Hymn in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament

In adoration of Christ

MassThis is one of Crashaw's most personal devotional poems, and shows the quality of his faith in the same way that many of Donne's and Herbert's poems do. In Roman Catholic religious language, the ‘Blessed Sacrament' refers to the Mass, even though that church believes in seven sacraments in all. By adoring the Mass, he is, in fact, adoring the crucified Christ, since the elements of the Mass, the bread and the wine, were seen to represent or even become Christ's body and blood as they were sacrificed on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

What he derives from the ceremony

The poem is not specifically Catholic, in that Crashaw avoids any theological account of the sacrament (‘Discourses dy!'). His emphasis is on the quality of his faith and the depth of experience, especially sensory experience, he can derive from the ceremony. In this, he is not unlike John Donne, in his ‘What if this present'. His senses, especially his sense of inner sight, are engaged fully in recreating a loving Saviour suffering for him.

The movement of thought in the poem starts with the place of the senses in worship, to the building of faith. Then he focuses on the elements of the bread and the wine, concluding with a final prayer.

The place of the senses

‘Proud sense' is his natural condition, he feels. So the emphasis is on bowing low in humility. After all, Christ, by being humiliated and dying on the cross, ‘bow'd more low for me'.

CrucifixOf all the senses, it is the ear which is important, rather than touch or taste, since it is hearing which leads to faith (see Romans 10:14-15). It is interesting that Crashaw does not mention sight (since there is a strong visual dimension to the Catholic ritual of the Mass), except for one negative reference (l.28), in that he cannot literally see Christ's face. There is no mention of the crucifixes which would be in any Catholic church.

The building of faith

‘Faith is my skill' is a striking phrase. People often speak of acquiring life skills. Crashaw sees the need for religious skills, too. Each sentence becomes a statement of what faith is, echoing the rhythms of Hebrews 11:1-39 in the New Testament, a chapter about what faith can accomplish.

Crashaw asks for greater faith, and thinks of two people connected with the crucifixion for whom faith was an issue:

The poet has no such experience available to him, so he has to believe that the wounded side is a proof of the incarnation.

More on Incarnation: see John Donne, The Extasie

He links faith with love and hope, as in the chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13:13.

The Elements of Bread and Wine

Crashaw considers the bread (ll.37-44). The bread is the ‘dear memoriall' or means of remembrance of Christ's death. Its taste (‘gust') is ‘vitall', that is, life-giving. He wants it to become ‘my surer selfe to me', that is, Christ living within him (Galatians 2:20).

Photo by Trish Steel, available through Creative CommonsThe section on the wine (ll.45-54) is marked by the dramatic image of the pelican, which, in Christian tradition, was supposed to peck at its own breast to give its blood for its young to drink. Christ is the pelican who has wounded himself to give ‘Balm for wounded man', so the wine (representing his blood) not only feeds but heals (‘whose least drops soveraign be'). Crashaw's sense of sin is revealed in ‘my worlds of sin', but he has not dwelt on it as Donne does.

Final prayer

The final prayer is for the assurance of a fuller revelation of God after death (‘that long day'), when the actual glory of God ‘shall chase' away ‘faith's shades' (1 Corinthians 13:12), and when the present veil shall be removed so he can ‘see' God's face.

More on veils: the last reference to 'thy veil' is based on several important symbolic biblical passages referring to sight. 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 is a long passage detailing the veil that Moses had to wear because his face shone with glory after seeing God face to face. The Israelites could not bear the refection of that glory, so Moses had to wear a veil. Now humans can no longer see God's glory directly, but one day they shall.

The second passage linked with this is Hebrews 6:19 and Hebrews 9:3, contrasted with Hebrews 10:19-22. This is the symbolism of the curtain in the Jewish Temple, which is described as a vei lhiding the holiest place where God's presence resides most intensely. In Hebrews, the writer says that now Jesus has come to remove that veil, humankind can enter into God's presence through Jesus himself. The emphasis is here not so much on sight as accessibility, so this is not the main ground Crashaw's poem, but is still associated theologically with the meaning of the crucifixion.

Investigating Hymn in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
  • What do you find the most striking images in Hymn in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament?
  • Analyse the verse structure of the poem
  • How can faith be a skill?
  • It is worth comparing this poem with the hymn by Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
    • What differences do you notice in the two poems?
  • Herbert also wrote a poem, Holy Communion
    • If you can, compare the two poems.

Resource: The last part of the poem was combined with a similar poem of Crashaw, Hymn for the Blessed Sacrament, to form the words for Gerald Finzi's musical setting Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice.

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