Category: Whispers of Heaven

In consideration of Labor Day, I am reminded of the old hymn “Come Labor On” (Ora Labora). The hymn tune was composed by T. Tertius Noble (1867 – 1953). Below is a recording of the late Gerre Hancock (1934-2012) giving a farewell improvisation on this hymn in 2004, as he was retiring from his post as organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. The performance was recorded by Dr. Alan van Poznak, and posted to YouTube by a YouTube community member named “contratromba858”. The words to the hymn are below.

Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,
while all around us 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 slumbered 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 righteous 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.

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun.
“Servants, well done.”

While flying to the Midwest recently, I read a charming and thought provoking little book, Neil Gaiman’s 2013 The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The author noted for Coraline here weaves a tale of a man who returns home to a country house to attend a funeral, and remembers the mysterious events that took place when he was a child. He recalls that he visited a neighbor girl named Lettie, whose family are really ancient and otherworldly beings in disguise. With Lettie he visits another dimension, and accidentally brings back a sinister being named Ursula. In the end, he finds he is under attack by powerful scavenger beasts that nearly kill him until Lettie intervenes.

While there are Christian themes, such as sacrifice and redemption, don’t mistake me as saying that this is a Christian story or allegory. It’s pure fantasy. However, a part of the story that leapt out for me is this lovely prose, which I would take to be a picture of Christianity’s heavenly joy:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole.’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

In honor of the Feast of the Ascension, and for your meditation and listening pleasure (courtesy of a Youtuber named Enrique Guerrero):

Latin text:
Ascendens Christus in altum, captivam duxit captivitatem: dedit dona hominibus.
Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae.
Dedit dona hominibus.
Dominus in caelo paravit sedem suam.

Christ, ascending on high, led captivity captive: He gave gifts to men.
God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.
He gave gifts to men.
The Lord hath prepared his seat in heaven.

This beautiful work was published in 1572, while the young Victoria was studying for the priesthood in Rome.  The text is taken from the matins responsory for the Feast of the Ascension.


It’s fall again–leaves are changing, a bitter chill is piercing the air, and we look ahead with some trepidation to the coming of winter snows. In the midst of this chill, this annual dying of nature, I am warmed and cheered by a little cup of bitter liquid: Coffee.

Many years ago a friend sent me a funny article entitled “25 reasons beer is better than women”. Items included things like “beer doesn’t get mad at you if you come home late” and “you don’t have to wine and dine a bottle of beer.” (A Google search will quickly provide you dozens of sites where this information can be found). Similar lists are out there with wine. You may run across “ways that wine is like women”–for example, many get better with age. Regarding coffee, there isn’t as much, though I did run across 5 ways great content is like a cup of coffee.

Recently a friend remarked to me that a coffee drink is “a blessing in a cup.” This prompted me to think of some ways that a warm beverage from the corner coffee shop might be like the presence of God.

Ways that Coffee is a Blessing in a Cup

  • Coffee warms your body the way God’s love warms your soul.
  • Coffee doesn’t care about your gender, skin color, or ethnicity.
  • Coffee doesn’t care how you voted in the last election.
  • Coffee invigorates.
  • It helps you see more clearly.
  • It gives you the fortitude to do what needs to be done.
  • It lifts your mood.
  • When it is present in a room, it fills the room with an aroma, a sense of its presence; others notice.
  • While some coffee may be bitter, often like life itself, there are mysterious ingredients that spicen up and sweeten that bitterness, the way God’s Holy Spirit sweetens our lives.
  • We could stretch the analogy further. As with church, you often go to a special place to receive your blessing, in a building designed for the purpose of disseminating it.
  • As with church you step out from the cold dull world into a place of warmth, where you can briefly shed your burdens and put your usual cares behind you.
  • You may get a smile and some interaction, perhaps even a kind word, from the priest of this blessing, known as the barista.

Anyway, the next time you find your hands wrapped around that medium roast, or Latte, or Cafe mocha, and bring the hot liquid to your lips, think of it as a little blessing in a cup. Thank God for these little blessings of life and enjoy your day.

(Image credit: Latte art at Doppio Ristretto in Chiang Mai. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 3.0 license; obtained from Wikimedia Commons).

For a limited time, you may listen free to a veritable feast of gorgeous liturgical music, performed in an appropriate setting.  Those who follow my postings closely will know that I am a fan of the webcasts of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue. They are in the midst of their “2016 Orchestral and Organ Mass Series featuring the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys and Saint Thomas Chamber Orchestra”. Already on demand are webcasts of recent services featuring the Mass in C, op. 169 by Josef Rhineburger, and the Mass in G major by Franz Schubert. This coming Sunday, June 6, will feature the Missa Solennelle by Louis Vierne.

