A hymn for Star Island
Music from Finlandia by Jean Sibelius
New lyric by Steven Ratiner
This is our time, the chapel bell is ringing.
Our way is lit by lantern and the moon.
This is our time, this night, this island-hour.
The path is old – our passing makes it new.
This is our song, the ocean strums the rhythm.
I feel so blessed to share this time with you.
When time has past, like fog dissolved by sunlight –
when we are gone, and others claim this view –
we leave behind no tears to stain this chapel,
no telltale cries which others misconstrue.
This is our home, our memory wets the sea rose –
the bell, our voice – the path, our gratitude.
– Steven Ratiner
Steven’s Star Story
“My introduction to Star Island came in 1980 when I was invited to teach poetry at the Arts Conference. I attended that first morning’s chapel – out of politeness – but I fully expected it to be my one and only island service. Now, after more than 35 summers on Star, I doubt if I’ve missed more than a couple of the morning gatherings in all those years. I fell in love with the chapel itself, its rough features and resonant space – but loved as well the great enthusiasm people brought to the morning worship – especially the hymns. Since most were new to me, I’d hum along and watch how the faces would brighten with the song.
One hymn especially captivated me – and, in the island hymnal, they had two versions linked to this same tune: “We Would Be One” and “This Is My Song”. Once I saw that the melody was taken from Finlandia – a symphonic poem by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius – I understood why, upon each hearing, it would not leave me for the rest of the morning. But to be honest: I didn’t love the words. I’m not saying they were terrible – and I mean no disrespect if these are among your favorite in the hymnal. But they just didn’t feel, to my ear, like they were in accord with the emotional climate of the Finnish original. As a poet, though, I realized that composing a lyric for a hymn is no easy task; still I hoped that one day. . .
After fifteen years at Arts, now I attend Midweek II each September – and in all the time I’ve been on Star, I’ve never had a week where the island didn’t coax new poems onto my notebook pages. I feel honored that our conference leader often pencils me in to lead an evening chapel service, where I can share some of the summer’s new poems. Two years ago, out of no where, a lyric to the Finlandia melody erupted for me on the page. I taught it to our gathering and, since I had only a single verse, we sang it twice together. But my spine rippled with pleasure to hear my verse given such full-throated spirit.
The next morning, the moment my alarm woke me in Cottage A, I sat up in bed and the second verse of the hymn was being spoken quietly in my head. I had to wait until the following September, but then I experienced the utter delight of hearing our little conference launch the completed poem – my rickety craft – riding on the waves of Sibelius’ gorgeous melody. I’ll come right out and say it: my poem is likely no better than either of the earlier Finlandia lyrics in Star’s hymnal (not to mention the dozen other hymns, anthems, and fight songs which have, in earlier years, latched on to this melody) – but it does have one thing going for it: its imagery and its heartfelt mood are inextricably linked to our little loved island – to all those who return to it gratefully every year, and feel as if they’ve left something of their very beings behind when they ferry home.
Above is my lyric, in case you’d like to see if it will carry you. And if not, perhaps you should choose a melody which is anchored in your heart and compose your own. Such words serve as a map and help you to navigate – especially when storms erupt and you are far away from a safe harbor. Travel well!”
A bit about the author…
Steven Ratiner is a poet and educator, and his work has appeared in dozens of literary journals in America and abroad. He was also the poetry critic for The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post and, for thirty five years, as taught as a poet-in-residence in programs throughout New England. But of special interest to Shoalers: his poem written on Star Island on 9/11 was recorded in Gosport Chapel on the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy by WBUR in Boston. Here is a link to the video: