Hymn for the day graphic

23 Praise to the holiest – Sturgess

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
Public Domain

Malcolm Sturgess

On October 13th last year our middle-of-the-road Anglican church in Salisbury hosted what turned out to be an ecumenical service to mark the canonisation of Cardinal Newman. Several Roman Catholics turned up, because they did not have an equivalent service of their own.

I divided the service into three parts: Cardinal Newman himself; the validity of creating new saints in this day and age; and Newman’s most famous work, The Dream of Gerontius. As part of my preparation I read the whole poem, which was a surprisingly moving experience. I had sung Elgar’s oratorio of the same name several times, but to see the whole thing in one piece, rather than bits of it spread through a 180-page musical score, was very powerful. It is available on the Internet.

The poem includes two hymns well known to most of us, and the lovely words used at funerals, beginning “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”. The hymns are Praise to the holiest in the height, and Firmly I believe and truly.

The words of Praise to the holiest are scattered about through the poem, as reflected in Elgar’s oratorio. There are 38 verses altogether, including several repeats. It is entirely appropriate to sing the first verse again at the end. Here are two verses we don’t usually sing:

The Eternal blessed his child, and armed,     
And sent him hence afar,
To serve as champion in the field
Of elemental war.

To be his Viceroy in the world
Of matter, and of sense,
Upon the frontier, towards the foe,
A resolute defence.

Newman jotted the poem down in bits, on scraps of paper, and put it together for publication in 1865. It found immediate public favour in the second half of the Victorian era, and remained popular as a poem for 35 years before Elgar (himself a Catholic who had been through the spiritual mill, like Newman) set it to music. It is about a man, Gerontius, approaching death and what happens afterwards. It is designed in seven so-called phases, although you can’t tell that when listening to Elgar’s take on it. In fact the first phase covers nearly a third of it, leading up to Gerontius’s death. In concert performances, that is where the interval comes, to be followed by a much longer second half, phases 2 - 7, describing what happened to Gerontius’s soul after death.

So in the first part, as he is dying, Gerontius prays to Jesus and Mary for protection, and receives the last rites. That is where he says, “Firmly I believe and truly …..”. His friends pray to God, listing all sorts of people from the Bible who have passed the self-same way and come out of it all right. Then a Priest pronounces the valediction which most of us will recognise from modern funeral services: “Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo! Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!” If you ever watch music on YouTube, you will know how the trolls add their comments; many of them horribly ignorant or prejudiced, But there are also some much more sensitive comments, one of which reads, “It doesn’t get any better than this; I was singing this to my Dad as he passed away”.

After death, Gerontius’s soul is accompanied by a guardian angel, who tells Gerontius he has been with him all along, through life. He tells Gerontius that the only thing keeping him from God is his own thoughts. Gerontius says he no longer fears meeting God, indeed is looking forward to the encounter. The angel says that sense of joy is a gift from God to protect Gerontius during forthcoming demonic temptations. These temptations soon come, from demons who hold a judgement court where they try to gather souls for hell. But there are choirs of angels as well, who, while describing the impending fate of Gerontius, sing Praise to the holiest. The double agony, which may puzzle some people, is the agony of body and soul.

We’ve got to phase six now, of the seven, very near the veiled presence of God. Another angel, The Angel of the Agony, who comforted Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, begs Jesus to be merciful to Gerontius, and Gerontius declares himself to be ready to meet his God. He rushes in with both feet, comes face to face with God for one fleeting moment, and realizes he is totally unworthy for this, and in a terrifying moment in Elgar’s music, begs to be taken away, so that by trial and suffering he can be healed and prepared properly to see God in the truth of everlasting day.

So then the Guardian Angel arranges for Gerontius’s soul to be admitted to Purgatory - not a terrible place, as common speech might sometimes suggest, but one where he can be prepared for heaven. And in this last bit, the last twelve pages of Elgar’s score, the angel tells him that he will be tended and nursed, and then sings, “Farewell, but not for ever, brother dear. Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow. Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, and I will come and wake thee on the morrow”. This most beautiful passage is called The Angel’s Farewell in the oratorio. Near the end, four times you can hear a faint angelic echo of “Praise to the holiest in the height”, while the souls in Purgatory sing “Lord, thou hast been our refuge”, and “Come back”. If you can listen to a recording of this, try listening with your eyes closed, to shut out any distractions, and maybe to have a picture in your heads. A picture that sometimes comes to my mind when hearing this is of a liner leaving the quayside at Southampton, or a naval ship from Portsmouth, and people waving as they grow farther apart physically, while still remaining close in heart and spirit.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise:
In all his words most wonderful,
Most sure in all his ways.

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.

And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God’s presence and his very self,
And essence all-divine.

O generous love! that he, who smote
in Man for man the foe,
The double agony in Man
For man should undergo.

And in the garden secretly,
And on the cross on high,
Should teach his brethren, and inspire
To suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise:
In all his words most wonderful,
Most sure in all his ways.

A prayer of Cardinal Newman:
O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shades lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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