These webcasts can be found at:

In honor of Holy Week:

This beautiful piece was composed by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), for performance in the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week.  For a time, according to the oft-told mythical story, the song was the well guarded secret of the Vatican, which forbade its publication, until a 14 year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited on Good Friday 1770 and later transcribed the entire piece from memory.  This is probably not true, but makes a great story (for a full debunking, read Ben Byram-Wigfield’s 1996 essay, “MISERERE MEI, DEUS, GREGORIO ALLEGRI: A Quest for the Holy Grail?”, pg 16, online here).  There was certainly a mystique about the music that led such as person as Mary Shelley to gush:

But a thousand times over I would go to listen to the Miserere in the Sistine Chapel ; that spot made sacred by the most sublime works of Michael Angelo … The music, not only of the Miserere, but of the Lamentations, is solemn, pathetic, religious – the soul is rapt – carried away into another state of being. Strange that grief, and laments, and the humble petition of repentance, should fill us with delight – a delight that wakens these very emotions in the heart – and calls tears into the eyes, and yet is dearer than any pleasure.
(From Mary Shelley: Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. Vol 2. London, Edward Moxon, 1844), Vol 2, 230–31; as cited in Graham Kelly’s essay for the University of York Dept of Music, “A unique singers’ manuscript from the 19th century: Domenico Mustafa’s version of the Miserere of Tommaso Bai and Gregorio Allegri”, which can be found online here.)

The version heard commonly today is not likely what a guest to the vatican would have heard in Mozart’s time.  The “top C” version we all know and love turns out to have been the happy result of an error.  For you musicologists out there, the Wigfield essay mentioned above explains this in detail:   The received version, as it is widely held today, is a mix of Burney’s first choir with a bizarre second choir, congealed into life in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians in 1880. As an illustrated example, W.S. Rockstro showed the first half of the four-part verse as indicated by Alfieri, but then sticks Mendelssohn’s 1831 record of the first half —up a fourth— on the second half of the verse. Ivor Atkins, for his edition of 1951, took Burney’s first choir and final verse, adding this second choir from Grove’s. The problem is that the Mendelssohn abbellimenti is also a record of the first half, apparently sung a fourth higher than written at the time of his visit. It is this that causes musicologists to squirm with the bass jumping from an F# up to a C, followed by the swift gear change into C minor. This error has been repeated in two subsequent editions, produced by respected academics. The result is strangely beautiful, and probably here to stay. It is, after all, one of the most popular pieces of sacred music. However, it is neither a representation of the performance practice of the Sistine Chapel choir, nor a true reflection of how the piece was ever sung there.

A theological point can be made here, and perhaps I’ll embellish it down the road: Sometimes God uses our mistakes to His greater glory.

What do Valentines Day, Wuthering Heights, Vine the poison dragon from the game “Dragonvale”, and the beloved author CS Lewis have in common? Not much, at first glance, but let me push on a bit.

Vine is a dragon that loves people, but is toxic to them: “The poison dragon loves people. Not for breakfast, it just thinks they’re great company. Unfortunately, people don’t often react well to their deadly neurotoxin.” (From the DragonvaleWiki).

Our love can similarly hurt people, if it is selfish and possessive. I recently watched two movie versions of Wuthering Heights, in which the brooding and passionate Heathcliff loves Cathy deeply, but his love is poisonous and selfish. It rips apart two families and destroys many lives. Hell on earth is the result.

Love can and should echo heaven. In fact, scripture tells us that “God is love.” But this is a deeper kind of love than mere affection, or than the Romantic love of Cupid and Valentines Day, or than the Eros and passion of Heathcliff and numerous late night movies. Jesus says that “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The love of God, that we are called to emulate in all our relationships is a selfless, sacrificial love, that is called “agape” in Greek, the language of the New Testament. Agape isn’t merely about self sacrifice, though. In its fullness of meaning it is “other elevating”. C. S. Lewis put it like this: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained”.

C.S. Lewis wrote eloquently of Iove, delineating four types of love, and analyzing them as potential reflections of God. He also discusses how each of these loves can be twisted and warped by humans if we are not careful. For more on this I commend his book, The Four Loves, as well as the parable Til We Have Faces.

My slightly belated Valentine’s wish for you is that your earthly loves do not poison, but rather exalt. And may you feel yourself lucky enough to be the recipient of such exaltation. It is a glimpse of heaven.

I ran across this, a beautiful piece of music of the Baroque era, on a fairly unusual instrument.  The composer is Robert de Visée, 1655-1733, who was a composer and player at the courts of the French kings Louis XIV and Louis XV.  I won’t hold that against him.

The venue is apparently the Vätö kyrka in Sweden, northeast of Stockholm.