The Sounds of Christ Chapel
Written by Dietrich Balsbaugh
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
The time is 1:30 p.m., and I have been staring at a blank page for about fifteen minutes now. My mind has decided that it needs a rest from this paper. I walk out of the library—where else would I be on Hillsdale’s campus—and head toward Christ Chapel, rising peacefully above the snow-covered quad.
Entering the chapel itself is a worthwhile experience as I am transported from the cold Michigan winter into a warm, marble-coated room with light spilling into the sanctuary. The sound of an organ fills my ears as I walk into the sanctuary itself. Dr. Derek Stauff is practicing for another recital of his. He doesn’t know that I am listening as I slide into a pew and rest for a while. Occasionally, he stops to make a note in his music or to restart a section that he has been working on.
I take some time to soak in the sound and the wonderful space that is Hillsdale’s new chapel. High up on the front wall, above the altar, are relief sculptures of several medieval instruments: a lyre and three trumpets. These images do more than simply fill out the huge space of the sanctuary; they actually reflect a crucial aspect of Hillsdale’s culture as a school both spiritually and socially.
With the dedication of Christ Chapel, Hillsdale unveiled its new Four Pillars Campaign, supporting a national movement toward the four essential aspects of education: learning, character, freedom, and faith. While I sit inside the beautiful new space and reflect on the musical instruments so prominently displayed at the front of the chapel, I am reminded of the importance of music for the life of the school and the cultivation of a strong faith throughout our education.
During the dedication of Christ Chapel, the College’s chamber choir performed a powerful version of Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei.” The space of the chapel is particularly sensitive to the human voice and so presents a challenging tool to Hillsdale’s performers, but as they sang, the Latin words filled the whole space:
Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.
The following evening, Hillsdale’s orchestra had their turn to fill the new chapel with music, playing with and learning the new space we’ve been given by the generosity of so many. As they performed Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” a single violin sang out to the high vaulted ceilings of the chapel.
These few, but beautiful examples during the unveiling of Christ Chapel serve to show how important music is to the life of the school. It not only helps us with our studies, but more importantly, it gives us a way to express our faith, whether that be in the dorm with a guitar and a few hymns, or in the chapel with a majestic organ and a beautiful chamber choir.
Many students participate in classical music while at Hillsdale College, in groups like the chamber choir, the orchestra, or a small string quartet. All of these students are talented and love the music they are able to play with such a rich music program and musical community on campus. The two sculptures featured prominently in the center of Christ Chapel also remind the campus that this music is in service of faith, that crucial pillar of education that not only binds the students together, but also allows for the notes filling the space of the chapel to themselves ascend to new heights.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Sea and the Skylark”
Dietrich Balsbaugh, ’20, studies English and mathematics. He loves dancing of any kind and playing in any sort of water, particularly if it involves skipping rocks. If you see him on campus, he’s usually talking about fractals, writing, or tossing a frisbee. He doesn’t mind, so be sure to stop and ask him what he’s thinking about.
Published in April 2020