Monday, May 23, 2011

Brief Life is Here Our Portion

Praise for the Lord #81

Words: Bernard of Cluny, c. 1140; trans. John Mason Neale, 1849
Music: ST. ALPHEGE, Henry J. Gauntlett, 1852

Bernard of Cluny (fl. mid-12th century) was also known as Bernard of Morlaix, a village of Brittany in northwestern France. He was a Benedictine monk who was at the great abbey of Cluny during the middle of the 12th century, where he wrote his major work, De contemptu mundi ("On contempt of this world," also sometimes identified by its opening line, "Hora novissima"). This is a significant Latin poem, of nearly 3,000 lines; the entire Latin text is available through Wikisource, but I have not found a complete English translation online. Bernard rails against the worldliness of his day, and is equally stern in his rebukes of the laity and the clergy, even criticizing some highly placed church officials. In a time that saw growth in trade and urbanization across Europe, he called on his fellows to remember "the transitory nature of all material things and the permanence of spiritual values."(Comaskey)

Bernard's poem came under the eye of John Mason Neale, one of the most infuential English translators of ancient and medieval Christian hymns (discussed at more length in my post on the hymn "All Glory, Laud, and Honor"). He first translated the short selection published by Dean Trench in his Sacred Latin Poetry, a mere 95 lines out of the original, and considerably altered. Trench's arrangement began with the line, "Hic breve vivitur," from which Neale made his first translation of the current hymn, "Brief life is here our portion."

His appetite whetted, Neale published a translation of a longer section (218 lines of the original), more in keeping with the original order of the material. This was published as The Rhythm of Bernard de Morlaix, Monk of Cluny, on the Celestial Country in 1858. It was also included in the second edition of Neale's Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. From this translation out of Bernard's much more lengthy poem have come several hymns, the most lasting of which have been "Jerusalem the Golden" (begins p. 81 in this edition of Neale's book) and the hymn under discussion, which begins on p. 76. The four-stanza version of this hymn, found in Praise for the Lord, cherry-picks from a fairly lengthy section. Stanza 1 is at the top of page 76; stanza 2 is at the top of 77; stanza 3 is the next-to-last quatrain on p. 78, with some alteration of the first two lines; and stanza 4 is at the top of p. 79. Other versions of this hymn have included as many as twelve stanzas, and the selection of stanzas differs widely.(Julian)

Neale took considerable liberty in translation, admitting that,
I have here deviated from my ordinary rule of adopting the measure of the original--because our language, if it could be tortured to any distant resemblance of its rhythm, would utterly fail to give any idea of the majestic sweetness which invests it in Latin.(Neale, 69)
The meter of the original is complex and quite captivating, with an internal rhyme in each line that exploits the rhythmic vitality of the language, as well as its regularity in word endings (Don't try this in English!):

Hic breve vivitur, hic breve plangitur, hic breve fletur.
Non breve vivere, non breve plangere, retribuetur.

The above two lines, from which come the first stanza of our hymn, are just one pair out of nearly 3,000, and show the considerable skill of Bernard; Neale's translation, on the other hand, shows the wise discretion of a skilled translator.

Stanza 1:
Brief life is here our portion;
Brief sorrow, short-lived care:
The life that knows no ending,
The tearless life is there.

This stanza is translated from book 1, lines 167-168, of Bernard's original:

Hic breve vivitur, hic breve plangitur, hic breve fletur.
Non breve vivere, non breve plangere, retribuetur.

In a rough, fairly literal translation this is:

Here briefly we live, here briefly we grieve, here briefly we weep.
Not briefly to live, not briefly to grieve, that will be the repayment.

My Latin skills are rusty, but hopefully this helps to convey some of the sense of the original, and also to highlight Neale's skill in paraphrasing it in singable verse.

Job, who had good reason to know, said, "Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble."(14:1) In fact the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Testament is unanimous in this observation:
For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?(Ecclesiastes 6:12)

As for man, his days are like grass;
He flourishes like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.(Psalm 103:15-16)
Psalm 90, attributed to Moses, makes the same observation along with some practical advice:
The years of our life are seventy,
Or even by reason of strength eighty;
Yet their span is but toil and trouble;
They are soon gone, and we fly away.

. . . So teach us to number our days
That we may get a heart of wisdom.(v. 10,12)
There is surely more than enough evidence that our time is short, and we have nothing to gain by avoiding the fact. But Psalm 90 contrasts this idea with another, equally powerful truth:
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever You had formed the earth and the world,
From everlasting to everlasting You are God.

. . . For a thousand years in Your sight
Are but as yesterday when it is past,
Or as a watch in the night.(v. 2,4)
That last verse, contrary to the recently disproved proclamations of those who would use it as a secret decoder ring to determine the end of the world, asserts instead that God's relationship to time is, well, not like ours. We perceive only one moment at a time, and whether it seems to go by slowly or quickly, time to us is a one-way street; God stands above and beyond this. The serene peace of His presence is not ruffled by the mad rush of time in this world; He is the One whose name is simply, "I AM."(Exodus 3:14)

Bernard encourages us to try, however feebly it may be, to grasp a bit of God's perspective. Whatever happens to us in this life, for good or ill, it is over quickly. And thus whatever suffering we face for the sake of Jesus, it will someday pale in comparison to the peace and joy that wait for us.

