STLT#335, Once When My Heart Was Passion Free

Over the past almost eleven months, this spiritual practice has gone from personal folly to best kept secret. Somewhere along the way, Mark Belletini noticed this and has been a wonderful resource of stories from the STLT hymnal commission and these hymns. He said to me at General Assembly this year that he’s grateful that I am doing this project, examining every hymn, singing them as best I can and thinking about the massive scope of work such an undertaking requires.

And occasionally I irk him.

A few days ago, I found myself baffled by the inclusion of a particular hymn – not because it had what I consider troubling lyrics or history, but because I just didn’t get the theological purpose of its inclusion. On Facebook, colleague David Miller Kohlmeier found what I had been missing:

It reminds me of the Max Kapp hymn I Brought My Spirit to the Sea, in that it has a single individual in a moment of existential wondering and questioning. The difference is that the Wordsworth hymn has the speaker focused on another human and not on his own subjective mystical experience.

It feels profoundly theological to me in that its about (IMO) a male voice of privilege trying to feel a connection in the human experience of someone from a totally different social location, and leaving the encounter with something changed inside of him that he can’t quite articulate.

It’s one of those hymns that is about the question and not about the answer. That it doesn’t name God explicitly only makes it more theological, IMO. It’s deeply human. Which makes it about God.

And that’s all good. Mark followed up with frustration – not directly aimed at me (although maybe at my obtuseness over the hymn), but at those who think a song has to explicitly mention God in order to be theological. I get his frustration; from stories he’s told, this is among the many slings and arrows the STLT commission battled in their work to create a inclusive hymnal.

I tell you all this to say this: Mark, I don’t need a direct reference to God to be inspired by this one. I get it.

Once when my heart was passion free to learn of things divine,
the soul of nature suddenly outpoured itself in mine.

I held the secrets of the deep and of the heavens above;
I knew the harmonies of sleep, the mysteries of love.

And for a moment’s interval the earth, the sky, the sea —
my soul encompassed each and all, as they encompass me.

These words, by Catholic priest John Bannister Tabb (and set to the sweet shape note tune Primrose), encapsulate for me our first source, the direct experience of transcending mystery.

This is just lovely. Again, a hymn I have managed to bypass for reasons passing understanding. A hidden gem for sure…. a hidden gem speaking of that hidden gem that is transcendent awe.

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One Comment

  1. Yes. Lovely. As is “Alone She Cuts and Binds the Grain,” but I still can’t imagine when I’d use the latter in a service, much as I like David’s take on it. That’s not true; I can imagine using it, but only paired with a reflection like his. Perhaps in a service all about unlikely theological songs and what makes them significant. There are lots–don’t we all have songs that have deep meanings that we’d have to explain to people in order for them to get it?–but I don’t think anyone would want them in the hymnal. “Rocket Man” would be one for me, and “Pretty and High” by the Roches, and “Let It Go” . . .

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