Monday, 8 October 2012
A Harvest Hymn, and me
1. To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise
in hymns of adoration,
to thee bring sacrifice of praise
with shouts of exultation.
Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,
the hills with joy are ringing,
the valleys stand so thick with corn
that even they are singing.
2. And now, on this our festal day,
thy bounteous hand confessing,
Upon thine altar, Lord, we lay
the first fruits of thy blessing.
By thee the souls of men are fed
with gifts of grace supernal;
thou, who dost give us earthly bread,
give us the bread eternal.
3. We bear the burden of the day,
and often toil seems dreary;
but labour ends with sunset ray,
and rest comes for the weary.
May we, the angel reaping over,
stand at the last accepted,
Christ's golden sheaves, forevermore
to garners bright elected.
4. O blessèd is that land of God
where saints abide forever,
where golden fields spread fair and broad,
where flows the crystal river;
the strains of all its holy throng
with ours today are blending;
thrice blessèd is that harvest song
which never hath an ending.
It's harvest festival season, and this is my favourite harvest hymn. It's by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), who also wrote my favourite Epiphany hymn. The reason I like this hymn - and all Dix's hymns, in fact, even 'Alleluia, sing to Jesus' - is that they have a hint of uncertainty amid the joy, an acknowledgement that faith is not easy, even as they then offer comfort for that fact. Pictures of spiritual perfection, even in hymn form, tend to 'make me sick and wicked'; a little doubt can sometimes be more helpful. Here the shadow is over verse 3: 'We bear the burden of the day, / and often toil seems dreary' (dreary with its older stronger meaning), and the hesitation of the petition in the last four lines of that verse. 'May we stand at the last accepted'; amidst all the goldenness and the shouts of exultation, that's a rather tentative wish.
I made myself sad the other day, reading In Memoriam and this poem and thinking about fruitlessness. I've just finished my DPhil thesis, which is obviously very exciting for me; it's the greatest fruit my life so far has to offer - greater certainly than the cans of baked beans we used to take to harvest festivals at school. And yet if one is realistic, it isn't much in the scheme of things, compared to the other kinds of fruit one might have borne after 26 years of life. In the eyes of the world, yes, perhaps it's worthwhile, and to me personally, very much so - but to God? I honestly don't know whether or not it's an acceptable first-fruit, as once I thought it might have been. Sometimes I think so; and then I remember how few offerings or prayers of mine have ever proved acceptable to that great silence, and everything starts to seem pointless and futile and all very much like 'my prime of youth is but a frost of cares', as if it would have been better never to have started at life than to fail so hopelessly. I know, I know that's ridiculous (as, indeed, you are probably thinking), because Tichborne was facing execution when he wrote that poem, and I'm just someone who doesn't know what to do with her life and is not really sure that it matters what she does; the situations are hardly comparable. But even so, I can't shake the feeling. Everything feels futile when you have the threat hanging over you that whatever you do might count for nothing in the end (not 'at the last accepted'...). When I submitted my thesis, my friends were very nice about it, but many of them innocently asked the question which stings: 'So, what's next?' Or, as it sounded to my ears: we're bored with this accomplishment already; what else have you got? This is how it's been with every achievement of my life, from the day I learned to read until the day I submitted my DPhil: nothing is ever enough. People always want more from you than you can give, and God, especially, is never satisfied. I think this was the first lesson I ever learned about God, because if you go to a Catholic school and are even a little bit naturally clever you will hear rather a lot about the parable of the talents and how 'from he who has been given much, much will be demanded', and before you are old enough to know exactly what it is you've been given or what you're supposed to do with it, you will have learned that God is never really going to be happy with how you use your 'talents'. And when those talents incline to the scholarly it's all the worse, because as we know, intellectual endeavour is all very well, but it's nothing compared to love (we can all recite this bit by heart, right?) and accomplishments of any kind, however earnestly and diligently pursued and won, don't compensate in the end for not having loved or been loved in the ways that count.
I'm good at loving, but not at bearing fruit out of my loves. I've only loved in the ways that don't count, as I remember when I see on facebook my schoolfriends getting engaged and having babies; such fruits of a useful life are better than a tin of harvest festival baked beans too, and there's no question that those fruits are acceptable to God. That makes it sound like I'm just jealous of them, and I am, bitterly, heart-wrenchingly jealous, but it isn't only that - we all have to bear some kind of fruit in our lives, and it's much harder to do that if you're not good at making people love you. I've never been good at making people like me. I have qualities which in some people are found lovable, but in me simply are not, for reasons I don't entirely understand; and however much you may love, if you are not lovable then your love doesn't bear fruit. If you produce something - a novel, or a thesis, or a blog - without having that magic quality that makes people feel they can like and trust and connect with you as they read it, how can it bear fruit? I don't have that quality, and I'm not sure it's something one can learn. Everything I've ever written, everything I've ever seriously done or attempted, has been born of love, and I've tried to serve the things and people I love honestly and faithfully and well; but because I'm not lovable my love stops with me, and is fruitless, and not enough.
So I wish I was good at something useful or valuable, as my friends are good at making others love them - as other people are good at making their lives worthwhile. I wish I had anything to offer or anything to say that people wanted to hear. And most of all I wish I knew what I ought to do with my stupid life, and that it mattered to anyone either way.
I don't know why I write posts like this; I'm always ashamed of them after I hit 'publish'. They're silly, and don't do any good. But I can't tell anyone in real life - and what else is the internet for but narcissism? In any case I suppose harvest is the right time to think about these things; and Dix's hymn helps a bit, though I don't know why.