A hymn for our times : O God of earth and altar

A Victorian hymn for today

G.K. Chesterton’s O God of earth and altar is a hymn which deserves to be better known, and one which feels particularly relevant to the time we are living in.  He wrote it for The English Hymnal which was published in 1906, as a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and it has been rightly described as ‘vigorous’.

The text

1 O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

2 From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

3 Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

The tune

It is the perfect length for a hymn, three verses of eight short lines.  Even if you don’t know the tune of a hymn, three verses gives you a chance to join in : one to listen, one to attempt and clarify, and the last to sing with conviction.  This is just as well, as O God of earth and altar is sung to two possible tunes among the Anglicans, King’s Lynn by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Llangoffan, a Welsh folk melody.  With typical Catholic stubbornness, we usually sing it to a different tune, Willsbridge by R. L. de Pearsall.  He is himself a very colourful character, if you look him up,  and his tune does fit the words well.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard any version of this hymn sung, however.

Long rolling sentences

I have a particular weakness for hymns where each verse is one sentence.  I think it can give them great strength and cumulative power.  Of the Father’s love begotten is my usual example (though its two last verses each contain an extra full stop).  It’s something that you can do with a translation from the Latin (which Of the Father’s love begotten is), as Latin has so many grammatical ways of extending a sentence without ambiguity.  Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle and O Godhead hid are other examples.  It is also not unusual in translations from German;  Now thank we all our God for example.  But it’s not just translations; there are several English originals, including the much-loved Dear Lord and Father of mankind (mostly),   Thou, whose almighty wordO Jesus Christ, remember, and so on.

Elegant prosody

Technically, Chesterton’s poem is superb, alternating a double rhyme with a single one.  This could sound affected or comic, as English is not so rich in double rhymes as some other languages (it’s easier to do in French or Italian, for example), but here it simply flows.  Some effort is evident in the third verse, where Chesterton has to use the archaic ‘thrall’ to make the rhyme, but he pulls it off because so much of the language of the hymn is in straightforward monosyllables, and the reverberations of the archaic word are precisely what he is emphasizing.  The plainness of nearly all the vocabulary is a very fine example of art to hide art.  The language is simple and direct, another reason why it has not dated, and it is built, like Jerusalem, strongly compact, with no words wasted.

Analysis : first verse (and a quibble)

The first verse is a direct appeal to God, and here I would like to make a tentative suggestion.  The apostrophe is ‘O God of earth and altar’, and I am not sure what it means.  Then it occurred to me that it might be an error of transcription (incredibly common, as anyone who ever copies anything will know : this is why people are so attached to the copy and paste function, whose inventor died recently).  I think it’s meant to be ‘O God of hearth and altar’, i.e. both a private and public God, both intimate and ceremonial;  but the mistake occurred because ‘earthly’ is written just two lines down. (I also think that having ‘earthly’ there is another reason why Chesterton would not have used ‘earth’ in the first line.)  I can’t go hunting for manuscripts to check in the current lockdown, but Chesterton himself once wrote a poem about how bad his writing was, and if you look at some examples of his handwriting, you can see how the confusion might have crept in.

Full of charcter, but not the clearest….

Apart from this minor point, Chesterton is starting his appeal here precisely in the same way that the psalmist does so often : O God in heaven, bend down and listen to me.

Then he sets out the difficulties of the situation in which we find ourselves.  This is a hymn of community, one of the reasons why I like it;  he is writing as himself, but for us all.   There is nothing selfish, patronising or high-handed in his distress or his appeal.  Apart from one reference to ‘cruel men’, it is exclusively ‘our’ and ‘us’, with no exceptions made.  It is indeed a ‘Prayer for the Nation’, and as true now as it was in 1906.  He is generous; he does not blame ‘our earthly rulers’, but he sees that they cannot solve the problem, and ‘our people’ are dying.  He blames ‘the walls of gold’ which (sharp image) ‘entomb’ us, he sees that we can’t act together because we do not value each other (diagnosis of the last x years of politics), and then he sounds like the psalmist again : ‘take not thy thunder from us,/ but take away our pride’.

fearsome apocalyptic monsters

Like the psalmist, Chesterton values God’s thunder.  He is calling upon the God who rides upon the wings of the wind (Ps 103/104), who has clouds and darkness as his raiment (Ps 96/97, and I could go on).  This is the God who is unassailably Other, and powerful.  This is who we need; no one else has been able to help.  This situation is beyond us and out of our control; we need God to step in.

