Every once in a while someone suggests a hymn for me to ponder. I appreciate this. Sometimes these hymns are familiar, but not personal favourites, so I haven’t really given them a chance. I’m almost always glad when I do. Sometimes they are unfamiliar and I find myself learning a little something new, or reading an interesting story or just enjoying a bit of music that I would have otherwise missed. This one is new to me. Although, once I read a bit about it, I can’t understand how I missed it!
Written by John Henry Newman in 1833, it was first published as the poem, “The Pillar of the Cloud” and later set to music, this particular tune by John Bacchus Dykes in 1865. Newman’s words were written whilst he recovered from a terrible illness as he travelled from Sicily to England at the age of thirty three. It is said he had many adversities, including the collapse of his father’s bank following the Napoleonic Wars, nervousness and anxiety and his sister’s sudden death. It is clear when you read the words that he was looking for ways to cope.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
This hymn has been used as a means of coping with adversity ever since. And in some pretty well known circumstances. Trapped miners sang it during one of the largest mining disasters in British history in 1909. In complete darkness, 26 men sang, beside the 168 who died. It was sung by Betsie ten Boom as she and other women were led into the Ravensbruck concentration camp during the Holocaust. It was sung on one of the lifeboats from the Titanic, survivors having heard it in a service that had happened just prior to the ship hitting an iceberg. It was sung in the trenches of the First World War, by British soldiers to the accompaniment of artillery fire. It turns up in literature and is said to have been a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi.
I have no doubt there are many other stories. These words clearly speak to the common experience of needing to be reassured that we are walking in the right direction – especially when we simply cannot see beyond our gloom. Moving towards something that greets us with angelic faces and sunshine and all that we love. Over moors and swamps, past cliffs and rushing water. We walk until the morning breaks, and our gloom lifts.
The idea that sometimes we need to seek guidance when we can’t see the way seems quite relevant at the moment. There are still many unanswered questions for most of us. And we haven’t yet found the solutions we’d like to hear. I suspect many of us are starting to come up with responses that suit us, that begin to return to us what we are missing, to regain what we have lost. I wonder if that is pride ruling our will. I’m not entirely certain it will bring us to the morning we hope for.
My favourite part of this poetry is the term kindly light. What a beautiful image. This is what we are told we can find as our guide. It is obviously a reference to God in this case, but I relish the idea that it is also something we can all become. Something we can aspire to. When we look around at this strange world we find ourselves in, where are the kindly lights? Are they those that offer a quick return to everything that was before? Are they those that refuse to acknowledge their neighbours’ suffering or the potential for more suffering? Are they those that concern themselves only with what is closest? Are they those that have found ways to benefit from others’ downfalls?
No. The kindly lights in our world are those that offer care. For the safety and health of us all – the young, the old, the sick, the weak, the poor, the vulnerable. They are those willing to stand up to the pressures of our usual ways and say, be patient. They are those who seek real solutions, even if they are slower arriving than we’d like. They are those who shine bright, beautiful light into our gloom – not removing it, but helping us understand that beyond it is something better than a garish day, far from home. Something that will offer us safety whether we are a healthy child or a weakened grandmother. A kindly light cares no matter who we are and doesn’t evaluate our worth based on how many days we have left or what we are able to contribute.
Whom we choose to lead us is important. Whom we choose to follow. A kindly light is infinitely more valuable than a light merely showing us what we want to see. Because we are sometimes wrong. And we are sometimes selfish. And when we are, it is easy to walk down the wrong path, especially when it is dark.
Look for a kindly light; aspire to be one. Choose your path wisely and walk with care through the encircling gloom. One step at a time until the morning comes and the faces of all we love return our smiles and confirm that we went the right way.