Pondering: Connections, Hymns and Thoughts of Jesus

What a strange set of connections that bring me to this blog post on Labor Day. I am not sure what the point of this blog post will be, but there seems to be something here worth documenting.

Hymn Making

“Who is that woman?” you might be asking of the blog header picture. She is Karen Lynn Davidson, someone who has advanced hymnody for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I thought of her book, “Our Latter-Day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages” yesterday as our congregation listened to the hymn “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee.”

In July 2009, after having written a few texts for hymns, I happened upon a a paper by her, which contained this quote:

It is in this last category [of hymn types, the devotional hymn] that we [as Latter-day Saints] are so lacking in texts inspired by the Book of Mormon. We need devotional hymns of timeless and universal dignity, personal meditations upon Book of Mormon texts, hymns that pour forth the gratitude and testimony of the writer, inviting the congregation to do the same. The Book of Mormon is as rich in personal poetic outpourings as it is in stories. Surely one of Zion’s early poets should have been eager to mine the gold from this rich new poetic source; surely someone, or several someones, should have vowed, “If this is a latter-day ‘Bible,’ then I will be its Isaac Watts; I will take the most energetic lyrical declamations, the most inspiring exhortations, the most memorable metaphors and promises, and give them new form, with rhyme and meter, so that Latter-day Saints can sing these glorious messages.”

“The Book of Mormon in Latter-day Saint Hymnody” by Karen Lynn Davidson in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 9, Issue – 1, Pages: 14-27 Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2000.

The footnote to Isaac Watts states: “Isaac Watts’s extraordinary talent allowed him to exercise his poetic gifts while remaining remarkably close to the original scripture.”   That thought intrigued me.  I had never thought of trying to stay true to scriptural text, or that there is a lack of texts from the Book of Mormon. 

This has influenced much of my hymn texts since that time.

Book of Mormon Inspired Hymn

As an example of her influence, over the last decade I have written a 8-6-8-6 (Common Meter) Hymn.  It can be sung to the tune named Balerma by Francois Barthelemon (1741 – 1808) (Book of Praise Pew Edition No. 364).

I conceived of this hymn while seated at the temple with my son-in-law-to-be waiting while my eldest daughter prepared to take out her endowments.  It began inspired by the temple experiences of Book of Mormon figures, including Lehi, Nephi, Jacob and the Brother of Jared.  It also speaks of other journeys, including the journey in building a temple starting with stone—a role taken most often by men working with course, hard materials—to completing the interior—the realm and responsibility more often of women, working with the softest elements. Dylan Finley suggested the journey might also include considering how the priesthood distills upon us over time as well.

When initially written in 2010 I felt because of its focus on the sacred temple, to designate this is a family hymn, not to be shared publicly. With the April 2019 General Conference talk on the temple by Elder Bednar, I feel authoritative approval to publish.  My daughter Emma assisted in the revisions, in 2018 and 2019, and I have submitted it to the church for possible inclusion in the new church hymnbook.

Here is the hymn. The music can be played here.

Jesus the Very Thought of Thee

As I write this, I note another connection: the above hymn can be sung to the tune of St. Agnes, used for “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee” (Hymns No 141, 315). Interesting that was the hymn that started these musings.

Just over one year before his call as the President of the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints, Howard W. Hunter gave a wonderful sermon titled with this hymn, quoting from the hymn throughout the sermon.

As a Palm Sunday and Easter season message, I have chosen for my brief text this morning the words of an ancient and sacred hymn, which are attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux and estimated to be nearly nine hundred years old. With the rest of the Christian world, the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sing reverently:

Jesus, the very thought of thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far thy face to see
And in thy presence rest.

On Palm Sunday, and next week on Easter Sunday, our minds turn very naturally to wonderful thoughts of Jesus. Indeed, Easter, along with perhaps Christmas, may be the only time in the whole year that some of our brothers and sisters in Christ’s flock find their way to church. That is admirable, but we wonder if thoughts of Jesus, which “with sweetness [fill our] breast,” ought not to be far more frequent and much more constant in all times and seasons of our lives. How often do we think of the Savior? How deeply and how gratefully and how adoringly do we reflect on his life? How central to our lives do we know him to be?