Second verse

The second verse is a sort of inverted litany, like the old Scottish ‘From ghoulies and ghosties…’, but it’s fascinating to see what Chesterton prays for us all to be delivered from, because it’s so modern.  And he’s a writer, a journalist, so it’s this area of danger he knows best.  He offers us a list which starts with ‘all that terror teaches’ – and this, remember,  in 1906, when the Dark Web was a long way off.  ‘Lies of tongue and pen’ – all the fake cures for corona being spread through social media?   ‘All the easy speeches that comfort cruel men’ is, I feel,  a bit more time-specific, but I’m not sure that I will still feel that if we continue to discuss euthanasia as we seem likely to do.  ‘From sale and profanation of honour and the sword’ – yes, we have seen plenty of that;  ‘from sleep and from damnation’ – this is a tight encapsulation of the Niemoller dictum.  Enough frightening things there to give you nightmares, so from all this, ‘deliver us, Good Lord!’ , with an unusual exclamation point,  for once feeling fully justified.

Third verse

The third verse emphasizes again the importance of community.  In this public health crisis in which we find ourselves, we cannot simply act and hope to be safe as individual atomies, we have to think about the threat and protection of us all.  So Chesterton prays for us to be tied and bound together, those in earthly authority (‘the prince’),  spiritual authorities (‘the priest’), and – the rest of us.  ‘Thrall’ is an Old English word (used very deliberately by the man who wrote The Ballad of the White Horse), with its root in slavery or servitude, and here meaning ‘the ordinary person not in control’, which feels exactly right.  Once we are all wrapped into an indivisible bundle, Chesterton asks God to ‘smite us and save us all’.  Note ‘and’, not ‘or’.  God can do whatever he likes, and we have deserved whatever he does, because he is justice personified; but after the justice comes mercy, as Pope Francis always stresses.  After the terror and the catastrophe, there will be the result.  God will have made us into ‘a living nation,/ a single sword’, which will be ‘aflame with faith and free’ to do what God made it for.

bringing the people together

The best hymns double as prayers, and this is one which clearly does that.  The whole movement of the words follows the gathering together of all the people into a unity, and then lifting this up in supplication.  It is a hymn which does not pretend that nothing is wrong, or that there are easy answers; but it beautifully expresses the hope to which we all cling.  I am sure it already felt prophetic and apposite when it first came out, in the beginning years of the twentieth century, amid so many wars and social upheaval.   I find it amazing that after so long, it still feels as if it were written for us, for now.  I also find it comforting.

the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God  Eph 6.17

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Holy Week without going to church

Every church is shut

One of the measures taken by a lot of different governments in the current Corona virus situation, is to close all places of assembly, including the churches. This has been difficult already, with no Sunday going-to-Mass, no adoration sessions, no popping in to touch base with the Lord.  But the timing now is particularly difficult.  Lent meant that the family’s stocks of biscuits and chocolate were low even before we could go shopping, because everyone had given things up; but when they are all at home all day, it’s good occasionally to provide a morale-boosting treat. Now we have reached Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week.  We can’t even have Stations of the Cross or the Last Supper Mass; we won’t be able to go to church on Good Friday to feel the ache of what’s missing. We have had to park the Holy Sacrament in the sanctuary a couple of weeks back, without even any ceremony; and when it comes to the Vigil or the joy of Easter morning, how joyful will we manage to feel?

Flocking to the house of the Lord in happier times
Nobody to pray with
praying with correct social distancing

Of course you can still pray ‘alone and in secret’, but the community part of prayer is turning out to be more important to most of us than we realised.   Ekklesia (Church) is from the word which means calling out to draw together, to assemble.  It is fundamental to our faith.  At least we should be able to have more empathy with those Christians who have to manage like this all the time, once this is over. But I’ve been trying to think of practical alleviations for now.

New use of new technology

Masses on-line are working really well, and we are all grateful to those who have managed to provide the technology and have it function more than adequately in these difficult days.  It seems only last week that our parish priest was having trouble with a single microphone, and now people are livestreaming and recording whole Masses.

even better social distancing
..but not the complete event

We attend attentively to these Masses, but it’s a strange experience.  The ones I have seen (attended? taken part in?) have been of either just a priest, or a priest and one other (either a reader, or a concelebrant).  The Mass as such is there, but no congregation, and (for me, crucially) no congregational singing.   One of the recorded Masses I attended had a priest who intoned the end of the Proper, and my family and I duly sang Amen, but somehow it emphasized the gap between us and what was happening on-screen rather than the opposite.

