HYMNS OF THE FATHERS. "Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised Thee."
Who, in his dreams of the past, has not sometimes found himself floating across the Mediterranean down to ancient Egypt, and there moving, as none but spirits can move, along the face of those venerable and mysterious deposits of the Delta over which Egyptian, Ethiopian, Assyrian, Persian, .Roman, and Saracen, in successive generations, have passed before him? and whose imagination has not wandered up the Nile in quiet visionary fashion, now under the shadow of African palms, and now through lily banks by the side of gliding pelicans, and within sight of the giraffe and the gazelle freely rambling on the desert sands? Who has not in his dreams looked at the calcareous cliffs from which the generations of the Old World dug their lime? or at the sandstone quarries which supplied slabs and blocks for the temples that had fallen into ruin long before England began her course? or at the awful granite piles from whence came the materials for those gigantic sculptures which still overawe mankind? or at the wilderness of ruins and sepulchres which, with their myriads of mummy forms, give to our hearts such lessons on human life? Who has not wandered there thinking of Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and his brethren, Jacob worshipping on his staff, his embalmment, and his funeral; and then of another Joseph and Mary, and the Holy Child; and then of the first Christian disciples, and their first flight to the desert? Our dreamy flights have sometimes led us from Egypt across the Bed Sea to the base of Mount Colzim, just where its bend looks out through the desert pass of Mount Kallil towards the plain of Baccarah, there to look at a few palms, sustained by three brackish springs, with a little garden of potherbs, onions, and dourah; and to find a human form seated at the entrance of a recess, dressed in wash-leather, with a sallow face expressive of quiet earnestness and high purpose, the lustrous depth of his upturned eye revealing the joy of his communion with heaven; the man who might be called the father of that recluse life which, though springing from perverted Christian principle, yet for so many ages swayed the movements of the Christian world, and gave out the precious streams of hymns and songs which helped to preserve the spiritual life of a cloistered church. Then, have there not been visions of old Alexandria? visions which, like dissolving views, have changed from brilliant palaces to libraries and lecture-halls, from close retired streets to old basilicas, from students' cells to crowded places filled with multitudes struggling and heaving amidst the processes of transition from old heathenism to a half-formed Christianity; and then our visionary path has been crossed by the shadows of such men as Clement, and Origen, and Didymus, and their trains of disciples who peopled the first Christian schools of Alexandria. One would like to arrest the shade of Clement, and ask him to give us a few more hymns, or to sing to us some of the fragments that we have caught up from the ruins of his music-school, and to sing them as he and bis scholars used to sing them both at home and in the church. It is difficult to catch even a dreamy outline of Clement's person and life; he has left a few touches of his own character. At the end of the second century, Alexandria was like a great centre of telegraphic communication, mysteriously linking itself with all the outstanding points in the world of thought. In and around that centre many were running to and fro asking and answering questions, and voices from all nations were mingling in deep-toned inquiries after the supreme good. There, in the midst, was Clement, anxiously looking hither and thither, always intensely hungering and thirsting after truth. Now, he took lessons from the retreats of Lebanon, now from Assyria, and now from the Hebrew school of Tiberias. It was a weary search; but perfect sincerity is always honoured from above, and is sure of its goal. His heart found rest at last; where his heart rested, there the wants of his intellect were supplied. He says enough about himself and Christianity to prove that he had found the secret of Christian life, and that he had been "transformed by the renewing of his mind." Still, his long in and out and round-about search for truth, and the hard processes through which his mind and heart had passed in the course of his religious pursuit, gave a peculiar shaping to his mental and spiritual character as a Christian. Some of his peculiar views, his views of Christian perfection, caught the attention of Wesley, who, stigmatized as a perfectionist himself, though coming very much nearer to the truth than the Alexandrian father, has ingeniously given a versified exposition of Clement's mistaken notion, and has embodied it in his collection of hymns and sacred poems. It seems fitting that one of the earliest hymnists among the Fathers should have his distinctive views thrown into a hymnic form by a modern Father of spiritual hymns and songs. Wesley sings "on Clement Alexandrinus's description of a perfect Christian:"—
Here from afar the finish'd height
Of holiness is seen;
But oh what heavy tracts of toil, ..
What deserts lie between!
Man for the simple life divine
What will it cost to break,
Ere pleasure soft and wily pride
No more within him speak?
What ling'ring anguish must corrode
The root of nature's joy?
What secret shame and dire defeats
The pride of heart destroy?
Learn thou the whole of mortal state
In stillness to sustain;
Nor soothe with false delights of earth,
Whom God hath doomed to pain.
Thy mind no multitude of thoughts,
Nor stupor shall distress;
The venom of each latent vice
Wild images impress.