As this blog is dedicated to the power of virtues, this quote is also worth posting:

And what of the meek? In a world too preoccupied with winning through intimidation and seeking to be number one, no large crowd of folk is standing in line to buy books that call for mere meekness. But the meek shall inherit the earth, a pretty impressive corporate takeover—and done without intimidation! Sooner or later, and we pray sooner than later, everyone will acknowledge that Christ’s way is not only the right way, but ultimately the only way to hope and joy. Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that gentleness is better than brutality, that kindness is greater than coercion, that the soft voice turneth away wrath. In the end, and sooner than that whenever possible, we must be more like him. “To those who fall, how kind thou art!/How good to those who seek!”

May I close my remarks as did the author of that ancient hymn:

Jesus, our only joy be thou,
As thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
And thru eternity.

That is my personal prayer and my wish for all the world this morning. I testify that Jesus is the only true source of lasting joy, that our only lasting peace is in him. I do wish him to be “our glory now,” the glory each of us yearns for individually and the only prize men and nations can permanently hold dear. He is our prize in time and in eternity. Every other prize is finally fruitless. Every other grandeur fades with time and dissolves with the elements. In the end, just as in this Passover week, we will know no true joy save it be in Christ.

“Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” by Howard W. Hunter, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, April 1993 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Composer, Translator and Author

I was reorganizing a bookshelf this morning, and saw Sister Davidson’s book, and thought again of that hymn. Upon retrieving it from the shelf, there was a strong, peaceful feeling, as if it was a good thing for me to pursue the thoughts of yesterday more deeply. So I started from back of the book using the index entries to read about this hymn.

Dykes, John Bacchus (Composer)

English, 1823-1876, born in Kensington-upon-Hull. At ten he became the organist in his grandfather’s church and later received his bachelor in arts degree from Cambridge. It is said that his decision to devote his talents to church music came when he heard the famous soprano Jenny Lind perform in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. He was vicar of St. Oswald’s Church, Durham, and composed more than three hundred hymn tunes.

Karen Lynn Davidson. Our Latter-Day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages. Deseret Book Company, 1988, page 371

Three hundred hymn tunes! Wow.

That speaks to years of dedication to his craft. I can’t imagine that someone could make him do that; he consistently paid attention to the small insights and inspiration he had, and then found ways to discipline himself to actually write them in order to do that.

As someone that is nearing 250 YouTube videos after five years of weekly posts about my work with financial systems, which are tiny in comparison to the effort to write a hymn tune, I have some basis for appreciating what a monumental effort his work with hymn music was.

Caswall, Edward (Translator)

English, 1814-1878, born in Yatley. The son of a clergyman, he obtained both a bachelor of arts and a master of arts degree from Oxford, graduating with honors. In 1839, he was ordained a priest of the Church of England. He became increasingly interested in the Oxford, or Tractarian, cause (also known as the High Church movement), a group founded by members of the Church of England who wished to restore the older rituals and tenets. After the death of his wife, he followed the pattern of John Henry Newman and was reordained a members of the Catholic clergy. He divided the remainder of his life between writing and charitable works; virtually all of his hymn texts were written and published after he became a Catholic. He was especially well known for his translations from Latin.

Karen Lynn Davidson. Hymns: page 355

What courage, to follow his conviction to join the Catholic Church, in spite of his ordination to the priesthood in another religion! Would I have such courage, particularly later in my life when it might feel easier to just continue in my ways.

And would I have the energy to undertake more charitable works, instead of all this writing I’m doing today? (I wish sometimes I could read Latin, too). There are many things to learn from this man’s life.

Bernard of Clairvaux (Author)

French, 1091? – 1153. Born near the city of Dijon into a noble family, Bernard a monk in the Cistercian order and in 1115 founded a branch of the order at Clairvaux (pronounced approximately clair VOE). In spite of the wish of the Catholic Church to promote him, he remained an abbot at Clairvaux until his death. His reputation and influence spread widely, however, because of eloquence of his sermons and poems and his reputation for protecting the poor and weak against the more powerful. In 1174 he was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church.

