Ye Fearful Saints

A little over two weeks ago, on my first day at St. Alban’s, I was in the chancel as part of the orientation tour and was asked by Sonya what is my favorite hymn.  I had to stop and think about it because I love so many hymns in The Hymnal 1982.  I recall telling her that hymn 488, “Be thou my vision” has been a favorite of mine for a while now.  And that is the truth, I do like that hymn very much.  However, in the moment, I had totally forgotten about another hymn that has touched my soul since I was a boy.

I have always marveled at how hymns, either through the richness of the tune or the beauty of their words, can touch us so profoundly and deeply.  There have been moments in my life where the power and significance of the Eucharist has been eclipsed by the emotions stirred up within me by singing one of the communion hymns.  Music touches us at such a deep and base level and our Hymnal has many wonderful and moving hymns to excite, steady, comfort, and fill us with a spirit of joy (and many other emotions as well).

There are several hymns that move me deeply, or that I feel a strong connection with, and that express, for me theologically, how I feel about God’s grace and love for us as God’s creation.  On Sunday we will sing one such hymn, that for me, has been a long-time favorite for all the reasons I have mentioned above.  It is hymn 677, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

The words to the hymn were composed by William Cowper (1731-1800) in the later months of the year 1772.  Cowper had suffered with depression and what the medical books of the time termed, “melancholy” for most of his life.  Although Cowper composed the words to many hymns (four of them are included in our Hymnal), “God moves in a mysterious way” was one of his last hymn compositions.   His hymns are marked with a certain plaintiveness that always seems to give way to the mysterious grace and goodness of God.  There is a tenderness and truthfulness in his hymns, and in a rather transparent fashion they reveal the struggles and emotions with which he grappled.  They also show Cowper’s sincere faith in God’s love even in the midst of his depression.

In particular, it is verse three that caught my attention the very first time I heard this hymn:

“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

the clouds ye so much dread

are big with mercy, and shall break

in blessings on your head.”

How often in our lives do we fear those clouds that seem to gather around a particular event or situation or relationship?  How often do we dread perhaps a meeting or a conversation with someone?  How often do have anxiety about the direction in which our lives are heading, our financial outlook, our job performance, our relationships with family members or friends, or any of the myriad of unfavorable situations in which we find ourselves?  And, most importantly, how often do we look deeply at ourselves and wonder how it is that anyone–much less God–could possibly love us?

Then there is this simple verse that reminds us that we should take fresh courage in those moments of unworthiness.  We should remember that the clouds we fear when we examine ourselves or when we feel unworthy of God’s love will indeed break.  And when they break they are not filled with wrath as we expect (or even as we might feel that we deserve), but instead they are filled with God’s mercy and God’s love.

In the end, when those clouds break the words of this hymn, and those of St. Paul as he writes to the Romans, are true:

“… that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”



About matthewhanisian

Associate Rector at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
This entry was posted in The Rev. Matthew R. Hanisian. Bookmark the permalink.

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