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1. Lead, kindly Light: historical context[1]

Lead, Kindly Light is a hymn with words written in 1833 by Saint John Henry Newman as a poem titled “the Pillar and the Cloud”. A poem biblically based on Exod 13: 21-22. John Henry Newman was 33 years old when he found himself on a boat from the Sicilian city of Palermo to Marseille, France. Newman, who was recovering after being dangerously ill with a fever, was on the boat to return to his native England when he penned the lyrics to “Lead, Kindly Light.”

The context that Newman was recovering from a frightening illness in the middle of the sea gives insight to the lyrics:

Lead, kindly Light, amid 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.

Newman faced much adversity in his life. In 1816 his father’s bank was shut down as a result of the financial collapse that followed the Napoleonic Wars. In 1821 nervousness and anxiety caused him to graduate with third-class honours. Then, in 1828, his sister suddenly passed away as his family continued to struggle financially.

Newman would overcome his challenges and eventually become an important religious leader in England.

2. Lead, kindly light: full lyrics

1. Lead, kindly Light, amid 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.

 

2. I was not ever thus, nor pray’d 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.

 

3. So long thy pow’r 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!

 

Text: John Henry Newman, 1801-1890

Music: John B. Dykes, 1823-1876

 

Some hymnal adds a fourth verse as follows:

 

4. Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,

Thyself hast trod,

Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,

Home to my God.

To rest forever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life

3. Lead Kindly Light: True life inspiration and Influences

The largest mining disaster in the Durham Coalfield in England was at West Stanley Colliery, known locally as “The Burns Pit”, when 168 men and boys lost their lives as the result of two underground explosions at 3:45pm on Tuesday 16 February 1909. In the Towneley Seam 63 lay dead, in the Tilley Seam 18 lay dead, in the Busty Seam 33 lay dead and in the Brockwell Seam 48 lay dead. But incredibly, there were still men alive underground. A group of 34 men and boys in the Tilley Seam had found a pocket of clean air. They were led by Deputy Mark Henderson. Sadly a few of them panicked and left the group, they died instantly after inhaling the poison gas. The remainder sat in almost total darkness, when one of them began humming the Hymn “Lead Kindly Light”. In no time at all. the rest of the miners joined in with the words, “Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on, The night is dark, and I am far away from home”. This was probably sung to the tune “Sandon” by CH Purdy, popular with miners in the Durham coalfield. Before the hymn ended, young Jimmy Gardner died of injuries. These 26 men were rescued after 14 hours, four others were later rescued.

Also, the hymn Lead, Kindly Light became a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and is mentioned at the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Lead, Kindly Light became the motto for so many schools including the Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, The Little Flower Higher Secondary School, Salem, Tamil Nadu, India, Saundararaja Vidhyalaya, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, India, Mangalam College of Engineering, Ettumanoor, Kerala, India and for Sri Kumaran Children’s Home, Bangalore, Karnataka, India among others.

4. More notes on Saint John Henry Newman

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John Henry Newman (21 February 1801 – 11 August 1890) was an Anglican Priest, a Catholic theologian, poet, philosopher and cardinal who converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism in October 1845. In early life, he was a major figure in the Oxford Movement to bring the Church of England back to its roots. Eventually his studies in history persuaded him to become a Catholic.

He was born in London into a family of five siblings and later studied at Trinity College in Oxford. Originally an evangelical Oxford University academic and priest in the Church of England, Newman was drawn to the High-Church tradition of Anglicanism. In 1879, he became cardinal in recognition of his services to the cause of the Catholic Church in England. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland, which evolved into University College Dublin.

Newman was canonised by Pope Francis on 13 October 2019, during an open-air Mass in St. Peter’s Square. The mass was attended by Prince Charles and tens of thousands of pilgrims.

His Canonisation makes Newman the first English person who has lived since the 17th century officially recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church.

5. Lead Kindly Light: Theological Reflection:

Verse one of Lead, Kindly light brings out the peculiar context and situation of the writer. It is night and the writer, far from home. Far away from home reminds us of the travails of early missionaries; the efforts of bread winners who have to work far away from their home even country just to provide for the family. It reminds us of so many who are made to leave their comfort zone for the one reason or another: migrants fleeing war and disasters, students, researchers, journalists and those searching for a better life. Far away from home is enough trouble and discomfort. Far away from home brings the pain of separation from the love of the family. What´s more? It is night. It is dark. Night and darkness can symbolize so many things. It can refer to a moment of illness, suffering and material lack. It could refer to a moment of intellectual and spiritual dryness or aridity what Saint John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.” The night is dark and far away from home. The writer prays that his feet, that is his steps be guided step by step so as not to stumble in the dark night. He doesn’t ask to know the distant future, what is to come, he only wants to be guided step by step, one day, one moment at a time. This reminds us of the Pater Noster (Our Father): “Give us this day, our daily bread.”

