STLT#286, A Core of Silence

Programming Note: If you are going to be at SUUSI, drop me a note – I’d love to sing and talk about hymns with you!

Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks of this when flipping past this page of the hymnal:

But silliness aside, I never really looked at this hymn until today – in part because I am not a huge fan of modern pieces that forego time signatures when there’s nothing unusual about it, and in part because I’ve not ever really done a service on silence.

But then, that’s not really what this one is about, is it.

I started singing the song, by Jim Reilly (“a musician,” as Between the Lines says succinctly)… and the first verse is pretty good. I could have used it for my sermon last week on prayer. 

A core of silence breathes beyond all words,
or else the words have little worth;
to “Heart” or “Soul” or “Spirit” it comes forth
(the words we name them matter not).

Second verse – ah, yes, the artistic verse, and yes, pauses is where the music happens, white space is where the words speak. Good. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have been bypassing this hymn all these years.

And half the music lies within the pause
between the arches of the heart;
the print upon the page means less than ink
unless the white and black both speak.

And so now, with some renewed interest, the third verse:

The “True Religion” gathers up its text:
“In the beginning was the Word.”
But I seek quietness behind that start
and name it nothing, much less “God.”

All the Nopes in Nopeland.

Are you kidding me? No wonder UU Christians felt like they had to hide in the back corners at coffee hour, tentatively confessing even an appreciation of the teachings of Jesus in hushed tones.

I am shocked to find scare quotes in our hymnal.

I am shocked to find disdain aimed at a word many of us use to describe the mystery.

And yet I’m kinda not – I am certain that the Hymnal Commission included this one in good faith, making more space for atheists in our hymnody. But ugh, this third verse takes a perfectly good song and ruins it for me.

Here’s what I would love to see happen:

First, everyone take black sharpies and mark out that verse.

Second, some of our poets get together and write a third verse that expresses how much bigger the Word is than the words without insulting Christians.

Third, we acknowledge that, true to our assertion that revelation is not sealed, that in the past 25 years our understanding of our theologies has changed and grown, and that while all UU atheists are humanists, not all UU humanists are atheists.

Fourth, we get some time signatures and bars up in that score. (Seriously, was that some sort of theological statement too? It makes not-very-musical people not very likely to even give it a second glance.)

Anyway. An odd and strange experience this morning.

At least I got you to watch a bit of Get Smart.

8 responses to “STLT#286, A Core of Silence”

  1. Thanks for my laugh-out-loud moment of the morning!

  2. This is the most offensive thing in the hymnal. In my personal copy, I’ve got a big “X” in marker over this one. Nope. No way. Not ever. Nope.

  3. to write the “most offensive thing” in a U-U hymnal is quite an achievement, even if I wasn’t trying and even if I think the interpretation above is mistaken–i..e. the hymn is not concerned with atheism, or a belief or lack of belief in “God”–it has to do with my feeling that some kinds of “spiritual experience” (are these “scare quotes”, too?) are independent of language and the limitations it imposes–I do have a kind of disdain–for language, necessary as it is, and as much as I have devoted part of my life to it–but then it was the language bias of so many U-U experiences that drove me to write the hymn–it’s not much of surprise that some U-U folk wouldn’t like it

    but thank you for “The Cone of Silence”, of which I was unaware until now


  4. some of my hymns have time signatures and some don’t–in this case I find the way I feel the flow of the piece makes it preferable not to use one

    Jim again

  5. P.S. a little scared of you folks and your black markers–I’m keep you both away from MY personal copy for sure

  6. I am much indebted to Frances Dearman for the “close reading” of my hymn found on the Olinda U-U site; Dearman understands what I tried to communicate and how the text and music work together, including the lack of meter in the tune. :

  7. Love this thread so much … and the hymn … and the pondering of it … and the gracious response … and the faith that gave voice (and silence) to it all.

  8. Erin Taylor-Czerniak Avatar
    Erin Taylor-Czerniak

    I was about to hop on and explain the hymn but I see someone more qualified beat me to it.

    Maybe the operative word in the last phrase is “I.” Without that one simple monophoneme, the sentence would be an atheistic commandment.

    You can always choose not to sing any part of anything, of course. We churchgoin’ atheists are often called upon to sing words like “I believe in God,”* and this one does so, happily! I then make my full disclosures in coffee hour to mitigate the, er, dogmatic cultural appropriation. I sing that song to help others celebrate their beliefs, not to proselytize my own. That’s what Core of Silence is for. 😉


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