Saturday, July 16, 2011 it were a span long...

This is the wonderful setting by Orlando Gibbons of words from Psalm xxxviii (xxxix):

Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long : and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity.
For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain : he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.
And now, Lord, what is my hope : truly my hope is even in thee.

This version is sung about a fourth lower than I'm used to and in Tudor dialect, so has a certain quaintness about it, but nonetheless has that same word-power that much of Gibbons' works possess.

In the past, my low spirits have been lifted by the kind considerations of Fr Chadwick. This goodly priest is very much a Desert Father as he leads what amounts to an eremitical existence in a country that is proud of the secular nature of its government, its education and its everyday life - at least this is how I perceive the religious state of France to be. Having observed some very sad events within the Church in France (to wit, Thiberville) I find myself unable to shake off my interpretations above.

Lately, I've noticed the same sadness within the writings ( here and here ) of my Father in Christ and friend with which I myself have often wrestled. The questions he asks are very much the questions of the Psalmist in this Psalm.

Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days : that I may be certified how long I have to live.

Perhaps I should have linked to Greene's version or to Tomkins which begin with this verse rather than Gibbons who starts a verse later. My reasons will become apparent.

The whole psalm is pregnant with emotion, and it is a very complex emotion indeed. There are at least a couple of ways in which one can read it. Is it to be read in the fearfulness of one realising his mortality, or is it the cry of the world-weary. Again, in my interpretation it's "both-and" and not "either-or". One can imagine the psalmist beaten up by life, worrying about what's going to happen next, missing the past, sick of the present and fearing the future, wondering just how long his suffering is going to take.

At General Synod, the CofE has had some sober realisations thrust upon it making for gloomy reading: at the present rate of decline it will be defunct in 20 years and nothing seems to be abating this decline.

Truly, I am not smug about this for this represents a statement about society as a whole and what is faced by the established church is also faced by the Roman Catholics. It is also something for the Continuing Churches - the little coracles as I've called them in the past - to worry about. They may be small enough to Continue in name and function, they may also be small enough to be swamped by the tide of anti-religion and indifference.

Those of us who have found ourselves cut adrift by the movement of the mainstream have lost a great deal: the comfort of aesthetics of building and music. the comfort of a short walk to the nearest Parish Church, the comfort of being able to trust the words of visible "authorities" and "spokespersons" who claim to speak on behalf of all Christians, but who do not. There is much discomfort out there and, let's be honest, very little hope in what can be done. It is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Already I have seen a congregation more than decimated by the crippling illness suffered by one of my brothers. Ours is a small church, and, let's be frank, it teeters. Do I still have hope?

Fr Chadwick is perfectly right to be sober here. We cannot allow ourselves to be falsely optimistic - we can waste our time sitting with a false hope in our hearts.
However, my friend raises a very important point. Let's just look at the things that will remain forever: Faith, Hope and Love.

St James reminds us that Faith cannot exist unless it is in some way practiced. Without some manifestation of our Faith in what we do, what proof is there that it actually exists? Likewise, it is in the very words and actions of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, that Love itself has to be worked on and, if we claim to have love for another, we had better demonstrate this actively if we are to convince others, and especially the Creator, that we have Love for Him and for our Neighbour.

It stands to reason (namely by induction albeit on the example of two quantities) that Hope itself is not a vague emotion which has no substance but is born out of the crucible of one's wrestle with God and with one's very self. Blind optimism is simply not hope. I seem to remember a French aphorism:

L'Espérance est une petite fille de rien du tout.
Hope is a little girl of no importance.

I'd love to know where this comes from, as I've forgotten! As I see in my beloved nieces, little girls tend to grow up very quickly if they are allowed to grow up well. As for importance? In whose eyes?

If the Church is going to recover in this new age of "no importance", then it must work at its Hope.

And now, Lord, what is my hope : truly my hope is even in thee

First, in order to combat the danger of institutional acedia, the Church must continue as best it can. This may mean just going through the motions when the depression is black, but the fact that the act is taking place regardless forms a basis for the continuing presence of Holiness in dark lands.

Second, quietly and surreptitiously, it must continue to provoke, and cajole and put stones in the shoes who would just walk by regarding the Church as nothing, like they did Her (and their) Saviour. It doesn't have to be much, a bow of the head when someone utters the Holy Name even, nay especially, when it's uttered as an expletive, a crossing of oneself before eating in the refectory at work, a badge on the lapel declaring membership of one's jurisdiction.

We can and must do anything at all to prevent ourselves from just passing into oblivion. Little actions of ritual will remind us of Whom we worship and raise the odd eyebrow.

Third, it is best not to fix ourselves on what we perceive to be God's method of lightening our darkness. Humanity has a very consistent record when it comes to predict the way God will act in the future - namely poor! As a Benedictine, my Holy Founder reminds us never to despair of the mercy of God.

And now, Lord, what is my hope : truly my hope is even in thee

The only source of our hope can be in Christ who is no tame God! As Horatius Bonar writes:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"I am this dark world's light;
look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
and all thy day be bright."
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I'll walk
till traveling days are done.

Notice how that Hope is contingent on doing something, some activity to raise a head heavy and bowed with the cares of living. To look to Jesus is not easy, and if anyone says that it is then they are probably at that wonderful first flush of Faith and not yet experienced in the Long, Dark Night of the Soul! We also know that walking in the light of life without wandering off is horrendously difficult.

If I am honest, I am filled with hope for my new diocese. I don't want to seem glib here, as there are some enormous obstacles for us to face. However, there is much potential for our growth. It is true that our priests are on the elderly side and, sad to relate, one of them has but a short time left with us. It is also true that the diocese is small, but I see younger folk, I see men offering themselves for the priesthood and I see congregations committed to doing what they can to present "business as usual". The potential is there, and the hope is there and one should never despair of the Mercy of God.

So, why the version of Gibbons? Well, listen again at the last verse.

And now, Lord, what is my hope : truly my hope is even in thee


Anonymous said...

Re "Hope is a little girl of no importance"

from a poem by Charles Péguy


Fr. Robert Mansfield, SSC

Warwickensis said...

Much obliged to you, Father. Thanks.

JamesIII said...

The Psalms offer us a wonderful microcosm of the range of human emotions and moods. They tell us that those moments of darkness and light are truly gifts from God. Those Psalms, dark in nature, reflect those moments when we, like the psalmist, turn inward to examine our hearts when afflicted with pain and heartbreak. Other Psalms reflect those moments when we reach out with praise, thanksgiving, and joy in our hearts. Without the darkness the light has little meaning.

Your brief reference to Maurice Greene reminds me that his compositions often epitomize that dichotomy. He is a favorite of mine and I never tire of his works. The contrast between his setting of Psalm 39, “Lord, let me know mine end” and the almost giddy joy of his tongue-twister setting of Psalm 65, “Thou visitest the earth and blessest it” ably make the point.

I've selected this version by a very competent high school choir simply because it captures the joy and the spirit of it where the other recordings are a bit somber.