Poetry, Prayer, and Praise

Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.

Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.

It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.

When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.

What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.

It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess

Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.

Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.

You may say:

Hey. Prose hymns aren’t poetry.

They aren’t verse.

But can prose not also be poetic?

Be that as it may, Christians began celebrating the blessed Light of salvation in hymns and poems fairly early on (see, ‘O Gladsome Light‘ — second century, maybe?). Latin was a bit slower than Greek in this as in other respects, but in the fourth century, Latin Christian poetry takes off with such people as Ambrose of Milan and Prudentius with his Psychomachia, and there has been no looking back since. (If you want to read some Christian Latin poetry, I recommend One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas.)

Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.

And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.

And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.

In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–

God breaks through.

And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.

Maybe you could be one of them, too.

Glorious Now, Behold Him Arise: King and God and Sacrifice

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi from Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi (1310s)

The most popular English-language Epiphany hymn is, of course, ‘We Three Kings.’ This was certainly one of my absolute favourites as a kid. In this hymn, John Henry Hopkins articulates the traditional typological/allegorical significance of the Magi’s gifts:

2 Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

3 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.

4 Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The final verse makes it abundantly clear:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.

Now, it is highly unlikely that the magi actually thought that Jesus was God and a sacrifice. The fact that they worship Him in Matthew 2 is attributable to the fact that that’s how you treat a Persian King. Frankincense certainly has uses beyond the worship of deities, and myrrh beyond the preparation of corpses for the stone-cold tomb. Both are also of high importance in desert cultures.

Nevertheless, when you look back at Matthew 2 and the magi, and their encounter with the Christ Child, when you remember that Epiphany isn’t just about some nice, little story that inspires some great art and singable songs, but about the revelation of the Messiah to the nations, about the fulfilment of Isaiah 60 where the nations come to Israel who is their light. (Isaiah 60 is an intertext of Matthew 2.)

So, in fact, history suddenly becomes allegory, for Jesus the Christ, enthroned on His Mother’s lap is King and God and sacrifice.

Adoration of the Magi from Old St Peter’s, now in Santa Maria in Cosmedin (pic from Wikipedia)

Hymnody helps make the season(s)

AnastasiI’ve joked this week with a couple of friends that if their church didn’t sing either ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today‘ or ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today‘, they didn’t ‘have Easter’. This, of course, isn’t really fair, but it’s interesting how deeply hymns can affect one’s experience of the feasts of the church year. For me, a great lover of Easter, no amount of confetti (actually used at an Edinburgh church), no size of chocolate egg (giant egg actually present at another Edinbugh church) can really make the festival feel complete without the ‘right’ hymns (plus the ancient, universal Easter acclamation — Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!). A sermon on the Resurrection is always good (that [Anglican] church in Toronto that once preached on the Good Samaritan one Easter Sunday missed the ball there), as are Easter lilies.

But for me, Easter without the ‘right’ hymns is like … Christmas with no presents. Or something.

Easter is not alone.

Good Friday requires ‘O Sacred Head‘, does it not?

Palm Sunday would seem off without ‘All Glory, Laud, and Honour‘ and ‘Ride On, Ride on in Majesty‘.

And what of Ash Wednesday without ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights‘?

Christmas carols and Advent hymns obviously make the season, so I’ll skip them.

In Toronto, we went to Little Trinity Anglican Church, and what makes Trinity Sunday there is the singing of ‘St Patrick’s Breasplate‘.

Long after the chocolate has been eaten, the lilies have withered, the sermon has been mostly forgotten, the hymns — the beautiful, triumphant Easter hymns — stay with us, dancing through our minds and hearts, drawing us to our risen Saviour.

They are a blessing and to be highly esteemed.

Hm … what WOULD my preferred worship service look like?

