Jaroslav Jan Vajda – Singing the Language of Today’s Hearts

Jaroslav Jan Vajda – Singing the Language of Today’s Hearts

            While shaving in front of his bathroom mirror, Jaroslav Jan Vajda, then editor of the former Lutheran magazine This Day, wondered how to fill a blank page for an issue that was going to the printer in three days. His mind went back to a question that had been haunting him for most of his life: Why did David say, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’?”[1]

            At first glance, the answer seems simple. Of course, we should be glad to worship God. But Vajda knew the struggle is real. We are not always glad to do it. Or we are glad for the wrong reasons. But we are often afraid to say it out loud, or to make it a matter of serious reflection. But Vajda did. As he thought of the worship service, a poem started to take shape in his mind.

            His thoughts followed each step of the service: “Now the silence, now the peace, now the empty hands uplifted…” He continued with the benediction, the preaching of God’s Word, the Eucharist, the songs, “the heart forgiven leaping,” and finally the work of each Person of the Trinity, all manifested in the now. “Now, now, now.” He wrote the whole poem in half an hour, as “An Entrance Hymn.” Today, it is known as “Now the Silence.”[2]

A Long Preparation

            This was not Vajda’s first poem. Born in Lorain, Ohio, on April 28, 1919, the son of a Lutheran pastor of Slovak descent, Vajda grew up in a family that gave much importance to literature and poetry, including the classics and the literature of their ancestral land. In this context, he began translating classical Slovak poetry at the age of sixteen. He was also musically inclined. He learned to play the violin at a young age and played in the Chicago Youth Symphony at age 12.

            “My wife Susan and I often marvel that he instinctively prepared for his life's work even as a child,” Vajda’s son-in-law Henry Raedeke told me. “He loved playing with words. He started writing poetry and studying poetry forms at an early age.”

            His most famous translation was of The Song of Blood, a 32-sonnet poem by the Slovak Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav on the horrors of World War I and the human desire for peace in a better world. Vajda translated it when he was 21. It was published as Bloody Sonnets ten years later.

            Vajda continued to translate and write while he studied at Concordia College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and while he served as pastor to bilingual (Slovak and English) congregations, first in Indiana and then in Pennsylvania. While a pastor, he edited “The Lutheran Beacon,” a publication of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

            He met his wife, Louise, while he was in seminary. She worked as copywriter for the radio station KFUO, and sang both as soprano in the radio’s on-air choir. Jaroslav (known by friends and family as Jary) and Louise married on June 3, 1945. They had four children: Susan, Jeremy, Timothy, and Deborah.

            Music continued to be important in their home. Susan began to play the piano in church when she was ten. Deborah remembers a time when she saw her father intently listening to a classical record by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. “He was completely engrossed,” she said. “After a minute. he looked up and said, ‘I finally got it.’” This story is an example of Vajda’s habit of deep reflection about art and life and of his “keen and inquisitive mind for musical complexity.”

            Words played also a vital role in the Vajda’s family. Vajda’s jokes, often told and retold, involved lots of puns and word-play. His writing – whether it was sermons, poetry, or other – was mostly done while he was alone, but he usually consulted with his wife, also a good writer, and trusted her judgement. She is credited for critical word changes here and there throughout his texts.

            In 1963, he moved to St. Louis, where he was named editor of This Day magazine. At the same time, he served as assistant pastor at a Slovak/English church. In 1971, he became editor for Concordia Publishing House, where he guided about 200 books from concept to publication.

A Watershed Hymn

            “Until the age of forty-eight I never dreamed of writing original hymns, and was never driven to seek a reputation as a hymn writer,” Vajda said. “The most I thought of doing was translating hymns, carols, and religious treasures from foreign languages.”[3]

            “Now the Silence” – which, he said, “came out of nowhere,” was different from anything he had done before. Erik Routley, a leading British hymnologist, called it “a tour de force.”[4] Vajda referred to it as “the watershed hymn.”[5]

            Setting the poem to music was a challenge in itself, as it had no punctuation, no rhyme, and no finite verbs. When the Commission on Worship explored the possibility of including it in their revised hymnal, they assigned the task to Carl Schalk, a leading Lutheran composer who was at that time teaching at Concordia. “They assigned the tune to me because I was the junior member of the committee, at the bottom of the totem pole,” Schalk told me. He took on the challenge.

            The hymn was published in the Worship Supplement, a hymnal of the Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, together with another of Vajda’s texts (“Thank the Lord, for He Is Good”) and two of his translations from Slovak – all set to music.

            “Not all churches include ‘Now the Silence’ in their hymnals,” Schalk said. “Many Christians feel that an entrance hymn should be a rouser. This is very quiet. It anticipates what’s going to happen in worship.”

            It’s in this focus on God’s means of grace that “Now the Silence” represents an answer to Vajda’s question about gladness in worship. Years later, he wrote another hymn, “Then the Glory,” which points to the time when what we receive “now” will be received in full: the glory, the rest, the “sabbath peace unbroken,” the “ultimate adventure”… ending, once again, with the Persons of the Trinity: “Then the Spirit’s harvest gathered, then the Lamb in majesty, then the Father’s amen. Then, then, then.”[6]

            “Some hymnals put these two together as two stanzas of the same hymn,” Schalk said, “but they were always intended as separate hymns.” One focuses on the now and one on the then.

            Schalk has set most of Vajda’s texts to music. Their collaboration continued to flourish and resulted in a deep friendship. Louise Vajda used to say the two men were the Rodgers and Hammerstein of hymns[7].

The Struggle with Worship

            In some ways, Vajda’s question about worship continued to motivate his writing. He called it “the struggle with worship,” and spoke specifically about it in his article “The Making of a Hymn.”[8] It’s a struggle, he said, that “engages only Christians,” an expression of the inner conflict, described by Paul in Romans 7:14-25, between our desire to obey God and our sinful nature which pulls us in the opposite direction.

