Prayer (I)

Prayer the church’s banquet, angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth:

Engine against the Almighty, sinners’ tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

~ George Herbert, The Temple (1633)

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The Gate of Heaven

The Anglican church where I worship recently observed the yearly Feast of Dedication for their church building. This is one of the major aspects of high church practice that I still stumble over, coming as I do from a low church background–the belief that the church building is, in some important sense, consecrated and holy, and that it is in fact somehow also “the Church.”

Perhaps there is a way around the stumbling. All Christians in a sense recognize that certain spaces are dedicated to God. Even Quakers treat a certain spatial arrangement (usually a circle) as important to their spiritual meetings. We are also all aware of the analogy between church buildings and the living church. “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood,” St. Peter tells us. So perhaps it is not misguided to think that the outward church building participates in the inner church life.

So the high church liturgy does, in a way, strike the right chord. In fact, I suspect that many of the descriptions which my Anglican fellow-worshipers seemed to ascribe to the church building were also (or “really”) ascribed to the living church itself. One of the hymns we sang is below. It is over a thousand years old, and it is rooted in Scripture. Read it with the living church in mind, rather than bricks and stones, and you will see how holy a thing the Church is.

*      *      *      *      *

Only begotten, Word of God eternal,
Lord of Creation, merciful and mighty,
List to Thy servants, when their tuneful voices
Rise to Thy presence.

Thus in our solemn Feast of Dedication,
Graced with returning rites of due devotion,
Ever Thy children, year by year rejoicing,
Chant in Thy temple.

This is Thy palace; here Thy presence-chamber;
Here may Thy servants, at the mystic banquet,
Daily adoring, take the Body broken,
Drink of Thy chalice.

Here in our sickness healing grace aboundeth,
Light in our blindness, in our toil refreshment;
Sin is forgiven, hope o’er fear prevaileth,
Joy over sorrow.

Hallowed this dwelling where the Lord abideth,
This is none other than the gate of Heaven;
Strangers and pilgrims, making homes eternal,
Pass through its portals.

Lord, we beseech Thee, as we throng Thy temple,
By Thy past blessings, by Thy present bounty,
Smile on Thy children, and with tender mercy,
Hear our petitions.

God in three Persons, Father everlasting,
Son co-eternal, ever blessèd Spirit,
Thine be the glory, praise and adoration,
Now and forever.

~ Anonymous, 9th cent., trans. Maxwell Blacker (1884)
Tune: Rouen a Rouen

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The Reapers

Canadian Thanksgiving is just around the corner!  (This Monday, in fact.)  So even amid such times as these, we shall be jovial.

The following is a riff I did off Dryden’s Your Hay It is Mow’d. Dryden’s song presents a comic moment in Purcell’s opera King Arthur, when the reapers and peasants sing their lungs out in celebration of the coming harvest. That harvest is made possible, partly, by the triumphs of the good King over his political and magical enemies.

My poem, alas, features no King Arthur.  But it does features the reapers and peasants who sing their lungs out over Boaz’s goodness in ancient Judah, as Ruth gathers grain in the background. In the far distant future, the reader knows that from the lineage of Boaz and Ruth, King David is to be born.

So whatever the economic or political circumstances, remember that God provides for His people.  And remember to bless and celebrate the great souls from whom so many of those provisions come.

*       *       *       *       *

Song of the Reapers

The Lord bless Boaz – bless his eyes,
And bless his long beard too,
And bless his grain, and his golden bowl,
And his good soul, through and through!

The Lord gave Boaz gold and grain,
The Lord gave much and more.
But he gave back to the Lord again
And fed the hungry poor.

So here’s to Boaz, rich and old,
And here’s to his long, long life!
And here’s to his goodness and his gold!
(Now if only he had a wife–!)

The Lord give Boaz wife and life,
The Lord give kith and kin!
The Lord give sons, and a golden bed
To keep his lady in!

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More Gerhardt

What can I say? Gerhardt is a poet for trying times.