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church WorshipThe question arose in the comments to one of my posts (The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical) some weeks ago as to what my ‘perfect’ worship service would look like. This is an interesting question, and probably unanswerable. Half in jest, I am tempted to say, ‘1662’, but, then, maybe not…

Nonetheless, there are some elements that I would like to see for a regular Sunday morning service:

  • Regular communion. Preferably weekly or biweekly. I grew up with weekly, but in Toronto biweekly worked well with BCP 1959/62 Morning Prayer the other weeks.
  • Lots of Bible. Whether Communion or not, read out at least two, if not three or four, passages of Scripture. They don’t need to all be the text preached on. The Bible just needs to be proclaimed to us as a people and assimilated into our hearts. The regular reading aloud of the Word before the congregation helps that. It is an ancient component of Christian worship.
  • Psalms. Sung, preferably. A cappella if possible. I’m not joking. The Psalms were Israel’s hymn book/prayer book. These are the prayers and hymns of Jesus’ worship life. Make them those of your church as well.
  • Liturgy. For some, the perfect church service is obviously 1662 or the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom or the Roman Mass. For many, and for the sort of Protestants I have in mind, pure, undiluted liturgy may be too much. Worship is about giving glory to God. If you are distracted by the printed words or the incense or the procession with candles, you aren’t glorifying God. There is a place for out-and-out high liturgy, but I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, nor preferable.

    What I’m thinking of is something basic and structured, especially for the Communion. I think a regular service of Holy Communion is not only to include the words of institution from the Last Supper but is best done with a liturgy that ties in traditional liturgy running from ‘Lift up your hearts’ to the receiving of the elements — words that have been in use since the late 100s in Hippolytus.

    Responsive/antiphonal readings/prayers are also part of my preferred service — litanies, for example. And a set-piece confession can provide us with theologically precise words to express our sorrow and the lowly state of the human soul before Almighty God.

  • Confession — a time of silence to offer a private confession, whether accompanied by liturgy or not, is worthwhile. Obviously, we are to confess every time we sin in real life, but this sort of communal activity in public helps teach us and remind us what to do in private. It is a healthy part of public worship not only to revel in God’s glory together but to look into the depths of our murky hearts as well.
  • Old and new. The Christian faith has produced hundreds — nay, thousands — of hymns over the centuries. Churches ignore the treasure house of hymns to their peril. If your church is going to be using contemporary worship, I recommend adding at least two hymns into the mix each Sunday. Alongside the latest hits from Stuart Townend or Matt Redman, sing also the old hits from Prudentius, Charles Wesley, or J M Neale.

    As regards the new, while I prefer classic hymns, I do not disparage all new music. I simply urge discretion — why sing something simply because it’s new and popular? Is it poetically, theologically, and/or musically worth singing? While people approach the Lord’s Table for Communion is a good time to sing new songs, I have found.

  • Sermon. Sermons are good. In a service such as this, where we are worshipping God, praying, confessing sin, receiving Eucharist, reading Scripture, and so forth, I don’t think the sermon needs to be big and long and even the central or most important aspect. I think people should be encouraged to get into the meat of Scripture in smaller Bible studies during the week, not in long, lecture-style sermons on Sunday. Preach from one or more of the given texts, clock in at 20-25 min (which is long for Anglicans!).
  • Other trappings? I like candles. I admit it up front. Sometimes I like incense, too. The presence of beauty in the worship space is important to me. If I were to blend traditional and low-evangelical worship styles, I’d go for candles at least. Robes preferably, maybe even copes and chasubles on occasion. The latter two, I think, should only appear on super-special feasts, though. 🙂

That is to say: My ideal worship service is liturgically structured with words and truths grounded in Scripture and tradition but with a flexibility of certain pieces of content — new songs and hymns are to be used with wisdom, similarly new litanies for the prayers of the people.

One final element is the occasional liturgical sermon. Every once in a while, have a sermon that helps explain why and what is going on in the worship service. Or preach a sermon that investigates the biblical basis for some of the popular words and phrases in the prayers and songs. Or investigate the theological foundations for the sacraments. Run a series on the Creed(s). This sort of preaching will help keep the liturgy from becoming a dead beast performed by rote.

