Christmastide in Greenville this year has been very reminiscent of the year we spent in London. The weather has hovered between freezing and about 50 degrees F and most days have had that rather drippy, gloomy feel to them. It has been difficult to dampen the joy we've had, though, of being in our new place looking out on the Bass-Mollett lawn to the east as the sun rises. In fact, compared to other years where snow and the parka has been the norm, it has actually been quite pleasant.
This morning as I made my way into work, William Blake's hymn, "Jerusalem," was on my lips--perhaps because of the sense of English weather which enfolded me in its arms. It is reported that the hymn was sung in 1918 at the end of the war at a concert to mark the final stage in the Votes for Women Campaign, after which it was adopted by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (and is still sung at meetings of WI Groups all over Britain). A popular national hymn in the U.K., most American audiences probably know it best from the 1980's film, "Chariots of Fire." As one writer has put it: "The theme is uniquely English, and there is an undertone of 19th Century politics. The lyrics may refer to folklore that says Jesus visited Britain as a teenager with Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to be a distant relative and had a stake in Cornish tin mines. However, there is no historical data supporting this story."
The hymn is indelibly burned into my brain from the memorial service in Toronto for Dr. Northrop Frye, one of the most influential scholars on my own work. Frye with his leonine mane seemed to somehow encompass the best of the British spirit (though thoroughly Canadian!) and had written his dissertation on Blake. His book, The Anatomy of Criticism
, written the year I was born, forever immortalized his claim to literary critic status. More importantly to me, in the last decade or so of his career he produced two important works on the Bible and literature which gave me a way of both understanding and respecting the power of the biblical text in new ways. Along with the Godfather of us all at Saint Louis University, Walter Ong, Frye and his ilk portray for me the very best of the Christian scholarly spirit.
So, on this day when fog has descended even upon the plains of Greenville, I remember the dedication to the hard work of scholarship prized by those giants of the last generation and I hope to continue their work--even if it is but a pittance compared to the massive strides they made. As I journey to San Diego on Thursday for the North American Academy of Liturgy, I'll look for that same fog rolling in off the Pacific Ocean and remember "those feet in ancient time."
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear!
O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.