Sunday, December 23, 2007

Two "Fleshly" Hymns

Here are the words to a very beloved hymn, Jesus the Very thought of Thee:

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

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this
Nor tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know.

O Jesus, King most wonderful
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou sweetness most ineffable
In Whom all joys are found!

O Jesus, light of all below,
Thou fount of living fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
And all we can desire.

Celestial Sweetness unalloyed,
Who eat Thee hunger still;
Who drink of Thee still feel a void
Which only Thou canst fill.

Did you catch the motive here? It is stated in the first couplet: to feel sweetness, and that feeling is explicitly carnal; it “fills the breast.” In the second couplet of verse 1, we are projecting carnal gratification into heaven. Is it not carnal to seek pleasure? and still carnal to look for that pleasure to be intensified in heaven? (Seventy-two virgins instead of only the 4 a Muslim is allowed on earth?) And to seek and find more bliss in Jesus than in earthly things is still using religion to serve the carnal self.

In verse 3, we have a bit of exclusivity intruding itself. Everyone is among “His loved ones.” The only ones who do not know what the love of Jesus is are those who do not love Him back.

And what’s going on in that last verse? Jesus said quite the opposite to the Samaritan woman He met at Jacob’s well. "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life." (See the whole story in John 4.)

Only carnal pleasure can never be enough for us and leave a "void" we seek to fill by more of the same.

Note the very similar carnality and error in another hymn, Jesu Joy, by the same author (Bernard of Clairvaux).

* * * *

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed over the world Thy holy light.

We want to feel "calm" and "bright", and we want the security of Jesus with us, an anchor in this changeful world. In short, we want comfort.

Feel-good-ism is the subject of almost every stanza of both hymns, and feel-good-ism is not spiritual, but downright carnal.

"Carnal" has to do with (a) gratifying our passions and (b) focusing upon our earthly needs instead of, or even at the expense of, our spiritual well-being.

(a) Gratifying our passions means especially anything that feeds the central one, pride. It takes countless forms, catering to our lusts for feeling good, for feeling I am okay, for feeling I am a notch or two above you. (I am serving the “King most wonderful … Conqueror renowned.” I am one of those chosen who know about Jesus’ love.)

(b) Earthly needs are things like good weather, for which the Orthodox pray daily, or good health. There is nothing wrong or unspiritual about praying for our singing abou our fleshly needs. But notice where the focus is in the prime example, the Lord's Prayer. What comes first? God and His agenda. "Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done." Only then do we get to a very basic, earthly need of ours: "Give us this day our daily bread" and then we move on to pray for some spiritual needs: "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Then we go right back to praising God in His own right, for Himself: "For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, unto ages of ages, Amen." The focus is not upon my earthly needs; much less is this prayer *exclusively* about those. And it contains nothing at all of the passions, no "how wonderful I feel" or "how terrific to be among the chosen", no sentimentality, not a single warm fuzzy at all.

Yes, there are emotional elements in our relationship with Christ and emotions by definition always have a physical component. But it's worth noting what the emotional content consists of in a spiritual person: ardent love -- for God in Himself. If we love God, sure, it will affect our whole being, not excluding emotions and body. The problem is if those warm fuzzies become our focus instead of God Himself, if they distract us from Him; then, in the guise of loving Him, we are really loving and worshipping ourselves and our own pleasure. Singing about the "consolations" (or worse yet, cultivating them), betokens not holiness, but fleshliness. And almost every line of these two hymns, while purporting to be about Jesus, actually emphasizes the warm fuzzies. Please re-read the words and see if there is not a subtle shift away from loving Christ and toward how pleasing and beneficial it is to me to love Him.

We are to worship God with body and soul, mind and heart and strength. Thus, with our bodies we make the Sign of the Cross, we genuflect or bow, we prostrate ourselves. Note carefully, though, the role of the body here is not to receive pleasures, but to worship God. In the body we receive the Holy Communion (or any other sacrament) but the object of this is not to please the body or even please our minds and emotions, but to please God, viz., to worship Him, and to be made holy and whole -- so as to please Him more.

Yes, without question, there IS blessedness in salvation, but of what does it consist? Not of being filled with pleasurable feelings, but to be continually emptying myself, as God does, pouring out myself and my love, to Him and to my fellow man.

Fr. John Romanides has a wonderful chapter related to this in his book, The Ancestral Sin, which I highly recommend to everybody. Here is an excerpt:

"Be ye therefore perfect as your Father Who is in heaven is perfect" does not mean that man must become perfect as the self-loving, self-contented God of philosophy and of certain Scholastics of the West, but perfect as the God...Who is free of all necessity and selfishness. The destiny of man, as imagined by Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Ritschl, and others of the West, is self-centered eudaemonia attained by supposedly identifying the mind with the reality in the essence of God. This is supposed to cause a cessation of all movement of the mind and will toward any other person or thing since there is nothing more desirable for the human intellect than the divine essence... Such theories of eudaemonia simply project and elevate to a divine level the force that rules in the world, the force of necessity and self-interest called "fate" by the ancients. But man was not made for the purpose of finding satisfaction of the supposedly natural, self-centered longings within himself and, thus, of becoming unmoved and dispassionate. On the contrary, he was specifically made so he can love God and his fellow man with the same love that God as for the world. Love that arises out of self-interest is alien to the nature of God just as it is alien to the original destiny of man. (p. 106)

Further along, Fr. John adds:

Man was not made to be self-seeking and drawn by the supreme One so that, once he has been joined with it, man would cease to desire anything. If in fact the destiny of the soul is to incline toward the highest good and to find self-contentment in it, what kind of relationship can the soul have with secondary beings it if should ever achieve its goal? If the soul becomes totally satisfied by its union with the One, how can it also be inclined toward other beings like itself, or even lower beings, and maintain a relationship of love with them also? (pp. 112-113)


William Weedon said...

Our hymnal has a setting of O Jesus, King Most Wonderful but the words have been altered a bit:

O Jesus, King most wonderful!
O Conqueror renowned!
O Source of peace ineffable,
In whom all joys are found!

When once You visit darkened hearts,
Then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanity departs,
Then kindles love divine.

O Jesus, light of all below,
The fount of life and fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
All that we can desire.

May ev'ry heart confess Your name,
Forever You adore,
And, seeking You, itself inflame
To seek You more and more!

Oh, may our tongues forever bless,
May we love You alone
And ever in our lives express
The image of Your own!

But I note that a setting of St. Bernard's hymn is also in *The Saint Ambrose Hymnal* of the Western Rite Orthodox: "O Jesu, King of Wondrous Might" and "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee." Lex orandi, lex credendi?

William Weedon said...

Oh, and "Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts" is also in the *Saint Ambrose Hymnal* - so THREE versions of the St. Bernard hymn are in that hymnal which is authorized for use in Western Rite parishes of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.

William Weedon said...

By the bye, the above is not offered in a spirit of "gotcha" but with the intent of gently inviting reflection on whether you may be reading into the hymns a heterodoxy which they are actually guiltless of?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I didn't say anything about heresy, but about carnality, and I stand by what I said. They are still fleshly hymns, even if the Western Rite didn't catch the fact.

Perhaps they are a bit TOO Westernized?? Don't know.

I like the version you quoted, William, far better.