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The Ecumenical Evening Prayer is a midweek retreat at Boston University's Marsh Chapel

Posted by Your Town  October 23, 2012 10:55 AM

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By Olga Khvan, Globe Correspondent

The 15 rows of wooden pews inside Boston University’s Marsh Chapel can fill up to capacity during the annual Candlelight Christmas Eve service, Easter Sunday or the occasional wedding or funeral. But on a rainy October evening, the pews were empty, save for three backpacks. Five figures — the backpacks’ owners and two others — convened on the podium in the apse, an area usually reserved for clergy. Tonight, Marsh Chapel belonged only to them.

A single voice broke through the silence.

“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,” chanted Brother Larry Whitney, the University Chaplain for Community Life.

Four other voices answered his call.

“Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art,” sang the four students surrounding him, each singing his or her own melody, all five, along with Brother Larry’s, blending into a perfect harmony.

Sitting in chairs arranged into a pair of semicircles facing each other, Brother Larry and the four students — one young man and three young women — each held a red book in his or her lap. The light that filtered in through the chapel’s stained glass windows illuminated the gold letters on the covers, spelling out “The United Methodist Hymnal,” as well as the silver frame of Brother Larry’s glasses. 

The peace that seemed to radiate from the group is the foundation of the Ecumenical Evening Prayer, which takes place at Marsh Chapel every Wednesday at 5:15 p.m., described by Brother Larry as an “intimate evening of relaxation.”

A silent prayer followed the hymn. Brother Larry and the students closed their eyes, seemingly to tune out the outside world, but the outside world persisted to penetrate the chapel walls with its sounds — the ringing bells of the Green Line trolley, the pitter-patter of the light drizzle falling from the sky. The rain had even managed to make it inside, in the form of droplets that accumulated on the surface of the light green windbreaker one student was wearing and seeped into the dark brown braid of another, who was now twirling it with her hand.

Despite the outside interference, the group’s concentration endured through the prayer, as well as the reading of Bible passages and singing of the hymn “Sanctus” that followed. Although the group was small, their presence filled the entire chapel. 

The only part of the evening during which Brother Larry, a young man who could easily pass as one of the students, distinguished himself from the others was Communion. Donning a green stole, he offered a piece of bread to each of the students, as well as a sip from a chalice of wine. 

Another prayer ensued and then, a final hymn — “Abide With Me,” which has been sung at Evening Prayer since its inception about 15 years ago, Brother Larry said.

The group gently swayed to the rhythm, their voices once again in perfect harmony. But none of it was rehearsed. Although their voices complemented each other in a seemingly planned way and the embraces they shared at the end of the service resembled those of old friends, some of these people were barely acquaintances, Brother Larry later revealed. Their seamless harmonies were created purely by chance.

“Some people know the hymns and some people don’t. It kind of depends on who’s here week to week,” said Brother Larry.

“This week we had a good group. Some weeks not so much,” he added jokingly, leaving one to wonder what a cacophony of voices could do to the relaxation aspect of the service. “But that’s just the way it goes.”

Although it is a weekly tradition at Marsh Chapel, there is little to no consistency in the turnout for the Ecumenical Evening Prayer.

“It’s everything from students who are affiliated with the chapel to the people who just drop by,” said Brother Larry. “It’s a mix and you never know who’s going to come in.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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