View Full Version : "Earth Shall be Fair and All Her People One"

Apr 15th, 2009, 04:03 PM
Earlier today a number of you attended a celebration of faith and learning in Egner Chapel, conducted by our Chaplain, Peter Bredlau. Some months ago, Peter invited me to recommend music for this morning's service and I immediately suggested the old hymn that I sang as a choir boy in Louisville many years ago: "Turn Back O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways." In making this choice I did something that I almost never do. I ignored the advice of my wife Pat, who thought my choice of this title might be perceived as flippant at best, or, at worst, might signal ambivalence about my new responsibilities. Similar objections were doubtless responsible for her rejection of this same musical choice when I suggested it for our wedding ceremony, more than 23 years ago.
And yet, I assure you my selection was not an ironic one. I have always been stirred by the words and cadences of this old anthem, and I think it is particularly appropriate to my theme today - the heroic work that Muhlenberg and other colleges of our sort embrace. For those of you unfamiliar with this piece, let me share some of the verses that I think are so germane. The second verse begins:

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.

Perhaps the evocative phrase "tragic empires" first attracted me to this hymn - after all, I was destined to become an ancient historian. But why are they "tragic"? and why are they "built while we dream"? I think that Clifford Bax, who composed these words in 1919 to 16th century music from the Genevan Psalter, wished to remind us that most of the ambitions and desires that impel us through our daily lives are of only illusory value, that the tangible manifestations of success with which we surround ourselves ultimately do not satisfy us. That we pursue an ephemeral happiness in a state of nightmarish trance. That most of us most of the time neglect the paths that lead to wisdom and, ultimately, fulfillment. That if we were to dedicate ourselves to this path, "earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise."
But what draws me back to this anthem, even today, is something quite different: the courage required to seek perfection, even as we know it is unattainable; the persistence to seek truth, to seek peace, to seek justice and harmony and knowledge, and to remain "undaunted" in the face of setbacks; the conviction to remember always that these ideals are elusive, but not illusory.