For All the Saints
William Walsham How, 1864
“If Faith is real,” said the gentlest of English bishops, William Walsham How (1823-1897), “it must worship. If worship is real, it must behold. Neither is the eye anything without the voice, or the voice without the eye. It follows that Prayer is the greatest reality of our lives.”
And the highest form of prayer, said How, was praise, and by its nature praise is fittest for public worship, for a community of souls that come together to sing to God. Our sins are private, said he, as are our needs, but “all can utter the same voice of Praise.” Think of praise as the creature’s sharing in the very life and the glory of God. For praise is the purest form of gratitude, when we give thanks to God not for a certain gift or blessing or mercy, but for His simply being God: we revel, because He Is.
Now, I would like, for our hymn today, to bind together three ideas. When Jesus set a little child in the midst of his bickering disciples, and he said that whoever would be greatest in the kingdom of God must be the least, and that unless you welcome the kingdom as a child, you shall not enter, he was giving us a lesson in holiness that the world had never heard before, and that we still find difficult to understand. We find it easier to understand, though not to do, what Saint Paul enjoins upon the church at Ephesus, to “put on the whole armor of God,” because “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.” We must fight: we have no choice in the matter. “I have fought the good fight,” says Paul to Timothy, when his days are drawing to their end, “I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”
The pagan soldier gloried in his might. The Christian soldier gives the glory to God, and, we may say, is often astonished that he has achieved anything, or he does not notice the achievement, though others may; he is too caught up in the beauty and goodness of God to think of attributing any great worth to himself. That would be a distraction, after all! Why look at yourself when you can look at Jesus? But think of children again. The child looks up to the soldier in wonder and gratitude, and the Christian soldier, a child at heart – and Bishop How was called “the children’s bishop” and “the poor man’s bishop” – looks to Christ. All is grace, all is gift.
So, for All Saints’ Day, Bishop How, one of the most accomplished English hymnodists of the nineteenth century, composed the magnificent poem, “For All the Saints,” a poem that praises God for the gifts he has given to those titans of the faith who came before us, those great and hearty children of God, and that begs Him to make us like them, so that we may fight too, and win the victory. It is a triumphant hymn without a trace of triumphalism. It sets the darkness of our lives against the all-pervading light of those who have gone before us in faith. And what do the hosts of God do, in the end? Tell battle stories? Jockey for rank? No – they sing, they sing in praise of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
A few words about the poem itself: How composed it in rhyming triplets of iambic pentameter. The triplet, in English, is a daring and powerful poetic form: you need three consecutive rhymes, and they had better not appear forced; and the third line is ideal for an ironic reversal, for climax, for the sublime. All revisions of this poem in contemporary hymnals are the work of vandals: avoid them! Look at the tremendous summation at the end of stanza seven: the saints are in glory, while we struggle here on earth, yet, says How in words that are perfectly simple and simply perfect, “all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.” That is the ultimate personal union: the union of human persons in God in whose image we are made, and He, three Persons in one God, is the ground of our personhood and our communion.
Stanzas four, five, and six are not printed in any hymnals I have seen, but they were there when How first published the poem, and they are worthy of the rest. Sing them too, my friends! Has there ever been a melody more fit for the text than Vaughn Williams’s Sine Nomine, for this poem? I don’t think so. And if we do not now see one another’s faces, let us pray that God will grant us to see them someday, when the gates are opened forever.
1. For all the saints, who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia, Alleluia! 2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might; Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight; Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia, Alleluia! 3. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, And win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia, Alleluia! 4. For the Apostles’ glorious company, Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea, Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee: Alleluia, Alleluia! 5. For the Evangelists, by whose blest word, Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored. Alleluia, Alleluia! 6. For Martyrs, who with rapture-kindled eye, Saw the bright crown descending from the sky, And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify. Alleluia, Alleluia! 7. O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia, Alleluia! 8. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia! 9. The golden evening brightens in the west; Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. Alleluia, Alleluia! 10. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; The saints triumphant rise in bright array; The King of glory passes on His way. Alleluia, Alleluia! 11. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia, Alleluia!
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