Looking back on another old favourite, this one has offered comfort to countless people at those moments in life when we’ve needed it most. Looking at this familiar hymn again, I realise that what we need right now is the knowledge that we are not alone. We are not alone. We are in this together. Whether we cling to spiritual traditions and practices or simply spend time chatting with our friends and family, being generous and caring for our neighbours, we abide. Many things have ended for us over the past weeks, many more are likely to be changed. Hang on to those things in your life that remain; those things that are most valuable. Take, and offer, comfort.
As I near the end of my year of song, I felt it fitting to include this beautiful hymn. This is one that is usually reserved for funerals, but it also speaks to endings; it speaks to our fears about what the future holds.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The story goes that these words were written in 1847 by Henry F. Lyte as he lay dying from tuberculosis. Although, I also read that he was haunted by the phrase “abide with me” that had been repeatedly muttered by a friend who was dying. Either way, there is a sense of desperation in these words; a sense of urgent need when passing into the unknown – in this life or the next.
This is a hymn that has offered comfort to many. When William Monk wrote the familiar tune in 1861, he apparently did so to help his wife get through a difficult time. And there are many other stories of its use. Everything from being played on the deck of the Titanic as it sunk to being sung in the trenches of World War I. It was used as a theme in a prelude by Ralph Vaughan Williams and recorded by Thelonious Monk with his jazz septet. It is even said to have been a favourite of Mahatma Ghandi.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
What I take from all of this is that fear of the unknown is pretty common. There is much in life and death that we do not understand. Try as we might to find answers, there frequently aren’t any. Often what we think will lie at the end of any path, is simply not there at all.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
When endings arrive we all need something to bear us into the unknown. Something that reassures us in the midst of uncertainty and sometimes real fear. We need to feel cradled in care – or at least as though we don’t walk alone. What comes next isn’t always bad, but not knowing is frightening and difficult when faced alone. These words are not about finding answers or ignoring reality. They are about finding something that will be a companion along the path of the unknown. Something that will listen when the words “abide with me” are spoken; something that cradles that request and fills our view with peace.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.