Posts Tagged soul

“I Want a Principle Within”, adapted

During his life as an Anglican and then Methodist minister, Charles Wesley wrote the words for about eight thousand hymns.  I’m not actually sure how that’s possible and still have a life.  In any case, many of his hymns are still sung in Anglican and Methodist churches, but perhaps not as he had intended them.

Wesley was a curious combination of somber seriousness and evangelistic pragmatism.  He preached and wrote hymns about sin and temptation and more sin and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, drawing upon and in turn feeding the message of the Great Awakening, the Christian movement that was then sweeping across the American colonies.  And yet, when he realized that his public sermons were competing with the popular but raunchy songs of the local taverns, he cleverly wrote new words, conveying his desired theology, that could be sung by unlettered sailors and farmhands to the already familiar tunes.

In other cases, though, Wesley fully expected that his serious words would be set to appropriately somber music.  A case in point is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, one of the most popular Christmas carols there is thanks to the fact that, over a hundred years after Wesley wrote them and in spite of his wishes, his words were set to the joyful and stirring music of Felix Mendelssohn.  I’m guessing that something similar took place for as hymn I recently discovered, too.

We’re singing it today because a few weeks ago, a congregant generously gave me a CD of instrumental arrangements of classic English hymns.  Looking down the playlist I noticed one called “I Seek a Principle Within” and the word “principle” caught my eye.  I hadn’t heard of such a hymn before, and I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but I loved it as soon as I heard it.  The music — which is in 6/8 time, so it’s essentially a dance — is by Louis Spohr, who was a great composer and musician in his own right but is largely forgotten today because he was so overshadowed by his friend and colleague, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then I looked up the words to this hymn and found that they’d been written by Charles Wesley, and written perhaps as much as a century before Louis Spohr wrote the music that eventually accompanied them.  Wesley’s words were, as usual, about the fear of sin, the pain of temptation, the ever-present danger of sin, and the need to return to the blood of Jesus.  Beyond his words — which for many of us in today’s world, whether we’re Unitarian Universalists or not, are rather a turn-off — I saw a message about the importance of cultivating something within ourselves that helps us figure out right from wrong, so I decided to adapt Wesley’s words for Unitarian Universalists, and adapt I did, heavily.

This is perhaps the longest introduction I’ve ever given to a hymn, for which I can only apologize by saying: I love hymns.

I want a principle within
that lifts my heart from fear,
a sensibility wherein
life’s goodness draws me near.
Discerning how I think and feel
in all things I require,
to guide the wand’ring of my will
and grasp that holy fire.

From trust that I no more may stray,
no more time’s promise grieve,
to hear that still, small voice, I pray,
to tender conscience cleave.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
that inner wisdom make;
bestir, my soul, when trouble’s nigh,
and keep my heart awake.

O source of life, of hope, of love,
to me thy pow’r impart;
the splinters from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may compassion now entrain
my re-awakened soul,
and lead me to that spring again,
which makes the wounded whole.

Comments (1)

The Jigsaw Puzzles of Our Souls

It’s no accident that my congregation’s mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — refers to “truths” in the plural.  Unitarian Universalists generally recognize that there are few things we can claim as being absolutely true in any completely objective sense, and so we embrace “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a valuable part of our religious endeavor.

Of course, we human beings like to be right.  We like to think we have the truth, that we can even refer to “truth” in the singular — or, worse, capitalize it.  We like to believe that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of convincing people, and if they won’t be convinced it’s only because they’re stupid and we just need to talk at them more loudly.  Oh, we know on an intellectual level that it’s possible to be wrong, but we’d much rather be right, even over the most apparently inconsequential things, and if needs be we’ll defend our rightness with words or fists… or bullets… or bombs.

There’s apparently no greater need to be right than when it comes to understanding the world around us.  Given my former life as a research scientist, though, I know that while a good discovery confirms something we thought was right, the better discovery is actually one where we realize we were wrong about something.  After all, experiments that failed to follow Newton’s ideas about absolute space and time led Einstein to his theories of relativity, while a couple of apparently minor problems in optics and thermodynamics led to quantum mechanics.  As Isaac Asimov put it:  “The most important phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

Now it’s not for nothing that most religions lift up humility as a virtue; at one time in ancient Greek society, hubris was considered the greatest crime someone could commit.  Journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that “the capacity to [be wrong] is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw,” she writes, “it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Of course, I’m not advocating willful ignorance or suggesting we avoid courage when it comes to our convictions.  But it seems to me that refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, to stick to our guns come hell or high water, to willfully deny the evidence that we’re wrong is to be no better than a child with his fingers in his ears chanting that he can’t hear.  In doing so we forget that it’s only when we’re wrong that we have a chance to become right, to seek out those small-‘t’ truths than can help us find wholeness and wisdom.

Maybe we can think of such truths as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — actually, as the pieces of lots of different puzzles, at least one for every human soul on the planet.  You never know where you might find one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your own soul, or who might have found it and kept it in their heart until the day they can pass it on to you — and on that day your own soul grows a little more into its own wholeness.

After all, we can learn a lot about ourselves from other people.  Versions of the Golden Rule are found throughout the world’s religious traditions, but here’s one from the ancient wisdom of Shinto that goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity:  “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”  What if we were truly able to see and hear ourselves reflected in the hearts of others?  Would we be so righteous about our rightness?  Or would we be open to seeing the holes in the jigsaw puzzles of our own souls and be more willing to seek out the missing pieces?  Wouldn’t we see ourselves as part of something so much larger?  Perhaps then we’d be ready to lift our hearts above the constraints of our own truths and be free.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: