Songs of Farewell: My Soul, There is a Country
Charles Hastings Hubert Parry
My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry
All skilful in the wars:
There, above noise and danger,
Sweet Peace sits crown’d with smiles,
And One born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious Friend,
And—O my soul, awake!—
Did in pure love descend
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of Peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave then thy foolish ranges;
For none can thee secure
But One who never changes—
Thy God, thy life, thy cure.
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, 1st Baronet, though most famous in my book for his incredible, long English name, was a significant composer, teacher, and historian of music at the turn of the 10th Century. Many of his melodies have made their way into our Hymnbooks. In our Glory to God Hymnal alone, his tunes grace Hymns #34, #270, #373, #432, #484, #550, #731, and #818. His most famous work, “I was Glad,” was performed at the coronation of King Edward VII (1902) and King George V (1911), and more recently at the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. As a professor and scholar, Parry was a contributor to the massive Grove Dictionary of Music, and taught composition to other significant composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst.
The poet behind this work, Henry Vaughan, preceded the composer by a couple centuries. He was a doctor in a small Welsh village who wrote poetry in his spare time (English being his second language). His poetry was mostly secular, until an illness brought him close to death, and his poetry became overtly spiritual ever after.
One of my favorite parts of the classical music idiom is how it marries such disparate things: here are two artists, separated by centuries, forevermore connected by this piece of music that now shares the art of both.
The church is like that, too. We are connected to that body of believers that stretches across millenia by that “One, who never changes.”
In reading this poem, I am struck by how Vaughan draws parallels between peace and security. Heaven itself is guarded by a “winged sentry All skilful in the wars.” Christ Himself “commands the beauteous files” of angels. He later calls his envisioned Heaven as “thy fortress, and thy ease,” almost implying that the two are synonymous. Heaven is a place impenetrable, and in its unyieldingness it is secure.
Of course, there is a stanza about Christ as the friend/Messiah, but in context, it seems almost as an aside – if you skip that stanza, the poem reads just as cleanly.
Even in his softer imagery, of flowers of Peace and Roses, they are only peaceful because they “cannot wither.” Even at the great crescendo of the piece, God is described as “one who never changes.” God is unyielding even to the decay of time.
The relationship between Peace and Security is a very real one, but the order in which they come is not a “Chicken or the Egg” situation. It matters.
I argue that Peace is something that only exists in the present-tense. If the peace you imagine is something in the future that will come once all of your ducks are in a row, then the peace you are searching for is actually security. If the peace you have is colored by an anxiety that everything you have could go away someday, then that is security, not peace.
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
The good news is that attaining Peace is laid out for us in the Scriptures quite simply. Seek to trust, rather than to understand.
“You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.”