Saturday, 25 May 2013

Two Whitsun Carols

When I need cheering up I often turn to the Oxford Book of Carols, which is to me a 'constant source of happiness and inspiration', as the preface says it aims to be. I did this today and found two Whitsun carols which I want to share with you. They were new compositions for the O.B.C. (in 1928), and they both represent a particular strain of early twentieth-century religious writing which I just adore; I wish I knew how to characterise it.  I welcome adjectives, if you have any.  Whatever you call it, it's clearly associated with the tastes and temperament of the wonderful Percy Dearmer, since the first is his work:

Now sing we of the Paraclete,
The Light, the Beam of God, to greet.

1. When Christ blessed his disciples,
'Ye are my friends,' he said,
'Let not your heart be troubled,
And be ye not afraid;
When he, the Breath of Truth, is come,
To all the truth he'll bring you home,
Though now ye cannot bear it.'
So spoke he unto Christendom,
And promised us the Spirit.

2. Long after rose a prophet
Who hailed the Spirit's day,
And said, 'Men first in terror
As slaves did God obey.
Then came the age when man as son
Could serve, and so God's grace be won:
A third - and we are near it -
Will be of love, all blindness gone,
The freedom of the Spirit.'

3. From slavery and childhood
Man grows to noble youth,
And free the Spirit makes us
To follow after truth:
The power of fraud, and dull pretence,
Vain forms, and fear, is banished hence
Love's crown is ours to wear it;
Through all our faithless impotence
The light shines from the Spirit.

4. Brave thinkers saw the vision,
The story poets wove,
Of truth and grace unhindered,
The eternal Spirit's love:
For he the knowledge science finds,
And he the light in artists' minds,
And his the hero's merit;
All lovely things of all the kinds
Are planets of the Spirit.

That last verse is glorious - 'planets of the Spirit'!  The second verse is apparently a reference to the work of the twelfth-century mystic Joachim of Fiore, about whom I know nothing.  Mine is an ignorant love, as you see.

The second carol was written by Geoffrey Dearmer (son of Percy) for the tune of this French carol, 'Courons à la Fête'.  The tune is delightful but it doesn't go very well with the English words, in my uninformed opinion.  But Geoffrey Dearmer wrote my very favourite carol about medieval architecture (all right, perhaps the only carol about medieval architecture) so I'd forgive him anything.

Winds of God unfailing fill the sunlit sails
Of a great ship sailing where conjecture fails:
Seekers we, and we must discover,
Doubt we not though the chart be hid -
Chart we may not see,
Plotted by the world's great Lover
Down in Galilee;
Captain, prince, and pilot he.

If ye then perceive and if the heart desire,
Shall the mind achieve, and spirit shall aspire;
Then shall man see him, and shall praise him
In the fern, in the sea and cloud,
Every flower and tree
In the sap of life must raise him,
As in Galilee
In the form of man rose he.

His is each profession, every man his priest
Who in work's expression finds his joy increased:
In his Church are the ploughman, sailor,
Merchant, prince, artizan, and clerk,
All whoe'er they be,
Craftsman, thinker, tinker, tailor,
Come to Galilee,
Find a plan, and that is he.

Those who love him wholly need not him confess,
Since their lives must solely him in them express;
He's the goal that man ever searches
How should man see that goal afar?
Each in his degree
That doth love him, of his Church is.
Down in Galilee
Founder of our Church was he.

So lovely!  It's impossible to imagine these carols being sung in any church anywhere (are they?) but I wish they were. In his preface to the book, Percy Dearmer says:

'Perhaps nothing is just now of such importance as to increase the element of joy in religion; people crowd in our churches at the Christmas, Easter, and Harvest Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity; if carol-books were in continual use, that most Christian and most forgotten element would be vastly increased, in some of its loveliest forms, all through the year.'

Thus speaks the only person in the world capable of writing a joyful carol for Lent! I can't imagine that if he saw the church today he would think the element of joy in religion had substantially increased since 1928; rather the reverse, if anything. There's something immensely quaint about Dearmer's vision of carol-books 'in continual use' - as if carols like this could ever have had a wide audience! - but not about the desire for joy, which we could all do with more of.  Personally, the only place I've really found joy in a church community was in my college chapel at university; the churches I've tried since have been almost aggressively joyless, full of sullen sidesmen, unsmiling priests, and bored congregations.  The priests and parishioners of these churches talk (on the internet) as if they find joy there, so they must have some; perhaps they just hide it away from new visitors.  I'm not a demonstrative person, and I don't ask for much in a church as evidence of joy - only a smile in return for my smile, but I often don't even get that.  It's a shame, because nothing attracts like joy, and nothing is more off-putting (to me, anyway) than the attitude of criticism and negativity with which Christians so often talk about each other and the world at large. The best-kept secret of the religious life is its potential for joy; believers are afraid to talk about it, non-believers sceptical of its very existence - and who can blame them, when Christians are as cynical and cold as the rest of the world? I wish we could all talk a little more about the things we like and a little less about the things we don't; we underrate the attractive power of joy if we don't find a place for it in our religion. Medieval religion was immensely joyful, and it irresistibly draws the heart and the imagination; I spend my life trying to explain this to people for whom the very words 'medieval religion' mean nothing but oppression, restriction and control. So many people have this bizarre idea that medieval religion only permitted joy on the margins, accidentally, when the mean old church wasn't looking, and everything else was scourging and fasting and cruelty - though nothing could be further from the truth! Dan Brown has a lot to answer for, but modern Christians don't help, when we make religion look like something which detracts joy from life rather than increases it. The world is full of sorrow and there's plenty to be sad about; all the more reason to praise what's lovely, to share it and talk about it, to say to people, and to yourself, 'this makes my life a little brighter'. And these carols did that for me today.

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