Lauren Zook's Music Notes for June 5: The Sarum Prayer

Our communion hymn this week is “God be in my head” (Hymnal 1982 #694), and it's short and simple enough to quote in its entirety:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;

God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;

God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;

God be in my heart, and in my thinking;

God be at mine end, and at my departing.

This is an old English prayer, first found in the Sarum Primer of 1514. “Primer” is the term for an English-language “book of hours,” a type of medieval illuminated manuscript containing Christian devotions to be used throughout the hours of the day. Books of hours contained simplified versions of the prayer rituals used in monasteries, thereby allowing laypeople the opportunity to incorporate elements of monasticism into their daily lives. This particular text, sometimes called the “Sarum Prayer” because of its provenance, quickly became quite popular; in 1627, it opens John Cosin's prominent Collection of Private Devotions, and the prayer also showed up in France in similar collections.

The tune used in the hymnal, Lytlington, is the work of English composer Sir Sydney H. Nicholson and has a repetitive simplicity suitable to the character of the text. This text is also a popular choice for anthem settings: the most famous (at least according to the hymnal companion) is the setting by Sir Walford Davies, and I remember singing Andrew Carter's anthem setting in my very first year of church choir. Anthems from my first year of choir tend to stick with me – I was an impressionable ten-year-old – and so this prayer holds a special place in my heart. For a while last year, I was regularly praying with the use of an Anglican rosary; the rosary broke in December, and I really need to get a new one, because it was a great devotional exercise. Unlike with Catholic rosaries, there's not really a set way to pray an Anglican rosary, and the individual or group has the opportunity to invent their own cycle of prayers to accompany the beads. I chose “God be in my head” for my opening prayer. Leaving the house in the morning, holding my rosary's invitatory bead in my left hand, I would recite the prayer silently to myself and touch each body part as the text named it: head, eyes, mouth, over my heart, and finally crossing myself for the last line. The physical motions of this ritual were wonderfully centering; moreover, I love the way this prayer invites God into every part of our bodies, reminding us that God should be ever-present and in control of each aspect of our daily existence. This prayer served me well as an introduction to my daily devotions, just as it did for medieval users of the Sarum Primer – I hope it can do the same for you.


Lauren Zook's Music Notes for May 29: The Lake That Talks

At communion this week, we're singing one of the Hymnal 1982's few Native American offerings: “Many and great, O God, are thy works” (#385), sung to the tune the hymnal calls Dakota Indian Chant [Lacquiparle]. The tune is a native melody of the Dakota people (a subculture of the Sioux) first printed in Dakota Odowan (“Dakota Hymns”), published by the American Missionary Association and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1879. The original text, “Wakantanka taku nitawa,” is the work of Joseph Renville, an important figure in dealings between white men and the Sioux in 19th-century Minnesota. Renville was the son of a French fur trader and a Dakota woman, and he spent his early childhood among the Sioux. In adulthood, he served as a translator for the Pike Expedition and other American exploratory expeditions, and he made his living as a fur trader. He founded the fur-trading post Fort Renville in Lac qui Parle, Minnesota, and made his home there; “Lac qui parle” is the French translation of the Dakota name for the place and means “lake that talks.”

In the mid-1830s, a group of Presbyterian missionaries came to Lac qui Parle, including Thomas Smith Williamson, Samuel Return Riggs, Gideon Hollister Pond, and Samuel William Pond. These missionaries were instrumental in both translating the Bible into the Dakota language and developing an new, phonetic written form of that language. (The Dakota were already using representational pictographs, which worked fine for most practical purposes but weren't really useful for translating the Bible. So it was missionaries who created the need for a written alphabet; since the Lac qui Parle missionaries weren't the only ones around, there are some competing variants of the written Dakota language today.) The scripture translation proceeded in a slow and systematic way: the missionaries gathered in Joseph Renville's living room, Dr. Williamson read a verse aloud in French, Renville considered it and translated it into Dakota, and the missionaries wrote it down. The presence of the mixed-race Renville among the missionaries and his work translating and authoring Christian Dakota texts was invaluable in keeping the peace among white men and the Sioux in the region until his death in 1846.

