Saturday, 11 April 2009

Four reflections for Holy Saturday (4): John Ireland, Ex ore innocentium

Lichfield Cathedral ... the choristers have recorded Ex ore innocentium by John Ireland and William Walsham How

Patrick Comerford

Like Vaughan Williams, the English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) studied under the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and was a contributor to Songs of Praise, edited by Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams.

His best known tune is Love Unknown, for Samuel Crossman’s well-loved hymn, My song is love unknown (Irish Church Hymnal, 231), and is said to have been written by Ireland in a quarter of an hour on a scrap of paper.

We have been listening to his work Ex ore innocentium (Out of the mouth of children), once again sung for us this evening by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral.

In this work, Ireland uses the marvellously powerful and moving words of Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1987) to produce a work of outstanding beauty that is marked by some complex harmonies combined with a child-like simplicity.

The words are:

It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heaven,
And die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:
He chose a poor and humble lot,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died
For love of those who loved him not.

I sometimes think about the Cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

But even could I see him die,
I should but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in his heart.

And yet I want to love thee, Lord;
O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love thee more and more,
Until I see thee as thou art.

The author of this hymn (Irish Church Hymnal, 226), Bishop Walsham How, was well-known for his work as a bishop supporting the “slum priests” of the East End of London. Because of his dedication to this work, he was known variously as “the people’s bishop,” as “the poor man’s bishop,” “the children’s bishop,” and even as the “omnibus bishop” – I like that last appellation … he insisted on using public transport all the time.

When he died he was buried at Leenane in Co Mayo.

This hymn was written while the bishop was the Rector of Whittington, now, appropriately, in the Diocese of Lichfield, but then in the Diocese of St Asaph. The text that inspired him was I John 4: 10: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he has loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (AV).

That link between the love of God and Christ’s death on the Cross is an important connection to make on this day, as we wait at the grave, still grieving that death but waiting in hope for the joy of Resurrection.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the fourth of four reflections at a service of readings, music and prayers for Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, Dublin, on Saturday 11 April 2009.

Four reflections for Holy Saturday (3): Vaughan Williams, The Song of the Tree of Life

The Cross as the Tree of Life

Patrick Comerford

Last year, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), was marked with a series of events, including a special Night at the Proms on BBC (30 August 2008).

I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was 19 and I was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971 and I was walking through Shropshire. Appropriately, the warden of the youth hostel suggested I should listen to Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, in which the dominant theme of love outweighs the expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice and death of the young soldiers in World War I.

Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say: “Many would claim he was the greatest 20th century English composer.”

Vaughan Williams was a vicar’s son from Gloucestershire and he was related to Charles Darwin, whose bicentenary is being marked this year (2009).

Vaughan Williams studied under the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis became his first major public success when he conducted its premiere in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. When he died in 1957, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His second wife, the poet Ursula Wood, claimed he was an “atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” But Vaughan Williams is a deeply mystical and spiritual composer, and many of his works have religious subject-matters.

His hymn settings include To be a pilgrim, based on John Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see; the tune for William Walsham How’s For All the Saints; the tune for the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem; and his setting for Come Down, O Love Divine. He wrote settings for canticles, carols and masses.

With Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw, Vaughan Williams can be credited with the revival and spread of traditional and mediaeval English musical forms. Without Vaughan Williams, it is impossible to imagine the English Hymnal (1906), Songs of Praise (1925) and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) which he edited with Percy Dearmer, and which have shaped much of modern Anglican worship and liturgy.

As David Johnson said in The Tablet last year (23 August 2008): “The preoccupation with the journey of the soul shines through the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. His music is the enduring legacy of one of the most insightful and visionary of pilgrims.”

The Song of the Tree of Life, which we have heard in a recording by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral, is a revised version of one of the songs from a setting of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as an opera by Vaughan Williams.

The words are adapted from Revelation 2, and they say:

Unto him that overcometh shall be given the Tree of Life
which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.
On either side of the river groweth the Tree of Life,
the Leaves of the Tree are for thy healing.
In the midst of that fair City flows the river of Water of Life, clear as crystal.
Who so will, let him take of the Water of Life freely.
Who so drinketh of this water shall never thirst.
Take thou the Leaves of the Tree of Life.
So shalt thou enter in through the Gates of the City.


In these words, the author of Revelation, Bunyan, and Vaughan Williams link the death on the Cross with the Tree of the Life, the Crucifixion outside Jerusalem with the hope for the New Jerusalem.

If this is where Vaughan Williams placed his hope, then he shared in the Easter hope that we should all be sharing this day.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the third of four reflections at a service of readings, music and prayers for Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, Dublin, on Saturday 11 April 2009.

Four reflections for Holy Saturday (2): John Tavener, Lament for Jerusalem

Lament of the Faithful at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, a painting by Gustave Bauernfeind (1848-1904).

Patrick Comerford

John Tavener is a modern composer known for his deep-rooted spirituality, and his Lament for Jerusalem is a mystical love song that brings together Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts that are sung in Greek and English.

We have been listening to one track from Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem, Cosmic Lament V.

