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HYMN 70 Hear Me, Heaven's Smithy

Icelandic: Heyr, himna smiður

Danish: Hør mig, skaber mild!

Norwegian: Himmelskapar, høyr bøn fra den som døyr!

Isaiah 53:1-5; John 12:32

Text: Kolbeinn Tumason (1173-1208). Tune: Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-)

1. Hear me, heaven’s smithy,

What your poet bids thee,

Mildly come to meet me

With thy love and mercy.

So I call on thee

Thou hast created me

I am thy servant,

Thou my Savior, Lord.

2. God, I cry to thee

Heal me, comfort me

In my deepest need

I humbly plead.

Heaven's might ruler

In your might and pow'r

Take away my grief,

In the city of my heart.

3. Keep me, gentle one

How we need thee now,

Now in every hour

In this frail world.

Keep us, virgin's son

Thou of all good works

All comes from thee

To my deepest heart.

Tr. Gracia Grindal 2020 (This is rough; I will be working on it for a bit.)


Hólar Church

In an age of disruption and discord, we long for what is transcendent and beautiful. The riots in the Twin Cities are much on our minds just now, for good reason. The death of George Floyd was horrifying. The underlying issues need to be addressed for the sake of our commonweal. Our leadership is under tests I am sure they never imagined. We can only pray they will find wisdom to do the right thing. I can hear the sirens and helicopters now over my apartment. We are always much closer to chaos and violence than we like to think, the veneer of civilization is thin and depends on people sharing fundamental values and acting on them. Without that, life can be terrible. What has taken generations to build up can be burned down in a few minutes. At the same time, injustices need to be addressed. In times of chaos, people will turn to brutal tyrants simply to restore order. We are in perilous times.

This hymn from the 13th century in Iceland, while not in any hymnal in English, struck me last night as I was searching the internet for information on another Icelandic hymn writer. Its sorrow, deep belief and beauty spoke volumes. The prayer comes from the heart of woe—the writer, Kolbeinn Tumason, an important chieftain in Iceland wrote it in a time of trouble. He and others were trying to oust Bishop Guðmundur the Good, whom many called the St. Francis of Iceland. Like Francis he worked for the poor and indigent. But it was a power struggle that turned violent in a violent age. As their forces were gathered beside the cathedral of Hólar in northwestern Iceland, in 1208, for the final attack, on the eve of the feast of St. Mary, neither Kolbeinn nor his troops heard the bells ringing to announce the beginning of the feast. As a devout Christian, he interpreted this as being disfavor from God. He is said to have composed the hymn the night before he died. The next day a battle ensued. He died when he was bashed in the head by a rock. The hymn has been sung in Iceland ever since, for 800 years.

I’ve been thinking about our need for beauty and truth in troubled times. The Greeks believed that we were drawn to beauty, something we could see part of in this world, like we are drawn to the beloved. This movement toward the other draws us away from ourselves. To love another can be healing, losing ourselves for another. Kolbeinn’s cry for healing can be our cry today.

There is also that irony. Jesus became ugly, a man of sorrows, there was no comeliness in him that we should be drawn to him, says Isaiah. And still, when we see him dying on the cross for us, despised and rejected, we can scarcely think of a more beautiful thing. Love incarnate, truth incarnate, the good incarnate, perishing on the cross at the hands of the religious and secular rulers of the day and the mobs. Christian artists over the millennia have spent their lives depicting that death. To make it horrifying and beautiful at once has been their challenge.

In John 12:32, Jesus says that when he is glorified on the cross, he will draw all people unto himself. His attractions now are more than his beauty. They are that he knows all the sorrows in the city of our hearts. And he has the power to heal them. Pray it happens soon. Find consolation in the music and the text. To Kolbeinn, God is a smithy, one who can fix things, repair things. "Free us from our sorrows/In the city of our hearts." We need healing. Repair what is broken, O Lord, our smithy.


Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson

This text has been translated into many languages, but has not become a hymn in English, as far as I know, but several Nordic countries have it in theirs. Bernt Støylen (1858-1937) Bishop of Agder translated it into Norwegian in 1921 and it was used for the Danish version. While it has always been central to Icelandic piety, and one of the oldest hymns still being sung in its original language, the tune by Þorkell (Thorkell) Sigurbjörnsson (1938-) has made it popular. He enrolled at Hamline University and the University of Illinois (Champaigne Urbana) where he studied composition. His work has been mostly in sacred choral music, but he has composed other symphonic works. The teacher of Icelandic musicians in theory and composition for many years. his works have been receiving increasing attention in world music. This song has become a world phenomenon, as one can see by exploring the web. I include some of the most powerful.


The Royal Danish Academy of Music


Eivör Pálsdóttir (Faroe Island singer)

Performance in Train station

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