22 August 2010
One challenge in any religious tradition that values the written word is that of presenting important, beloved, even sacred texts – and thus the meaning and sense of divine presence inherent in them – anew in places, times, languages, and cultures far removed from their original contexts. In some cases the original texts are not often translated, or not often used in translation (for example, the Qur’an, or, until recently, the scriptures, rites, and other texts of the Roman Catholic Church), because they are considered to be too sacred to risk the loss of meaning inherent in any translation, or because the language is seen as a means of unity across place and time, or for some combination of reasons. In other cases (Buddhist writings, or the scriptures and liturgies of the Eastern and Protestant Churches), texts find new life as they enter new cultures, often exercising a strong influence on the whole language into which they are being translated (the English and German Reformation Bibles and liturgies being good examples).
Translation is tricky business, but this Sunday we are fortunate to be enriched by three texts of fine pedigree in both origin and translation. Two of these poems find happy expression in musical settings by twentieth-century Englishman Eric Thiman, Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music and later Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of London, Organist of the City Temple (Congregational) in London, renowned improviser, and prolific composer of solid and accessible works for piano, instruments, and church choirs. Sopranos Trina Braun (a Good Shepherd chorister) and Jeane Burks (Good Shepherd’s Coordinator of Children’s Ministries, which position includes the direction of the Primary and Junior Choirs) render these two settings.
Psalm 84 (‘How lovely are thy dwellings...’) is a rightly famous and much beloved meditation upon God’s presence and providence and the longing we feel to live ever more deeply in that presence. It is one of about twenty psalms translated into English meter by the great seventeenth-century English poet (and polemicist) John Milton; working more or less within the then-current conventions of English metrical psalmody (a difficult genre in which few have been really successful) and not in his usual manner, Milton nevertheless, making freer use of enjambed lines and inverted stresses than some psalm-poets, renders his translations perhaps more pleasing to read, if not less awkward to sing, than the contents of the more common English metrical psalters. The selection of verses set by Thiman form a particularly pleasing and coherent whole.
‘Jesu dulcis memoria’ is a very fine devotional hymn – sometimes attributed to St Bernard (1091–1153), Abbot of Clairvaux, great monastic and ecclesiastical statesman (and preacher of the Second Crusade), whose feast day is 20 August – upon the divine love manifest in Jesus Christ. Parts of it have been used at different times and places as prayers of preparation for communion and as proper hymns for various Feasts of Our Lord. ‘Jesus, the very thought of thee’ (also found, set to a Reformation psalm-tune, at Hymn 642) is a translation of four stanzas of the original, plus a doxology, made by Edward Caswall, a nineteenth-century Anglican, and later Roman, priest who translated a great many Latin office hymns into very fine English. (A very good contemporary translation of other stanzas of this hymn is found at Hymn 649/650, ‘O Jesus, joy of loving hearts’.)
One other old text finds felicitous translation Sunday. ‘O quanta qualia’ is one of a collection of hymns written by Peter Abelard – the brilliant but troubled theologian and teacher, and archenemy of the aforementioned Bernard of Clairvaux, who had him condemned for heresy – for the convent he established for his wife, Heloise. Written for Saturday Vespers, it looks forward not only to Sunday but also to a time when earthly troubles (of which Abelard and Heloise certainly faced their share) are over and all things are fulfilled. John Mason Neale, the brilliant nineteenth-century English priest, classical and liturgical scholar, prolific writer, and translator of so many Greek and Latin (and Russian and Syriac) hymns and other religious texts, rendered ‘O quanta qualia’ as ‘O what their joy and their glory must be’ (Hymn 623).
All three of these texts, along with Sunday’s Epistle (Hebrews 12.18–29), express a sense of the joy and blessing of God’s presence – whether in the distant past of the psalmist or medieval hymnists; in the here and now, in the person of Christ as experienced in prayer, sacrament, and neighbor; or in a time and place yet to come, in the courts of the Lord, the heavenly Jerusalem. Together they remind us that this presence, though difficult to grasp, is always available to those who will seek it, and that the distant past, the here and now, and the yet to come are really one Kingdom of God, bound together in love and communion, seen most clearly through the lens of the liturgy – which Kingdom is indeed our ‘dear native land’ whence we come and whither we long to go, and where in reality we always live.