Is the singing of one of the great anthems by English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983), a setting of the British poet laureate Robert Bridges’ (1844-1930) text “My eyes for beauty pine,” a cheap liturgical ploy for lectionary readings about sight and blindness?
Perhaps. But I happily confess that, upon reading this Sunday’s (Oct. 25) lections, my mind gravitated quickly toward this glorious anthem.
In the First Reading (Job 42), Job answers the Lord with a number of human senses: “Hear and I will speak. I have heard you… but now my eyes see you.” Even the Psalmist calls upon the senses: “I sought the Lord and he answered me. Look upon him and be radiant. I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me.” (Psalm 34)
Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 10:46ff) also caught my attention. Somewhere between my grandmother reading me Bible stories when I was a preschooler and singing children’s musicals at summer camp during my elementary school years, I have known the story of “Blind Bartimaeus” for a very long time.
Even as a child I remember being struck by the easy with which it all happened. (“That’s it?”) Bartimaeus sets his sights on Jesus with only blind faith, and Jesus heals his blindness based simply upon his faith alone. How many times Jesus heals the afflicted thusly: “Go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”
With eyes and sight on the brain, I delved again into Bridges’ text:
My eyes for beauty pine, my soul for God’s grace:
No other care nor hope is mine, to heaven I turn my face.
One splendour thence is shed from all the stars above:
‘Tis named when God’s name is said, ’tis Love, ’tis heavenly Love.
And every gentle heart that burns with true desire
Is lit from eyes that mirror part of that celestial fire.
Whether for voices or organ or orchestra, Howells could most certainly write grand, sweeping musical phrases. As the Parish Choir sings the Offertory anthem this Sunday, note the crest of the phrase on the word “eyes” from the outset. The highest note of the first section occurs on the word “heaven” not by accident, indeed.
In the middle section, not only does he write another high passage for “heavenly Love,” he even slows down the tempo and harmonic rhythm to make sure we pay close attention to the use of “Love” (capitalized) as an equivalent name for God. He then uses similar tempo and rhythm techniques with the words “celestial fire” at the end with similar sublime effectiveness.
This Sunday is Celebration Sunday in our parish, the day on which we, like Bartimaeus, set our sights on the ministry of this parish for the next year. It is my hope that this significant text will help us all focus our attention upon God, Jesus, and all things heavenward.