I seldom cry real tears. I'm just not put together that way. But I do weep in spirit over a great number of things--the ordinary sorrows of the ordinary people among whom I serve, the unspeakable suffering of the population of Myanmar who have been victimized first by a cyclone and then by a criminally inept and clueless government, and, of course, the never-dull drama of Anglican Christianity. I weep in spirit, with generous dollops of anger and grief, over the disintegration of an ecclesial universe that has been the vehicle of light and life to my soul since my early adulthood, and in which I am thoroughly formed as a Christian disciple. The level of conflict and dysfunction and uncertainty is not what I would have wished for myself at this stage of my life.
Once in a while, though, I do cry real tears--sometimes of sorrow, and sometimes of . . . I don't quite want to say joy . . . ecstasy might be more like it. When that sort happens, chances are I'm in church and chances are I'm trying to sing something. I cried during my first Easter Vigil, during the hymn right after the lights come on. I cried on Good Friday my first year in seminary, as I literally helped hold the cross while the entire assembly approached it in pairs to kneel and pray while everyone else was singing the Reproaches set to music by the Spanish Rennaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria.
But first prize in this category goes to Westminster Abbey. Three years ago last month I made my first (and thus far only) trip to England. On the first Sunday afternoon I was there, I found myself, without any particular planning, outside the abbey at the time they were no longer admitting tourists but were letting in those who wanted to attend Evensong and promised to stay for the whole thing. They waved me past the queue and ushered me not just into the nave but all the way beyond the rood screen into the choir. (The actual choir needed only about one-third the available space in that part of the building.) The Office Hymn that day was a familiar text, Charles Wesley's Love divine, all loves excelling. American Protestants--those who still sing hymns, at any rate--are used to singing it to a rather insipid tune called Beecher. Episcopalians associate it with the incredibly durable Welsh tune Hyfyrdol. The Brits, however, have two other candidates: the very Victorian Love Divine by Sir John Stainer, and another product of Wales, Blaenwen.
It was this last one that we sang in Westminster Abbey at Evensong on that April Sunday in 2005. I was seated next to an elderly gentleman who then lived in Greece but had been a cathedral chorister as a boy in England. We both sang our hearts out. On the last half of the last verse, the organist performed the Anglican musical version of Emeril's "kick it up a notch" cooking move, pulling a 32' pedal reed and slipping in some deliciously unexpected harmonies. But I couldn't finish it myself. I was sobbing uncontrollably. It was liminal, mystical, transcendent, and I will never forget it.
I'm not even sure YouTube even existed three years ago. But I am very grateful for it now because it allows me to revisit the same spiritual territory that I was treading that afternoon in London. The BBC has a remarkable series called Songs of Praise. It's essentially a televised hymn sing. Each program features a different venue--a cathedral, a church, or an auditorium packed with enthusiastic singers, both trained and amateur. And there is a seemingly limitless number of these hymns available on YouTube.
While searching for a rendition of Love divine... to Blaenwen, I ran across this very touching choral anthem version of the text, newly composed for a youth choir festival.
Is the human face ever more beautiful than when singing? I think not. And as much as I love at least 2.5 of the hymn tune versions already available, this one is really quite nice.
I haven't yet found a performance of Blaenwen that can come close to replicating my mountaintop experience in Westminster Abbey, but in case you don't know the tune, have a look at this one. (The singers are quite skilled, but they appear to be outfitted by the costume designer for a Star Trek movie.)
What the various commenters say about the hymn and the tune are probably of more interest than the actual performance, but still . . .
I need to never quit singing hymns, if for no other reason than that a good many of those people who most exasperate me these days are eventually going to be singing beside me and casting their crowns as I cast mine before the Lamb that was slain and the One seated on the throne as we are together lost in wonder, love, and praise. If I didn't believe that, I couldn't keep going.