Wherein I fangirl a bit over a 19th century Unitarian minister and poet.
Again, as evening’s shadow falls, we gather in these hallowed walls;
and vesper hymn and vesper prayer rise mingling on the holy air.
May struggling hearts that seek release here find the rest of God’s own peace:
and, strengthened here by hymn and prayer, lay down the burden and the care.
Life’s tumult we must meet again; we cannot at the shrine remain;
but in the spirit’s secret cell may hymn and prayer forever dwell.
This is a gorgeous lyric, set to a lovely tune. It makes me again wish that I had the ability right now to hold vespers services.
But more than that, what I love about this lyric is the reality of it – no lofty ‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world’, no artificial perfection. No, it says, life sucks, but the singing and praying will help make it suck less so.
As I thought about the lyric, and noted that it was written by Samuel Longfellow, I realized that this is not the first time I’ve felt moved by his words. I noted in the post for O Life That Maketh All Things New that I felt better after singing the hymn, with its hopeful aspiration. And in the post for God of the Earth, The Sky, the Sea, that “I love this lyric – it’s grounding for me and harkens to something deep and primordial, something wholly of creation.” And now, today, I find comfort in lyrics like “may struggling hearts that seek release” and “life’s tumult we must meet again, we cannot at the shrine remain”… a sense that Longfellow isn’t willing to gloss over anything, but still recognizes that faith, and song, and prayer might be a reminder of our goodness and strength.
If ever there’s a message we need today, it’s this. It still feels in many ways like the world has crashed down around us… and yet our compulsion is still to gather in prayer, to lay down our burdens, to find strength. Our congregations were full or overflowing last week because of this compulsion. And Longfellow’s 150-or-so-year-old lyric not only speaks to this present moment, but reminds us that it’s a constant part of the human condition and human compulsion.
There doesn’t appear to be a lot known about him (although to be fair, I only just did a quick google search). And of course he fades under the light of his much more famous brother Henry. But I think that’s a shame, because our man Sam gets it. He speaks truth to our hearts. And he features prominently in our hymnal – we sing nine hymns with his lyrics. It’s becoming clear now why.