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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Mystery of the Missing Mysteries

Like many Nordic Americans, especially of the high-church persuasion, we have an abiding affection for Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig. While by no means our ideal churchman or theologian, his story speaks to our heart, certainly more than that of his overrated and inscrutable compatriot, Soren Kierkegaard.

So we were quite pleased when Mother A. chose Grundtvig's Built on a Rock as the hymn for Sunday next. Its chilling opening verses -- crumbled have spires in ev'ry land -- never fail to stun us with their prescience. Grundtvig was thinking, no doubt, of the depredations of Rationalism up through the late 18th century; he had no idea what further depredations were yet in store.

But while performing our due diligence, we were surprised to discover that the LBW translation, credited to the prolific Carl Doving, is incomplete. It is missing two stanzas, one of them about the central rites of the Christian church.

Some details: Grundtvig wrote the hymn in 1837 and revised it in 1854. Cyberhymnal offers one Danish version here, and an English translation here. The translation is credited to the prolific American translator Carl Doving, with emendations by Fred C.M. Hansen (could the initials really stand for Common Meter?). The text printed in the Service Book and Hymnal, Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship is very close to the Cyberymnal version, but somewhat improved as poetry. The SBH credits Doving and Hansen, although the others omit Hansen. The JPEG above, which you can enlarge by clicking, compares the two Cyberhymnal versions and the [copyrighted] version from the ELW (not, as it says, the LBW).

There are quite a few minor variations among the English texts. The SBH, for example, changed "rest everlasting" to "life everlasting." Playing its usual games with gendered language, the ELW changed
We are God's house of living stones
Built for his own habitation
Christ builds a house of living stones
We are his own habitation.
Both of these changes distort Grundtvig's intent, but so slightly that we can't really get excited about them. The stanza about earthly temples is more serious, as the praise of God's glory is exchanged for a confession of faith. Still, we're Lutheran enough to see the two things as basically similar.

What bugs us is the decision, made at least as early as the SBH and continued ever since, to omit stanzas 4 and 6.

The first omission is easier to forgive. The English translation of stanza 6 isn't very good. So far as we can tell, the original starts out closer to this:
Now we can gather with our Lord
Even in the lowliest hut
And say with Peter: This place is good!
This ties the hymn back to its opening verse, making explicit the idea that the "rock" upon which the Church is built is the faith of St. Peter. This only makes sense, since the hymn spins off of Biblical incidents in which Peter plays a key role (get it?), as well as images from the Petrine epistles. Our best guess is that Doving weakened these references a little, hoping to head off any Romanizing interpretations. The result, though, is that omitting Peter's name, along with his exclamation on the mountaintop, is a needless bit of anti-Catholicism which weakens the narrative and deprives pastors of what might be a useful hymn for the Transfiguration.

Nonetheless, Doving renders stanza 6 quite beautifully. The original may be more admirably blunt: The font reminds us of our baptism / the altar of Eucharistic grace.) And Doving omits the idea of God's mystery -- Guds kærligheds gåde. But we'd still be happy to sing it. And that's what confuses us about the hymnals.

Frankly, it is difficult to imagine why -- in a hymn about church buildings -- the steeple and bells should be retained, when the font and altar are omitted. (Not to mention the pulpit, which is present by implication). It is all the more shocking since this hymn, in its mutilated version, was sung through the long and difficult effort to restore a proper respect for and use of the sacraments among Lutherans in America. It is as though pastors committed to liturgical renewal were purposefully deprived of a useful tool for their work.

Here is the missing stanza, in an easily cut-and-pasted form. We believe that it is free of copyright, and encourage our readers to add it to bulletins from time to time:

Here stands the font before our eyes
Telling how God did receive us;

The altar recalls Christ’s sacrifice

And what His table doth give us;

Here sounds the Word that doth proclaim
Christ yesterday, today, the same,

Yea, and for aye our Redeemer.


mark said...

That's actually verse 4 in the present edition of the LC-MS hymnal.
One more river to cross?

Father Anonymous said...

But, I assume, no eucharistic prayers. Which means we can have EITHER the fruit of seventy years of intensive study of sacramental history and theology, OR a few lines of poetry about the sacraments.

Still, it is the curse of Lutheranism in America that we keep having to make choices like this.