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Hallo again to all.

Today is the Feast of All Saints, celebrated with special pomp in Pasadena and on Margaret Street, in Milwaukee and at Wickham Terrace. In our parish, it was a chance to sing hymns for which much of our congregation is off-book: For all the saints (Sine nomine), Who are these like stars appearing? (Zeuch mich, Zeuch mich), Jerusalem the golden (Ewing), and Ye watchers and ye holy ones (Lasst uns erfreuen). They're hymns for which we always wish there were a few more verses, a few more minutes to stand within familiar tunes and the memories they recall.

My Book of the Church's Year, by Enid Chadwick (no date)Today is also a chance to sing a bouncy, modern hymn dismissed by many as a bit beyond twee, but loved so widely and so well that in 2003 it made AO's list of Top 20 Desert Island Hymns. The text is by Lesbia Scott, a talented writer whose first name we think must have been quite uncommon by the time of her death in 1986. Scott was an Englishwoman, a dramatist and poet, wife to a vicar, and mother to three children. She was also by all accounts someone whose creative work had at first a small, focused audience of just one nursery. She wrote this hymn and others as a way of teaching her young children, and also because they liked them.

Reading slowly, though, without the famous tune by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.,* we find nothing truly twee or cloying here. The words are in fact hard words, tall promises to put in the mouths of grownups, let alone children.

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God—and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

Ought we not be frightened to sing the last two lines? They make us to admit in public something few of our friends would ever volunteer in conversation: a desire to be like St Luke, St Margaret of Scotland, St Joan of Arc. They put before us patience, bravery, truth, toil, fighting, living, dying—all with the saints, all of the saints, as examples.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right, for Jesus' sake,
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
And there's not any reason—no, not the least,
Why I shouldn't be one too.

During Scott's own long life, the hymn was included in the American Hymnbook for the Armed Forces. She wrote:

I confess to a certain amount of glee in picturing a choir of Sergeant-Majors singing the words I wrote for my nursery full of innocent babies.

This, of course, is very much the point of it all. Children and soldiers are, like those who receive ordination or accept martyrdom, particular persons whom God's love makes strong. Whatever innate strength of character they have, its transformation into sanctity does not happen under their own steam. (Though, as the hymn reminds us on the teetering edge of semi-Pelagianism, it does require human will.) And the whole thing is tied up with a reminder that this mystery of saints of all sorts and conditions is not at all fixed in history.

They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still,
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.

We wonder what it says about our tradition that it should place these firm, careful, deeply astute theological words about sainthood in the mouths of babes and sucklings, whilst giving songs about golden cities, milk, honey, sweetness and eagerness to adults. Speculation about this curious distribution we will save for another week, though. Suffice it for now and during the Octave of All Saints to keep our eyes peeled and hearts open in school, or in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea. We're quite sure that saints unknown are all around us, and glad for this annual reminder to sing about them and learn from them.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 1 November 2009

* The tune called Grand Isle was written for this poem in 1940; it first appeared in the November 1940 issue of the now-defunct Layman's Magazine of the Living Church. It is named for Grand Isle, Vermont, where Hopkins lived from his retirement in 1929 until 1945.

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