Abide With Me
Henry Francis Lyte, 1847
The preacher was dying of consumption. He knew it, and he was not afraid of it. His family and his congregation feared it, and so they wanted him to take things more easily. In fact, the preacher was going to Europe, to drier climes, to ease the trouble in his lungs. It was a journey from which he would not return.
As the story goes, he had attended at the bedside of a dying friend many years before, and when the sun was going down, his friend kept repeating, “Abide with me, abide with me.” So the preacher, who was also a poet, thought deeply about what his friend was saying, because it recalled the words of the disciples to the risen Jesus, when they were on the road with him and they did not know who he was, and the evening was coming on. “Abide with us, Lord,” they said, as Jesus made as if to continue on his journey. So he went with them into the inn, and he broke bread with them, and blessed it, and suddenly they recognized who had been their companion and teacher. The poet, Henry Francis Lyte, composed then the verses of our hymn this week, and then he set them aside, but when he himself was dying, he recalled the verses, and perhaps he added to them or touched them up. On the evening of his final sermon before he left for Italy, never to return, he placed the text of the hymn into the hand of one of his relatives. He had written a melody for it, too, but everybody now sings it to the gentle and quietly earnest melody Eventide, composed by William Monk in 1861.
The lyrics are intensely personal, and yet they can be sung by anyone, anytime, because they apply to us all, as we are all going either to dwell in the winter of our lives, or to meet our end more suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, even unjustly. So this hymn was on the lips of the saintly British nurse Edith Cavell, on October 12, 1915, as she was shot by a German firing squad, for the crime of having assisted some French, Belgian, and British soldiers to escape from Germany. We too sang it at the funeral of my wife Debra’s beloved mother, Esther, as it was a favorite of hers. It reminds me also of the scene in Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter, when the good and faithful father Lavrans is dying, and his friend the parish priest holds the cross before his eyes, as he and Lavrans repeat the words of Christ, words to be prayed before you go to bed at night: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
The stanzas move in a deliberate fashion from the personal to the universal. Lyte does more than say that all men must die. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says the poet, echoing Augustine and Boethius; the law of this world in time is that nothing can preserve itself forever; we exist by passing from one state to another, as the ever-whirling wheel of change rolls on. But it is not only that things change physically. We are not settled in our souls; we are prone to fall, as the tempter meets us time and again. Who can guide us? Who can be our stay, our support? Only the Lord. And when death itself approaches, and the enemy most insistently rages because he knows his time is short, the Lord is “at hand to bless,” so that we can say, with Saint Paul, “Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?” Where, indeed? And in the final stanza, Lyte invites us to see beyond death, to the morning of that day that never falls to night. In all things, then, “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
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. 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. 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. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
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