Yet darkly safe with God thy soul
His arm still onward bears,
Till through each tempest on her face
A peace beneath appears.
'Tis in that peace we see and act
By instincts from above,
With finer taste of wisdom fraught,
And mystic powers of love.
Yet ask not in mere ease and pomp
Of ghostly gifts to shine,
Till death, the lownesses of man,
And pitying griefs are thine.
As an exposition of Clement's doctrine of Christian perfection, this is sufficiently clear to guard those whose service of song the author intended to regulate; while it is aptly made to fall off' into that kind of haziness which indicates the uncertain theology of the Alexandrine Father. But whatsoever peculiar turn of thought Clement's mind might take on some theological points, Christianity had simplified his heart and kindled his poetic powers into hallowed devotion to his beloved Eedeemer. The artless child seems to brighten into the praiseful seraph in his hymn "of the Saviour Christ." An English rendering, somewhat in imitation of the original metre, may help us to sing with Clement:—
Lead, Holy One, lead!
The little ones need
The voice of their King.
The footprints of Jesus
Are shining before us,
His children to lead,
On the heavenly way their footsteps to bring.
O Age Infinite!
Divine Living Word!
The Fountain of mercy!
Creator of beauty!
Sustainer of might
To all happy spirits; Christ Jesus our Lord!
By milk from above
For babes of Thy love,
Thy wisdom's sweet store,
Their tender lips nourished,
Refreshed, and replenished;
They sing o'er and o'er
Their own artless hymns, as tow'rds Thee they move.
O Christ our King,
Together we sing;
Our hymns never cease.
Of rewards from the Holy;
To the child ever mighty,
Our chorus shall sing,
Till thy kindred see the God of all peace.
The history of Christian hymnology affords here and there an interesting illustration of the truth, "Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee." When the apostate Julian ascended the throne, he turned his legislation against Christ, and prohibited all Christians from learning or teaching the classic literature of the Gentile world. He thought to extinguish Christianity by shutting up Christians to barren ignorance. His policy, however, worked against his own purpose. The poetic power and taste of Christian leaders were now called forth to supply purer elements of education than the popular classic poets could yield; and driven from heathen measures, Christians were supplied with hymns and songs, which at once formed literary lessons and means of chaste excitement for the heart. Among several who took the lead in opening these fresh supplies of poetic food for youthful Christianity, there was one who had been a schoolfellow and companion of Julian himself. The interior of Asia Minor, now so little known, was open during the third century to the genial influence of the Christian religion. To us the richly diversfied landscapes are all but forbidden ground; but once the mountain ranges and romantic glens, the fruitful plains and gardenlike valleys, the charming dales and upland forests of pine and beach and odorous cedar, the perfumed flower-beds broadly sheltered by the plane-tree, and the river banks adorned with the verdure of mastic and tamarind groves, combined to form a scene in which the Christian Church trained some of her noblest sons. Several of these were the sons of holy women: one was Basil the Great; and another was his schoolfellow and life-long friend, Gregory of Nazianzen, whose father lived to see his son associated with him in the bishopric of his native township, and whose saintly mother, Nonna, had her last days cheered by the hymns and spiritual songs of the boy in whose holy character and life she saw the answer to her prayers. Basil's letters to his friend, from his own religious retreat, throw some light upon Gregory's character as a Christian poet; and from one to whose love for nature and fine taste the cultivated Basil could make such affectionate and charming appeals, we might expect such hymnic contributions as even now assist our service of song. Gregory might be said to have spent his useful life—
'Twixt the mount and multitude;
Doing or receiving good.
With the multitude he sang of Christ; and he instructed his flock in their creed, while he taught them to sing—
Hear us now, 0 King eternal;
Give us power to hymn Thy praise;
Thou, our Lord; and Thou our Master;
By Thee alone our songs we raise.
By Thee the cBoirs of angels glow;
By Thee the ceaseless ages flow.
By Thee the sun appears in glory;
The moon in brightness keeps her pace;
Stars shine forth in smiling beauty!
And reason marks the human race.
Man breathed that light from Thoe alone,
That all Thy other works outshjue.
Thou art of all things the Creator;
Life springs where'er Thy voice is heard;
All is ordered by Thy wisdom;
All is finished by Thy word;
Thy Holy Word, Thy only Son
"With Thee in might and glory one.
