Episode 40. October 30, 2016. Tomorrow and Tuesday are holidays in the Philippines so this weekend my wife and I are in Siem Reap, a province in Northwestern Cambodia known as the gateway to the famed ruins of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th–15th centuries.
Today I want to talk about the power of sacred music and why I believe.
Last Sunday I had a wonderful experience during the closing hymn of sacrament meeting. The topic for the day had been working through trials, overcoming discouragement and getting the gospel from our head into our hearts. The speakers were amazing. Sister Cardoni, Sister Stewart and then Elder Stewart (full time senior missionaries working in a dental office in the Missionary Training Center here) all spoke about their own experiences in regards to this topic. All three talks were amazing. At the end of the meeting we sang Hymn #124 Be Still My Soul. It is hard for me to describe the experience I had as we sang that hymn following the inspiring talks. Let me try. I think it was near the end of the first verse when we sang “Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heav’nly Friend Thru thorny ways leads to a joyful end” that I felt transported to a heavenly place, surrounded by concourses of angels, all singing these words with those of us in the congregation. I was transfixed in wonder and astonishment. I didn’t want to do anything to disturb the magnificent experience I was having as the spirit bore a powerful witness to me of the truthfulness of the gospel deep within my soul.
The words continued…Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake to guide the future as he has the past…For a moment I felt like I could understand with a new heart the words of Peter recorded in Matthew 17:4 “Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.” I did not want the hymn to end. As we came to the close of the final stanza, we sang, “Be still my soul: The hour is hast’ning on When we shall be forever with the Lord, When disappointment, grief and fear are gone, Sorrow forgot, loves purest joys restored.” Surely what I was experiencing was the purest of joys. How grateful I was then and I am now, even as I sit listening to the wondrous music of that majestic hymn as I prepare this episode. This is just one more reason why I Believe.
I want to give you a brief history of this hymn, to add some additional insight and depth to this experience. The hymn was written by Katharina von Schlegel, a Lutheran woman in Germany who lived a century after Luther’s Reformation began. Katharina was born in Köthen, Germany, on October 22, 1697, twelve years after Johann Sebastian Bach was born 80 miles away. Some believe that Katharina was from an aristocratic family and may also have been attached to Prince Leopold’s court and therefore may have known Bach who served as the music director for the Prince. The inspiration for the hymn came to Katharina as she read of God’s promise in Psalm 46:10-11 “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
One hundred years after Katharina’s first book of poems was published in 1774, Jane L. Bothwick from Scotland translated the original poem titled “Stille, mein Wille”, into English and titled it Be Still, My Soul. Over the next 50 years the poem was sung to a number of different melodies, but none of them proved a lasting combination. Then in 1899, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote a symphonic poem as a covert protest against growing censorship by the Russian empire. Much of the piece is turbulent, representing the Finnish people’s national struggle, but in the final movement, the calming melodic “Finlandia Hymn” is introduced. In 1927, Katharina’s words were paired with the tune of “Finlandia” and our modern day version of Be Still My Soul was born!
I now want to tell you another story, a different story. This one is written by Emma Lou Thayne about her mother, Grace Richards Warner. If Emma’s name is familiar, it is because she wrote the beloved Hymn # 129, Where Can I Turn for Peace. Emma died in Dec 2014 at the age of 90.
“When I was a little girl, my father took me to hear Helen Keller in the Tabernacle. I must have been about eight or nine and I’d read about Helen Keller in school, and my mother had told me her story. I remember sitting in the balcony at the back of that huge domed building that was supposed to have the best acoustics in the world. Helen—everybody called her that—walked in from behind a curtain under the choir seats with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Helen spoke at the pulpit—without a microphone—but we could hear perfectly, her guttural, slow, heavily pronounced speech. She spoke about her life and her beliefs. Her eyes were closed and when it came time for questions from the audience, she put her fingers on her teacher’s lips and then repeated for us what the question had been. She answered questions about being deaf and blind and learning to read and to type and, of course, to talk. Hearing that voice making words was like hearing words for the first time, as if language had only come into being—into my being at least—that moment. Someone asked her, “Do you feel colors?” I’ll never forget her answer, the exact sound of it—“Sometimes. .. . I feel . . . blue.” Her voice went up slightly at the end, which meant she was smiling. The audience didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After quite a lot of questions, she said, “I would . . .. like to ask. . . a favor of you.” Of course, the audience was all alert. “Is your Mormon prophet here?” she asked. There was a flurry of getting up from the front row, and President Grant walked up the stairs to the stand. She reached out her hand and he took it. All I could think was, “Oh, I wish I were taking pictures of that.” “I . . . would like . . . ,” she said, “to hear your organ . . . play . . . your famous song—about your pioneers. I . . . would like . . . to remember hearing it here.” All the time she was speaking she was holding his hand he had given her to shake. I liked them together, very much. I remember thinking, “I am only a little girl (probably others know) but how in the world will she hear the organ?” But she turned toward President Grant and he motioned to Alexander Schreiner, the Tabernacle organist who was sitting near the loft. At the same time, President Grant led her up a few steps to the back of the enormous organ—with its five manuals and eight thousand pipes. We were all spellbound. He placed her hand on the grained oak of the console, and she stood all alone facing us in her long, black velvet dress with her right arm extended, leaning slightly forward and touching the organ, with her head bowed. Brother Schreiner played “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” each verse a different arrangement, the organ pealing and throbbing—the bass pedals like foghorns—as only he could make happen. Helen Keller stood there—hearing through her hand and sobbing. Probably a lot more than just me—probably lots of us in the audience were mouthing the words to ourselves—“Gird up your loins; fresh courage take. / Our God will never us forsake; / And soon we’ll have this tale to tell— / All is well! / All is well!” I could see my great-grandparents, converts from England, Wales, France, and Denmark, in that circle of their covered wagons, singing over their fires in the cold nights crossing the plains. Three of them had babies die; my great-grandmother was buried in Wyoming. “And should we die before our journey’s through, / Happy day! / All is well! / We then are free from toil and sorrow, too; / With the just we shall dwell! / But if our lives are spared again / To see the Saints their rest obtain, / Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell— / All is well! / All is well!”
So then—that tabernacle, that singing, my ancestors welling in me, my father beside me, that magnificent woman, all combined with the organ and the man who played it and the man who had led her to it—whatever passed between the organ and her passed on to me. I believed. I believed it all—the seeing without seeing, the hearing without hearing, the going by feel toward something holy, something that could make her cry, something that could move me, alter me, something as unexplainable as a vision or a mystic connection, something entering the pulse of a little girl, something that no matter what would never go away. What it had to do with Joseph Smith or his vision or his gospel I never would really understand—all I know to this day is that I believe.”
Well, Grace, I am with you. Sacred music is such a powerful force for good. My experience last Sunday was but a tiny reflection of your own experience, but similar enough that my soul also cries out, I Believe!, I Believe, I Believe it all!
In the preface to the LDS hymnbook there is a statement by the First Presidency that says in part, “Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end.” May we all feel the sanctifying influence of music as we lend our voices to the sacred and inspired words of our hymns.