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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

17 May 2019

Malcolm Guite tries to tempt Girton students out of the library

GIRTON, my college, is beginning to build up to its peculiar exam-term intensity. The buzz of conversation usually to be heard in the college “social hub” café has gradually quietened, as students hunch over laptops rather than chat to friends; now, in the near silence, there is just the faint patter of keys on keyboards and the almost audible hum of unwonted concentration.

Even those who are tempted by more kindly weather to venture out all take a book with them as they wander into the college gardens, or the orchard, which is rich in May with buttercups and daisies sprinkling the grass, and apple, pear, and plum trees blossoming above.

But most students are not to be seen in the café, corridors, or gardens, but are in serried rows in the library, or huddled over desks in their rooms.

It can be a little over-intense for some, and I have taken to advertising late-night compline as a kind of chill-out zone: “Take some space: unwind at the end of a hectic day. Be still for 20 minutes in the candlelight. No demands. No sermon.”

And so I try to tempt them out of the library and the study rooms to unwind a little and bathe their minds in 20 minutes of soothing plainchant. You can see them start to relax as the words of the Office hymn, sung beautifully by the choir, float over them:

Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray,
That with thy wonted favour thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now. . .

And it seems to be helpful for quite a few of them. Of course, I know that liturgy can and should be so much more than a stress-buster, but maybe, for those who do find themselves gradually de-stressed as they bathe in the sound of Te lucis ante terminum, the whole experience is in some way a touching of the hem of Christ’s garment: something has been given, something disclosed. And the person holding a candle at compline may hear a call, and make a journey, as another stressed woman once did, from touching the hem of Christ’s garment to meeting him face to face.

Were we in a monastery, and not a college, compline would be followed by the Greater Silence — and, indeed some of our students do return to the silence of the library, though not perhaps the deeper silence of the soul.

But, for those who wish, compline at Girton is followed not by silence but, in true Cambridge style, by an invitation from the chaplain to port and conversation. Sometimes, the conversation turns on the music that we’ve just sung or heard, sometimes on the events and stresses of the term; but, just occasionally, it opens into deeper things, on to more ultimate questions. Just occasionally, there is an opening of heart and soul, which in some sense the liturgy itself has made possible; and then it is that, just sometimes, someone takes a few more steps on that journey from the hem of his garment to the light of his countenance.

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