Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All Creatures of Our God and King

Praise for the Lord #16

Words: Francis of Assisi, c. 1225; trans. William H. Draper, c. 1911
Music: Brachel's Geistliche Kirchengesang, 1623; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Some of these posts are difficult to write because, deep down, I just don't think the hymn I'm discussing is all that good. Here is the opposite problem--I don't think I can possibly do this hymn justice.

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was the son of a wealthy merchant, and spent his young manhood in the pursuit of education, adventure, and the high life, not necessarily in that order. After a period of illness and detention as a prisoner of war, he increasingly turned toward spiritual things. In an era when some orders of monks were notorious for their acquisition of worldly goods, he started an order that vowed first to live the life of poverty, by choice, that Francis saw many of his fellow creatures living by necessity. Rejected by his family and the authorities, he lived much of the time in the country or on the road, and his legendary childlike love of nature and of all living things is obvious in this hymn.(Catholic Encyclopedia) Our English text is adapted from Francis's original poem Canticum creaturarum "Song of the creatures". A more literal translation is available here.(Barrett) It is likely that Francis worked on the poem over many years, adding the unusual final verse about death shortly before his own demise.(Catholic Encyclopedia)

The most obvious inspiration for this text is Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise Him in the heights!
Praise Him, all His angels;
praise Him, all His hosts!
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you shining stars!
Praise Him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For He commanded and they were created.
And He established them forever and ever;
He gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling His word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and maidens together,
old men and children!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for His name alone is exalted;
His majesty is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for His people,
praise for all His saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to Him.
Praise the Lord!

Here we have the basic elements of Francis’s text (as we have received it in English), and in many of the same associations in which he used them: sun and moon (v. 3), winds (v. 8), waters (v. 4), fire (v. 8), and humanity of all stations in life (v. 11-12).

Stanza 1:
All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The author calls on all creation to praise God, not just creatures but even inanimate creation. Francis’s original text even refers to the sun and moon as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”, which they are, in the sense that they are fellow creations of our heavenly Father. Do inanimate objects praise God? Jesus said on His approach to Jerusalem that “the very stones would cry out” in His praise if need be,(Luke 19:40) and Romans 1:19-20 explains that the creation itself gives sufficient witness to God to condemn those who ignore its testimony. Psalm 19 speaks the most eloquently on this subject, however:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.(v. 1-2)

This text was perhaps in Francis’s mind, as it was obviously in the mind of Joseph Addison half a millennium later when he penned “The spacious firmament on high” (PFTL #666).

Stanza 2:
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice!

This stanza, which is omitted in some hymnals, continues to call upon the phenomena of the heavens to praise God—the winds, clouds, and the stars. Wind and storm, for all their power, are servants to God’s will; it was from the whirlwind that God spoke to Job,(Job 38:1) and Jesus showed His mastery over these forces on the sea of Galilee in such a way that His disciples said “He commands even the winds and waters!” (Luke 8:25)

The stars are such a fascinating part of God’s creation—they are by far so much more numerous, and massive, than this earth and its system of sun, planets, and moons, and yet God tells us so little about them. Even with the best of our technology, we have discovered only a little more on our own. But the one thing we can be sure of is that God knows their purposes. He “determines their number”(Psalm 147:4) and they “sang together” in His praise at the very beginning of time.(Job 38:7)

Stanza 3:
Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
Make music for thy Lord to hear,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
That givest man both warmth and light.

In our third stanza Francis presents another pair of opposites, water and fire. Though these are both mentioned in Psalm 148, they are not in an immediate context with each other as were the sun and moon, so the association is Francis’s device. Fire and water are natural opposites, and in the Medieval conception of physics, were two of the four elements of the physical creation (the other two being earth and air). “Waters” in Biblical imagery are often a dramatic element, inspiring fear (as in the “floods” of Psalms 46:3, 124:4, etc.) or awe (as in Psalm 93:3, “the floods lifted up their voice”).

Francis, however, is describing the pleasant, babbling brook that provides refreshment and pleasure, more akin to the Biblical picture of a “fountain” or “spring”. In the arid land of Palestine, of course, springs and fountains were treasured blessings. Often in the Bible they are mentioned in association with God's providential care: "He will guide them to springs of living water."(Revelation 7:17, cf. Isaiah 49:10) Most famously, of course, Jesus promised the fountain of "living water", "a spring of water welling up to eternal life."(John 4:10,14)

The following stanza from Draper's translation is omitted in Praise for the Lord:

Dear mother earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.

Perhaps the "Mother Earth" expression was too much for the editors, especially in our present culture that has increasingly embraced pantheistic nature-worship even as it attempts to drive Christianity from public view. In Francis's original text he speaks anthropomorphically of "Brother Sun", "Sister Moon", etc., as fellow creations of God; in the full context, "Mother Earth" is an innocent enough expression. But the Bible is clear about who is the supplier of the blessings enumerated in this stanza: it is God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field,(Luke 12:24-28) it is God who owns "the cattle on a thousand hills,"(Psalm 50:10) it is God of whom David said in Psalm 65:9-13,

You visit the earth and water it;
You greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

In our admiration and concern for this earth, let us never forget Who its Creator and Sustainer is!

