*** This hymn, inspired by conversations with Chris and Isabel Clarke, was written in Southampton for a Eucharist whose theme was ‘Creation Spirituality’.Before-our-minds-conceived
This hymns highlights the refrain that appears seven times in Genesis 1: And God saw that it was good. People who think about creation as a spiritual issue usually do so in a positive, affirming tone.
In this hymn, which is a meditation and a reflection, the Creator is named and characterised as Love. This fits with the testimony of 1 John 4.16b, where the evangelist uncompromisingly declared that God is love… It is a testimony that was wonderfully elaborated by Mother Julian of Norwich (c1342-1413) at the end of her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:
So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us; and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall. In this love all his works have been done, and in this love he has made everything serve us; and in this love our life is everlasting. Our beginning was when we were made, but the love in which he made us never had beginning. In it we have our beginning.
In the hymn it is the nine lines beginning with “Before …” that point to the priority of Love. In the first two stanzas ‘we’ are the collective voice of human beings from our first emergence. Conceiving that ‘the force of life expanding’ materialized around 13.7 billion years ago, we are enabled to peer beyond, into the mythic time when Love gave birth to the Word who is ‘before all worlds’.
Alongside this affirmation of Love, the hymn also offers an account of how human beings have tried to understand created order. ‘Before our minds conceived the force of life expanding…our thoughts disclosed…our words proclaimed…our sense awoke…our muse discerned…our hearts embraced…’; before, too, we became fully aware of how limited are our mortal powers: in all these ways the hymn celebrates the dominion of humankind in (God’s) image, according to our likeness (Genesis 1.26), even to the point of our proclaiming (it’s a bit like Stephen Fry presenting Queen Elizabeth II with an award for long service) ‘a god all works transcending’.
Just as God’s ‘love has never slackened, nor ever shall’, so the hymn insists that ‘still our Love’s alive beyond what’s past our knowing’. Here is a double reference: to the resurrection of Christ, whom death could not suppress; and to the ongoing work of the Holy Creator Spirit, who is ‘committed to the goal of being’. Because of this Love, all creation draws breath, is alive.
‘The goal of being’ is an unusual phrase, and deserves some explanation. ‘Being’ may be thought of as like optimal functioning, where all the parts of a machine or, better, an organism works perfectly without any interference from outside. Any amount of maintenance and repair may be needed to achieve this perfection, but for as long as it lasts it may be said to be, rather than to be doing anything.
In the same way, Love’s goal is to bring love into being, or rather, to bring all creation (conceived and made in love) to the condition of love. This goal is more than aspiration: it embodies unceasing action to make, maintain, and, where necessary, repair and restore every object of love (which is all that exists). Yet, if that sounds arduous and wearying, we understand that in itself Love is at peace, and fulfilled; Love is the Sabbath of creation, the origin and goal of all.
The final, doxological, stanza recapitulates and summarizes the ideas of the earlier verses, and in the closing line introduces the person of Christ, ‘on earth’. This is an oblique reference to the Letter to the Colossians 1.27b-28a: …the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim…It may be thought not right to introduce this proclamation in the very last line. Yet the writer hopes that worshippers will read it, not as a new idea, but as the key that brings together Love-in-creation and human endeavour. Not a distraction, but a climax.