Nearer, Still Nearer

I listened to a lecture by Fr. Robert Taft (the renowned Byzantine Catholic liturgical scholar) in which, discussing relations between Catholics and Orthodox, he opined that the Orthodox habitually highlighted the differences at the expense of the commonalities, that differences were regularly being tossed up as barriers that hadn’t been in previous times.

I think that this is true. And I find myself sensitive to it for two reasons: (1) I grew up in a protestant “sect” that had this kind of attitude. Since “we” were right about everything (seemingly the only group in all Christendom who actually cared about the New Testament!), every difference between “us” and “them” became insurmountable. I had to actually broaden my ecclesiastical horizons in order to be prepared to embrace Orthodoxy. So, I’m rather sensitive when I see this same attitude regularly reflected within Orthodoxy. (2) I have close friends who are Catholic and family who are protestant, and being unable to commune together is painful. Of course, this is true for many Christians.

I’ve discovered over the past few years that many Orthodox are quite keen on these differences. I’m not at all sure what is gained by this. I believe in a Faith – defined, common, personal – that is robust and confident and not self-conscious. The Faith – The Faith – grew by interacting with the life and culture in which it developed. It adopted and adapted words and ideas and images. This is called “inculturation,” and it seems many Orthodox believe that the process ended after the Seventh Council. Rubbish. It’s time Orthodoxy accepted it has entered into Protestant lands, and studied it with an eye to inculturation as well as “conversion.”

This is why I periodically refer to protestant hymns in this blog. Hymns I grew up singing, in retrospect, prepared me for Orthodoxy. In fact, they are often quite “orthodox.” Other hymns have taken on a new meaning for me as I’ve traveled the Orthodox way. In my last blog I briefly presented some lines of hymns and scripture that expressed the idea of journey “from glory to glory.” Today on a hike, I realized that another hymn from my youth expressed the same idea but in more personal, almost-but-not-quite sentimental terms.

The hymn contains the phrase “nearer, still nearer” at the head of each verse, and is a hymn about the Christian soul’s ever-increasing closeness to the Savior. I realized today that going “from glory to glory,” “further in and further up” is growing “nearer, still nearer” to God in His life and Kingdom.

Allow me to repeat several lines from this hymn (by Mrs. C. H. Morris) which I find to be scriptural and hopeful:

Nearer, still nearer, nothing I bring; Nought as an offering to Jesus my King,
Only my sinful, now contrite heart; Grant me the cleansing Thy Blood doth impart.

The next time I go to Communion, I’ll remember this line as I, quite literally, “draw near” to the chalice, and remember the prayers of preparation which ask for this cleansing as well as the frequent prayer of the Liturgy: “To You, O Lord.”

Nearer, still nearer, Lord to be Thine; Sin with its follies I gladly resign;
All of it pleasures, pomp and it pride; Give me but Jesus, my Lord crucified.

The first part is a veritable quote from the oaths offered when we become Catechumens: “Do you renounce Satan, all his pomp and his pride?” “I renounce him!” The second part is from St. Paul, who resolved to “know nothing by Christ Jesus, and Him crucified,” which is, of course, why crucifixes figure prominently in the décor of Catholic and Orthodox churches.

And finally,

Nearer, still nearer, while life shall last, Till safe in glory my anchor is cast,
Thro’ endless ages, ever to be Nearer, still nearer, my Savior, to Thee.

Even in this protestant hymn, Mrs. Norris (knowingly?) expresses our hope in, not only salvation, but an eternal drawing-near to God – that the journey is truly “from glory to glory” into the infinite Love of God.

About Rdr. John

I'm a musician: I teach piano and am a professional Accompanist (University of Portland). I'm also a music director. I direct the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church choir (Portland, OR), the Francis Street Singers (Community Music Center) as well as for Mock's Crest Productions, which puts on an operetta at the U of P each June. I care deeply about the music and worship in the Orthodox liturgy, and most of my postings will be concerned with that.
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1 Response to Nearer, Still Nearer

  1. Kathryn says:

    What do you mean by “inculturation”? What is the balance to prevent the cultural status quo from undermining the ancient traditions? I find it very helpful that the Eastern Church reaches throughout history and cultures in presenting the Faith, instead being a mere reflection of this current historical period.

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