One of the big challenges of praying, reading the Bible, and worshiping alone is the tendency towards doing what we like and skipping what we don’t. Left to my own devices, I’d probably just chant psalms and read the Old Testament, Ecclesiastical Books, and sometimes also the Gospels and Revelation. Maybe the Canticles and the Lord’s Prayer and a collect or two would survive. But the liturgical tradition, particularly the Prayer Book tradition, keeps steering me (and all who heed it) on a healthier track for more wholesome worship that keeps the individual and the congregation rightly balanced.
It is along those lines that I’ve been developing the Saint Aelfric Customary the way I have: taking on trust that the Prayer Book is a reliable book, we’re seeking to explore its options, with classical Anglican tradition in mind, and build a Customary – a style and plan of execution of liturgy – that makes full and proper use of the options at hand.
The hymnal has received similar treatment, and you can read about the Hymnal-in-a-Year recommendation here. As I’ve observed before, the 2017 hymnal put out by the Reformed Episcopal Church is an excellent blend of old and new; I was glad to see a few contemporary songs – the cream of the crop – make it into its pages. That said, there are still some tunes in this book that I’m not really that crazy about. When it comes to music, my passion is mostly in the British folk tradition, and my training is primarily renaissance, baroque, and classical. When it comes to Christian singing, this leaves a couple massive gap in my experience: African-American spirituals or gospel songs, and the American revivalist hymn style that came under its influence.
Enter Marie Ferguson’s Joys are flowing like a river, to a tune written by W. Marshall, both in 1897, “BLESSED QUIETNESS”. This is one of the hymns in the 2017 hymnal appointed for today, Tuesday in the week of Proper 14. The arrangement in our hymnal is not quite the same as what I’m finding on YouTube, but you can get the idea. It’s just one of those awful schmalty tunes with to many flats in the key signature, with lyrics just dripping with sentimentality. As my congregation’s music minister I will never appoint this hymn to be sung because I can’t play that style properly, and as my congregation’s priest I will never appoint this hymn because we do so little music as it is that I want to make sure that no song is wasted. But today I’m trying to sing it on my own, because it’s in the hymnal, and some people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than I am decided it’s worth being one of 639.
Joys are flowing like a river,
Since the Comforter has come;
He abides with us forever,
Makes the trusting heart his home.
Blessed quietness, Holy quietness,
What assurance in my soul!
On the stormy sea, Jesus speaks to me,
And the billows cease to roll.
It’s a Holy Spirit themed hymn, of which Anglican hymnody tends to be rather scarce, left to its own devices (though this is true also of Catholic and classical Protestant hymnody too – the Church has always sung more about Jesus than about the Spirit), so it’s no surprise that we’re dipping into other traditions to bulk up this part of the book.
There is a collect in the prayer book that I didn’t understand at first until I found its biblical source (Isaiah 30:15), which sounds very much like the refrain of this hymn:
O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This “blessed quietness”, this place of “returning and rest”, is a good place to be. In that spiritual calm of “waiting upon the Lord” and spiritual peace, one can know and feel the presence and power of God. So although this hymn comes across as super sentimental, it is still filled with biblical imagery and truth. Let’s see the other verses (omitting the repeated refrain).
Bringing life, and health, and gladness
All around, this heav’nly Guest
Conquered unbelief and sadness,
Changed our weariness to rest.
Like the rain that falls from heaven,
Like the sunlight from the sky,
So the Holy Spirit’s given,
Coming on us from on high.
See, a fruitful field is growing,
Blessed fruit of righteousness;
And the streams of life are flowing
In the lonely wilderness.
What a wonderful salvation,
When we always see his face,
What a perfect habitation,
What a quiet resting place!
So yes, this is very much an emotion-driven song, which can make it both very effective (if you’re in the “right mood” for it) or quite maddening (it you aren’t), and yet in its emotionalism it continually latches on to biblical images in a way that shows decent theological reflection. The Holy Spirit’s role as Comforter could be said to be the underlying premise of these lyrics, and explicated in both emotional and spiritual terms. And if you’re less set-in-your-musical-ways than I am, you may even enjoy the tune!
So I have to admit, I still don’t like really like this hymn. But I can also say it’s a good hymn, and I’ll try to sing it with you today, if I can the hang of the rhythms.