Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Thy Holy Place We Bow

In Thy holy place we bow,
Perfumes sweet to heaven rise,
While our golden censers glow
With the fire of sacrifice.
Saints low bending, prayers ascending,
Holy lips and hands implore;
Faith believing and receiving
Grace from Him Whom we adore.

Holy light doth fill this place,
Spirit light our way to guide;
In the presence of Thy face
Sin and darkness ne’er can hide.
Heaven’s gleaming, fullness streaming,
Life and truth for man is found;
Light pervading, never fading,
Lighting all the world around.

On Thy holy bread we feed,
Hunger never more to know;
Thou suppliest all our need;
Father, whither shall we go?
Ne’er forsaking, here partaking
Bread our souls to satisfy;
Here abiding and confiding,
We shall never want nor die.

As a youngster, the words to this hymn written by Samuel Coffman, filled my mind with otherworldly and ethereal images. I don’t know if I really understood them, but they evoked something in me that touched my soul. I was not sophisticated enough to be able describe what was happening to me during this song, but I think it was something mystical.

Added to the otherworldly words was the beauty of the music written by J. D. Brunk. The progression of the chords matched the ethereal nature of the words perfectly. They did not flow in stock harmonies, but modulated slowly and beautifully between major and minor chords, lifting one up musically as did the perfumes, the light and the Eucharist. 

Perhaps it is because the many words are sense-related and image-producing. Smell (sweet perfumes), sight (fire, light, gleaming), touch (lips, hands, feed), taste (bread), are sensory. The perfumes and golden sensors with fire evoke images of burning incense, and the consecrating of the path where the holy walk. The holy bread brings to mind the partaking of the Eucharist, not only food for the body but food for the soul.

Not everyone had the same love of this hymn as I. Even though both the musician and the poet were Mennonites, and the hymn was published in several Mennonite hymnals over the years, it caused some controversy among some Mennonite ministers. Singing the hymn was discouraged in some churches. The reason given was that it was too mystical; too other worldly. 

In my childhood, Mennonite worship was austere at best. Worship centered around the preaching of the Word, with a few simple hymns providing the only aesthetically interesting elements. No crosses, no images or pictures of any sort adorned the walls. Even the hymns were unadorned; no instrumentation, only a showcasing of the unaccompanied voice in four-part harmony. Beyond solemnity, any overt display of emotion was discouraged. Our worship was no where near the description given in the hymn.

In spite of discouragement from some of the leadership, this hymn was loved by many Mennonites. No wonder it had an appeal. Not only is there sensory elements to touch the universal soul, but there is movement; bowing, bending, ascending, guiding, streaming, and going. It gave people permission to FEEL something and exercise their hearts instead of just their heads. 

Movement and emotion were an anathema to pious, stoic, God-fearing, Swiss-German folk. But imminence meeting transcendence cannot be stifled. The joy that bubbles within where the veil between the eternal and the temporal is made thinner cannot be snuffed out. We are created to experience God because we have his image stamped on our souls. That meeting place can happen even in the most austere places. That meeting place is mystical. 

In Thy holy place we bow. Indeed we do. 


  1. This hymn has held much fascination for me as well Don. The imagery of "a Holy Place" when Mennonites saw no place as holy, "Golden Censers" glowing (the martyrs?) when Mennonite preachers carried no symbols of their faith other than their dress and traditions must have seemed totally out of place for the reform-est, set-apart conservative Mennonites. My young ears loved the harmonies of the hymn with it's darker minor mode. But like you, I never understood the meaning of the words while sitting next to my dad at Franconia. I'm not sure the leaders of the day reacted to the hymn because of it's mystical or other worldly qualities. I suspect they felt uncomfortable with the unspoken sense of awareness that the Catholic Church with it's symbolism and ritual was not that far behind us and a threat still.

    1. Thanks for you comments Bill. Recently we've hit upon some old favorite hymns. We must have similar tastes!

  2. Ok... which hymnal? I need to find this one again... I remember it, vaguely, growing up at Cedar Grove Mennonite... thanks, Don, for resharing it...

    1. Robert--Thanks for your comments. It's in the current Hymnal Worship Book #2.

  3. I can hear these words sung in four-part harmony at Bossler's Mennonite Church near Elizabethtown, PA, where I worshipped as a child and young person. Yes, I agree with the other-worldly and ethereal sensations this hymn evokes. Thank you too for pointing out all the phrases that appeal to the senses. The joy in the piece definitely transcends the austere surroundings in which it was sung. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Marian, thank you for your comments. I am glad to know that there were moments of transcendence in our austere backgrounds!