Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92)
THIS popular and prayerful hymn was trimmed in 1884 from the end of a 17-stanza poem, written in 1872 by the American Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Brewing of Soma”.
The first six stanzas describe how this ritual drink from the Vedic tradition is brewed and used to create trance-like ecstatic states.
The middle part of the poem compares these rituals to Christian practices:
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!
Try singing that to the tune of Repton. These are meant to be the “foolish ways” that we are asking God to forgive; but, taken out of context, our foolish ways become more generalised, and also more personal.
Examples from scripture are given as alternatives to these noisy, ritualistic, and intoxicating ways of worshipping God. Reference is made to the demoniac, whom the townspeople found “clothed and in his right mind”; to the experience of Elijah’s hearing the “still small voice” at Mount Horeb; to the disciples’ following him without a word; and to Jesus retreating to the hills of Galilee to commune with his Father.
It is not surprising that a Quaker would want to emphasise “the silence of eternity” and “the beauty of thy peace”. The whole poem is a polemic designed to disparage other Christian traditions, and raise up the Quaker way of silent listening to the Holy Spirit.
What is more interesting is why this hymn should be so popular among so many Christian traditions today. Of course, there is Hubert Parry’s majestic music, which builds to a climax before the quiet resolution of the repeated last line.
I think that this hymn/prayer/poem also strikes a chord in our busy hearts, as we try to negotiate an increasingly noisy world, full of traffic, piped music and internet chatter, 24/7 news, and social media, incessant tweets, and demanding email.
We can also find that our religious experience revolves so much around words that we forget to listen to the living Word. “Poor, little, talkative Christianity” is a phrase from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India that has constantly reminded me to allow space in worship for the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts through silence and reflection.
People are longing for peace, for the deep-rooted experience of a quietened soul. When people think of meditation, they rarely consider the ancient Christian practices because we have largely neglected them.
There are also some positive signs of our regaining lost ground: the retreat movement is flourishing; there are Julian groups in most towns; lectio divina is more widely practised; Godly Play allows for reflection on a story told with simple props; artists are being employed to create prayerful spaces in cathedrals, churches, and churchyards.
In all these areas, we can learn from the Quaker tradition of listening to the Holy Spirit, to complement the joy and understanding that we also seek in worship.
Ultimately, these experiences are not about emptying the mind, but decluttering it to enable the silence to be filled with the peaceful, inspiring, and energising Spirit. The silence of eternity is interpreted by love; the reclothing of our minds leads us into a renewed serving of others.
This prayer takes us imaginatively into the biblical landscapes of Sinai and Galilee; so that we see in the familiar stories a hidden message, the simple trust that enables us to hear afresh the call of Christ, to rise up in quiet obedience and follow him.
Contemporary Christian song-writers, such as the worship band Rend Collective, with “Alabaster”, and the duo The Brilliance, with “Hands and Feet”, are following in the tradition of Whittier and Parry by creating works that lead us into that contemplative space through quiet, compelling music, and simple lyrics.
Both these songs focus on the idea outlined in the chorus of “Hands and Feet”: “Without words we’ll let our actions speak.” “Alabaster” takes Mark’s version of the story in which the woman breaks the alabaster jar before anointing Jesus:
I am broken at Your feet
Like an alabaster jar.
Every piece of who I am
Laid before Your majesty.
I will bow my life
At Your feet . . .
Perhaps one day the work of these worship groups will prove to be as popular as the hymn extracted from Whittier’s strange poem.
The Revd Rupert Martin is the Vicar of Sandal Magna, in the diocese of Leeds.