Anyone thoughtful — no matter what their spiritual leaning — can appreciate the art of the hymn: the rhythm, the sonorous language, the discipline and structure. My first encounter with that power — despite having been part of a youth group as a teenager — came when I was a freshman at a dignified religious institution. I remember cigarette smoke and a song, a somber little something blaring from a nearby room. Three of us stood in the parking lot with Newports hanging from our teeth. I don’t recall our conversation, but that night I had my first true experience with hymns and their lyrical magic.
If you want to unravel that magic, I recommend starting with Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age. Journalist Daniel Swift offers a scholarly treatise on cultural history, Shakespeare’s plays, and Anglican liturgy, among other things. It’s an arresting but heavy read, one that should be of course followed by The Book of Common Prayer, where it finds its inspiration. Swift calls the latter a “history of response” and argues that, in its pages, “Shakespeare found a body of contested speech: a pattern and a music of mourning.” Both works are rich and welcome companions to any collection of hymns. The Oremus Hymnal, a collection of pieces for varying occasions, is a good one for the uninitiated. “At even, ere the sun was set” an evening read, resolves:
Once more ’tis eventide, and we,
oppressed with various ills, draw near;
what if thy form we cannot see?
We know and feel that thou art here.