Anyone thoughtful — no matter what their spiritual leaning — can appreciate the art of the hymn: the rhythm, the sonorous language, the discipline and structure. My first encounter with that power — despite having been part of a youth group as a teenager — came when I was a freshman at a dignified religious institution. I remember cigarette smoke and a song, a somber little something blaring from a nearby room. Three of us stood in the parking lot with Newports hanging from our teeth. I don't recall our conversation, but that night I had my first true experience with hymns and their lyrical magic.
If you want to unravel that magic, I recommend starting with Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age. Journalist Daniel Swift offers a scholarly treatise on cultural history, Shakespeare's plays, and Anglican liturgy, among other things. It's an arresting but heavy read, one that should be of course followed by The Book of Common Prayer, where it finds its inspiration. Swift calls the latter a "history of response" and argues that, in its pages, "Shakespeare found a body of contested speech: a pattern and a music of mourning." Both works are rich and welcome companions to any collection of hymns. The Oremus Hymnal, a collection of pieces for varying occasions, is a good one for the uninitiated. "At even, ere the sun was set" an evening read, resolves:
Once more 'tis eventide, and we,
oppressed with various ills, draw near;
what if thy form we cannot see?
We know and feel that thou art here.
The thing about a beautifully wrought hymn, that age-old lyric poem, is that there is nothing like it — and it would be wrong to say the best ones don't go at the heart head-on. Again, no matter where you stand on heaven and hell, there is power in a hymn. And if we're blessed enough to be able to sit quietly with one, we might see that hymns contain everything: death, laughter, loss. They tell a story about our relationship to the divine. A brute truth: No other form of expression can so richly translate the depth and breadth of authentic religious experience like a well-conceived song of praise.
While much has been written about Shakespeare and how religious he may or may not have been, he understood the power of hymns — and there's no denying the explicit biblical allusions in his work, like this passage from Sonnet 74:
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
And even our most hailed rock icons, from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong, embraced the art form. Throughout their storied lives — packed to the fullest with drugs and sex and all that comes with towering fame — certain convictions remained. As did their adoration for these old compositions.
Willie Nelson, who grew up Methodist, holds a somewhat flexible set of beliefs when it comes to religion. That didn't stop him from offering a masterful, dare I say bad-ass, rendition of "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)." His country smooth melancholy just pierces, while it all slowly builds to the dash of hope consistent with the song's essence. Leave it to Willie and his best friend Trigger, a weathered 1969 Martin N-20 guitar, to have you feeling feelings.
Then there's Sam Cooke. Really, there is always Sam Cooke. His spin on "The Last Mile Of The Way," penned in 1908 by Johnson Oatman, is nothing if not one of the most incredible things. When Cooke hits the refrain, suddenly hope is a physical thing, something you can grab hold of.
When I've gone the last mile of the way,
I will rest at the close of the day;
And I know there are joys that await me,
When I've gone the last mile of the way
It would do us good to revisit some of the poetry of a time so different than our own. These old texts merit our attention; for me they carry the same resonance as Shakespeare. Not only are they rich in history, they also draw us to appreciate the wonder of words. Instead of viewing the vocabulary as archaic, I've come to see hymns as the language of prayer, and as a way of connecting with those that have come before me. The cigarettes are mostly gone, but I'm still at the mercy of what happened when I fell in love with that language.
Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.