By Aïda Rogers
When my uncle died I was confident I could get through the funeral dry-eyed. He’d suffered a long time and because I lived next door, I felt somehow I was suffering too. The funeral would be nothing compared to what had come before.
Then the first few bars of “In the Garden” were played and I realized how wrong I’d been. Cousin Roberta thrust a handkerchief down the pew and I never made that mistake again. Such is the power of an old hymn.
Maybe you have to grow up in a small country church to understand. The church of my childhood relied on a preacher who served other congregations. He was followed by a high school teacher who was followed by an aged gent brought out of retirement. Having listened to teachers the week before in school, I couldn’t focus on what the preachers said on Sunday. But oh, the hymns. That was a different story.
For one thing, they were dramatic. Walls tumbled, mercies streamed, billows rolled. We were either standing (on the promises), leaning (on the everlasting arms) or breaking (bread together on our knees). Instructed to “rescue the perishing” and “trust and obey,” we nevertheless knew things were sweet, like that hour of prayer and the “by and by” – whatever that was. There was a church in the wildwood and a lily of the valley, and strange words to learn – “diadem” and “tumult” and “betide.” Likewise, there were familiar words in new form: “’twill” and “o’er” and “bidst.”
My siblings and I had no idea what those hymns meant, but we sang them excitedly. None could thrill more than “Love Lifted Me,” with its images of someone drowning before “the master of the sea” – clearly this was Neptune – saves the day.
I thought I knew all those old songs until two monumental things happened: Our congregation put on enough annual barbecues to build a new sanctuary, and the choir sold enough bottled flavoring to buy robes. Then, in that ultra-modern space with a new piano, organ and stained-glass window of Jesus making the peace sign, the queen was summoned. That was Aunt Adelaide. She put her capable hands on the piano keys and “Ivory Palaces” rippled out. Then “Surely Goodness and Mercy” rollicked forth. “In My Father’s House” came last. For me, those songs were revelations.
One Sunday, in a new town and feeling like a stranger, I took myself to church. It didn’t matter that I knew no one there; I knew the hymns. And so did everyone else – particularly the men, old men unashamed to sing out, men who sang loud with the faith of their fathers as only men who know about solid rocks and sinking sand can sing. Their voices rose around me and I felt like I was rising with them. “Lifted up,” some would say.
It seems that many of those old songs have been put away, brought out only for rare nostalgic occasions. But I’m not sure anything can hit you in the heart as much as a hymn you haven’t heard in years and didn’t know you could sing word for word until one day you’re standing there realizing you don’t need the book at all. What can rouse more than “He Lives,” soothe more than “Whispering Hope”? How can anyone get through “In the Cross” or “Abide with Me” without coming undone?
I live with somebody who is proud of his Catholic education. He and the pope can go toe to toe every Christmas and Easter when the television is on late at night. But when Willie Nelson comes on and sings “I’ll Fly Away,” I’m the one singing all the words, which – though it’s shameful to say it – makes me feel just a little bit superior.
Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.
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