started at 9 a.m. and it now being 5 p.m. and mindful of being back the following morning, I made my apologies and made good my escape.  My bishop asked me, 'Are you a Christian?'  I understand his question - indeed how better for a Christian to spend his Saturday night than in prayerful greeting of the Resurrection of the Lord? Yet, I think that people who are very well accustomed to things sometimes just don't realise what it can be like for people who do not know them and find them a trial when presented in a completely inaccessible form.

I often encounter very high expectations of parishes, particularly from my fellow ROCORites in Australia and North America, so I should explain that, in Great Britain, unless you are willing to travel to the south, and then mainly London and some of the more well-established parishes in Oxford and perhaps Cambridge, you will have considerable difficulty finding a parish that actually serves the Vigil.  To serve the Vigil requires resources in terms of clergy time, clergy knowledge, musical knowledge and ability, and singers that many mission parishes simply do not have.

The result of this is that I have had very little exposure to the Vigil.  My parish sometimes serves Vespers on the evening before a Great Feast, and we tried it every Saturday night when we first moved into our church, which saw nobody come most of the time.  Yet Matins is something that does not happen at my parish.  My experience of the Vigil was limited to one occasion in the Pokrov parish in Manchester and a few occasions at our cathedral in London.  In both places it was served entirely in Slavonic.  Once I know a service, I can pray and follow it in most liturgical languages, but when it is entirely unfamiliar, I cannot appreciate it because the opportunity to learn it is not there.  Entirely in Slavonic, the unfamiliar Vigil was nothing more to me than three hours of standing during incomprehensible singing.  So I developed a dislike for it.

To be borne in mind, as well, is that I came to Orthodoxy from a modern Anglican liturgical background which, much like most of Roman Catholicism and other modern western liturgical traditions, has all but lost any sense of the Eucharist as part of an entire liturgical cycle of worship throughout the day.  A few very devout people may pray the divine office in one form or another but they are the exception rather than the norm, and their private practice is seldom reflected in their parishes.  I had been one of those keenies but my parish's liturgical life centred on one thing: the mass in isolation.  There was never a culture of it as the culmination of the liturgical celebration of the day that had begun the night before.  The modern Roman Catholic "vigil mass" is a nonsense that further exacerbates the problem.  If they must do that, can they not at least serve Vespers first?  A handful of places - usually cathedrals - do just that, but hardly anywhere else.  It's hardly as though the services are long enough to warrant any legitimate complaint.

Over time, I began to develop a basic understanding of what the Vigil was.  It seemed that it was a composite of the various services from the daily liturgical cycle from evening until morning, strung together to form a very long night service, often with no bearing on the times of day at which these services were properly appointed.  So we witnessed such occurrences as the deacon exhorting us to "complete our morning prayer to the Lord" at half past eight in the evening, only a few minutes before greeting the dayspring with the words "Glory to Thee Who hast shown us the light" - a light that he knew full well was a good seven hours away yet.  This was then followed by the First Hour (or Prime, in western parlance), which is, of course, that of the little hours to be prayed at sunrise, reflected in the office hymn in Roman practice (Now that the daylight fills the sky we lift our hearts to God on high) and in the prayer of the hour in Byzantine practice (O Christ the True Light, Who enlightenest and makest holy every man who comes into the world). This all served to harden my dislike for the Vigil, convincing me that it was not worth doing and that Vespers alone in the evening was infinitely more sensible.
On the sabbath. keep awake from evening until cockcrow, as it begins to dawn towards the first day of the week, and, assembled in church, keep vigil, praying and entreating God, and reading the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms until cockcrow.
- Apostolic Constitutions, Book 8

Then I went to our parish in Colchester for a visit earlier this year, and attended the Vigil, and absolutely loved it.  It was almost entirely in English, so for the first time I was able to understand many of the hymns and prayers that constituted it, and found them to be truly beautiful. I also realised just how much of the General Moleben (my favourite paraliturgical service, which I learnt independently of the daily cycle) comes from Matins.  It was a real eye-opener and I vowed to be more open minded.

