Sunday, April 21, 2013

What a Terror Attack in Boston Taught me about the Importance of Hymn Study

 by Megan Hoyt

What a week I've had. My heart was crushed to tiny bits as I watched news reports of the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent murders and shootouts. It was like a horrible B movie in which my son, daughter, and son-in-law played bit parts as extras. And I was the woman who popped the movie into the dvd player and watched it all unfold. Only it was all very real. And these were my own precious children in harm's way -- they're students at music conservatories in downtown Boston. I'm pretty spent emotionally, quite overworked spiritually, and just all around exhausted. But my children are alive and well, albeit a little stunned and frightened. My prayers go out to the victims. I know you will keep them in your prayers as well.

 And now for Hymn Study!

There's so much I want to say, and much of it has less to do with what I've learned about Charlotte Mason and more to do with growing up in a large, vibrant Episcopal church -- the smells and bells kind (incense and chimes). I also went to an Episcopal school for six years as a child. I sang hymns every day except Saturday, and I probably sang them on more than a few Saturdays, too!

Here are a couple of photos of the church I grew up in. It was enormous, though you can't tell that by looking at these photos. The angels carved into the marble wall behind the altar are huge! As I peek at these pics again, 40 years later, odd, disjointed memories flood my mind. I was so short for my age that I was chosen to lead the procession up that long aisle one Christmas Eve for three identical services. We sang the Hodie Christus Natus Est, holding candles, wearing choir robes and cassocks, our heads covered with matching bobby-pinned beanies. We had spent months memorizing anthems and hymn descants for these special services. It was thrilling when Christmas Eve arrived and the procession began, in darkness and silence with only the haunting a capella Hodie filling the 500 seat sanctuary.

This is what Hymn Study was to me. And now, I'm tasked with a somewhat ominous duty -- to pass on that same love of hymns to my own children and to the students under my care. They have not grown up with hymns. The majesty and magnificence of St. Michael and All Angels church is not a part of their history. What do I do? How do I recreate the reverence, the hush over the congregation as these great hymns were announced, the splendor of the powerful organ as it filled the huge expanse with its magnificent rich, low tones. It's a daunting thing to make all that real for a new generation that hasn't been raised in a traditional church setting but who still deserve a chance to learn these meaty hymns that still bring tears of joy to my eyes.

The first thing I did was find an Episcopal church choir and put my kids in it -- The Choir School at St. Peter's in Charlotte, NC. It was a great place for our own children to learn not only hymns but self-discipline, reverence, and the value of hard effort and memorization. They learned to sightread music; they learned solfege; they received progressively more difficult musical training, and they learned hymns. Although we are no longer Episcopalian and I no longer live in Dallas, I was delighted to find this resource in my city. I'm forever indebted to Mr. Outten, Mrs. Johnson, and Mrs. Lillard (who tutored the children in private sessions until they had mastered solfege and were able to progress through the challenging tests).

The second thing I did was begin teaching them hymns at home, using my old ragged, war-torn 1940 Episcopal hymnal. We began with a short one we could sing at the end of each night, Hymn 172, the second tune, "Now the Day is Over." This video is from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I'm not Mormon, of course, but it's a beautiful rendition, nonetheless. How I taught hymns was pretty simple. I sang the first line for them about three times, then asked them to join in. We treated it like poetry recitation. This method works well! But if you feel you can't sing or don't want to, youtube has a lot of hymns you can play for them, and I'll post some helpful links at the end of this post to get you started, too.

Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh,
shadows of the evening
steal across the sky.

Jesus give the weary
Calm and sweet repose;
With Thy tend'rest blessing
May our eyelids close.

We only memorized those first two verses, but there are more. These two are particularly appropriate right now, after the bombings in Boston, where my son, daughter, and son-in-law live:

Comfort every suff'rer
Watching late in pain
Those who plan some evil
From their sin restrain.

Through the long night watches
May thine angels spread
Their white wings above me,
Watching round my bed.

My children are particularly musical, so we began singing it in harmony. I can still hear it now inside my head. So beautiful!

We next learned Come Labor On, Hymn 576. Under the number, it says: Ora Labora, in unison, very broadly. The words to this hymn are a call to evangelism. What? Episcopalians evangelizing? Yes! This is a rich, deep, haunting hymn.