Jesus spoke of eternal life over and over again, calling us to look up from the bustle of daily life and try to glimpse that far horizon:
Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.(John 4:14)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.(John 5:24)

Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.(John 6:27)

For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.(John 6:40)

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.(John 10:28)
But He was equally persistent in teaching that we must accept the cost of discipleship, whatever it might be, and that we should put it in the eternal perspective:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.(Mark 10:29-30)

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.(John 12:25)
When we are little children, we have a hard time keeping short-term and long-term issues in perspective. We want what we want NOW, and why on earth would we have to WAIT, much less have to endure something unpleasant in the meantime? We who are adults understand, of course, that the child lacks the maturity and perspective to weigh the relative value of things.

Now, when it comes to our perspective on this life and eternity, we are also little children. But we can all reach toward that wisdom that the apostle Paul had learned, and expressed in review of the hardships of his life:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . .

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.(2 Corinthians 4:8,17-5:1)
Stanza 2:
And now we fight the battle,
But then shall wear the crown
Of full, and everlasting,
And passionless renown.

This is from book 1, lines 183-184:

Sunt modo proelia, postmodo praemia, qualia? plena,
Plena refectio nullaque passio, nullaque poena.

Roughly translated as:

Now there are battles, afterwards rewards, of what kind? Full,
Full restoration without suffering, without pain.

Neale's choice of the word "passionless" is of course a cognate to the Latin wording of Bernard, but is unfortunate given the changes in the meaning of the word "passion" over the centuries. In Bernard's Latin it clearly means "suffering," as we still use it in speaking of Christ's Passion. This was the meaning it had in its first adoption into English, but over the centuries a secondary meaning arose to include any strong, overwhelming emotion. In Neale's era the older meaning was still primary; it is the first definition given, for example, in the first edition (1909) of the Oxford English Dictionary. Certainly in the context of a hymn, Neale's original readers would have taken "passionless" as he intended, "free from suffering."

But in the century-and-a-half since his time, the secondary meaning has become primary, and the earlier meaning has all but disappeared except as a specific theological term for Christ's suffering. The word is used now either in the context of a strong zeal for something, or more specifically in speaking of emotional or physical desire for another person. This stanza now has an unfortunate hitch created by the change in meaning; describing heaven as "passionless" implies something entirely different to the modern reader than what Bernard or Neale intended! But back to the text.

In this stanza Bernard may have had in mind, as Neale certainly did, Paul's haunting farewell words in 2 Timothy 4, verses 6-8:
For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.
Here Paul references one of his favorite allegories, the footraces, for which the victor would receive a laurel; but perhaps he also intends the more serious use of the laurel wreath in the Roman military and civic tradition of granting a "triumph" ceremony to a victorious general.

Paul made much of the fact that earthly crowns were perishable: "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable."(1 Corinthians 9:25) The actual material of the laurel wreath would wither and fade rather quickly; and in the same way, the famous athlete or general of one day is often forgotten the next. Jesus introduced yet another contrast when He told the church at Smyrna, "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life." The laurel wreath of the athlete was of no intrinsic value, and had to be defended again and again, ultimately to be lost to the next big star. The laurel wreath of the Roman general was a precarious honor; such adoration from the masses was not always conducive, as Julius Caesar found out, to one's long-term well-being. But the "crown of life" is an honor and reward of substantial, enduring value--everlasting life in the joys of our Lord.

With this in view, we turn our attention back to the present. Paul warned Timothy, "Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. . ."(1 Timothy 6:12) It is not a fight against "flesh and blood,"(Ephesians 6:12) but instead, looking at the context of 1 Timothy 6:12, it is a fight against compromising the doctrine of Christ (v. 3,14) and against materialism and worldliness (v. 8-10). (Sound familiar?) "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm."(Ephesians 6:13)

Stanza 3:
The morning shall awaken,
The shadows shall decay,
And each true-hearted servant
Shall shine as doth the day.

This from is book 1, lines 227-228:

Mane videbitur, umbra fugabitur, ordo patebit,
Mane nitens erit, et bona qui gerit ille nitebit.

Translated as:

In the morning it will be seen, the shadows will flee, the order [of things] will be laid open,
In the morning it will be shining, and the goodness of him who endures, that will shine forth.

In Plato's allegory of the cave (Republic, book 7), a group of prisoners, chained in place and forced to face the same direction, have never seen any images except the shadows on the wall cast by the firelight coming from behind them. When one man escapes and returns to tell them of the aboveground world, they refuse to believe him; they cannot conceive of anything more "real" than the shadowy figures they have always known.

