I don’t have a lot of time this morning for thoughts, but it does seem like a good morning for some simple sacred music. This is one of my very favorite hymns I’ve ever sung with a choir. Here, it is very well sung by the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire Concert Choir, conducted by Dr. Gary R. Schwartzhoff.
Paulus, who died in 2014, wrote “Pilgrim’s Hymn” in 1997. One of the most notable things about the piece is how traditional it sounds, given the contemporary nature of the composition. The harmonies, tempo, and key sound more in line with the 1890s than the 1990s. This is no accident, as the piece is written from the perspective of early American settlers, and the lyrical themes remind me very much of the traditional Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Let’s look at these lyrics by Michael Dennis Browne, as adapted from a Russian Orthodox prayer:
Even before we call on Your name
To ask You, O God,
When we seek for the words to glorify You,
You hear our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.
Glory to the father,
and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.
Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Your name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in You;
Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.
Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,
The first stanza is incredibly powerful to me personally. The theme here is that God knows our hearts and needs before we even pray to him. This is reminiscent of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verse 8: “Your father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The second stanza is a glorification, not unlike the line in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be thy name.” In fact, this entire song is a simple prayer that follows the basic outline provided to us by Jesus Christ, in that above-mentioned chapter of Matthew.
The theme of the third stanza is trust in the Lord, and understanding that His infinite nature is beyond our mortal imagination. Even in our darkest times, He is there, and we need only have faith beyond what we know. These are beautiful thoughts.
But, I think that the most beautiful thing about the piece is the simplicity of the harmonies and unities. The composition itself is humble in a way that few contemporary pieces manage to achieve. The song is absolutely gorgeous; it is gentle and clean, uncomplicated, and swells with love when it needs to do so. And it may sound strange to say this, but the song is not about the song. This song is about a straightforward prayer to God, from the heart. It glorifies with love and devotion and trust, and not elaborate, difficult harmonies and solos. It is sung essentially in unison by a large choir, and no one vocal part stands out.
Psalm 116, verse 6 says: “The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.” This song seeks that same humility.