In 1862 came the Dakota War, or Sioux Uprising, in which Dakota throughout the Minnesota River Valley attacked white settlements to drive them out of the area as a response to treaty violations and late or unfair payments by the United States. The uprising was put down, and 303 Sioux prisoners were sentenced to death for rape and murder, in trials that lasted sometimes less than 5 minutes and in which the defendants were not provided with attorneys. Missionaries (including the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, Henry Whipple) appealed directly to President Lincoln for leniency; he personally reviewed the trial records and commuted the sentences of most of the prisoners on the grounds that they were engaged in legitimate warfare and had not committed crimes. Still, 38 sentences were upheld, and they were hanged on December 26 in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in American history. And this is one account of the prisoners' final moments:

One of the men cried in a loud voice, “Mitakuyapi, nanmahon po!” (Hear me, my people!) “Today is not a day of defeat. It is indeed a day of victory. For we have made our peace with our Creator and now go to be with Him forever. Remember this day. Tell our children so they can tell their children, that we are honorable men who die for a noble cause.” Then he lifted up his voice to lead the condemned prisoners in a hymn of praise (Dakota Odowan 141) [Lacquiparle]. The trapdoor was sprung and the 38 Dakotas went to be with their Creator forever.

That account was given in a sermon by the grandson of one of those 38. The service concluded with the singing of this hymn.

I don't know that I have a conclusion this week. I always think linguistics stuff is pretty cool, and I'm happy to be singing a hymn from a tradition I'm not very familiar with (plus I've always enjoyed this tune, which I think has a haunting and powerful simplicity). I'm also always deeply uncomfortable with the products of the Christian Church's systematic efforts to “convert the heathens,” particularly when we're talking about the ugly history of the U.S.'s interactions with Native Americans. I'm glad this hymn gave comfort to condemned prisoners – and their descendants – yet ambivalent about the motivations behind Christianizing the Dakota in the first place. Perhaps the takeaway here is the value of having people like Joseph Renville who, by serving as a bridge between cultures, can at least help preserve peace; and surely the Presbyterian missionaries' efforts to respect the Dakota language and use it as the natural vehicle for Christian teachings is a good thing. Regardless, I am grateful for the excuse to have learned something about Dakota history this week; I know very little about the history of native peoples in this country, and that's something I have an obligation to remedy.


Lauren Zook's Music Notes for May 22: Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring

Our communion hymn this Sunday is “This Is Our Song,” set to the tune Finlandia by the premier Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The tune has its origins in a particularly fraught period of Finnish history. In the 19th century, Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and a rising trend of Finnish nationalism led to increased censorship and repression in the duchy in the last couple of decades of Russian rule.

Sibelius was born to a Swedish-speaking family in 1865; Finland had previously been a part of the Swedish Empire, and Swedish retained a hold as the language of administration, culture, and the upper classes, while Finnish remained the language of the peasants. As part of the nationalist movement (partly fostered by Russia wanting to encourage the renunciation of Finland’s ties to Sweden), Finnish gained an official position in administration in 1863 and eventually became an official language in 1892; Sibelius attended one of the first Finnish-language schools in the country. Between the language strife, the 1835 publication of Finland’s national epic The Kalevala, the founding of the political Finnish Party, and a host of other factors, the trend toward nationalism could not be ignored by the end of the century, and the composer Sibelius was an enthusiastic contributor to the development of a Finnish national identity.

In 1899, Sibelius and other artists put together a benefit concert for a newspaper that had been shut down by the Russian government for its political opposition. For these Press Celebrations, Sibelius wrote a 7-movement symphonic work meant to accompany tableaux of various episodes in Finnish history. The nationalist thrust of the concert couldn’t be too overt, so Sibelius’s Finlandia was publicized under other names, such as A Scandinavian Choral March and Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring. Much of the Press Celebrations music reflects the turbulent struggles of the Finnish people, but at the end of the last movement, “Finland Awakens,” a serenely melodic hymn appears, representing calm and hope for a peaceful end to the nation’s trials. It is this melodic portion which Sibelius revised into a stand-alone work and which we’ll be singing on Sunday.

In addition to being one of the most important national songs of Finland to this day, the tune became popular throughout the world, particularly as a patriotic hymn. This self-consciously Finnish melody is also the tune for a Welsh national song (Gweddi dros Gymru), the national anthem of the short-lived Republic of Biafra (1967-1970), and the alma maters of numerous American universities. (There was an attempt in 1964 to make it the school song of Rice University, and “Rice Is Our Home” was in fact performed at that year’s commencement, but it didn’t catch on. However, I can personally attest that the melody featured in the band’s prelude at the Rice commencement ceremonies last weekend, since my sister was graduating and my parents and I spent several minutes trying to place the tune.)

