The very thought is sweet

November 2, 2009 | 6 comments
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Leftover Halloween candy languishes in its plastic pumpkin on top of the refrigerator; for the moment, the kids are satiated and I’m being good. All the sugar brings to mind a favorite hymn, “Jesus, the very thought of thee,” a few stanzas of which are here:

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.

Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest Name,
O Savior of mankind!

O Jesus, King most wonderful
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou sweetness most ineffable
In Whom all joys are found!

Celestial Sweetness unalloyed,
Who eat Thee hunger still;
Who drink of Thee still feel a void
Which only Thou canst fill.

O most sweet Jesus, hear the sighs
Which unto Thee we send;
To Thee our inmost spirit cries;
To Thee our prayers ascend.

The original Latin text is by Bernard of Clairvaux, the great religious writer and reformer of the twelfth century, and the above translation was done by Edward Caswall. I recently came across another translation by John Mason Neale, Caswall’s 19th century English contemporary, which is lovely in its own right. Here’s a bit of it, picking up on the sweetness imagery:

Jesu, the very thought is sweet;
in that dear Name all heartjoys meet;
But O than honey sweeter far
the glimpses of his Presence are.

No word is sung more sweet than this;
no name is heard more full of bliss;
No thought brings sweeter comfort nigh,
than Jesus, Son of God most high.

Jesu, thou sweetness, pure and blest,
life’s Fountain, Light of souls distress’d;
Surpassing all that heart requires,
exceeding all that soul desires.

I first became interested in the hymn and its theme of sweetness when I read the discussion in Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy feast and holy fast, a superb study of medieval women’s spirituality. If the topic interests you, I highly recommend the book.

So there you go—a few sweet morsels that’ll give your pancreas a break this morning.

6 Responses to The very thought is sweet

  1. Hunter on November 2, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for this. (My internal organs are in serious need of rest from all the doughnuts and candy bars and etc. . .)

    I really do love the Neale translation. It seems even more intimate than the one in our hymnal. Incidentally, Mack Wilberg has set this (Neale) translation to an equally exquisite musical arrangement (published by Oxford, and recorded by the Tabernacle Choir).

  2. meems on November 2, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Rosalynde; I am very interested in Medieval women and medieval spirituality in general. I think I’ll find it interesting!

  3. Rosalynde Welch on November 2, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Hunter, that’s exactly where I came across the Neale translation. It is a wonderful arrangement. What do you think of Wilberg’s Requiem on the same disc?

    Meems, I hope you love the book the way I did! It’s an academic study, of course, so it’s not exactly a light read, but it is full of wonderful poems and insights and meaty history. Just wonderful.

  4. Hunter on November 2, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I really enjoy the Wilberg Requiem. (Call me a heretic, but I love hearing the Tabernacle Choir sing a Latin text.) And that final movement “Let Peace Then Still the Strife” stirs my soul.

  5. Jones on November 3, 2009 at 1:15 am

    This is my very favorite hymn. Thank you for sharing the additional verses and different translation. On which Mormon Tabernacle Choir CD could I listen to the Neale version?

  6. Hunter on November 3, 2009 at 1:52 am

    The Wilberg setting is on two MTC recordings — “Requiem” and “Consider the Lilies.”

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