The question should always be about the end goal of worship, of the showing to God His worth, the praising of Him, the offering Him thanksgiving, and the beseeching Him of our prayers. As the BCP puts it:

…we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

Do our worship and liturgical practices encourage this? That is the great question.

Anglicans in Paris? Fine by me!

This morning I worshipped at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, part of the Church of England’s Diocese of Europe. This morning was the most at ease I have felt at an Anglican church for a long time, and I am grateful for it.

First, unlike a lot of other low Anglican churches I’ve met outside of Canada, there was liturgy. We prayed a prayer of confession together from the words of the PowerPoint. We followed the words of the Eucharistic prayer similarly.

Second, the prayer of confession! I’ve been to a few Anglican churches lately, not just Scottish Episcopal but also the lovely parish of All Saints in Rome, where there is no real prayer of confession. At All Saints they had a section marked out as a prayer of confession but with no actual prayer — the minister would pray a blessing over water and then we’d all pray the Kyrie, leaving me scratching my head. Other places skip it entirely.

Third, since it was a baptism Sunday, the confession of faith was orthodox! No ‘alternative confessions of faith’ as I met at one church in Edinburgh, and no simple skipping of it as I’ve met at a number of others.

Fourth, we sang some classic ‘contemporary’ songs as well as two hymns. This use of old and new, this seeking for some sort of balance tends to make me comfortable these days. As did today’s song choices; the hymns: ‘Immortal, Invisible’ and ‘Amazing Grace’; the songs, ‘The Servant King’ by Graham Kendrick as the offertory and three others I actually knew during Communion.

Fifth, the Communion liturgy was modern but carried within it the content of tradition.

Sixth, the preaching was orthodox. The Gospel was Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And it was impressed upon us that Zacchaeus’ good works were the outcome and evidence of his salvation that came from Jesus, from grace alone. Also, we were reminded that love and invitation are where our interactions with ‘sinners’ should begin, not condemnation and judgement.

Seventh, the prayer team. Whatever your liturgical bent, I think it is a healthy thing for a church to have available people with whom to pray. For most Anglicans, these people are available while everyone goes up for Communion. It is a salutary practice, for the Holy Spirit is real and here and with us.

Finally, the church’s commitment to mission and ministry within the congregation, to the city, and to the world. Sometimes I feel like Anglicans exist just for themselves, or that everything but liturgy is social, or something. This is a church involved with the homeless of Paris as well as with the spiritual lives of its congregants.

All in all, despite the fact that the interior of the building hadn’t got the memo that Paris cooled down over last night’s thunder storm, I was at ease. I felt like I was in the midst of fellow believers who worshipped in ways that I do and appreciate things that I do. This is not always a common experience.

Reflecting back on this week of poems of the Passion

Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)

This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’

But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.

In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.

The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.

We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.

And so, in the light of this knowledge, St Ambrose, in the fourth century, composed a hymn to be sung at the Third Hour of prayer — and not just on Good Friday:

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.

Wednesday brought us the Ruthwell Cross with its inscription, yet another hymn bringing the royal aspect of Christ’s death to the fore of our thoughts.

And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:

Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III

Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.

And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.

And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.

Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.

If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.

Gender-Inclusive Language

A post I recently wrote and then deleted (‘My own powerlessness’) touched on a few subjects, and although it was unwise and indelicate of me to discuss the initial issue in it, not least because I had misunderstood what was going on, some of the other issues that surround that post are worth talking about again, and at least letting my own views be heard properly.

First, I am in many ways a deep traditionalist. My love for the Book of Common Prayer, for example, is fuelled not only because I think its orders for worship helpful and its theology true but because they are beautiful and stand firmly within a wider western — and, to a degree, eastern — liturgical tradition. When I pray or sing those words, I am joining a centuries-old body of people who have also done so, and an even older and broader body who have done so in various other languages.

