Getting Through the Night
If we took a survey to find out what your favorite hymns are, I’m sure the answers would reflect the many different church backgrounds represented in our membership: Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, In The Garden, Morning Has Broken, Lead On O King Eternal, Fairest Lord Jesus, Great Is Thy Faithfulness — those would probably be among the number. I would be surprised if you named the one Alfred Lord Tennyson considered the finest hymn ever written, one about which a world authority on hymns said: “No more beautiful hymn, nor one more dignified, has been written in English.” I think that may be true, but I have another compelling reason to call it my personal favorite: it describes, more than any hymn I know, the best and worst moments in my life.
It isn’t an easy hymn to sing, either for an individual voice or for a congregation, so you don’t hear it often in church — but you will later this morning after some explanation of how it came to be written, and why one line of it: “The night is dark, and I am far from home” has had such poignancy for more than 150 years. The man who wrote this song captured a mood all of us have known at some point in our lives when getting through the night of either literal or figurative darkness was all we could think about. The deepest concern for the author of this great hymn was the spiritual night through which he was passing when he wrote it, but since he was also depressed by long literal nights with no sleep, let’s enter his mood with a few words about that dreaded human experience.
A famous showbusiness figure who kept living a flamboyant life into his declining years made this interesting remark about his behavior: “The big problem is getting through the night. I don’t care how you do it — for some people it’s religion, for me it’s booze — but no matter how you do it, you’ve got to get through the night somehow.” When I was a child it never occurred to me that there might be people who had trouble getting through the night. I can remember working every trick I knew to stay up a few minutes past my bedtime, but I also remember that as soon as my head touched the pillow I was deep in forgetful, healthy slumber. I had no idea that being able to fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly until morning is one of the great blessings of childhood.
But I grew up…..and part of growing up is finding out that there are two kinds of night, one of them a period of physical darkness when the sun is gone, and the other a time of spiritual darkness brought on by confusion or fears or the grip of a guilty conscience. Literal darkness often frightens children because shapes change at night and shadows move, but even grownups are not immune. One of the oldest of all human fears is of what may happen in the dark: animals waiting for the fire to die down, enemies slipping silently close to the camp or the cave for a surprise attack.
But the other kind of darkness can be even worse, the kind that has nothing to do with the clock or the sun — the darkness of heart and soul when relationships are not right, or we are pulled with equal force in two directions, and we toss and turn all night long until we ask with suffering Job in the Bible: “When shall I rise up, and this night be gone?’” If you have ever spent such a night, it may interest you to hear how a brilliant young man transformed his dark night of the soul into one of the great songs of the church.
Born in London, John Henry Newman grew up sensitive and strong-willed, a bright boy given to dreaming about an ideal world and what his role in it should be. He enrolled in Trinity College, Oxford at age 15 and had a religious conversion so vivid that for the rest of his life it remained, he said, “more certain for me than that I had hands or feet.” He decided at 20 to become a minister in the Church of England, and by age 23 was at work in a poor, run-down Oxford parish. He built it up with his extraordinary zeal and pulpit eloquence, but that work — plus his tutoring load at an Oxford college — caused one of several breakdowns in his life. His talents were recognized a few years later when at 27 he was appointed vicar of St. Mary’s Church in Oxford.
St. Mary’s was only a parish church but because of its magnificent building it was used for university functions, and with Newman’s superb power as a preacher he began to build a large congregation of university faculty and students. It was in connection with this beautiful church that my life first touched his. During two years in Oxford as a young man, I discovered St. Mary’s and began to read about the man who for 15 years made history in its pulpit. One of my greatest pleasures was to enter that church in the middle of the day when no one was there, and in the brooding silence of that house of worship climb the winding stairs into the high pulpit and stand where Newman had stood.
With his magnetic personality and great poetic gifts, Newman quickly became a leader in the Church of England, but he was soon profoundly disappointed by the apathy he found. Although he had often denounced the Catholic church, he began to wonder if it might not be more suited to his personality and theological bent than the Church of England, and as he expressed those feelings he became the center of a fierce controversy in which his Protesant friends, who had viewed him as a saint, began to see him instead as “the most dangerous man in England.” Upset and confused, trying almost frantically to read and write his way to a solution, Newman slipped at age 32 into another prolonged illness. With the encouragement of friends he set out on a tour of the Mediterranean which he hoped would make him well in both body and soul.