 Come labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,
While all around him waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
"Go work today."

Come labor on.
The enemy is watching night and day
To sow the tares to snatch the seed away
While we in sleep our duty have forgot
He slumber'd not.

Come labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear,
No arm so weak but may do service here
By feeblest agents may our God fulfill
His perfect will.

Come labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share
To young and old the gospel gladness bear
Redeem the time, its hours too swiftly fly,
The night draws nigh.

From here, I went on to teach them "God is Working His Purpose out."

God is working his purpose out
as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

From utmost east to utmost west,
wherever foot hath trod,
by the mouth of many messengers
goes forth the voice of God;
give ear to me, ye continents,
ye isles, give ear to me,
that earth may filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

What can we do to work God's work,
to prosper and increase
the brotherhood of all mankind--
the reign of the Prince of Peace?
What can we do to hasten the time--
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

March we forth in the strength of God,
with the banner of Christ unfurled,
that the light of the glorious gospel of truth
may shine throughout the world:
fight we the fight with sorrow and sin
to set their captives free,
that earth may filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth
unless God blessed the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea. 

After that, we learned Onward, Christian Soldiers in two part harmony and never looked back. Hannah, our resident violin player, learned Come Thou Fount and Amazing Grace. They learned what a Sursum Corda, Nunc Diminitis, Agnus Dei, and Sanctus were. We even learned how to read some older forms of Medieval notation and sing gregorian chants. We mixed our hymn study with composer study and read about the lives of the men and women who wrote the music and lyrics to these hymns. I was salivating with joy. My childhood was unfolding again right in front of me! It was sheer bliss for this proud Mama. Hilary, upon graduating from the Choir School, sang the solo in the final choir concert, and my joy was complete. 

I know this post hasn't had a lot of deep, fulfilling explanations of Charlotte Mason's reasons for including Hymn Study in a child's education. I think it's a little self-explanatory, though I could probably stir up a few quotes for you. To me, the richness of learning hymns enlivens our souls, stirs our hearts, lifts our spirits, and brings us closer to the Creator of the Universe. After the sort of week I've had, worrying about the safety of two of my children who were on lockdown in the middle of downtown Boston during a terror attack, to my great astonishment, I discovered that my heart turned to these great hymns for solace. I had no idea I would do that. But see, there's great value in what we choose to teach our children. You never know when or where something that's alive and vibrant is going to turn up later in life. I'm happy to report through firsthand experience that I've learned hymn study is one of those living elements of a CM education that has stood the test of time. Many thanks to my mother, Nancy Glass, for placing me in a church environment where I would be enriched and where Jesus Christ was adored.

(See if you can guess which of these sailor-suited little girls is me!)

 For further research:

Squidoo Hymn Study site
(I don't believe in "worksheet pages" and they recommend them here, but there's also a lot of other great information on hymn study, too, and the worksheets are more like copywork pages.)

Nadene's Hymn Study page (Nadene has several links scattered throughout her page. It's great! Go check them out for a more thorough list of resources -- and yes, they also use worksheet pages that the children fill out. After looking over Miss Mason's beliefs, I think she would have preferred the children create their own pages starting from scratch rather than fill in a worksheet or copywork page. But she's not here to ask!)


  1. "There is great value in what we choose to teach our children". perfect illustration. Thank you.

  2. "It's a daunting thing to make all that real for a new generation that hasn't been raised in a traditional church setting but who still deserve a chance to learn these meaty hymns that still bring tears of joy to my eyes."

    I love the meatiness and beauty of hymns. I am saddened when I hear people complain about hymns. How can one not tear up or sing with joy words that have such power? I have noticed that the contemporary Christian songs that I love most have rich lyrics. Words mean things, and I pray that hearts wake up to loveliness of hymns.

  3. i love hymns. and they come in SO handy at just the right moments sometimes... :)
    oh, and i want you to teach ME solfege next.

  4. I think Hannah and Tim are going to make a solfege dvd. Should be fantastic! Hannah has all sorts of knowledge about it. I had no idea until we talked about it last week.