Stanza 4:
And all ye men of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care!

After calling to mind the ceaseless praises that flow to God from the rest of His creation, Francis turns now to the world of humanity--alone in creation, for being in rebellion against its Creator! But even here there are those of "tender heart" who seek God. 1 Peter 3:8 calls on all Christians to "have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind." The tender heart is open to hearing and receiving the faith, and to submitting to God's will; the hardened heart is associated with unreceptiveness,(Ephesians 4:18) unbelief,(Mark 3:5,16:14) and arrogant self-serving.(Exodus 4,Daniel 5:20) The hardened heart is "storing up wrath",(Romans 2:5) but the tender heart can be shaped into the image of Christ.

The tender-hearted Christian will conform to the image of the Christ who forgave even His torturers, the One who taught us to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,"(Matthew 6:12) "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."(Matthew 6:14-15)

The one who embraces Christ's teachings will also learn to depend upon Him, just as does the rest of creation, "casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you."(1 Peter 5:7) Even those who "long pain and sorrow bear" can take heart in Christ, for He is the One who promised that, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."(Matthew 5:3-4) Paul came to understand this with his thorn in the flesh, when God told him, "My power is made perfect in weakness." Paul could then say, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."(2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The following stanza is also omitted in many hymnals, for obvious reasons:

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

It is a thought-provoking statement, and in context reminds us that death is an unavoidable part of the world in which we live; but it is problematic to represent death as a part of God's plan and thus joining in the chorus of praise. Death entered the world, not through God's creation, which is "very good,"(Genesis 1:31) but "through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned."(Romans 5:12) Immortality was God's original plan; death could only be described as good in the sense that it is better than immortality in rebellion to God.(Genesis 3:22) Death is represented in the New Testament as "the last enemy that is to be destroyed"(1 Corinthians 15:26) at the return of our Lord. Francis's frank acceptance of the common fate of us all is to be commended; but all in all, this stanza is probably better left out.

Stanza 5:
Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

The final stanza is a summary call to join all creation in humble worship before our Creator. The childlike simplicity of this hymn has worn well down through the centuries--when you feel overwhelmed by the busyness of worldly affairs, the self-importance of worldly powers, and the littleness and pettiness of day-to-day life, step outdoors! Take a look at the moon, or (carefully, of course) at the sun; they have been shining down on this world, fulfilling their God-given duties of providing light and warmth, telling the seasons and creating the tides, long before any of us were thought of. They will still be doing so, if the Lord delays His return, long after we are forgotten. Look up at the stars.

The great astronomer Edwin Hubble said, "With increasing distance, our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly."(Hubblesite) The orbital telescope which is his namesake has looked deeper into the universe than mankind has ever done before, and we essentially have learned that we know even less than we thought we did about what is out there. But God knows. Look at the blade of grass, pushing up through concrete--the works of God, versus the works of man! And consider the sparrows, as Jesus said, who despite their weakness are still all around us. God still knows their number.(Luke 12:6) All around us, even in the modern city, we can see the works of God. Join them in praising Him!

About the music: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit up front that Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of my favorite composers. He soaked up English folk song and Tudor-era church music, then reinvented it in a modern style that is innovative and yet easily accessible. The amazing (and sad) thing about his church music composition is that he remained, at least publicly, a lifelong confirmed agnostic. Nonetheless he was a leading light in the post-Romantic generation of church musicians; the 1906 English Hymnal (of which he was music editor) may never have eclipsed Hymns Ancient & Modern in the Church of England, but it showed an alternative to the sometimes gushy musical style of the Victorian era.

This arrangement of "All creatures" is not my favorite for congregational singing, though. To begin with, it was never intended for a cappella singing; Vaughan Williams conceived this to be sung with the congregation on the melody, a choir on the parts, and an organ backing up them all. It is a grand, symphonic sound, and needs to move a little slowly in order to bring out the rich, flowing texture. (Check out the basses' octave-and-a-half scale passage from the words "with softer gleam" to the second "O praise Him"!) For a cappella congregational singing, I actually prefer Jack Boyd's arrangement from the supplement to Great Songs of the Church (ACU Press, 1974). Boyd writes in only two parts (women's voices and men's voices) and has them sing the melody in a round, coming together at the ends of the phrases; only the final "Alleluias" are sung in four-part harmony. It is a very practical arrangement, musically interesting, and shows off the beauty and gracefulness of this old melody.


Catholic Encyclopedia. Saint Francis of Assisi. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06221a.htm

Cyberhymnal. All creatures of our God and King. http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/a/c/acoogak.htm

Barrett, Bill. Translation of "Canticum creaturarum". http://www.webster.edu/~barrettb/canticle.htm

Hubblesite. Hubble Deep Field. http://hubblesite.org/hubble_discoveries/hubble_deep_field/resources.php

No comments:

Post a Comment