My church recently sang one of my favorite hymns, a hugely popular standard piece known and loved across the English-speaking world. It regularly shows up among the most popular three or four hymns in Christian use. Listening to it again, I thought of the larger poem from which the words were taken, a sprawling piece that ranges over Sanskrit scripture, Hindu ecstatic experience, Greek orgies, Orientalist racial stereotypes, dervishes, dusky maidens, anti-Catholic digs, nineteenth century church polemics, anti-clericalism, hashish, and hallucinogenic drugs.
And yes, you honestly do know the hymn I mean.
The source poem is The Brewing of Soma (1872), by the great Quaker and abolitionist writer, John Greenleaf Whittier. Soma was the mystical drink extolled in the ancient Hindu Vedas, the drink of the gods that allowed humans to taste ecstasy. After the brewing, the devotees taste the drug, and in so doing they share a new consciousness:
They drank, and lo! in heart and brain
A new, glad life began;
The gray of hair grew young again,
The sick man laughed away his pain,
The cripple leaped and ran.
“Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget your long annoy.”
So sang the priests. From tent to tent
The Soma’s sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.
Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna’s gate,
And, sobered, sank to earth.
The land with Soma’s praises rang;
On Gihon’s banks of shade
Its hymns the dusky maidens sang;
In joy of life or mortal pang
All men to Soma prayed.
The morning twilight of the race
Sends down these matin psalms;
And still with wondering eyes we trace
The simple prayers to Soma’s grace,
That Vedic verse embalms.
Um, just what popular modern hymn am I leading up to? And it’s a Christian hymn, you say?
For Whittier, that original Vedic experience had shaped later religious aspirations, as people struggled for wild ecstasies, for mystical experience, for rituals to induce religious awe and excitement. He is certainly digging here at the “high” churches of the US in his day, the Roman Catholics of course, but also high church movements among the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Reformed – the Oxford Movement and the Mercersburg Theology. These issues were becoming acute at the time Whittier was writing in the 1870s. In 1873, the US Episcopal church suffered a traumatic schism over Ritualism, as evangelicals defected to form the Reformed Episcopal Church.
Whittier’s poem is a polemical piece, which virtually identifies the modern-day high church with ancient pagan excesses. It is a rant against ritualism, if not against the whole idea of liturgy as such:
As in that child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!
Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger’s keen delight of pain,
The Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,
The wild-haired Bacchant’s yell,—
The desert’s hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below;
The naked Santon, hashish-drunk,
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir’s torture-show!
And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!
(A santon is a dervish or Sufi devotee).
After this dreadful litany of spiritual horrors, especially in a Christian context, Whittier offers his own ideal of faith. The words were then adapted by Garrett Horder in his 1884 Congregational Hymns – ironically, as Whittier himself did not approve of singing in church. He regarded the practice as nonsense typical of the high church enthusiasts he loathed. This was the resulting hymn:
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire
The still small voice of calm.
Yes, THAT hymn. The one that is sung so often by the very mainline churches that the hymn is denouncing. Even churches that, to Whittier’s puritanical eye, have fallen deep into ritualism and Papist superstition, and abandoned the core Christian principles of rest, silence, quiet, hush, calm, dumb …. churches like, for instance, my own Episcopalians. And still they sing the hymn, and love it.
Forgive their foolish ways.