This love of the old (I am a Classicist, after all) and of the old-fashioned or even archaic, if you will, tends sometimes towards phraseologies that, because of how language is used today, can have the appearance of exclusion and, indeed, can make women feel excluded. And making half (or more) of the human race feel excluded is, in fact, a problem.

As a writer, I try to avoid ‘sexist’ language. This is not always successful, because English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun. As a grammar fiend, I would shudder to use ‘they’ in the singular. This is what Anne Fadiman discusses in her brilliant essay, ‘The His’er Problem’ in the fantastic book Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Some of you may have noticed me use the verbal mash-up ‘his’er’.

As well, sometimes I get caught up in words and phraseologies that strike me and move me. Since I read a lot of old books, the older, etymological use of man(n) (and thus mankind) to mean ‘any human being’ vs. its contemporary use ‘a male human being’ (formerly wer in Old English) sometimes slips into my writing — specifically my blogging, and at times my speech, but not what little academic writing I do.

I am also a bit of a translator and a reader of texts that are often translated. And here I think trying to find gender-inclusive terms for foreign gender-inclusive terms is a worthy endeavour, not only because of the normal issues attendant to gender-inclusive language but also because it can be a more precise way of speaking. Does the writer say ‘men’ or ‘human beings/people’uiri or homines? Sometimes there is certainly a chance that an ancient writer was only thinking of male men when writing homo or anthropos, but my job as translator is to present an English rendering of the words at hand, not necessarily their intention. Hopefully the reader can decide for his’erself.

One of my translation problems with the NRSV is not that it translates anthropoi as ‘people’ or adelphoi as ‘brothers and sisters’ but that when Peter is explicitly masculine in Acts with Andres Israelitai, the translators render it as ‘You that are Israelites.’

However, I am not fond of changing the words of hymns for any reason (see here and here). And this is the contingent point of my last post, not the question of gender-inclusive language. A hymn is a poem is a piece of art from its own time and place, often a time and place more sexist than ours, but also often one where the older meanings of ‘man(n)’ are more clear. I am wary of changing things because they do not match zeitgeist — the desire to change for this reason is often followed by other changes, some aesthetic (getting rid of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’), some theological (getting rid of lines such as ‘Thou our Father, Christ our brother’). I also think a jarring encounter with the past can be helpful in curing us of modern chauvinism. Finally, many times the metre and rhyme-scheme depend on a less-inclusive turn of phrase. The attempts to change are often awkward.

I also think we should not condemn older generations for their use of ostensibly sexist language. Oftentimes, they were being sexist. But maybe they weren’t. We cannot always tell. So it is not worth getting worked up over, especially if in most other ways, what a particular author writes is commendable rather than condemnable.

Contemporary writers, even if they don’t fully grasp the significance of the issues, should use gender-inclusive language for generic human beings. This is just good sense. It removes a barrier from the reader’s mind, and helps women and men who are more sensitive than I am to be able to engage more fully with the text in front of them.

My final note on where I stand with gender-inclusivity is that I am still a traditionalist when it comes to the Godhead and specific human beings. Using the word manhood in reference to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is no problem — he was a man. Thus, in telling a story, say ‘salesman’ or ‘saleswoman’, not ‘salesperson’ (the term used if you are advertising a job vacancy). Using terms endorsed by Scripture of the Trinity is no problem — Father and Son. I am not in favour of removing these terms for vaguer terms that refer to the economy of the Trinity, because that could slide into modalism and ignores the relationships of the Persons involved.

And I am not in favour of using mother-language of the Father, although mothering images as used by Scripture and writers such as John of the Cross (who refers to us suckling at God’s breast) I get. They are probably best used when they can be explained, because if simply slipped into a hymn or the liturgy, they will cause more frustration and anxiety, whereas at least in a book or sermon there is a chance to helpfully challenge our paradigms of how we envision the Divine Person(s).