Holy Week with a mute button

So now we are facing a Holy Week with no congregational music, and I am planning ways to supply what I feel I will miss the most.  I know some people will think that we should offer up our discomfort, and of course that is an option.  We will all have to do that anyway, as I don’t think I will be able to compensate for what I am missing.  But here are a few suggestions of music which helps us to shape and understand the words of the Holy Week liturgies.   For me, and I’m sure for others,  much of the effect is added by the music.   I am sure these services, like our on-line Masses,  will be available on-line in some form, though without live music and congregation.  Even if you had a socially-distancing congregation, most non-professionals would not want to sing on their own so far away from the next voice!

easier to sing as a group
Holy Week hymns not an option

Before the virus overtook all our arrangements, I was wondering about assembling a list of the best Holy Week hymns, or even hymns creating a virtual Stations of the Cross, but I’ve parked that idea for now (maybe I’ll do it next year).  Hymns really are for singing yourself with a group, so I won’t be digging up favourite ones on YouTube just to listen to (though if the BBC plays me some services from past years with good singalonga hymns over the Triduum, I’ll probably join in while making my hot cross buns). 

Passion music to listen to : Bach, Schütz, Stainer

The Passion reading for Palm Sunday this year is St Matthew’s, and the Good Friday one St John’s.  Bach set both, quite differently.  The St Matthew Passion is a work of great scale, almost lush in its sweep, and the link is to a big choir and orchestra.  The St John is gentler and more intimate, and I like to listen to it with a small choir (here’s a link).   In both cases, the narrative is interspersed with comments (arias and chorales), which is the way that Bach’s church did it;  but both these linked recordings have subtitles, so you can follow where you are. 

Heinrich Schütz  (1585 – 1672)  also set both the St Matthew and St John Passions, but he did it in a straight run of the narrative, and with no instrumental support.  It’s simpler and more devotional, but I can’t find a subtitled version.  I know the Bach much better, but I love Schütz’s Christmas music, so I’ll be listening to his Passions as well.  Other listening music is the Passion part of Handel’s Messiah,  which means Part 2, but without the Hallelujah Chorus at the end.  Save that (and Part 3) for Easter Sunday.  Something else I love dearly is Stainer’s Crucifixion, unfairly neglected by us Catholics, which I find very moving.  

By the time we get to Easter Sunday, if you want joyful music, try putting ‘surrexit Christus hodie’ or ‘surrexit Christus vere’ into Google and YouTube.  Baroque Czechs and Netherlanders wrote some truly beautiful music for this, exciting to listen to (and really exhilarating to sing in different times).

A modern take on the Via Crucis

One other suggestion for those of you with children at home, who want to tell the story of Holy Week.  When I was teaching the First Communion class, some years ago, we did models, like little tableaux,  of the crucial stages of the Passion narrative for the class coming up to Holy Week.  I did it with Playmobil, but it would work just as well with Lego.  You need a clearly recognisable Jesus figure, a few representative apostles, some Roman soldiers (capes and helmets), a Pilate figure with something that can double as a basin for handwashing, a Herod figure with crown, a spare crown (of thorns, or you can improvise with brown wool or even paper), and a couple of representative women.  For scene setting you need a few trees and bushes, fires, a throne or two, a plate and a cup (some of the Harry Potter Lego would give you cups and fires).   You need a base plate for each separate scene, just to keep it reasonably straightforward. 

Set up the Last Supper;  the Garden of Gethsemane;  Herod’s palace, Pilate’s palace; and a green path, which will lead to Calvary.  Then what I did was to tell the story slowly, moving the little figures from place to place.  Spread it out over two or three tables if you can, so that everyone has to follow the journey.  You can have a real crucifix at the end of the green path, and light a candle there when you reach it (put Jesus in your pocket here, because he’s on the crucifix).   You can repurpose two of the apostles as the thieves for this scene, because they’ve all run away, but make sure the women are there, however peripherally, in every scene.  I found the children were absolutely rapt and reverent, and it helped us all to understand exactly how the story unfolded. 

The power of the cliffhanger

You stop fairly abruptly at the Crucifixion, which is entirely appropriate, and you don’t need to go into detail.  Indeed, saying to the children, ‘And now we all have to wait and see what can possibly happen next’, is a good way to leave it.  You could then secretly (I haven’t actually done this, because we’ve never not been able to go to church for Easter before) make one of the little Resurrection gardens that you see in Anglican churches, and leave it to be found on Easter morning with the Lord standing outside it (and Mary Magdalene looking baffled or surprised  – lift up the arms on the little figure – in the garden).  I think that would work, because it’s like leaving the crib empty on Christmas Eve and filled with the baby on Christmas morning.

Christ emerging from tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit

Use whatever helps, because the message is so much more important than the ways we use to tell it.  Even music, though it pains me to admit it.  And the Lord will himself turn our mourning into dancing, as it says in Ps 29/30, even if it is to music that we can only make when we get back to our churches.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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