Song of the Mystic (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I know of Father Abram J. Ryan (1838-1886) because he was once the pastor of the parish where I usually attend daily mass. Each day I walk by a historic marker that tells the story of this “poet, patriot, priest.” The thing is, he was a Confederate loyalist, which makes him a rebel patriot.  Thankfully, the rebels lost the war. But even the Confederate troops needed a chaplain, and that is how Father Ryan served.

Father Ryan is best know for writing the poem Conquered Banner which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, was “read or sung in every Southern household, and thus became the apotheosis of the ‘Lost Cause.’” Lost causes are good and all, but I prefer the following poem by Father Ryan instead. It is simple, beautiful, and evokes the theme of solitude, silence, and prayer.

Song of the Mystic 

I walk down the Valley of Silence—
  Down the dim, voiceless valley—alone!
And I hear not the fall of a footstep
  Around me, save God’s and my own;
And the hush of my heart is as holy
  As hovers where angels have flown!

Long ago was I weary of voices
  Where music my heart could not win;
Long ago was I weary of noises
  That fretted my soul with their din;
Long ago was I weary of places
  Where I met but the human—and sin.

I walked in the world with the worldly;
  I craved what the world never gave;
And I said: ” In the world each Ideal,
  That shines like a star on life’s wave,
Is wrecked on the shores of the Real,
  And sleeps like a dream in the grave.”

And still did I pine for the perfect,
  And still found the False with the True;
I sought ‘mid the Human for Heaven,
  But caught a mere glimpse of its blue;
And I wept when the clouds of the Mortal
  Veiled even that glimpse from my view.

And I toiled on, heart-tired of the Human,
  And I moaned ‘mid the mazes of men,
Till I knelt, long ago, at an altar
  And I heard a voice call me. Since then
I walk down the Valley of Silence
  That lies far beyond mortal ken.

Do you ask what I found in the Valley?
 ‘Tis my trysting place with the Divine.
And I fell at the feet of the Holy,
  And above me a Voice said, ” Be mine.”
And there arose from the depths of my spirit
  An echo—” My heart shall be thine.”

Do you ask how I live in the Valley?
  I weep—and I dream—and I pray.
But my tears are as sweet as the dew-drops
  That fall on the roses in May;
And my prayer, like the perfume from censers,
  Ascendeth to God night and day.

In the hush of the Valley of Silence
  I dream all the songs that I sing;
And the music floats down the dim Valley,
  Till each finds a word for a wing,
That to hearts, like the Dove of the Deluge,
  A message of peace they may bring.

But far on the deep there are billows
  That never shall break on the beach;
And I have heard songs in the silence
  That never shall float into speech;
And I have had dreams in the Valley
  Too lofty for language to reach.

And I have seen thoughts in the Valley—
  Ah! me, how my spirit was stirred!
And they wear holy veils on their faces,
  Their footsteps can scarcely be heard;
They pass through the Valley like Virgins:
  Too pure for the touch of a word!

Do you ask me the place of the Valley,
  Ye hearts that are harrowed by care?
It lieth afar between mountains,
  And God and His angels are there:
And one is the dark mount of Sorrow,
  And one the bright mountain of Prayer.

Belmont Abbey College, located near Charlotte North Carolina, has an archive on Father Ryan which you can access here.

  • Julie Cragon

    Interesting. My son attends Father Ryan High School in Nashville, named after Fr. Abram Joseph Ryan. Each year during Freshman orientation a student, dressed as Fr. Ryan, shows ups in the Chapel to tell his story. My dad and brothers also attended Fr. Ryan and it's definitely a part of our continued education in the Catholic Faith.

  • Frank

    @Julie, did you know of this poem? What did you think of it?Father Ryan's "valley" reminds me of "the desert" as the setting of silence and contemplation. This would make sense given that the coves and valleys can take on the same serene quality as the desert. At least in our neck of the woods.

  • Frank

    Apotheosis…sheeesh! Had to look that one up, LOL!

  • Julie Cragon

    I did not know of this particular poem but I knew of his poetry. We used to carry a book of Father Ryan's Poems in the store until we were just unable to purchase it anymore. It is wonderful. On a different note, my parents kept foster babies until they were adopted and we even named one of the infants Abram Joseph. Hope he grew to have a way with words.

  • Frank

    Fr. Ryan signed a letter like this once,Ah me! without trying—by merely Being gentle and human and tender to Souls astray, what good a priest Can do! Yours ever faithfully. Abram J. Ryan I found that on the YIM Catholic Bookshelf.

  • ThereseRita

    I have to tell you when I married a TN boy forty yrs ago, I was amazed that the War Between the States was still an 'issue' with him! I am so delighted that I can print this post & give it to him because I know this is one tidbit of Civil War history that he doesn't know about! Thx!

  • Frank

    @G, My pleasure and thanks for reading!

