Let me preface this by saying: I am about as non-religious as you can get. Spiritual sometimes, maybe. I place a great emphasis in the power of place, and of objects, and of inspiration. But organized religion? Nope.
I write that preface because I’m about to share a hymn with you.
The tune is to Thaxted, a common melody that’s pulled from the sweeping grand bit of Holst’s Jupiter. There are a ton of hymns and other songs in general set to it. It’s an extraordinary piece of music, both in its original orchestral arrangement and in its vocal arrangements.
This particular hymn is titled “For the Splendor of Creation,” and I heard it for the first time at my college convocation, a quasi-religious invocation in the campus chapel the evening before our actual graduation. They printed the words in the program and we sang it and it hit me like a ton of bricks. It still hits me that way, every single time I listen to it.
The lyrics are a hymn of praise to knowledge and learning, in all its challenges and complexities and frustrations and joys. It has spare, simple words that capture perfectly a profound, sincere gratitude toward the process of learning.
I identify as an historian. I have inhabited some kind of atmosphere of academia and learning my entire life, whether as a student or as a researcher. I feel, almost every day, deeply lucky for getting to do what I get to do, even if it makes me crazy on some days.
So, when I’m feeling the need to really connect again to what drives me, underneath all the minutiae and the eight million emails and the late nights and the budget tightening – I listen to this hymn and I remember.
For the splendor of creation that draws us to inquire, for the mysteries of knowledge to which our hearts aspire, for the deep and subtle beauties which delight the eye and ear, for the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear, for the unexplained remainder, the puzzling and the odd: for the joy and pain of learning, we give you thanks, O God. For the scholars past and present whose bounty we digest, for the teachers who inspire us to summon forth our best, for our rivals and companions, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise, for the human web upholding this noble enterprise, for the common life that binds us through days that soar or plod: for this place and for these people, we give you thanks, O God.