Hope: The Thing with Feathers

Hope: The Thing with Feathers November 10, 2020

During his first speech as the new President-elect last Saturday evening, Joe Biden quoted lines from the chorus of a hymn that has come to be meaningful to him:

And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand

Anyone who has ever stepped inside a Catholic church more than once for a mass that includes music has undoubtedly heard “On Eagle’s Wings.” I’m not Catholic, and “On Eagle’s Wings” is far from my favorite sacred song, but I do have a history with it.

“On Eagle’s Wings” is a tune from the Catholic charismatic renewal movement of the 1970s and 80s. I became aware of such music from my wife Jeanne shortly after we got together in the late 80s. She was part of that renewal while I, as a born and raised evangelical Protestant, knew nothing of it. Most renewal music offends my classically trained musical ear, but it is easy to sing, has catchy tunes, and has turned out to be useful in a number of ways over the years.

During the three years that we lived in Milwaukee while completing my Ph.D. studies at Marquette University three decades ago, I made some additional money beyond the pittance I earned as a teaching fellow by serving as the organist for Grace Presbyterian Church. I studied piano from age four, thought until my senior year in high school that I would be a concert pianist, realized that I would not be (I was good, but was not that good), then taught myself the organ in my mid-twenties after observing that I could make a bit of money by playing Sunday services for various congregations. Over time I have played in churches ranging from Catholic to Unitarian, Baptist to Episcopalian, frequently noting that I would attend any church that paid me to do so.

Grace Presbyterian was a small church, with no more than 100 or so in attendance each Sunday. In addition to playing the modest pipe organ, my duties included being responsible for their choir, which consisted of five people—one for each of the four parts with an extra soprano thrown in. And they were trying to sing pieces in four-part harmony, often pieces that would have been a challenge for choirs three or four times larger with well-trained voices.

Which they were not. Three of the five could read music reasonably well; one of the members who could read music was also tone-deaf. They sang with gusto, but the quality of their product was well below the energy they brought to it. So, I introduced them to some material that I thought, musically speaking, was more appropriate for their abilities. Jeanne had a singing career during her twenties before we met in our early thirties; one part of that career was being a minister of music and cantor in several Catholic churches in Brooklyn where she grew up. She introduced me to the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, music whose deliberate simplicity in either unison or two parts is intended for congregational singing—or for choirs such as the one at Grace Presbyterian.

Anyone familiar with folk masses will recognize some of the tunes from the Saint Louis Jesuits: “Be Not Afraid,” “Here I Am, Lord,” “You Are Near,” “The Cry of the Poor,” and—of course—”On Eagle’s Wings.” Simple, straightforward, boring, and downright offensive to many. But they are singable, easily memorized, and can be handled by a congregation unused to participating in corporate song. Just perfect for my choir, in other words—and they loved the new tunes. Of course, I did not reveal to the choir they were learning Catholic worship songs until the new pieces became such a basic part of their repertoire that they were willing to look past their controversial source.

The text of “On Eagle’s Wings” is based on Psalm 91, which promises that “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings will you find refuge. It’s an odd, but familiar, picture of the relationship of the divine to human beings. A dove at Jesus’ baptism, Celtic Christianity’s imagining the Holy Spirit as a wild goose, my family’s referring to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird”–there’s something attractive about imagining the divine with avian characteristics. Emily Dickinson must have had this in mind when she memorably wrote that

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

For many of us, hope poked its head up for the first time in a long while last Saturday when we learned–finally–from several new sources that Joe Biden had passed the necessary threshold of electoral votes and was projected as our new President-elect. It’s all over but the shouting. There has beeen plenty of shouting, and will be for the foreseeable future, but as President Gerald Ford memorably said in a different context, “our long national nightmare is over.” Jeanne and I heard the report at the same time. As is appropriate for our radically different personalities, she ran out onto the sidewalk in front of the house and screamed at the top of her lungs, while I sat with tears in my eyes in my living room chair, thankful that we weren’t going to have to start looking into moving to Canada after all.

I know that not everyone feels the same way. For everyone who is breathing easier and walking lighter over the past few days, there are others who are sure that we are collectively headed to perdition on a road paved with socialist and communist commitments. But the birds at the feeders in the front and on the side of our house are looking a bit more divine than usual this week, even though their wings and feathers aren’t large enough to shelter anyone. They are related to “the thing with feathers.” As a former student from more than a decade ago, now a lawyer and activist in California, posted on Facebook on Saturday evening:

Y’all feel that? That new lightness to the air? That’s hope, y’all. 

May it bear us on the breath of a new dawn.

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