  • Anonymous

    "Thankfully the rebels lost the war."Thankfully for whom? Give thanks for what? Sherman's and Sheridan's destruction of innocent life and private property? When the Prussians heard what the Union had done, they were appalled. Reconstruction? The cynical manipulation of the black populace for the political advantage of the radical Republicans? A decade-long punitive occupation? It is clear that you know very little about this war and its human cost. Twenty generals in the South were Roman Catholic and all the bishops of the South supported secession. They knew something that the "winners' history" of the present does not communicate. Once this country was not a centralized Managerial State; they saw it coming–and they saw the hypocrisy with which the North clothed its ambitions: an opportunistic embrace of abolitionism. Fr. Ryan was a strange man, but he was not insane. Neither was Pius IX, who befriended Jefferson Davis. Could it be true, that in the 21st century, with all of the historical research available that people still believe that the War Between the States was really about "freeing the slaves?" I envy this naivete. Your Southern Catholic forbears knew better.

  • Frank

    @Anon 2:02. Thanks for your comment. My friend Qoheleth's words come to mind,When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to observe what is done on earth, I recognized that man is unable to find out all God's work that is done under the sun, even though neither by day nor by night do his eyes find rest in sleep.(Ecclesiates 8:16-17).As a retired Marine, I think I can say that some things are beyond my grasp. Lot's of things actually. This coming Memorial Day I will be remembering the fallen from our wars. In this case, I will of course remember the fallen from both sides. On a historical note, in my neck of the woods anyway, in the county I live in in East Tennessee, 74% of the voters voted to stay in the Union. Imagine that everyone you know voted about the same way you did. And then a few days later, they haul down your flag and replace it with another. That would be a "moment of truth" and time for a decision.Father Ryan followed his conscience. And I would have followed mine. I respect his decision, and as a gentleman, I trust he would have respected mine.Pax Christi

  • Donald Beagle

    Thank you, Frank, for sharing your thoughts on this poem, and for mentioning our archive of Fr. Ryan's papers at Belmont Abbey College. As curator of that archive, I might add that in 2008, the University of Tennessee Press published the book I co-authored about Fr. Ryan's life and work, titled "Poet of the Lost Cause." I have also just this month revised the article about Fr. Ryan in Wikipedia, which had formerly contained numerous inaccuracies. Your thoughts on "Song of the Mystic" also gives me a chance to correct here another inaccuracy by another scholar. Bernard Ruffin stated, in his 1991 book "Padre Pio: the True Story," (p. 425) that he believed "Song of the Mystic" had actually been written by the popular blind hymn-writer Fanny Crosby. Ruffin said he believed this because he found a handwritten copy of "Song of the Mystic" in Crosby's papers. My own research for "Poet of the Lost Cause" disproves Ruffin's notion. Ruffin believed Crosby sent the verse to Ryan to be set to music, and that it was then published under Ryan's own name in 1880. In fact, my research shows that the poem began to appear in southern newspapers over Ryan's name a decade earlier, in the early 1870's. Moreover, Fanny Crosby herself wrote two books of memoirs which describe how she wrote all her major works, but she never mentions "Song of the Mystic" or its alternate title "The Valley of Silence." And while Crosby's husband vigorously asserted her authorship claims to her many lyrics, he never made a public claim that she wrote "Song of the Mystic." Lastly, the definitive scholarly biography of Fanny Crosby, "Her Heart Can See," was published in 2005, and it mentions nothing about Crosby writing "Song of the Mystic." In actuality, the transcription of the verse that Ruffin discovered was not even in Crosby's own handwriting, but was actually transcribed by her personal secretary-copyist. It was common practise in the 19th century to hand-transcribe favorite verses for safe-keeping, since newspaper clippings tended to decay quickly. There is no longer any serious doubt that "Song of the Mystic" was written by Fr. Abram J. Ryan.–Donald Beagle

  • Frank

    @Donald, Thank you for this informative comment. I'of course, had know idea on the "back-story" regarding the poem and appreciate your comment and the work you do as an archivist. I, too, work in the local archives (4th career!) and that is how I know first-hand of the secession vote in Knox County.

  • Donald Beagle

    Dear Frank, I apologize for the l-o-n-g delay in responding to your last Fr. Ryan post, but I suddenly remembered that you wrote you are doing some archival work there in Knoxville. If you ever run across the names Mary Jane Ricardi or Minnie Dallas in the archives, you might want to be on the lookout for links with Fr. Abram Ryan. The McClung Historical Collection in Knoxville has a couple handwritten notes that Fr. Ryan sent to Mary Jane Ricardi, but we know almost nothing about her own life story. And Minnie Dallas seems to have been a young cousin of Ryan's that he took under his wing for a while in Knoxville. Thanks again for your interest. sincerely, Don Beagle