Songs Shared In a Splotch Of Sunlight

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

ACROSS the years - across the school quadrangle and boys' tousled heads (some washed, some unwashed), I can still hear shrill voices singing that 19th-century refrain by Cecil Francis Alexander with more gusto than harmony, but with a sincerity that, in those days, no one questioned. We all knew - our parents had taught us - that the ``good Lord'' had indeed made them all.

Every morning, we sang hymns, said a prayer, and listened to announcements about battles big and small - the progress of World War II and the performance of our school football team.

As a prefect, it was one of my duties to watch over the tiniest boys in the front row. They didn't yet know the hymns, and some of them were still learning to read.

One morning, I noticed a little fellow, his flaxen hair catching the early sunlight, listening intently as I sang. His lips were moving, but just a word or two behind mine. He was picking up the words as I sang them, and then repeating them - shyly, but with perfect pitch, a beat later. I have seldom seen such fierce concentration in a young man's eyes, or a clearer gleam of triumph.

To his joy, his tentative but earnest voice was being added to the chorus of praise that rose to the bell tower on the roof, and my day was just a little brighter for his contribution.

Half a century later, in different circumstances - different country, different setting, different hymn - that experience was recreated.

Instead of a school quadrangle under wide African skies, it was a tiny chapel in a quiet corner of New England - oak-paneled, lit by slanting sunlight, and peopled by Sunday worshippers generations beyond school age.

Every week, a white-haired little lady - going on 100, they told me - shuffled expectantly to her place in the chapel immediately in front of me. It wasn't a designated seat, any more than mine had been labeled for me. But perhaps we were both creatures of habit and relaxed most happily in familiar places and firm routines.

We had shared the same splotch of wintry sunlight for several Sundays before I realized that the part of the service she enjoyed most was singing hymns, especially to tunes like Wordsworth, Heavenward, Londonderry, and Old Hundredth.

No matter how long it took her to get to her feet as the first notes of the stalwart pipe organ rang out, she was always prepared to make the effort. She held a hymnal open in front of her and sang timidly but sweetly - a little behind the rest of us, but always with an enthusiasm that moved her head gently from side to side.

One morning, I noticed that her hymnal was open to the wrong page, but she was mouthing the right words. Had she learned the entire hymn by heart, I wondered?

My mind went back to the school quadrangle and the little fellow with golden hair. Could this be someone else having difficulty reading? Someone else calling for a prompt?

DURING the last hymn, I leaned forward and sang out more loudly, articulating the words as never before. As the service ended and the little lady shuffled past my pew, she murmured, ``Thank you so much. I love your singing!''

My bold, slightly flat tones, or the clarity of my enunciation?

For several weeks, I continued to lead, and she followed. I provided the energy and volume; she added the tenderness and understanding.

I got to know her favorites. She soon knew mine. We sang of ``peace and joy and power,'' of promises old and new, tumult stilled, and goodness that never ceases. We felt ``the dawn of all things real,'' and touched ``the fringes of eternity.''

One Sunday morning she wasn't there. And the next - and the next. It was as though a light had been turned off in the chapel.

Eventually, a kindly soul noticed my distress and put a hand on my arm. ``You're looking for your friend, aren't you? I'm sorry, I didn't know how to tell you. She won't be back. She passed on last week. We all loved her. Very shy. Very sweet. She loved everyone.''

``But we hadn't even been introduced,'' I protested quietly, as the sun, just visible through Victorian windows, spread mauve elm-tree shadows across the silent snow-covered lawns.

For a while, Sundays were not the same for me. I missed the muted pageantry of her entry into the chapel - the hesitant but true voice - the opportunity to help a friend I didn't need to ``meet.''

One morning after the service, it came to me that what we had experienced could never be lost. The ``wise and wonderful'' thoughts we had shared would continue to illuminate every gathering of people with gratitude in their hearts.

I leaned forward and sang that thought aloud in the now-empty chapel, shaping and projecting each word as my friends had taught me. But this time it wasn't for them that I sang - it was for me!

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