”Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Veterans' Day, anyone?

Veterans’ Day, anyone?

Curses on Georg Friedrich Händel! It’s All Souls’ Day, and I should be charitable to someone who is no longer here to defend himself. But I’d like to know how I remember the hymn “Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve and press with vigor on” sung to Handel’s tune Ciroë  is number 577 Episcopal Hymnal 1940—when I have not played the organ in a church that used The 1940 since 1982.

Ciroë (Cyrus) is one of those tunes from a Händel opera (in this case Cyrus, which no one has ever heard) some kind person arranged for congregational singing as a hymn tune. You know, like “Joy to the World.” I’ve never heard the operatic works from which the tunes were snatched, but my guess is they are complex arias or instrumental set pieces.

This morning the tune circled in my mind with the words

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve,
And press with vigor on;
A heavenly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown,
And an immortal crown.

A cloud of witnesses around
Hold thee in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way,
And onward urge thy way.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) wrote these words;  they were first published in Hymns Founded on Various Texts in the Holy Scriptures, by Job Orton in 1755 (1).

I think I was singing the hymn and tune because Joanie the Cat woke me up purring at 5:05, and I realized that even if I could go back to sleep (which would have been impossible because I was already singing the hymn and tune in my mind), she would not let me. “Awake. . . stretch every nerve.”

That I was humming the tune and remembering the words—yes, all of them—to the first two verses of the hymn was strange enough on its own, but that I realized the second stanza is appropriate for today, All Souls’ Day, boggled my poor half-asleep mind.

Where on do these thoughts come from? That today is All Souls’ Day is of no consequence to me, and I do not have any truck with the idea that “a heavenly race demands [my] zeal,” and I don’t particularly like the tune. It’s not horrible, but I dread having it in my head all day.

(Yesterday I was plagued with the tune of “We’ll have an Old Fashioned Wedding,” from Annie Get Your Gun, which I’m pretty sure I had not heard since I saw a performance of the show early this summer. It rattled around in my head all day. And it will now probably alternate in my awareness with the Händel tune for the rest of this day—because I mentioned it.)

I learned the hymn tune Ciroë long before I was an Episcopal church organist; the tune as I learned was named Christmas. We sang it in the Baptist church when I was a kid with the words

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind
To you and all mankind.

Nahum Tate, the magisterial hymn writer who was poet laureate of England, wrote the words in 1700. They first appeared in Tate & Brady’s Psalter, in 1702 (2).

Almost as clearly as I remember “Awake, My Soul” is number 577 in The 1940, I remember my father leading our Baptist congregation singing “While Shepherds Watch” with my organ accompaniment. That may be a composite memory from among the hundreds of such moments tucked away in my unconscious. But this hymn and tune definitely have some place in the life of, if not my consciousness, at least my feelings.

Today, as I said, is All Souls’ Day. I’m not quite sure what that means. Someone told me once the difference between All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It was something such as, “Not everyone is a saint, but everyone is a soul.” Of course, the main requirement for both is being dead.

My mind is freely associating in a way that I wish I could stop. Somehow, I have “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks” connected in memory with my maternal grandmother as well as with my father. Most likely that’s because I placed the hymnal with the Christmas words I looked up on her sewing machine, which I have in my living room.

Now I have “While Shepherds Watched,” “We’ll Have an Old Fashioned Wedding,” my father singing in church, and my grandmother’s sewing machine caroming around in my brain, each vying for dominance in my awareness. And it’s All Souls’ Day.

Curses!

Curses!

None of this makes much sense to me. I’m marveling at the complexity of my thinking/feeling today. It’s probably no more complex than it ever is, but I’m seldom aware of the complexity.

Last week I was walking up Main Street in Dallas. Crews of men working out of trucks proclaiming they were from “The Christmas Light Company” were climbing light poles and being hoisted into trees on cherry pickers stringing up the dreaded lights for the Dallas holiday season. It was October 27, not even All Hallows’ Eve or All Souls’ Day. One young man happened down from a pole just as I walked by.

“Putting up Thanksgiving lights?” I asked in my best sardonic voice.

“No. Veterans’ Day lights,” he said deadpan without missing a beat.

And so the “holiday” season begins for me. Unbidden tunes in my head, and a comedic workman stringing up Veterans’ Day lights on Main Street. Somehow it all fits. Especially today when, to be the honoree of the Holy Day, one has to be dead. I’m sure I have no way to explain the complex, circular, string of thoughts in my mind.

I do, however, understand clearly—but more with curiosity than dread, these days—where it’s all headed, for me personally and for all of us.

“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.”

It’s not about Christmas. All Souls’ perhaps.
_____________________
(1) “Awake, My Soul.”  The Cyber Hymnal ™. 1996. Web.
(2) “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.” The Cyber Hymnal ™. 1996. Web.

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