The words say:

The beloved is all,
the lover only veils Him,
the lover only veils Him.
But how can I retain my senses,
When my Beloved does not show His face?

The Lament is over the destruction of Jerusalem, based on lament in Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion.”

The lament of the exiles for Jerusalem as they sat by the waters of Babylon is repeated by Jesus as he walks the Via Dolorosa and sees the tears being shed by the women (see Matthew 23).

Tavener’s Lament is rooted in grim tradition. Yet it looks longingly into the future, to a time when the beatific vision is restored.

In the portion we have listened to, there is a quotation from the prologue to the epic poem, Masnavi, by the great 13th century Sufi mystic and spiritual master, Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273).

Love is at the heart of Rumi’s mysticism and poetry. One of my favourite images from Rumi is from his poem, The Mouse and the Frog, from which I quote:

A mouse and a frog meet every morning
on the riverbank.
They sit in a nook of the ground and talk.

Each morning, the second they see each other,
they open easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding-back.

To watch and listen to those two
is to understand how, as it’s written,
sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.

In love, the Risen Christ becomes present among us.

As the exiles in Babylon wept over Jerusalem, as the women wept over Christ as he carried his cross, as the women wept over the dead Christ as they placed him the tomb, the grief of separation must have been great.

“… how can I retain my senses,
When my Beloved does not show His face?”

But the Risen Christ shows his face to us … in the Eucharist and in the we show love to one another.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the second of four reflections at a service of readings, music and prayers for Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, Dublin, on Saturday 11 April 2009.

Four reflections for Holy Saturday (1): John Rutter, Requiem


Patrick Comerford

We have been listening to the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, singing Requiem Aeternam from John Rutter’s Requiem.

It has been a real pleasure, during my regular visits to Cambridge in recent years to visit the Chapel of King’s College. But so often we associate the choir of King’s College with Christmas and the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

As I was preparing for this service for Holy Saturday, I thought how important it was to remember that Christmas is meaningless unless it is truly a preparation for Good Friday, for Holy Saturday and for Easter Day, the most important day in the Christian calendar.

John Rutter, who wrote this Requiem, was a student at Clare College, next door to King’s, and has asked whether the sound of the choir at King’s has been a subconscious influence on all his choral writing.

Rutter concedes that his Requiem is more a concert work than a liturgical Requiem, but many of us have also found it deeply theological.

Throughout this Requiem, the Easter hope of the Resurrection breaks in compellingly as fragments of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes, are played on the flute, particularly in the Agnus Dei before and during the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The first and last movements of Rutter’s RequiemRequiem aeternam, which we have just heard, and Lux Aeterna – are prayers to God the Father, underpinning and supporting the whole arch-like structure of the work.

The words of this opening movement are:

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord:
and may light perpetual shine upon them.
Thou, O God, art praised in Sion:
and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem.
Thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

As Christians, we are very good about talking about our life with Christ and in Christ. But today, between the Cross and the Resurrection, as we think of Christ in the grave, we are given assurance that those who have lived with Christ and died in Christ are not forgotten in the grave.

In death, Christ reaches out to all in the grave, cross the barriers of time and space.

Light perpetual shines on them.

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is the first of four reflections at a service of readings, music and prayers for Holy Saturday in Whitechurch Parish, Dublin, on Saturday 11 April 2009.

Good Friday in Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Good Friday was an intense climax to Holy Week this year.

It began with a simple reading of Saint John’s Passion narrative in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, which had been stripped bare the previous evening at the end of the Maundy Eucharist, and a reading of the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer:

By your agony and trial, by your cross and passion, and by your precious death and burial,
save us, Lord Christ.

The small congregation concluded with the Collect of Good Friday, the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom, and the Grace.

In the Collect of Good Friday, we prayed:

Almighty Father,
Look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ
was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


From there, I went into Dublin’s city centre to take part in the annual commemoration of all the victims of the violence in Northern Ireland.

This service in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green is now in its ninth year, is believed to be the only religious service of its kind in Ireland. From noon, the list of more than 3,500 people who have killed in the conflict are read out during the three-hour commemoration.

We were welcomed and introduced by the Revd Bill Darlison, Minister of the Dublin Unitarian Church, and I was asked by him to begin reading the names of the dead. As I read those names out, one by one, from A through B, it was sad to realise how many of the names I had forgotten, and how many I actually remembered.

I was followed by Monsignor Tom Stack, former parish priest of Milltown, Co Dublin, and while I was there the names continued to be read by George McCaw of the Unitarian congregation, my former colleague in The Irish Times, Andy Pollock of Armagh, and the RTÉ broadcaster Doireann Ní Bhroinn.

Before I left, I was intereviewed for RTÉ’s News at One.

On Friday evening, we went up the hills behind us to Orlagh, the Augustinian Retreat Centre at the top of Ballycullen Road. There an hour of meditation around the Cross was led by Bernadette Toal and John Byrne, who at the beginning of lent had led the Ash Wednesday retreat for students from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

As we left in silence, the city was lit up below us, and a ship could be seen making its way into the bay. Life continues, but there is always the promise of hope and of new life.