Hymn for the day graphic

05 In heavenly love abiding – Watson

Anna Laetitia Waring (1823-1910)
Public domain
Professor J. R. Watson

In heavenly love abiding,
 No change my heart shall fear;
And safe is such confiding,
 For nothing changes here:
The storm may roar without me,
 My heart may low be laid;
But God is round about me,
 And can I be dismayed?

Wherever he may guide me,
 No want shall turn me back;
My Shepherd is beside me,
 And nothing can I lack:
His wisdom ever waketh,
 His sight is never dim;
He knows the way he taketh,
 And I will walk with him.

Green pastures are before me,
 Which yet I have not seen;
Bright skies will soon be o’er me,
 Where the dark clouds have been:
My hope I cannot measure,
 My path to life is free;
My Saviour has my treasure,
 And he will walk with me.

Hymns do many things. They offer praise and prayer, give assurance, proclaim salvation, give expression to sorrow and penitence, explain Holy Scripture, and offer spiritual insight. They can also offer comfort. The present hymn, written by Anna Laetitia Waring (1823-1910), is a good example. In its exploration of heavenly love, it looks forward to a life beyond this one, a life in which we shall find the world that we all seek in which we shall walk with God and rejoice in his light. It knows of our fears and difficulties, but speaks feelingly of hope. In it, the heart, which is found twice in the first verse, is the seat of the affections, the human heart that registers all our moods, from the fearless heart of line 2 to the sad heart of line 6. It is a hymn that is truly ‘heartfelt’.

The first line, ‘In heavenly love abiding’, takes us to the wonderful fifteenth chapter of St John’s Gospel. Like the more famous ‘Abide with me’, written a few years before this hymn was published in 1850, it speaks feelingly of constant and continuous love. The Gospel has Christ’s own words: ‘Abide in me, and I in you’ (verse 4) and ‘ye shall abide in my love’ (verse 10): it is perhaps the crucial word in that chapter. In its emphasis on a love that does not change, it echoes Henry Vaughan’s ‘one who never changes’, from ‘My soul, there is a country’.

But it is not just a matter of quotation and echo. It is the first line which is so moving in its beauty. The word ‘abiding’, which ends the line, lingers in the mind before passing to the next step in the hymn. This is because of the extra syllable, which comes unexpectedly, and inaugurates the feminine rhymes (rhyming on two syllables that are such an attractive feature of this hymn. In its rhythm that first line is strongly iambic (short-long, short-long syllables): ‘In heaven-ly love ab-i-ding’), but the ‘ing’ in ‘abiding’ transforms the line. It is followed by the simplicity of ‘No change my heart shall fear’, which defines the heavenly love of line 1. The hymn goes on to say that heavenly love is unchanging, as it was for Henry Francis Lyte and for Henry Vaughan; and because of that, we are safe in our ‘confiding’, or trusting. ‘Safe’ is unobtrusively right here: because of this trust in the unchanging love of God, the second part of the first verse can acknowledge that there may be storms that ‘roar without me’ (using ‘without’ in the sense of ‘outwith’, still used in Scotland, of ‘outside’) and that the heart may ‘low be laid’, but we are safe. ‘Round about me’ suggests a fence, or anything that protects us, like a mother’s arms that envelop a child who needs comfort. It concludes the first verse on a note of tenderness and love.

The second verse begins with the idea of the pilgrimage through life, wherever the guide leads. At this point we find (line 3) that it is ‘My Shepherd’ who is guiding, which takes us to Psalm 23. Throughout this verse Waring is thinking of the texts in the Authorized Version of 1611 and of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 (she came from a Quaker family, but joined the Church of England), and playing her own variations on it. ‘No want shall turn me back’ is from the Bible – ‘I shall not want’, here turned from a verb into a noun, but ‘nothing can I lack’ is from the Prayer Book: ‘The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing.’ The Bible and the Prayer Book function as a ground bass or undercurrent through the first four lines. The second part of the verse describes the shepherd, who neither slumbers nor sleeps, and whose vision is clear. He is never drowsy, and ever clear sighted (to reverse Waring’s ‘ever/never’ juxtaposition). He knows the way, and she will follow.

The third verse begins with another unexpected image: ‘Green pastures are before me,/Which yet I have not seen’. Those green pastures are from the BCP translation: ‘He shall feed me in a green pasture’. In the BCP it follows on from the shepherd, so that the speaker is one of his sheep; here Waring, in her full humanity (the ‘heart’ of verse 1), makes a sudden transition to the countryside and the weather. The green pastures are more beautiful than any she has ever seen; the skies are bright and the dark clouds have gone away. She seems to sail into this final verse with an inspiration that comes from thinking of heaven as a beautiful place on a lovely day, however bad the weather may have been earlier. Her hope is measureless; her path is free; and – at last – come the words to which the whole hymn has been leading, ‘My Saviour’. He it is who is the heavenly love of the first line, who keeps her safe, and who holds the treasure of eternal life. The Saviour is the Good Shepherd of verse 2, into whose care and direction she places herself; and everyone who sings this hymn does the same.

The hymn is a brilliant exercise in poetic judgment. Waring seems to feel instinctively which words will be right for the line, and which lines will be right for each verse. But that poetry is also supremely comforting. It is sometimes sung at funerals, and rightly so; but it may be that it is even more effective as a hymn to comfort the elderly and the dying. I find it hard to think of a hymn that is more suitable for reading to a person with a terminal illness. Set to the Welsh tune PENLAN, by David Jenkins, the result is a hymn that gives us a foretaste of heaven, and of the constant love that we hope to find there.

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