A Facebook friend mentioned a favorite hymn today. “For All the Saints Who From Their Labors Rest”. I write not about saints, but about the music and it’s lyrics and life’s journey.
The hymn was originally titled “Sine Nomine” which is Latin for “no name”. The composer (Ralph Vaughn Williams) wrote what at first blush seems an awkward composition, but when coupled with the lyrics added later (William Walsham How) the plan is perfect.
In case you aren’t familiar with the hymn, it starts with a rest, followed by one emphatic chord, before the choir starts on the second beat of what is 4/4 timing. For All the Saints Who From Their Labors Rest; Sine Nomine The best of choir directors have a hard time with this. But as an organist, I can tell you, it’s an awesome moment. With that one loud, awkwardly timed chord, you get to tell your audience, “listen up, this is gonna be awesome!”.
What is a grand moment for the organist, is a time of rest for the choir; however awkward is the timing. And so throughout the hymn, this awkwardness continues. Emphasis on beats changes throughout and you get this sometimes smooth, sometimes stumbling effect. All the while the song is with deliberation, laborious with every attention paid to detail. All participants soldier on. At the end, there is a great feeling of accomplishment.
So it is we live our lives. The rest the choir has at the beginning is like that moment before we burst forward and begin our journey in this world. Anyone who has gone through childbirth knows this moment. There’s this awkward pause in laboring before the big entrance; uncertainty, perhaps, or of getting the world’s attention. And then we begin.
As we journey through life, this great composition we sing and dance to as we labor and celebrate is for most led by the choir director of our choosing. I’m sure of the same feeling of struggle getting us to the last place of rest. We stop to take an awkward breath. We stumble along the way. We schlep on as warriors; angels, or evangelists.
My favorite verse is “The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.” The verse heralds a coming together for all whom have labored. A resting place; yet a time of celebration.
And so the hymn’s composition begins with a rest and a heralding of a beginning. Likewise,the last verses herald a rest and a beginning. And while the music and the lyrics of life are awkward and laborious, they do, in the end, come together with a feeling of accomplishment for those who have soldiered on.