Something Old, Something New

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of encountering somebody you know, but in an unexpected place or context. I still recall the time in undergrad that I went to a local shopping mall with some friends, and saw a familiar-looking woman walking toward us. Though I knew she looked familiar, I couldn’t quite place her. It turned out to be my mother, who very rarely went shopping by herself.

I had very nearly the same experience when I was online-worship-aid surfing shortly after Pentecost, out of a combination of professional interest, liturgical geekery, and pandemic boredom. One program I looked at from a Good Shepherd Sunday service had a “hymn meditation” on the back—something bound to get my attention—with this text:

A shepherd’s voice is strong,
Not wavering or false,
It calls out, sure and true,
And searches for the lost.
Give your church, O God,
A shepherd’s voice,
A voice for heaven’s song.

A shepherd’s hands are tough,
By toil and weather pocked;
Yet shepherds’ palms are smooth
From caring for the flock.
Give your church, O God,
A shepherd’s hands
To bring the world your love.

A shepherd’s life is hard,
Forever on the move,
While stars of lonely nights
Shine cold in skies above.
Give your church, O God,
A shepherd’s life.
Come, be our cheer, our warmth.

A shepherd’s heart is brave,
To ward off every fear,
Confronting storm and trial
With courage bold and clear.
Give your church, O God,
A shepherd’s heart
To seek, to serve, to save.

Alan J. Hommerding
Copyright © 2019, GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

It wasn’t until I got to the fifth line (“Give your church, O God…”) that the wires connected and I recognized it as one of my own hymn texts. The text was only a bit more than a year old, and had been published less than a year prior to Good Shepherd Sunday 2020, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to see it in use so soon. (This old dog still has not fully acclimated to the new tricks of digital circulation.)

Though fleeting, that experience gave me a momentary encounter with the text in a way that was completely different from the way I’d engaged with it as a creator. For the sake of convenience, I’ll say that the experience of creating is more left-brained/analytical, focused primarily on word choices, meter, scansion, rhyme scheme (or not), order of stanzas, and so on. In the non-creating encounter, I approached the text with openness to experiencing and embracing Christ the Good Shepherd in a new way. So I decided to see if I could use one of my own texts as a “hymn devotional,” in the way I had done with so many other hymns.

Like most Roman Catholics, the words “devotion” or “devotional” when used as nouns initially bring to my mind those rituals outside the Eucharist—Stations of the Cross, Rosary, Forty Hours—that, while often having basic structures that are similar in most places, do not have officially mandated structure or content. “Hymn devotional” is a practice I first encountered through Protestant music colleagues. Its structure resembles Lectio Divina: a time of quiet to prepare; the actual reading (aloud, please—hymn texts are a form of poetry and their sonics are important!); reflection on images, sounds of words, application to daily life; perhaps a time of journaling; concluding prayer.

The spiritual practice of devotions is an enriching one. Our spiritual/ritual lives—like any ecosystem—benefit from diversity, and help us avoid what has been called “monoeucharistitis.” In the same way that the devotional exercise of lectio divina makes me a better hearer of the Word of God inside and outside of liturgy, I’ve found that the practice of an occasional hymn-devotion helps me as a pastoral musician and as a hymn-singer at all types of worship. I’ve also turned this practice toward the texts of the proper antiphons, especially those for the entrance and communion processions.

In the writing of “A Shepherd’s Voice” my starting point was the interior stanza about hands. When I was on a concert tour of Ireland with the Notre Dame Folk Choir in 1997, I got to meet and shake hands with a real shepherd, a man who lived part of the year outdoors in the fields with his flock. The tops of his hands were rough and sunburned (my dad worked outdoors most of his life, so I was familiar with rough hands). What was remarkable in the moment of shaking hands with that shepherd was how smooth and soft his palms were. Sheep’s wool is a rich source of lanolin (which was how my etymology-wired brain remembered la lana = wool in high school Spanish), hence his smooth palms. That potent handshaking experience remained with me throughout the intervening 22 years before the hymn was written.

For my devotional time’s reflection, I turned to the memory of that handshaking experience, and the still-compelling tactile image of that hard/soft. First to come to mind were all my spiritual/ministerial role models, living and deceased, whose lives exhibited both the toughness brought about by the vagaries of ministry, as well as tenderness in caring for “flocks” of various kinds. Delving a bit deeper, I became aware of how my occasional “toughness” was a result of weathering years in service to God’s people, but I also thought of those times it was unnecessary and unproductive. Likewise I meditated on the “smooth” side of my nature, a blessed result of the love of Christ present in all those with, and for, and to whom I’ve ministered, along with the times that smoothness turned into an un-Christlike docility or indifference. This is a brief encapsulation of what was—God be praised!—a very rich time of meditation.

Those of us in any type of liturgical ministry have artifacts lying around: intercessions, other types of prayers, articles we’ve written for the bulletin, reflections we’ve presented, song/hymn texts, and so on… I don’t plan to turn to my own work with great frequency as a devotional source, since I can see that frequent trips down that path could very well lead to pride or arrogance, an egocentric echo chamber counterproductive to the spiritual life. I will, however, put an occasional item or two from my past into my current devotion ecosystem on occasion. This lone experience has shown me it will increase self-awareness regarding my growth, and help me in future creative endeavors.

Behold! Christ does, indeed, make all things new.

Audio: A Shepherd’s Voice. Text and music by Alan J. Hommerding. Copyright © 2019, GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Michael Potsic, tenor
Alan Hommerding, organ

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