Bread & RuminationsBede the Venerable, telling the story of Caedmon, the illiterate cowherd who became by divine agency the first man to compose Christian poetry in the form of the ancient Germanic heroic verse, says that the monks would read to him stories from sacred Scripture, and then the man would do something with them. He would, says Bede, like the clean cattle of the old Law, chew the cud. He would ruminate upon them.
That did not mean that he would test them against his own thoughts and feelings. Cows in the field, chewing the cud, do not ask themselves what they feel about clover and hay. There's something much quieter, almost unconscious, about rumination. It's almost as if the transformation works backwards upon the one who ruminates. The cud makes the cow: Caedmon could turn stories into poetry, because the stories were turning Caedmon into a poet.
This rumination, I think, is what sets the true Christian hymnodist apart from the pretender. Again, I do not mean that the hymnodist must think long and hard about Scripture, come to some conclusions, and then set them a-jigging to verse, burdening his brethren with his brilliance. That was not how Caedmon worked, or rather, how Scripture worked upon Caedmon. I mean instead that the hymnodist must allow the whole of Scripture to enter him, to possess him. He must breathe in it. It is not the object of his thought, but rather its very manner and form.
The Bread of Heaven
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Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire. His many books include Sex in the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a regular contributor to Chronicles, Crisis Magazine, The Claremont Review, Inside the Vatican Things, The Catholic Thing, and American Greatness. He has translated Dante's Divine Comedy. He is a Roman Catholic and lives with his wife in New Hampshire. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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