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Songs of the Ages
I had driven into the village the evening before. I knew no one there. The inn was clean and neat; the stable was good, my horses and myself had a quiet Sunday rest. In the church in the morning was the usual slim congregation, thirty or forty people. Notice was given of a "service of song" at the school-house in the evening.
It was a small room, and crowded. The kerosene lamps gave a dim light and a vile smell. There were more people there than had been in the church in the morning. The room was very hot. A lady presided at the melodeon, facing the assembly. For a while she led, by playing one and another tune of her own selection. Then she asked any one to propose hymns or songs, and voices would be heard calling out this or that page of the hymn or song book they were using. When a page was so called she would at once turn to it, and they sang together; it was good singing. They knew the words and tunes, and sang with spirit and appreciation. There were some harsh, some reedy, some sweet voices. All together were melodious. It was a pity, as it is everywhere in the north country, that the words they sang were mostly doggerel rhymes which have become popular of late years, and have demoralized the hymnology of many parts of the country.
At length the lady left the melodeon, and a man's voice broke the temporary silence which followed. He was praying. I sat near the door, and could see no faces. No one knelt or bowed a head. It is not the custom up there. His prayer was short, simple in diction, several times ungrammatical, but it was heard, I doubt not, for it was earnest, eloquent, beseeching in its tone; the prayer of one who felt deeply the load of this world's weariness, and whose faith was absolute in the promise of his Master, which he cited: "Thou didst say that if we would come to Thee we should have rest. Give us rest, O Lord! Amen."
Then there was silence again, and a woman's voice broke it. It was not a pleasant voice. It was somewhat nasal, a little sharp and shaky, and perhaps querulous in tone. She only sang a word or two alone, and then another, and then all the gathering joined her in that wonderful hymn, "Art thou weary, art thou languid?"
There was something very moving, very thrilling in the utterance of the hymn by that group of upcountry people. They were one and all hard-working men and women, to whom life is the perpetuation of the curse — labor for bread. The touching words in which Dr. Neale clothed the sentiment of the hymn entered into their souls. There was all the eloquence of which the human voice is capable in the way they sang, with suppressed, inquiring, almost doubting voice,
"If I still hold closely to Him,
What hath He at last?"
and a swelling triumph of assurance as they poured out the response,
"Sorrow vanquished, labor ended,
Music is not to be measured by any arbitrary rules of the musical world. I have often heard vesper song in St. Peters. I have heard a Te Deum in Notre Dame, sung to God — and to the emperor and empress. There was never music which ascended to Heaven more musical than that song in the little New Hampshire schoolhouse.
As I walked along the dark country road in a drizzling rain, stumbling over stones, and once bringing up short against the end of an open gate, I heard the voices of young people coming behind me. One said: "Girls, who wrote that last hymn we sung?" "I'm sure I don't know," said another.
It was not exactly the thing for a stranger to speak out in the darkness and tell them. But I went on to my inn, thinking on this wise:
It is the fashion to speak ill of the ages called Dark Ages. By reason of the bitterness of theological controversy the Protestant world is very generally imbued with the idea that for a long and somewhat indefinite period before the sixteenth century the European world and all the rest of the world was in a state of sin and iniquity; degraded in intelligence, in arts and in religion; that everybody went to the bad. The myth of the Dark Ages is still believed in.
Out of those ages we have an abundant brilliant literature, as glorious art, as pure religion as our own age can boast. There was no more darkness then than now. There were weak men and great men, good men and wicked men, in the church and out of it, then as now.
It is the fashion to ridicule the hermits and monks of the early ages. There were dirty hermits and dirty monks abhorring water and rejoicing in uncleanliness. We meet such men, called clergy in Roman and in Protestant churches, nowadays. But there were monks and hermits of another sort, too, as there are Roman and Protestant clergymen now, men of holy life and labor, whose works have followed and will follow them on earth and forever hereafter.
From the dark road through the little New Hampshire village my vision went to a great gorge in the mountains where the Kedron pours its floods in the rainy season, plunging downward from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. The rocky walls of the narrow gorge, broken and irregular, rise two or three hundred feet above the noisy bed of the stream. Here, in caverns and hollows of the rocks, perching like eagles on the sides of the chasm, one and another man, weary of the world, came and made for himself a hermitage, a hole, with what shelter the overhanging cliff might give him. After a while pathways, difficult and dangerous, along the ledges, led from one's miserable abode to that of another. So a community was formed, a sort of hermit village, and its fame went abroad; for there were great men, learned men, noble men, who gave up the world and sought repose and oblivion in the gorge of the Kedron. Thus grew the famed monastery of St. Sabas, once the most powerful monastery in the Eastern Church. Here in the eighth century came John of Damascus, last and not least of the Greek Fathers of the Church; and Cosmas of Jerusalem, Cosmas the melodious, poet and holy man, whose songs are sung in all lands where Christians sing. And with them was one Stephen, of whom we know little more than that he was a Sabaite, and hence is called St. Stephen the Sabaite. These all wrote in Greek. St. John Damascene wrote the "Resurrection Hymn," which is known in Dr. Neale's translation:
"From death to life eternal,
From earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over
With hymns of victory."
I wonder who was Stephen. He lived long, long ago — more than a thousand years ago. He was a man, and therefore he had sorrow and labor, and was heavy laden. He found rest, remembering the Master's invitation. He remembered the very words of it, as St. Matthew had recorded them, "Come unto me all ye that labor;" κοπίοντες was the word, "Ye laboring ones." He wrote an exquisitely simple and beautiful song beginning Koπov ετ καί καματον: "labor and weariness" — and it touched the hearts of the good Christians of that and all the after ages in the Eastern Church. Yes, my friend, there were good Christians in the Eastern and in the Western Church, in all those times. Shake off the superstition that has enthralled you about the Church, and don't any longer imagine that all the people that have lived in Europe from apostolic times down to Luther's day are damned. You may find in heaven as large a proportion of souls out of what you call the Dark Ages as out of this age. There is no more sign of the millennium now than there was then.
It was not a great many years ago that Dr. Neale translated, or perhaps rather reproduced the sentiment of the hymn of Stephen the Sabaite in our tongue. And it entered the hearts of English speaking and singing and praying people, and touched the hearts of many who had not sung or prayed before; so that now all over the world they sing:
"Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
'Come to me,' saith One, and coming,
Be at rest!"
I do not think there is any subject more worthy the philosopher's consideration than this presented to me in the school-house in a New Hampshire village by the dim light of two kerosene lamps, listening to the voices of weary men and women singing the song which Stephen the Sabaite wrote, a thousand years ago, in the deep gorge where the Kedron pierces the wilderness, hurrying down to the Sea of Death. If I did not believe in any God I should feel bound to inquire into that sameness of human character, suffering, wearying, wanting — the same in old Palestine, the same in Russia, Greece, Asia, Europe, America, and that oneness with which the monks of St. Sabas and the young girls of New Hampshire hold firm and unwavering the faith that was delivered to the saints.