I love this passage on the hymns of the faith. This paragraph, particularly what Jayber says about “Abide with Me,” wrenched my heart when I read it, and its hold on my mind brought me back to this book to type up these thoughts of Jayber (whose conduct, honestly, I found to be a little strange) to post them here. If you’re not blessed to know these songs, to have experienced the moving power of a congregation singing them, may this passage be a prod to that pleasure. Enjoy:
“What I liked least about the service itself was the prayers; what I liked far better was the singing. Not all of the hymns could move me. I never liked “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Jesus’ military career has never compelled my belief. I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever. Old Man Profet, who was a different man on Sunday, used to draw the notes at the ends of verses and refrains so he could listen to himself, and in fact it sounded pretty. And when the congregation would be singing “We shall see the King some-day (some-day),” Sam May, who often protracted Saturday night a little too far into Sunday morning, would sing, “I shall see the King some-day (Sam May).”I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but they still liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing “The Unclouded Day” and “Sweet By and By”:
We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blest . . .
And in times of sorrow when they sang “Abide with Me,” I could not raise my head.”
This last line about “Abide with Me” has deep resonance in the novel, for Jayber has walked through the valley of the shadow of death with people he loves, as those people lost loved ones who could never be replaced. So the line draws its beauty from the lyrics of the hymn and the pain Jayber has shared with these people. The weight of those who sing the faith bows his head in worship.