Karen Lynn Davidson. Hymns: page 348

What a courageous man. Protecting the weak and the poor. Imagine how few institutions there were for such things in the 1100s.

I thought the name of the city, Clairvaux, was an interesting connection to the word clairvoyant “a person who claims to have a supernatural ability to perceive events in the future or beyond normal sensory contact.” It comes from late 17th century (in the sense ‘clear-sighted, perceptive’): from French, from clair ‘clear’ + voyant ‘seeing’ (from voir ‘to see’). 

What might we see better if we make connections between things, and ponder upon the important?

And speaking of choosing to be virtuous, as noted of him in the great hymn website, Hymnary.org

The world, it would be thought, would have had overpowering attractions for a youth who, like Bernard, had all the advantages that high birth, great personal beauty, graceful manners, and irresistible influence could give, but, strengthened in the resolve by night visions of his mother (who had died in 1105), he chose a life of asceticism, and became a monk. 

Hymnary.org sv. Bernard of Clairvaux

The Hymn: Analysis

This renowned hymn text is not a hymn of doctrine or exhortation. It is simply a meditation upon the name and spirit of Jesus. St. Bernard was a man of intense and emotional faith, and the ecstatic phrases of his hymn help us to center our thoughts on the Savior and give utterance to our praise and gratitude.

St. Bernard’s original Latin poem, written near the beginning of the twelfth century, is a joyous outpouring of feeling. It has sometimes been referred to as the “Rose Hymn” or “Rosy Hymn,” or by it Latin title “Jubilus rhythmicus de nomine Jesu” (“Joyful rhythm on the name of Jesus”). In the original it is 192 lines long; the poem and many excerpts from it have been translated by both Catholic and Protestant writers over the centuries. The translator of the version in our hymnal…wrote that it is “sweeter far” to see the face of Jesus and rest in his presence. It is interesting that the original Latin has a more tangible comparison: to see the face of Jesus is “sweeter than honey.”

On many occasions, revelation and guidance have come to prophets and Church leaders as they mediated upon the scriptures or on other serious matters. Meditation on sacred subjects is perhaps something that happens too seldom among Latter-day Saints. The words of St. Bernard remind us how rich and significant such an experience can be. They are an actualization of the words of Psalms 104:32: “My mediation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord.”

The tune, written in 1866, was named after St. Agnes, in Catholic tradition a Christian maiden who lived in ancient Rome and at age thirteen was beheaded for her beliefs by the Emperor Diocletian.

Karen Lynn Davidson. Hymns: page 167

What an ancient text! Imagine it’s influence through the years as it has been used by many authors and sung by many countless individuals.

What thoughts did it inspire in them? What great, charitable works? What peace, and what sweetness?

Mediation, and Relationships

Karen Lynn Davidson’s exhortation that I might profitably pursue more pondering has been helpful to me, in finding greater peace on this Labor Day than what I had planned to find in other activities I was planning to engage in.

Imagine my surprise, upon looking her name up to see she passed away not a year ago; which then sent me to Family Search to see what had been recorded of her life. Finding a nice tribute to her had not been saved, I attached it to her page.

I then noted the “View My Relationship Button” and clicked on it to see how I might be related to her, never having given it a thought in all the years I have been influenced by her.

She is my 3rd Cousin on my mother side! She descends from James Dalley by his second wife Emma Wright, rather than my great-great grandmother Johanne Bolette Bertelsen.

Connections

I believe God’s purpose in our lives here in mortality is to help us find connections. It begins as a baby, finding there is a connection to our hands, and to our mothers, and to our stomaches.

It continues as we learn there is a connection between the ball we are holding, and the earth upon which we stand, the connection we call gravity.

And we learn there is a connection between humility, and friendship, and kindness, and love.

There is a connection between me and Karen Lynn Davidson, that I had never considered. I appreciate her hard intellectual work in exploring, explaining, and expounding upon hymns, that I might know more, ponder more, and find more of what God wants me to understand in the world: connections to each of you, and all of God’s creations.

Happy Labor Day.

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