Now some of us, particularly in Cambridge in 21st-century America, may feel uncomfortable with overt nationalism, and that’s where Lloyd Stone’s 1934 text “This Is My Song” comes in. Stone was an American public school teacher, born in California with ancestors from Missouri, who spent much of his adult life in Hawaii, then a territory of the U.S. I’m only speculating, but Stone may well have been uncomfortable with American patriotism considering the anger held by many Hawaiians over the U.S.’s behavior toward them over the years. “This Is My Song” attempts to maintain a tricky balance between love of country and recognition that one’s own country is no more precious in the eyes of God than any other. Stone writes, “This is my home, the country where my heart is … but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” He praises the beauty of his own land and also knows that it is nothing exceptional: “My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.”

Lloyd Stone’s two stanzas (the third is by Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness, written in order to get some more overt religion into the hymn) make a remarkable statement in the context of the music with which they are paired. The proud patriotism of Sibelius and his compatriots is still present in Stone’s text, which celebrates the bond many of us feel with our countries of origin simply because they are our countries of origin. And at the same time, Stone reminds us that nativism has no place in a Christian way of life. Our God is a “God of all the nations,” who does not observe political borders, has created natural beauty all over the world, and loves all the children of the earth equally. It seems appropriate that Sibelius’s melody, celebrating national identity in the face of persecution, has resonated with citizens around the world and ended up as the setting for Stone’s pan-nationalist hymn, “a song of peace for their land and for mine.”


Lauren Zook's Music Notes for Pentecost Sunday: Healing and the Holy Spirit

I'm cheating a little again this week: instead of researching one of the hymns we're singing in the morning, I found my attention caught by “There is a balm in Gilead,” the African-American spiritual that provides the title for this Sunday's event at which St. James's and the Anti-Oppression Team are hosting the St. Stephen's Beloved Community Team for an afternoon of worship, discussion, and discernment on the evil of racism. The term “balm in Gilead” appears a couple of times in Jeremiah, most notably in Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” I've sung this hymn plenty but never actually known what exactly this balm is; fortunately, one can always find a subset of historians devoted to determining precisely what plant/color/bird/mollusk ancient peoples were talking about. The word translated as “balm” probably denotes “balsam,” i.e. the resinous sap that forms on certain kinds of trees and shrubs, and this particular balm is today usually identified with the “Balsam of Mecca” produced by the tree Commiphora gileadensis, although there are at least half a dozen plant species that are viable contenders. (Ancient historians, man. You would not believe the amount of ink that has been spilled on whether Ancient Roman senators were wearing purple or scarlet.)

Whatever plant it was that grew in Gilead (located in present-day Jordan), it was valuable. Balsam was one of the gifts offered to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, and several Roman emperors displayed the rare and exotic tree in triumphs after conquering the lands where it grew. The Roman encyclopedist Pliny says of that “sweet and odoriferous liquor that goeth beyond all others” that it once grew only in exactly two gardens in Jericho (before Rome conquered the Jews, “rescued” the balm trees, and got them to thrive under proper cultivation, naturally); ancient medical writer Dioscorides enumerates its many medicinal uses, including snakebite antidote, asthma medication, and treatment for epilepsy.

So this balsam was really quite special in the ancient world, and its legacy has survived in Christianity in that balsam is still traditionally incorporated in the chrism used at baptism. The balm in Gilead has come to symbolize a powerful healing force, one of the rare and wondrous gifts that God has given us in the natural world. And in the context of the Christian spiritual, it represents the salvation offered by Christ to all, which can not only “make the wounded whole” physically, but can even “heal the sin-sick soul.” The opening of the first verse – “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work's in vain” – is a lament particularly appropriate in the context of anti-racism work. These words arose in the context of slavery, when it could easily seem that black Americans would never be free; they retained their relevance for Martin Luther King, Jr., who quoted them in a sermon in reference to his fear and despair in the wake of death threats to him and his family; and certainly today, as we work individually and collectively to resist racism and other forms of oppression, it can feel as if whatever we say falls on ears that refuse to hear, and whatever we do is too insignificant – or worse, misguided – to be pleasing to God. Why has the health of God's poor people still not been restored?

The paradoxical power of many spirituals, I have found, is that even in the midst of suffering and degradation, they dare to assert triumph. This hymn takes Jeremiah's question mark and transforms it into an exclamation point: There is a balm in Gilead! Perhaps it does only grow in two twenty-acre orchards in Jericho. Maybe it's too expensive or too far away to easily obtain. But it does exist. The first verse ends, “But then the holy spirit revives my soul again.” Pentecost is the day we remember how the Holy Spirit came directly to the disciples as their comforter and advocate, and through that intervention, the Church was born. What other healing will the Spirit bring us in the days to come? What new works will the Spirit lead us into and guide us through? Wherever the Spirit takes us, we can be assured that Christ has offered balm for us all, and that the beloved community will exist, does exist, in the kingdom of God.


