Thursday, August 7, 2008

John Mason Neale

When John Mason Neale translated yesterday's hymn for the Transfiguration from Latin to English he had no idea that he would eventually die on that feast day, in 1866. Nor could he have imagined that one day he would be honored in the Anglican and Episcopal calendars with a day of his own. But since those calendars traditionally mark the day of the honoree's death, and August 6 was already taken by the Transfiguration, Neale's commemoration was moved to August 7.

John Mason Neale (born January 24, 1818), though acclaimed today for his contributions to hymnody, was not so well-respected in his own time. He was ordained in 1841, but poor health prevented him from taking more lucrative clergy positions, and for many years he lived on an annual salary of 27 pounds, as the head of Sackville College (not an educational institution, but an almshouse). His ministry to the poor widened when he founded the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, an Anglican religious order dedicated to caring for the sick. This was seen as dangerously close to Roman Catholic practice by many people, and Neale was thought to be unfaithful to his own church.

Neale believed that worship in the vernacular, which had become prevalent over the previous few centuries, left the ancient and medieval traditions behind. Wanting to reclaim the works of the great poets and thinkers of the church's past, he began translating Latin hymns into English (again being accused of Catholic sympathies), then moved on to Greek sources, which had been largely unexplored until then.

Of the great number of hymns bearing his name, most are his translations, such as yesterday's selection. He did write some texts of his own, though most of these are not as well-known. Even his most famous one is actually not that well-known beyond the first verse. The following text was from his Hymns for Children, though like many such hymns of his time supposedly written for children, it works just as well for everyone.

O very God of very God,
And very Light of Light,
Whose feet this earthly valley trod,
To bring it to the right.

O guide us till our path is done,
And we have reached the shore
Where thou, our everlasting Sun,
Art shining evermore.

We wait in faith, and turn our face
To where the daylight springs,
Till thou shalt come, our fears to chase,
With healing in thy wings.

To our Creator, power and might
Both now and ever be;
To Christ, that is the Light of Light,
And Holy Ghost, to thee.

John Mason Neale, 1846; alt.
Tune: SONG 67 (C.M.)
Orlando Gibbons, 1623

Another one of Neale's translations was of the Rhythm of Bernard de Morlaix, Monk of Cluny, in the Celestial Country. Not that you would remember, but I wrote about that particular work in my very first blog entry. It was John Mason Neale who first wrote the phrase "conjubilant with song."


Dorothy said...

I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, since you mention it. And the hymns there were quite different to what I've become accustomed to in my adult life in various Protestant churches. Because I only came to Protestant hymn singing in my adult life, I've had a lot of catch up learning to do. I'm not a Singer. I'm not even a singer. But I have come to love singing hymns that reverberate with words of faith. And I love the words to this one of Neale's.

C.W.S. said...

I think that anyone who loves singing hymns is a singer. Congregational singing isn't about anyone's individual voice - it's about a corporate worship experience in which everyone's voice contributes to the whole. Around here, you're a singer, Dorothy!