As Lord of all we Him confess;
With Him the Holy Ghost we bless;
Pervading and inspiring all,
0 Triune God; on Thee we call!
But the. junior bishop had to psalm it in "troublous times." He was sometimes touched by circumstances so like those of ancient psalmists, that his feelings seemed to be. reflections of theirs; and his metrical expression is sweetly, attuned to their measures. Things around him, both in Church and State, were heaving and breaking up, . threatening indeed a return of chaotic confusion. "Men's hearts were failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which were coining on the earth"—Ecclesiastical tremor, social corruption, storms from "high places," and faithlessness among the masses, all pressed hardly upon the spirits of Gregory. His heart was overwhelmed at times, and like another sweet singer, he was ready to cry, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest." One of his plaintive songs has reached us from his religious retreat—
My fatherland alone to me remains,
The floods of faction o'er my country sweep;
For my uncertain feet, the land retains
No resting-place; no friend to weep;
No child to soothe the homeless poor forlorn;
I wander day by day with trembling limbs and torn.
What lot awaits me? What my mortal doom?
Where shall this jaded body find its rest?
Shall this poor trembling flesh e'er find a tomb?
By whom shall these dim eyes in death be blest?
Will any watch? Will any pity me?
Will they be Christian watchers? Or, shall sinners see?
Or shall no grave enclose this mortal frame?
When laid a heavy breathless corpse of clay?
Cast on the rock uncovered and in shame;
Or tossed in scorn to birds and beasts of prey?
Or burnt to ashes, given to the air?
Or thrown into the weedy deep to perish there?
Thy will be done, O Lord! That day shall spring,
When at Thy word, this clay shall reappear!
No death I dread, but that which sin will bring;
No fire or flood without Thy wrath I fear;
For Thou, 0 Christ, my Lord, art fatherland to me!
My wealth, and might, and rest; my all I find in Thee!
There is something in the calm light and devout stillness of the evening hour which touchingly answers to the solemn, peacefulness of the Christian's last moments on earth.. This has been felt in all ages by Christian genius. And. the feeling has found expression in a line of evening hymns, hymns which served to hush the spirits of God's children from generation to generation; and from age to age to hallow the mysterious advances of nightly repose. Gregory is among the leaders in evening song; and how his music lulls us—
Christ, my God, I come to praise Thee,
As the day dims into night;
Thou who art from everlasting—
Light of ever living light.
Thou didst melt orig'nal darkness,
Give to light its first unfolding,
That all things might live in light.
Settling the unsettled chaos
Into forms of beauteous order,
As we see them fair and hright.
Reason's light to man Thou gavest,
'Bove the speechless creature's dight,
That on light in Thy light gazing,
He himself might be all light.
Thou hast deck'd the heavens with radiance;
With Thy clust'ring lamps of glory,
Hanging the expanse above;
Calling day and night to service,
Like a happy brotherhood, by turns
Obedient to the law of love.
Thou by night, from tears and toiling,
Giv'st our wearied nature rest,
Waking us as day arises,
To the works Thou lovest best.
While the last stanza lingers on our ears, who does not think of Bishop Ken? who is not ready to sing that immortal "even-song" of his, which for a century and a half has been naturally rising to the lips of English Christians—
Soon as the evening shades prevail?
How alike were Bishop Gregory of Nazianzen and Bishop Ken in some of the closing circumstances of their career! and how alike was their mode of uttering the quiet joys of their life in retreat. Gregory had mastered the swellings of heresy, and had weathered the storm of imperial hate; but just as he saw the dawn of favour from "high places," and there was the promise of some reward for his faithfulness on earth, unforeseen difficulties beset his way to ecclesiastical preferment; and shrinking from strife for mere position, he turned aside from the public scenes of action, and, as a lone man, spent his last few years in attuning his heart to the melodies of heaven. So, good Bishop Ken, having stood a faithful witness for Christian purity in two courts, under William of Orange in Holland, and then as chaplain to Charles II. of England, securing in both cases the esteem of those whom he consistently reproved; and having shared imprisonment with his six episcopal brethren, for resisting the irregular measures of James II., his conscience found difficulty in accepting the continuance of ecclesiastical honour under William, and he retired into private life, to solace himself with hymns and songs while waiting for his divine Master's coming. His spirit shrank from the strife of party. He would take no part in the vain contention. "No, no!" said he, in his own style,
I gladly wars ecclesiastic fly,
Where'er contentious spirits I descry;
Eas'd of my sacred load, I live content,
In hymns, not in disputes, my passions vent.
And had his meek and tuneful spirit found no other vent than in his blessed evening hymn, his memory would never lose its freshness, interwoven as it is with the evening devotion of so many English homes. Have you, as a lover of contemplative goodness, ever lingered of an evening among the peaceful homes of Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, Ken's birthplace? or did you ever sit in the summer gloaming on the old bench in Winchester School, where he took his early lessons, and try to call up the presence of the poetic boy? or have you joined at even song, in the noble old church at Bath, where the pious bishop used to compose prayers as well as hymns for his flock? or have you watched the sunset from amidst the quiet beauties of Longleat, in Wiltshire, where the venerable pilgrim closed his life-journey, saying, "I die in the communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross"? Have you? Then the evening hymn will always have music for your heart; and like one who had caught the spirit of the gentle-minded hymnist, you will learn at every night-fall to pass devoutly into sleep singing within your soul—
All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light,
Keep me, oh, keep me, King of kings,
Beneath Thine own Almighty wings!
Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son,
The ill that I this day have done;
That with the world, myself, and Thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed!
To die, that this vile body may
Rise glorious at the awful day!
Oh, may my soul on Thee repose,
And may sweet sleep mine eyelids close;
Sleep, that may me more vig'rous make,
To serve my God when I awake!
When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply!
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest!
Dull sleep, of sense me to deprive!
I am but half my time alive;
Thy faithful lovers, Lord, are grieved
To lie so long of Thee bereav'd.
But though sleep o'er my frailty reigns,
Let it not hold me long in chains;
And now and then let loose my heart,
Till it an hallelujah dart!
The faster sleep the senses binds,
The more unfettered are our minds;
Oh, may my soul from matter free,
Thy loveliness unclouded see!
Oh, when shall I in endless day,
For ever chase dark sleep away,
And hymns with the supernal choir
Incessant sing, and never tire?
Oh, may my Guardian while I sleep,
Close to my bed his vigils keep;
His love angelical instil;
Stop all the avenues of ill:
May he celestial joy rehearse,
And thought to thought with me converse;
Or in my stead, all the night long,
Sing to my God a grateful song!
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
Gregory of Nazianzen and Bishop Ken have long since met, and sung together where evening shadows never fall; and there, too, are the kindred spirits whose evening hymns form the links between the times of Gregory and Ken. There, among the rest, is Hilary of Aries, once bishop, popular preacher, theologian, and poet. And there is Ambrose of Milan, whose morning and evening melodies gave form of devotional expression to the softened heart of the great Augustine, who "alone upon his bed" remembered the verses of his friend—
Maker of all, the Lord
And ruler of the height,
Who, robing day in light, has poured
Soft slumbers o'er the night,
That to our limbs the power
Of toil may be renew'd,
And hearts be rais'd that sink and cower,
And sorrows be subdu'd.
From one of these hymnists we have one touching strain, one of the living links in the Church's line of evening hymns—
Christ our day, our brightest light,
With Thy face illume the night;
Very Light of light art Thou,
Most blessed light imparting now.
Oh most holy Lord, we pray;
Mighty Guardian, with us stay;
With quiet blest these hours be;
All calm, while we have rest in Thee.
Let not heavy sleep oppress;
Let no deadly foe distress;
Nor our flesh through him beguile,
And in Thy sight our soula defile.
Though sleep fasten on our eyes,
Keep our hearts in wakeful guise;
With Thine own right hand defend
Thy servants who on Thee depend.
Servants purchased with Thy blood,
Bearing still their mortal load,
Lord, remember! meet ua here,
Thou soul defender, now be near!
How beautiful are the oneness and the harmony of the evening voices that thus come to us from the different periods of Christian history. And no one can catch the tones of evening worship from far-off ages without feeling that they sweetly melt into that tender melody of John Keble's, to which so many hearts of our own times respond, in singing the evening hymn founded on St. Luke xxiv. 29, "Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent "—
'Tis gone, that bright and orbed blaze,
Fast fading from our wistful gaze;
Ton mantling cloud has hid from sight
The last faint pulse of quivering light.
In darkness and in weariness
The traveller on his way must press,
No gleam to watch on tree or tower,
Whiling away the lonesome hour.
Sun of my soul! Thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
Oh may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant's eyes.
When round Thy wondrous works below,
My searching rapturous glance I throw;
Tracing out Wisdom, Power, and Love,
In earth or sky, in stream or grove ;—
Or by the light Thy words disclose,
Watch Time's full river as it flows;
Scanning Thy gracious providence,
Where not too deep for mortal sense ;—
When with dear friends sweet talks I hold,
And all the flowers of life unfold;
Let not my heart within me burn,
Except in all I Thee discern.
When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep;
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
For ever on my Saviour's breast.
Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live:
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.
Thou Framer of the light and dark,
Steer through the tempest Thine own ark;
Amid the howling wintry sea
We are in port if we have Thee.
The rulers of this Christian land,
"Twixt Thee and us ordained to stand;
Guide Thou their course, 0 Lord, aright.
Let all do all as in Thy sight.
Oh, by Thine own sad burthen, borne
So meekly up the hill of scorn,
Teach thou Thy priests their daily cross
To bear as Thine, nor count it loss!
If some poor wandering child of Thine
Have spurn'd to-day the voice divine;
'Now, Lord, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.
"Watch by the sick: enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store:
Be every mourner's sleep to-night
Like infant's slumbers, pure and light.
Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take;
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in heaven above.