Age, With'ring Age
Scene: Ash Wednesday, in the pew of a strange church, after receiving the smudge. We’re singing a hymn tune that is old and familiar, but not to old and familiar words. (The tune is St. Flavian; in the Hymnal 1982 it accompanies the words “Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray.”)
It starts appropriately enough: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, To dust thou shalt return; Then place not in the world thy trust; Its joys delusive spurn.” I like the pairing of the ancient words drawn from Genesis with the admonition not to trust the world. I’m also rather pleased by the poetic inversion in the last line, putting “spurn” at the last. And, to be honest, I’m a little proud of myself as I notice myself liking it.
The second stanza too is simultaneously grim and lovely: “Few, few and evil are thy days, Man of a woman born; Forsake thy vain and crooked ways; From sin and evil turn.” Good advice: life is finite and it has a lot of trouble, so it’s important to turn from sin and evil.
Then: “The tender infant springs to light.” In a flash we picture the happiness when a child emerges from the womb. “Youth blossoms to the breeze.” Briefly we remember that to be young is to be a human being in full blossom. But immediately we go on to sing: “Age, with’ring age, is cropt ere night; Man like a shadow flees.”
What is this sudden lurch forward from blossoming youth? “Age, with’ring age”! And it’s over before sundown—”cropt ere night.” What does this poet think he (or she) is doing, skipping over the prime of life, the years of working and doing and marrying and having children and enjoying a comfortable existence and going to parties and, my God, flourishing! Where is the flourishing? It’s not in this hymn.
Age, with’ring age! I sing those words and they stick to my teeth. I have no spirit left to sing the fourth stanza, which is about waters failing and brooks running dry and life being vanity. The hymn closes on semi-familiar territory: “Lord, through these days of penitence And through thy Passiontide, For evermore, in life and death, O Lord, with us abide.”
The hymn did its work in me. It made out like it was a sweet and lovely friend at the start, pleasing my vanity for old language and poetics. Then that middle stanza lurched from the babe to age—with’ring age!—well, it hit me so hard it’s taken me a month to be able to tell you about it.
Beware of singing hymns. They can sneak up on you and bite.
Out & About. Yours truly is to preach on Maundy Thursday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas (April 6 at 7pm) and on Good Friday at Incarnation in Dallas (April 7 at noon and 6pm).
The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar, on Sunday, April 16, will discuss Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers—the first of her delightful mysteries and the one in which she introduces her famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The seminar meets at Incarnation at 5pm.
On the Web. My sermon on the woman at the well (John 4) is here: https://soundcloud.com/allsoulsokc/march-12-2023-the-third-sunday-in-lent-the-rev-canon-fr-victor-lee-austin-phd
I have a short piece, “A Paradox of Death,” published here: https://humanlifereview.com/a-paradox-of-death/