In verse two the writer reflects on his past years and past life like Saint Paul will do in his Letters. He recalls how demanding, thorough and exigent he had been. He especially recalls how he had been ruled by pride of auto-sufficiency and strong willed. But now, it the dark night and far away from home, he is willing to surrender and allow the guidance of the Kindly Light. He prays for forgiveness and that the sins of his past years not counted on him. The dark night experience like Damascus experience of the Apostle Paul has really transformed him and he is ready to accept just one will and choice, that of the Kindly Light. This exactly demonstrates how life´s cruel, tragic situations and experiences can become opportunities or instruments to mould, shape and refine us spiritually.

In verse three, the writer after asking for pardon and forgiveness receives a Divine assurance. He is filled with hope. He recognizes that even when he was not aware (or refused to accept Him), God´s power had always been his Light and Guide and surely will lead him on. Over the moor, fern, crag and torrent of the dark night, God will lead him till the night comes to an end. It re-echoes the words of Apostle Paul in 2Cor 4: 8-9: “we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” The writer is already brilliant and rejuvenated after the dark night struggle with a smile of having to see the beautiful morning. So goes the saying that “there is always light at the end of the tunnel.” The morning brings joy and happiness, but this morning only comes after the dark night. Easter Sunday makes sense only in the light of the dark night and torments of Good Friday.

In the light of the foregoing reflection, I recommend this prayer-hymn Lead, Kindly Light for all those who must live, work or study away from home, for all those who are encountering difficult situations: health, economic, emotional, family and personality (personal) crises. I recommend it for all those who feel that God has abandoned them; those who feel betrayed by friendship and don’t know the way forward. I recommend it to all those who feel that the night is too long, and they can´t wait any longer for the morning. Yes, the night is dark, and you are away from home, but muster courage and ask God, to lead you on!

6. Appendix

Saint Newman also has the legacy of another beautiful piece: Praise to the Holiest in the Height

Full lyrics:

1. Praise to the Holiest in the height,

And in the depth be praise,

In all His words most wonderful,

Most sure in all His ways.

 

2. O loving wisdom of our God!

When all was sin and shame,

A second Adam to the fight

And to the rescue came.

 

3. O wisest love! that flesh and blood,

Which did in Adam fail,

Should strive afresh against the foe,

Should strive, and should prevail.

 

4. And that a higher gift than grace

Should flesh and blood refine,

God’s presence and His very self,

An essence all divine.

 

5. O generous love! that He who smote

In Man, for man, the foe,

The double agony in Man,

for man should undergo.

 

6. And in the garden secretly,

And on the Cross on high,

Should teach his brethren, and inspire

To suffer and to die.

 

7. Praise to the Holiest in the height,

And in the depth be praise,

In all His words most wonderful,

Most sure in all His ways.

 

Text: John Henry Newman

Music: John B. Dykes

Metre: 8 6 8 6 (CM)

Biblical References: Matt 26: 36-44; Romans 5: 12-21; 1Cor 15: 21-22.

The text of the hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the height” is an excerpt from a lengthy poem called “The dream of Gerontius” which was also written by John Henry Newman. The poem consists of the prayer of a dying man, and angelic and demonic responses. It explores his catholic beliefs of the journey from death through Paradise to God and then to Purgatory. The poem follows the main character as he nears death and then reawakens as a soul, preparing for judgment. Newman is claimed to have said that the poem “was written by accident – and it was published by accident”. It is such a splendid hymn to behold rich and profound in both theology and insights.

As we give Praise to the Holiest in the height, we also pray that the Kindly Light lead us on!

[1] I decided to put this article up to honour the Newest Saint of the Church, Saint John Henry Newman, a Saint I grew up to admire in my theological studies through his work: Apologia Pro Vita Sua published in 1864. He was recently canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019 in Saint Peter´s Square, Rome. His Feast day is celebrated on October 9 every year. May the Kindly Light, lead us on and may Saint John Henry Newman intercede for us.