Commit Whatever Grieves Thee

Commit whatever grieves thee
Into the gracious hands
Of Him who never leaves thee,
Who Heaven and earth commands,
Who points the clouds their courses,
Whom winds and waves obey,
He will direct thy footsteps
And find for thee a way.

Thy truth and grace, O Father,
Most surely see and know
Both what is good and evil
For mortal man below.
According to Thy counsel
Thou wilt Thy work pursue;
And what Thy wisdom chooseth
Thy might will always do.

Thy hand is never shortened,
All things must serve Thy might;
Thine every act is blessing,
Thy path is purest light.
Thy work no man can hinder,
Thy purpose none can stay,
Since Thou to bless Thy children
Wilt always find a way.

Then hope, my feeble spirit,
And be thou undismayed;
God helps in every trial
And makes thee unafraid.
Await His time with patience,
Then shall thine eyes behold
The sun of joy and gladness
His brightest beams unfold.

O faithful child of Heaven,
How blessèd shalt thou be!
With songs of glad thanksgiving
A crown awaiteth thee.
Into thy hand thy maker
Will give the victor’s palm,
And thou to thy deliverer
Shalt sing a joyous psalm.

Give, Lord, this consummation
To all our heart’s distress;
Our hands, our feet, e’er strengthen,
In death our spirits bless.
Thy truth and thy protection
Grant evermore, we pray,
And in celestial glory
Shall end our destined way.

~ Paul Gerhardt (1656), composite translation. These verses only constitute half the hymn. They’re usually sung to the Passion Chorale, which is more familiar to most of us as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

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And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara:*  for the Almighty hath dealt with me bitterly.

*Hebrew:  mara (bitter), naomi (sweet)

Sweet was the light of the sun,
Sweet was the green of the plains,
Sweet were the dews and the rains,
Sweetly the rivers had run.

Lord, at Thy word the great sun
Burnt all the wheat in the plains,
Dried up the dews and the rains,
Struck every stream that had run.

Sorrow I drink and I eat,
Sorrow in all that was dear.
Far is the joy that was near,
Bitter is all that was sweet.



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To the Winds

Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope and be undismayed,
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.

Through waves and clouds and storms,
He gently clears thy way;
Wait thou his time, so shall this night
Soon end in joyous day.

Still heavy is thy heart,
Still sink thy spirits down;
Cast off the weight, let fear depart,
And every care be gone.

What though thou rulest not,
Yet heaven, and earth, and hell,
Proclaim: “God sitteth on the throne,
And ruleth all things well.”

Leave to his sovereign sway
To choose and to command,
So shalt thou wondering own his way,
How wise, how strong his hand!

Far, far above thy thought
His counsel shall appear,
When fully he the work that wrought,
That caused thy needless fear.

Thou seest our weakness, Lord,
Our hearts are known to thee;
O lift thou up the sinking heart,
Confirm the feeble knee.

Let us in life, in death,
Thy stedfast truth declare,
And publish with our latest breath
Thy love and guardian care.

~ Paul Gerhardt (1656), trans. John Wesley

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More Wesley

It turns out that John Wesley did much more translating of German poetry than I thought. See this hymn, originally by Tersteegen, or this one by Gerhardt. Here is a famous Reformation hymn by Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf—one which I remember singing as a child, though I didn’t know Wesley was the translator. And then of course there is the poem by Johannes Scheffler that I posted earlier this week.

Gerhardt and Tersteegen and Scheffler: all old favorites of mine. Wesley must have been fond of the German poets. It’s a peculiar thing when you discover that you have the same odd tastes as someone who lived 300 years ago. C. S. Lewis says somewhere that friendships arise when two people suddenly realize that they both love the same things. Can that happen when people live three centuries apart?

The only thing lacking in Wesley’s translations is Rainer Maria Rilke. That’s hardly Wesley’s fault, as Rilke wasn’t born until a century after Wesley’s death. And Rilke wasn’t exactly a Christian poet.  But for lyrical German verse, Rilke can’t be beat.  Perhaps one of the things that will occupy both Wesley and Scheffler in the new life will be the reading of Rilke’s poetry and the translation into heavenly tongues of the best of it.

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