One night, desperate for something to quiet my mind (worrying about work, my responsibilities as new department chair), I recalled a verse from the 23rd psalm, He makes me lie down by still waters. The waters of menuchot, deep rest, the kind of rest experienced by God on the seventh day and available to Jews who observe the Sabbath. Well, I mis-recalled that verse, but saying it and visualizing the experience of lying by the waters of menuchot brought me a moment of relief that night. Not sleep, but a brief ceasefire in my war with insomnia.
Hallel, meaning praise—the short service added to the morning prayers on holidays and new moons—is a pastiche of psalms and pieces of psalms and has always been my favorite service, even before I understood it. I loved its sounds and the many lovely melodies used to sing them. But little did I know how revelatory it was and would continue to be. Even after understanding the Hebrew words was second nature to me, a verse could always astonish me.
Caedmon connects the energy of language with the power of divine spirit, and his religious poetry of praise inaugurates a tradition. It’s possible, too, that Bede was promoting that tradition via Caedmon. This way of connecting language to the divine looks backward to Genesis 1 and forward to Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, and Christopher Smart, who sings of the transcendent virtue of praise itself.
My parents had made an immense leap of faith in coming to this continent when they did, when no one from their ancient South Indian world was ever disposed to leave it, especially to go so far, to a place so strange to their habits, understandings, their sense of social order. They had left one civilization for another and for long, suspenseful years were caught between two contrived human constructs, suspended over the abyss of reality. When I hear “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” when I spool it out in my mind, they seem somehow to live inside the hymn.
So it’s ironic, really – it quite betrays me – to realize that I must have loved this hymn for its whiff of the monastery: chalice and incense smuggled in by way of the minor chord. There’s a moment, a breathtaking moment, when the meter defies expectation.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
I sat on our terrazzo tiled living room floor that day, and found Will Thompson’s “Jesus is All the World to Me.” The hymn would become my favorite hymn in the war. Singing it in the privacy of my bedroom one day as the war drew closer, I knew that this was the hymn for my family. I used to know the power of such old hymns as a little girl growing up in my mother’s church during the 1960s. Even as a little girl, I was drawn to them as I was to poetry. Maybe I loved them because Mamma sang them out loud through the house when she was down. Maybe I loved them because they were my first contact with poetry. I had memorized many of them as a child, held them to heart, and believed in their power. This was the old place of peace, I thought, where I needed to take my family. This would be our healing.
I’d call “I Love to Tell the Story” my favorite hymn for two reasons: its simplicity, and the fact that “I love to tell the story” could be any writer’s mantra. The hymn is apparently too simple for the Episcopal hymnal, which is ironic as its author, Katherine Hankey, was a member of the “Clapham sect,” a nineteenth-century group of evangelical Anglicans devoted to ending slavery.