Wishing he could find a way to bring the Catholic church and the Church of England back together, drawn first toward one and then the other, he visited Rome to ask if there was any hope of reconciliation. He was informed that the Anglican church had spurned its Mother Church and that no compromise on the Catholic side was possible; Anglicans would have to repent and return to the fold. At about the same time that discouraging word was delivered a traveling companion left for England, and Newman had to go on without his support to Sicily where he had a wretched and almost fatal experience. The weather was bad, the inns were so flea-ridden he could not sleep, the food was miserable, and on top of everything else he came down with a dangerous fever. Newman pushed on, hardly able to hold himself on his mule, until he was finally too sick to move. When a physician bled him, with no good results, death seemed inevitable to Newman’s faithful Italian servant. “I shall not die,” Newman told him. “I have not sinned against light. God has a work for me to do in England. This fever is a punishment for my wilfulness. I have always been wilful: God is chastising me. But I shall get well.”
After three weeks they moved him to Palermo, although he nearly died on the way. Convalescing there, he used to watch eagerly for the coming of daylight, whispering rapturously to himself as the dawn gleamed through his windows, “O sweet light! God’s best gift.” Three more weeks crawled by while Newman waited for a boat , and when he finally found one it turned out to be a fruit ship loaded with oranges. The voyage was lonely and slow, and for one whole week that seemed eternal for a man eager to get back home they were stopped dead still by a dense fog. Try to imagine what that was like for a man so desperately homesick, weak from fever and exhaustion, and still baffled in his search for religious peace of mind. The heavy gray fog blots out what is usually a brilliant landscape and hides the jagged rocks near Sardinia that can sink the boat in minutes. Newman paces the deck, following the captain by day as he tries to find where he is on the chart, or by night as he tries to guess at the identity of a lighthouse seen for a moment through patches in the fog.
I got just the barest hint very early one morning of what that might be like when I took a small boat out on a large lake. I was fishing by myself when a fog suddenly settled in so thickly that I could not see more than 30 feet in any direction. With no breeze to lap waves against the side of the boat, there was utter silence, and with no sun the water looked gray and heavy as lead. I knew the morning sun would burn off the fog in a couple of hours so I simply sat there and cast a lure around the edges of my little circle of open water. It was such an unusual experience for me, and had so little danger in it that I almost enjoyed it, but it helps me imagine the misery of sitting dead in strange water seven days and seven long nights, desperate to get back home after so long away, and constantly afraid of drifting on the currents into rocks as sharp as razors. If you were looking for imagery to express utter spiritual confusion and helpllessness, it would be hard to find anything better: fog and night and no sense of where you are. It must have seemed to Newman that his inner state, his perplexities about what he should believe and do, had taken concrete shape and were hovering all around him.
At some point in that week that seemed to last forever, he went below to his cabin and began to compose a prayer-poem in the hope that it might bring peace of mind. It is in my opinion so inspired and so beautiful that if the canon of Scripture had not been closed long ago it would deserve to be included. The prayer begins with a plea for guidance: “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead thou me on.” The literal fog and darkness and distance from home are depressing enough, but they stand for something much worse: his spiritual bewilderment. No longer master of his own destiny, unable to see very far, this brilliant man who has been so proud now makes a modest request: “Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene: one step enough for me.” This is a supreme expressions of spiritual surrender….and I suppose it may be meaningless unless at some time in your life you have been there.
When he was sick back in Italy, Newman had written: “I have always been wilful.” Now, in the second stanza of this prayer poem he confesses that humility is a new thing. “I was not ever thus,” he confesses, “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.”
The confidence of faith returns in the closing verse when Newman says the God who has guided him for such a long time will lead him through the night until the certainties and ideals that blessed him in the past will come again with faces as beautiful as angels: “So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on…..till the night is gone; and with the morn those angel faces smile which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.” He mean those beloved faces of family and friends back in England, but people have misunderstood and sung this verse at funerals as if he were speaking of heaven.
Newman said of his prayer-poem later that credit for its popularity as a hymn should go to the musical setting provided for it. As for his own verses, he was much too modest: “They are not a hymn, nor are they suitable for singing; and it is that which at once surprises and gratifies me, and makes me thankful that, in spite of their having no claim to being a hymn, they have made their way into so many collections.” According to composer John Dykes, the inspiration for the tune “Lux Benigna” (which means “Kindly Light”) came while he was walking one day on the Strand, the busiest street in London, amidst the roar of traffic. Oddly enough, the music turned out to be a perfect companion for the poem Newman hadwritten in the fog-shrouded quiet of a becalmed sea.
People in the first-century church were told in scripture to “teach and help one another…with your psalms and hymns and Christian songs” so I have asked the choir to complete this story of one of our greatest hymns by singing it while you listen carefully to the words, or follow them in your hymnbook on Page 2l5.
Some of us have already passed through some lonely darkness,
far from home, and others of us will one day do the same. May all
of us be equally strengthened this morning, gracious God, by the
things we have heard…..through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Week after week, Eternal God, we examine our hearts in this
place through sermon and song. On this