            It was a struggle that Vajda felt so deeply that, in his dedication to his wife of Sing Peace, Sing Gift of Peace, he called her “my constant companion, supporter and inspiration in our struggles with worship on the journey of faith.”[9]

            “The conscientious child of God wrestles with the problem daily,” he said, “even when it comes to worship. Even pastors and worship planners struggle with the dilemma. I know! I wonder how much this struggle accounts for the revival of revivals, contemporary ‘alternate’ services, the rapidly changing styles of sacred music, the appeal of spectacle and theatricality, the casualness and superficiality of some worship services in the attempt to make people ‘glad to go to the house of the Lord.’”[10]

            Vajda’s awareness of the fact that a joyous worship cannot be forced or contrived produced works that are humble and honest. He often spoke as a struggling worshiper. One of his most popular hymns, “God of the sparrow God of the whale,”[11] also written without punctuation, depicts this struggle of an inadequate worshiper in front of an awe-inspiring and all-encompassing God.

            The fact that these questions (“How does the creature say awe,” or “praise,” “woe,” or “save”…) don’t end with a question mark is certainly intentional. Interpreting them as exclamations would in fact be perfectly consistent with the Lutheran theology of wonder over God’s grace that permeates all of Vajda’s writings.

            The conclusion of this hymn is comforting: “How do your children say Joy, how do your children say Home.”

            “I once heard a rendition of this hymn where the first stanza was repeated at the end,” Schalk told me. “But once you say ‘home,’ you don’t have to start all over again.”

            Another carol where Vajda comes to God as an uncertain sinner to find in him home and assurance is “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt,[12] where every half-believing, “strangely stirred” pilgrim who approaches Christ can say, “there is room and welcome there for me.”

            The same theme appears in “Go My Children,” a hymn Vajda was asked to write to match a Welsh tune. The gentle melody reminded Vajda of the comfort of God’s benediction at the end of the worship service. “Go my children, with my blessing, never alone,” the hymn began, “waking, sleeping, I am with you. You are my own.”[13]

            Here too, Vajda founds this certainty of God’s loving presence in the objective reality of the gospel, expressed in the preached Word and sacraments. It’s the gospel announcement that produces both awe and thankfulness as Vajda constantly reminds us. Unintentionally, “Go My Children” became a counter book-end for “Now the Silence,” as it reviews the parts of the liturgy as manifestations and proof of God’s bountiful love for his children.

            Vajda’s ability to relate both the sinner’s insecurity and God’s loving assurance reflects, in a way, Luther’s concerns of truly speaking the language of the people.[14] Vajda’s words resonate with this generation because they honestly express what most people wouldn’t dare or wouldn’t know how to put into words.

A Conscientious Writer

            In his introduction to Sing Peace, Sing Gift of Peace, Schalk lists other elements that make Vajda’s hymns unique: his understanding of the Lutheran concept of vocation as a way to serve God (by doing well whatever task we are given to do), his talent with words, and his biblical theology.

            Schalk remarked about Vajda’s “ability to fashion a new and striking image, to reshape an older image, or to recast it in such a way as to bring fresh insight and understanding to a text.”

            His favorite saying was, “Avoid clichés like the plague.” But this avoidance was not just a literary rule. Vajda’s words reflect his efforts to communicate important concepts in the clearest way. One example is a line in a lesser-known hymn, “Where You Are, There Is Life,” where he calls God’s Word “umbilical to all.”

            “I thought long and hard about using the term ‘umbilical’ in a hymn text,” Vajda said to his friend Mark Sedio. “But nothing spoke the way that term did.”[15]

            Throughout the text, Vajda reminds us, as he does in most of his hymns, that God is not only Life, Love, and Peace (and much more) but he is here, with us and for us.

            The hymn also contains, as many of Vajda’s writings, a reference to the Trinity: “True life and love and peace you are, and we are yours, Creator, Lamb and Dove.” And it ends with what is every believer’s prayer: “Make us partakers of your dream, see what your heart and hands have done, and smile and say again: how good!”[16]

            Today, Vajda is one of the most respected hymn writers. The complete collection of his hymns, Sing Peace, Sing Gift of Peace, was published by Concordia Publishing House in 2003. His hymns, carols, and translations (more than 200) can also be found in the hymnals of many Christian denominations throughout the world and have been translated into multiple languages. The sheer volume and theological weight of his hymns has led him to be called “a modern Paul Gerhardt” – a Lutheran poet who lived 350 years ago.

            “He had no idea how his witness would reach so many people in the world with such a personal Gospel message,” Raedeke told me. “He just used the amazing talents God gave him and kept honing those skills.”

            Vajda died on May 10, 2008, leaving the church with over 200 of his hymns. At his funeral, his Ascension hymn, “Up Through Endless Ranks of Angels,” was sung, a hymn that is about a Christ who is “death destroying, life restoring, proven equal to our need.”

Through our lives of fear and failure

 With Your pow’r and love abide;

Welcome us, as You were welcomed,

 To an endless Eastertide

[1] Ps. 122:1. Quoted in Jaroslav J. Vajda, Sing Peace, Sing Gift of Peace: The Comprehensive Hymnary of Jaroslav J. Vajda, St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2003, 13.

[3] Vajda, Sing Peace,, 13

[4] Ibid., 9

[5] Ibid., 13

[7] A reference to the 20th-century author/composer team, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Information provided by Henry Raedeke.

[8] Vajda, Sing Peace, 13

[9] Ibid., dedication page

[10] Ibid., 14

[14] See Martin Luther, An Open Letter on Translating, 1530, http://www.bible-researcher.com/luther01.html


Simonetta Carr