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Master of the artfully-turned phrase

Susan Palo Cherwien, poet

We gather to worship, and find ourselves singing hymn texts ancient and modern. Who writes these stanzas, and what muse inspires them?

Turn the pages of a contemporary Lutheran hymnal and study the names of the writers of the hymn texts (the words). It will become for you an exploration through time. Some of these wordsmiths date to the beginning of Christianity (or even earlier), some from the Middle Ages, some from the age of great Lutheran hymnody, some from pious souls like the prolific Charles Wesley (who is reputed to have written over 1,000 singable hymn texts).

The Christian faith community does not get stuck in one time period. That means that contemporary hymnody takes its rightful place along with old, treasured standards from centuries past. One of the very best contemporary writers of hymn texts for the church is an ELCA poet, a native of the Twin Cities.

Susan Cherwien contemplates a new hymn text at the writing desk in her St. Louis Park, Minnesota, home. Photo credit: Mike Sherer

Susan Cherwien is what one should call an “intentional writer.”

Susan Palo Cherwien didn’t start out planning to write texts. She wanted to be an opera singer. “In college, I studied music. Wittenberg University [an ELCA school in Springfield, Ohio] had a fine program. They also provided the opportunity for me to study in Berlin, Germany. After graduation I returned there to study voice.”

It was in Berlin where Susan met her husband, David, currently the music director at Mount Olive Lutheran in Minneapolis and conductor of the National Lutheran Choir. “I had joined a small congregation in Berlin and, considering all the turnover there, after three years I was considered one of the ‘old-timers.’ I helped to hire David as our parish organist. That’s how we met.”

The vocation of intentional writer

According to Susan Cherwien, her chosen vocational track didn’t quite go where she had planned. “After Berlin, I kept trying to have a career as a singer, but it just didn’t happen. I started writing hymns in Seattle, while David was a church organist there. Later, when we moved to the Chicago area, I earned a masters in Liberal Studies at Mundelein. The focus was on spirituality, ritual, and the arts. It was one of the best things I ever did.”

She says the intellectual challenge of that study experience “got me writing again.”

Cherwien is what one would call an “intentional writer.” She is careful about her craft, not bringing forth a new text until it’s really ready. “I’m not very prolific,” she admits. “I write only three to four hymn texts a year.” She illustrates: “In 1997 Augsburg Fortress published 27 of my hymn texts. That publication, O Blessed Spring, represented nine years of my writing.”

Quite a few of those verses have ended up in hymnals, or as anthem texts.

Several years later, Augsburg Fortress offered a second volume, Come Beloved of the Maker, with 31 more texts. None in the second volume are repeats from the first.

For many contemporary Lutherans, “O Blessed Spring” may be Susan Cherwien’s signature hymn text creation. The music that accompanies the version appearing in Evangelical Lutheran Worship was composed by another Twin Cities ELCA Lutheran, Robert Buckley Farlee. It is one of eight of Cherwien’s hymn texts in that book [see below].

Significantly, the new LCMS hymnal includes a single hymn by Susan Cherwien. It’s “O Blessed Spring,” but set to a different melody. Cherwien takes quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that the denomination in which she was raised in northeastern Ohio has so honored her.

The inspiration for “O Blessed Spring” is rather charming. David was parish organist at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in south Minneapolis at the time. That congregation displays a lot of art — including sculpture — in its building. One piece, by Lutheran sculptor Paul Granlund, is “Life Tree,” based on a reference in the Gospel of John, chapter 15. There are elements embedded in the sculpture that suggest stages of the Christian life.

Paul Granlund’s sculpture “Life Tree” inspired Susan Palo Cherwien to write her baptism hymn, “O Blessed Spring.” Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

For many contemporary Lutherans, “O Blessed Spring” may be Susan Cherwien’s signature hymn text creation.

“I wanted to create a baptismal hymn for Good Shepherd Church,” she explains. The stanzas suggest steps in the believer’s pilgrimage, from birth to death, while all along the way the Tree of Life (Christ) provides nourishment.

Putting words to wonder

Almost by accident, Cherwien discovered that three of her hymn texts will be included in a new hymnal being published by the Presbyterian Church.

She has also created commentaries (Cherwien calls them “reflections”) suitable for use at hymn festivals. Morningstar Music in St. Louis has published two such anthologies: Crossings contains 22 of her reflections, and From Glory Into Glory 30 more.

“David started doing hymn festivals in Berlin. I did the reflections. When he went on the road (in the U.S.) with the festivals, I’d send texts along with him. Someone at the event would read what I’d written. Later, I started going along and reading them myself.”

How does one prepare a thoughtful commentary (reflection) for a hymn festival? For Cherwien, it starts with reading, something she does extensively. “I have no original thoughts,” she says modestly, “but I have original ways of putting things together. I draw material from theology, science, poetry, and art. When I sit down to write, I might pull it all together in a couple days.”

Paul Manz, the legendary one-time cantor at Mount Olive Lutheran (and David Cherwien’s predecessor) gave hymn festivals the shape they have today. Says Susan Cherwien, “It’s a lovely way to experience hymnody. One of Manz’ hymn festivals actually inspired my husband to become a parish organist.”

Susan says that David has written melodies for several of her hymn texts.

This master of the artfully-turned phrase says she writes “when I have something to write — unless I have a deadline.” Deadlines come, typically, when a person or an organization wants to commission a hymn.

“The advantage of having a commission is that I then have a starting point. That helps, because I don’t have to begin with a totally blank page.”

Cherwien’s most recent commission was a hymn in celebration of the 100th anniversary year of Minnehaha Academy in south Minneapolis. Perhaps the most unusual request she’s received came from a fellow member at Mount Olive Lutheran Church. “Andrew Anderson was in need of a new kidney. A willing donor was found in New England. Andrew asked me to write a hymn for him, in thanksgiving for his donor’s generosity.”

Not every hymn text Cherwien writes ends up in a published anthology. With some regret she says, “I wish someone would choose my text, ‘In Sacred Manner,’ for a hymn collection. It deals with care of the earth. That’s really important to me.” This, too, will likely come to be.

You might recognize …

Hymn texts by Susan Palo Cherwien included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship:

261, “As the Dark Awaits the Dawn”

306, “Come, Beloved of the Maker” (music by David Cherwien)

374, “Day of Arising”

447, “O Blessed Spring”

548, “Rise, O Church, like Christ Arisen”

648, “Beloved, God’s Chosen”

672, “Signs and Wonders”

699, “In Deepest Night”

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