Last Sunday, I was singing in my cathedral choir which always means it’s a GOOD DAY. It’s my happy place, standing there in my cassock and surplice, not being able or required to do anything else. And the music for the day made my spirit soar – a Mozart Mass (the brief one otherwise we’d never get the dinner on) and some cracking hymns.
One of the hymns was ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ and when I spotted it in the service sheet, my heart, as ever did a back-flip. This hymn has always been my nemesis. It goes way way back to when I was a shrinking short-haired, short, grammar school girl standing in assembly and attempting to tie my tongue around the sibilants. Notably ‘strain and stress’ for which this hymn is famed. I had a slight speech impediment as a child which no-one ever picked up, but then kids weren’t looked after as they are today and it was much more likely, having the temerity not to fit in, I’d just be stood in the corner for my mispronunciation.
The class bully, bigger, louder, brimming with entitled confidence that stemmed from not growing up in a council house, latched onto my difficulties and made a point of turning to stare at me as this line hovered in sight. Soon the other girls cottoned on and my struggle became a source of sniggering hilarity, muffled in hymnbooks. I gave up singing it altogether and kept my head down to avoid the beady glare of my gowned form-mistress.
Fast forward decades and I still feel that frisson of trepidation when I see this hymn in the order of service, although I have mastered my ‘s’s now.
But last Sunday, I decided to knock this spectre on the head once and for all and chase the ghosts of my sneering classmates into the shadows where they belong. The tack I took was to really – and I mean REALLY concentrate on the words instead.
And boy! What words!
It’s a sort of blueprint of the contemplative Christian life – you know the one where you give up sweating and trying and just rest in God’s love and peace. Remember that? It was written by John Whittier (some boy) who was a Quaker and so really valued silence above anything else in worship. I like the Quaker tradition.( I did once explore being a Quaker but I’m not good with silence so it wouldn’t have worked.)
And so I stood and sang and absorbed the words and when it came to ‘strain and stress’ I soared through the line perfectly without any of the panic of my small self.
I looked up the history of this hymn when I got home because I felt a bit – well, brave and all-conquering and as if I could look it in the eye and find out everything about the words without anything bad happening. And I discovered that the hymn we know is part of a much longer poem, and John just lifted the middle verses to make a hymn. There were 17 verses originally of which he used verses 12-17 to publish a singable version. It’s a good job he was a bit picky as verse 11 goes like this...
And yet the past comes round again, And new doth old fulfill; In sensual transports wild as vain We brew in many a Christian fane The heathen Soma still!
(That’d make the cathedral congregation sit up!)
The original poem is called ‘The Brewing of Soma’ and refers to Vedic priests going into the forest and brewing themselves a potion to whip themselves up into a spiritual frenzy in order to experience God. (They could have just joined the church up the road where I went as a child- you got the same result without all that bother). John Whittier then goes on in his poem to talk about where God can really be found - in quietness, calm and peace - which is the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ as we know it.
Who’d have thought!
Priests don’t brew potions these days to experience God – at least not in our church. The strongest brew on offer is the coffee at the back after the service which can take your head off if you don’t add enough milk, but very welcome after a morning’s singing. And we don’t have our clergy dancing in religious ecstasy but never say never. We do sing this hymn though and I for one, am quite happy to stick to verses 12-17.
So, there we go – or there I go. Another small victory, another step along the way, another demon chased over the cliff edge. Another experience of a God who is loving and kind and will help me pronounce my ‘s’s.
And slowly, oh so slowly but certainly, I am letting God into all parts of my life and especially those where I daily experience the most ‘strain and stress.’
And hearing her whisper from her ‘still small voice of calm.’