It is hard for us to grasp that what we can perceive with our senses is not all that exists. (For some it does, sadly, prove impossible.) But the Scriptures show us that God has been leading us, little by little, toward an understanding of His reality. The physical elements of ancient Hebrew worship were "a copy and shadow of the heavenly things."(Hebrews 8:5) God's law itself was "but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities."(Hebrews 10:1) "The substance belongs to Christ,"(Colossians 2:17) and His revelation of the next level of understanding caused confusion and outright malice. (Remember how Pilate misunderstood the nature of Christ's kingship?)

And by no means do we understand it all yet. "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is."(1 John 3:2) I am not entirely sure what that means, but I know it is something good! When that day comes, the shadows will be taken away, the light will shine clearly, and we will understand.

Along with that revealing of God's reality is the uncovering of our true selves. "Many who are first will be last, and the last first,"(Matthew 19:30) and I have no doubt there will be some big surprises on Judgment Day! There is a particularly moving scene in chapter 12 of The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis's parable of heaven and hell, that illustrates this. It begins with the narrator's description of a great heavenly procession:
Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. . . . But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

"Is it? . . . is it?" I whispered to my guide.

"Not at all," said he. "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."

"She seems to be . . . well, a person of particular importance?"

"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."(Lewis, 106-107)
In the unfolding of the chapter, it is revealed that Sarah Smith was a poor and simple housewife on Earth, the longsuffering spouse of a selfish and bullying husband, who nonetheless spread love and kindness to every child with whom she had contact; they were the spirits dancing before her in the procession. When God reveals us as we are, what will others see?

Stanza 4:
There God, our King and Portion,
In fullness of His grace,
Shall we behold forever,
And worship face to face.

The final stanza here is from book 1, lines 231-232:

Pars mea, Rex meus, in proprio Deus ipse decore
Visus amabitur, atque videbitur auctor in ore.

I roughly translate this as:

My Portion, my King, in the very glory befitting God,
By sight will ever be adored, and the Creator will be seen face to face.

"Auctor" is literally "Author," and carries with it the idea of "Originator." The expression "in ore" means literally "by the mouth," but is a figure of speech (part representing the whole) for being face to face, with the implication that the parties now have the opportunity to converse.(Smith & Hall, 280)

There are many things we sing about in our hymns concerning heaven; the beauty of the place, the lack of earthly sorrows, and the reunion with the saints being high on the list.Perhaps we focus on these because they are closer to the earthly joys that we can understand. But greater and higher than all of them is the privilege to be in the presence of Almighty God. It has always been beyond our ability; "No one has ever seen God."(John 1:18) Even though "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend,"(Exodus 33:11) there was still a necessary distance between the fallen mortal and the holy immortal:
Moses said, "Please show me your glory."

And He said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My Name 'The Lord.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live."

And the Lord said, "Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock, and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen."(Exodus 33:18-23)
We are promised a time, however, when this will change: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."(1 Corinthians 13:12) What will it be like, to stand face to face before Him? When the day comes, some definitely will not like it, "calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne . . .'"(Revelation 6:16) But if we seek to know Him and do His will in this life, if we seek to worship Him and honor Him, will it not be the greatest joy of all?
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. "Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence."(Revelation 7:9-15)
About the music:

Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) was a precociously talented musician who made his mark quickly within church music circles in 19th-century England. When his father became the new curate at Olney (coincidentally, the same position held by hymn-writer John Newton a few decades earlier), young Henry persuaded him to allow him to serve as church organist--at age nine! But on reaching young manhood, Henry was sent away to study law, considered a more respectable profession than music. (I have often wondered how people come to this conclusion.)

After setting up practice in London with his brother, however, Henry wandered from the path of moral safety offered by the legal profession. In the great city he had musical opportunities undreamed of; he studied with Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), son of Charles Wesley and one of the most prominent English composers of the Classical era, and actually had an offer to become assistant to Thomas Attwood (1765-1838), a pupil of Mozart who served as organist at St. Paul's Cathedral. He chose instead to serve as organist at St. Olave in Southwark, and became one of the most respected organists in the city, particularly noted for his innovative work in the design of the instrument, and had the highest compliment paid to his playing when Felix Mendelssohn recruited him for the 1846 premiere of the oratorio Elijah.(Cyberhymnal)

Gauntlett was quite prolific in the area of practical church music, though only a small percentage of his hymn tunes are still widely used. Best known of these is "IRBY," the traditional tune for the Christmas hymn "Once in royal David's city." Praise for the Lord also has Gauntlett's tune "ST. ALBINUS" set to Brian Wren's hymn on the Transfiguration, "Jesus on the mountain peak" (#930), and his harmonization of the "STUTTGART" tune by Christian Witt, sung to the text "God is love: His mercy brightens" by John Bowring.


Comaskey, B. J. "Bernard of Cluny." The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 18 v. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967-1989, v.2, 338-339.

Julian, John. "Hora novissima." A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892.

Neale, John Mason. Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. 2nd ed. London: Joseph Masters, 1863.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Great Divorce. New York: MacMillan, 1946.

Smith, William, and Theophilus D. Hall. A Copious and Critical English-Latin Dictionary. New York: American Book Company, 1871.

"Henry John Gauntlett." Cyberhymnal.

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