Lauren Zook's Music Notes for Easter 6: As Rare As Flowers in Spring

I like to think I know my fair share of obscure liturgical information, but it turns out “Rogation Days” are one holiday that previously escaped my attention. This Sunday, as part of the lead-up to Ascension Thursday, we'll be celebrating a Rogation Sunday, a day when we “ask” (Latin rogare) God to look favorably on us and protect us from calamities – traditionally, we especially ask God to bless our crops and give us a fruitful harvest. Having their roots in pagan agricultural festivals, Rogation Days were instituted by the 5th-century French bishop Mamertus, who, after a really terrible year of fire, pestilence, earthquakes, and killer wolves, led his flock in three days of prayer and procession in the week before the Ascension, praying for “favorable seasons, that our land may be fertile, good weather and good health, and that we may have peace and tranquility, and obtain pardon for our sins.” The disasters ended, the practice caught on, and though Rogation Days are no longer observed very widely, they have come to be an excellent time to give thanks for the birth of spring and the wonders of nature God has given us.

The ritual we'll be using to celebrate at the beginning of the service, the “beating of the bounds,” is a very old custom English custom associated with Rogation Days. In an age before maps were common – and when “parish” was often geographically synonymous with “village” – it was not a trivial matter to know where precisely the boundaries of a church lay, nor was it unimportant. So once a year, the whole church trooped outside and did a formal perambulation of the parish boundaries; you can also call this procession “going a-ganging,” from the Old English word for “go,” and thus another word for this Sunday is “Gang-day.” Boys were given sticks and told to whack all the parish boundary markers with them (hence “beating” the “bounds”), so that they would remember where they were; boys were given this job because, being younger, they would preserve the institutional memory longer. And while the secular function of this ceremony is no longer needed, it's a good excuse for us to all go outside and actually take a look at the whole of our communal property, thanking God for spring and the land he has given us where we may worship.

Oy, I've written two paragraphs and haven't gotten to the music yet. Okay! All our hymns this Sunday are chosen for their themes of creation care and thanksgiving for nature, and the one that's caught my attention is our opening hymn, “Morning Has Broken” (H82 #8). You may know this hymn from folk singer Cat Stevens's 1971 recording, which reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Easy Listening Chart the following year. But though the hymn has often been erroneously attributed to Stevens, the tune (Bunessan) is a traditional Gaelic melody, and the text is a poem by Eleanor Farjeon written specifically for this tune at the request of Percy Dearmer and the other editors of the 1931 hymnal Songs of Praise, “something being...wanted on the theme of Thanksgiving for each day as it comes.” The conceit of the poem is that “morning has broken like the first morning,” that the sunlight we see today is “born of the one light Eden saw play”; each morning is new, marvelous, and terribly ancient all at once, “God's re-creation of the new day.” Every day we see the sun come up, it is as rare a thing as the creation of the world.

Eleanor Farjeon, born in 1881 to a literary family in London, made quite a name for herself in children's literature with her many poems, plays, and short stories; in 1956 she won the first Hans Christian Andersen Award, sometimes called the Nobel Prize for children's literature. One of her most popular books was Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (1921), in which the frame-story is about a wandering minstrel who embarks on a quest to return a maiden to her true love, though this maiden is locked in the well-house by her father and guarded by six virgins who hate men. Since I'm sometimes prone to follow tangents in my research, I started reading this book yesterday, and happily it turns out to be both lovely and a great fit with this week's theme. Martin Pippin is full of flowers and trees and apples, spring-green and rose-white and apple-gold ladies, a gorgeous paragraph describing an orchard with “double daisies,” “sweet herbs,” and “in a sunny corner a clump of flowering currant heavy with humming bees.” And then there's this beautiful exchange between Martin and two of the virgin guards:

'Is love then,' said little Joan, 'so rare a thing in the world?'

'The rarest of all things,' answered Martin, looking gravely into her eyes. 'It is as rare as flowers in spring.'

'I am glad of that,' said Joan; while Joscelyn objected, 'But nothing is commoner.'

'Do you think so?' said Martin. 'Perhaps you are right. Yet spring after spring the flowers quicken my heart as though I were perceiving them for the first time in my life—yes, even the very commonest of them.'

So this Rogation Sunday, let's take another look at the gifts we might take for granted: the sunlight, the morning, favorable seasons, good weather and good health, our building, our grounds, children who like to whack things with sticks, and the new spring flowers in bud all around us—yes, even the very commonest of them.