Our Vespers Journey
A deep desire to connect, create, celebrate, and offer an additional, yet different way, to be in worship inspired a small group of individuals from our congregation to begin creating vespers services that took root during the Covid pandemic. Our small community and little church are nestled in a valley at the feet of the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains in northeastern upstate New York. Living in a place that invites a deep connection with nature, it seemed quite natural (pardon the pun) to create vespers around the changing seasons. We thus centered four services around the Autumnal Equinox, the Winter Solstice, the Vernal Equinox, and the Summer Solstice. We celebrated the seasonal shifts with an awareness of how being in tune to our natural world in this way can deepen our spiritual connection.
Before the pandemic, our church had held its first vespers service on Earth Day in 2019. It was a beautiful spring evening service, with both live and recorded music along with readings and visuals. We ended with a gathering at an outdoor fire pit into which we put the written intentions and blessings each person was invited to write during the service. These were sent heavenward in the flame and smoke. Needless to say, people loved this service. In April 2020, early in the Covid lockdown, the Earth Day Vespers was presented virtually, as a YouTube Premiere, with all the content pre-recorded, but with the ability to chat live. The desire to create and offer more Vespers services soon came forth.
A small committee took form and began meeting weekly via Zoom. Discussions included the outline of the service with regard to its content and flow, what happens in nature during that season, what that meant to us as individuals and collectively, how that effected the flow of our lives, and how the season and changes could connect us more deeply with God. For the spoken work and for music, ideas were shared for what to include and how to offer it. Gradually, the energy and flow of the service would begin to take shape.
The first seasonal service was our Autumnal Equinox Vespers in Sept. 2020. It had to be virtual, so we again chose the format of creating a video of pre-recorded material and premiering it on YouTube. As a professional musician, I had been creating and producing virtual retreats, videos, and concerts for a number of years. Seeing the shutdown of live gatherings happening in March 2020, I offered my skills to KVCC to help them go virtual with their services. These skills helped make our virtual vespers possible as well.
I will say that I loved our planning meetings! So much energy, so many inspirations, so many resources—sifting through it all was a delight. After deciding on the readings, the music (and getting the permissions needed to use the recorded music we had chosen), our ideas for visuals and the flow, we recorded the content. There were only six of us that gathered in the church sanctuary to record the service. One committee member beautifully decorated the table, which was the center of our visuals, with seasonal elements and candles. We all wore masks until it was our time to light and extinguish the candles, give the welcome, or give the invitation into a short silent meditation. We had storyboarded the service, and recorded all the pieces easily within an hour.
I gathered the material we recorded in the sanctuary and began weaving it together with stock video, recorded music, and additional music that I played and recorded. All of this created a very beautiful, peaceful, yet soulful vespers service that quietly celebrated the season of autumn, of harvest, of preparing for winter, of the dying and falling of leaves, of being guided into a slower time and the following season of rest.
To date we have created and shared six vespers services that can all be seen on our YouTube channel. Being totally unbiased, I can honestly say that they continue to be beautiful and meaningful. They are short (15 – 20 min), which seems perfect for a virtual service, and yet full and rich, with time and space for reflection and absorption. We shared our Autumnal Equinox 2021 and Winter Solstice 2021 services live rather than recording them in advance, so that the beauty and spontaneity of the moment could be felt deeply by those involved and the audience.
In addition to “anchoring” our services in the seasons, it was also important to us to focus on our natural home —the Adirondacks—and the people connected to this place. We used readings from both well-known and little-known authors as we made use of prayer books and other sources. We chose to use some licensed music once, and we used stock video and images at times. However, we also made use of local talent. We invited a local author to create a beautiful Winter Solstice reading. A member of the congregation createed a poem as the core of our Vernal Equinox Vespers. We all contributed photos and video snippets of local forest scenes: rivers thawing, wind in the trees, rainbows over the mountains, and more. I created and played music for both the videos and our live services. We truly utilized resources from our congregation, community, and region. For members who are part of a large seasonal summer community here, our virtual vespers gave them an additional opportunity to worship and stay connected to the congregation and their “other” home.
Our committee was small, but we did not exclude anyone from being a part of the vespers committee. The variety of life experiences, backgrounds, skills, and talents of the committee made our explorations and plannings rich, fascinating, and enlightening. As the producer of the virtual vespers, I can say that I put in many, many hours in the creating of the videos. I learned through experience that I needed to have all the elements recorded several weeks in advance of the actual vespers date.
We were learning as we went along, but each service was a beautiful time and space of deep connection with nature and the Spirit. If your church is interested in learning more about creating virtual Vespers services, I would be honored and delighted to share experiences and knowledge gleaned along the way.
Martha Gallagher is a member of the Keene Valley Congregational Church Vespers Committee. Email her to connect.