Easter, Day Five: ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,’ by Charles Wesley

Our trek through the Easter Octave brings us to one of my favourite Easter Hymns, by Charles Wesley (saint of the week here), ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today’:

‘Christ the Lord is risen today,’
Sons of men and angels say;
Raise your joys and triumphs high;
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply.

Love’s redeeming work is done,
Fought the fight, the battle won;
Lo! our Sun’s eclipse is o’er;
Lo! he sets in blood no more.

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal;
Christ has burst the gates of hell:
Death in vain forbids his rise;
Christ hath opened Paradise.

Lives again our glorious King;
Where, O Death, is now thy sting?
Once he died, our souls to save;
Where thy victory, O grave?

Soar we now where Christ has led,
Following our exalted Head;
Made like him, like him we rise;
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Hail, the Lord of earth and heaven!
Praise to thee by both be given;
Thee we greet triumphant now;
Hail, the Resurrection thou!

And since hymns are for singing:

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.

Saint of the Week: Charles Wesley

This week’s saint is Charles Wesley (1707-1788), given that the day for his and John’s commemoration was two days ago (John Wesley was saint of the week here and here). Charles is the less famous of the two famous Wesley brothers, and I think this is a bit of a shame.

Charles Wesley was as much a man of action as his elder brother. He, too, was a founding member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford, meeting with friends to read the Greek New Testament and to transform their lives. He, too, lived a disciplined life — a discipline with method, thus Methodist and Methodism.* He, too, was an ordained priest of the Church of England. He, too, was involved in the evangelical revival and preaching the Gospel amongst the poor of England. He, too, went to preach the Gospel in Georgia. He, too, sought Christian Perfection.

Charles, however, was not merely a man of action like unto his brother. He was also a man of action in opposition to his brother. An example of such opposition was when he burst in on John’s first wedding and dragged his brother out, explaining to the elder Wesley that he wasn’t exactly suited to marriage. My understanding is that John’s second attempt at getting married succeeded but without happy product — proving Charles right.

Unlike John, Charles was happily married, to Sarah Gwynne. Sarah Gwynne, like their mother Susannah Wesley, probably counts as one of the many intrepid women of the Faith, for she accompanied her husband on his evangelistic journeys.

Charles eventually ended his itinerant lifestyle, which probably helped keep his marriage a happy one. He looked after the Methodists of Bristol from 1756-1771, then relocated to London, where his ministry included Newgate prison.

Charles also differs from John in virulent opposition to any schismatic activity on the part of the Methodists. He wished to keep Methodism a movement within the Church of England, and thus he wrote a hymn against the event of John ordaining Coke rather than celebrating it.

Hymn-writing, of course, is what we best remember Charles Wesley for. He wrote over 5500 hymns in his lifetime, so, although his prose works are few (are there any?) compared to John’s, his own literary output is not inconsiderable. Amongst this enormous corpus are such favourites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Despite confusing moments such as when he writes in “And Can It Be?” that Christ “emptied Himself of all but love,” these hymns demonstrate Wesley as one of the great devotional minds of the English language. Indeed, the nearness of the Divine in these hymns their clarity of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian life make them among the works of wondrous, clear theology. They are praise of God worth singing, the sort we encounter far less often in the newer songs of today.

Charles Wesley was also a clever man in his hymnography, for his words could be set to the tunes of drinking songs. This made them very memorable for the poor, drunken souls for whom the hearts of the Wesleys burned. And so Gospel truths could be sung and remembered as cast in the simple poetry of Charles Wesley. This is a very great gift to the English people, and one not to be underestimated.

So, to close, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*I’ve heard it said that the terms actually come from how John organised the movement; yet I have also heard that it was a nickname applied to the Holy Club back in their Oxford days, so I think that it’s probably both — certainly the latter is more likely to be what people think when they hear, “Methodist.”