My reading at the time happened to be Daily Liturgical Prayer by Abbot Gregory (Woolfenden), in which I learnt much more than I had previously understood about the practice stemming from very early in the life of the Church of Christians gathering to keep vigil in honour of the Resurrection of the Lord, firstly for Pascha, then for Sundays generally, and how this later spread to other feasts when the various calendars of the Church began to take shape and become established.  I could not believe that, until that point, I had not made the connection between the weekly and festal All-Night Vigil, beloved of Russians, and the Paschal Vigil, which is my favourite service of all time, and was so even in my Anglican days.
Therefore the fast of Friday and Saturday is especially required of you.  And also the vigil and watching of the Saturday, and the reading of the Scriptures, and Psalms, and prayers and intercession for those who have sinned, and the expectation and hope of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, until the third hour in the night after the Sabbath.  And then offer your oblations.  And after this eat and enjoy yourselves, and rejoice and be glad, because the earnest of our resurrection, Christ, is risen.
- The Didascalia

Suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes.  I came to see that, in stringing the night services together, what the Church has done is She has re-established a form of this very early vigil, of this sense of gathering in night-long anticipation of the Resurrection, with penitence and joyful hope.  Yes, in its current form as commonly served in parishes, it is greatly shortened, and it is this that accounts in large part to the odd references to times of day. (Indeed, if everything were served in full, without the severe abbreviations commonly employed and with the ancient melismatic chant traditions instead of modern Russian chant, the All-Night Vigil would be hours longer than it is and would indeed fit its name - as long as we bear this in mind and are aware that what we have is an abbreviation, the timings seem less nonsensical).  Nonetheless, allowing for pastoral concession to the reality of life for most people outside of monasteries today, what we have in the All-Night Vigil as commonly served is a worthy and really very beautiful opportunity to recapture in the weekly worshipping life of God's people something of that dedication of the night to watching and praying.  It contrasts the darkness of anticipation with the light of fulfilment, still sobriety and focus on judgement in the Six Psalms with the joyful praise of the Polyelei, numerous psalms to focus the mind and the beautiful Canon, filled with teaching about the Resurrection, the feast, or the saint.

I have since been back to the Colchester parish and again thoroughly enjoyed the Vigil, and on my recent trip to London I visited the other Russian Orthodox cathedral for the Vigil for the Dormition of the Mother of God, (which is served partly in English).  On both occasions, I developed a much clearer idea of the structure and loveliness of the Vigil to supplement what I have picked up from the liturgical books and other instructional sources.

I do wish that the Vigil were more readily available and that people were able to develop a fuller understanding of the liturgical day.  Perhaps smaller parishes could make a concerted effort to learn it and serve it at least once each month.  Then... who knows?

3 responses:

Katerina B said...

Dear Michael; If only I had the strength and time to do this, unfortunatley for me it will only ever remain a hope. We who are in the world cannot adopt Monastic services, but only when coming apart for prayer or while visiting a Monastery. Trying is the better part... Leave the doing to The Lord, and anyway, He says
"without Me you do nothing"!

Pete said...

I was blessed to have the opportunity to participate in an all-night vigil last year, on the feast of the Protection in a GOAA parish in America. Fr. George Callos organized it especially for many of the OCF students in the area. We began at 9pm and went through Vespers, Midnight Office, a very long Matins with the reading of the lives of the Saints, and then the Liturgy beginning at 5am. It was exausting, but wonderful. We even lit the lights at the "O Gladsome Light" and "Glory be to Thee Who has shown us the Light", and the at the Liturgy, the full antiphons were sung (Beatitudes included!) rather than the festal ones. Quite an experience, and I hope to be a part of such a one again.

Michael Astley said...

Thank you, both, for your thoughts.

Katerina, if we ever manage to start it at St Elisabeth's, I'll let you know. I doubt it will be anything grand. Colchester said they did it for years (before they moved there) with just Fr Andrew's family, getting tings very wrong until they got accustomed to it. You would never guess to experience it now.

Pete, I am *SO* envious! I would love to experience it as you did. For some reason, when the new lighting was installed in our church, all of the switches were placed in the WC. I have no idea why but this needs to be fixed before we can properly experience the dimming and raising of the lights. I wish the typikon were fully available in English so i could get a clearer idea of how things were done anciently, if only for my own understanding.

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