Some years ago I heard the Iona Community’s John Bell speaking about why we love particular hymns:
- There are intellectual reasons – the hymn may say something we want to affirm, or feel it’s important to sing about.
- There are aesthetic reasons – singing the hymn may be stirring, may move us, or fire our imagination.
- There are experiential reasons – the hymn may suggest something which relates to our own experience.
- And there are associative reasons – those memories which are prompted by the hymn in question.
I’ve been thinking about this in connection with one of my favourite hymns from the Iona Community, ‘A Touching Place’, originally written in the 1980s to be sung during healing services in Iona Abbey.
Christ’s is the world in which we move;
Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;
Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the one who meets us here.
To the lost Christ shows his face,
to the unloved he gives his embrace,
to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.
Feel for the people we most avoid –
strange or bereaved or never employed.
Feel for the women and feel for the men
who fear that their living is all in vain.
Feel for the parents who’ve lost their child,
feel for the women whom men have defiled,
feel for the baby for whom there’s no breast,
and feel for the weary who find no rest.
Feel for the lives by life confused,
riddled with doubt, in loving abused;
feel for the lonely heart, conscious of sin,
which longs to be pure but fears to begin.
John L. Bell (born 1949) and Graham Maule (1958-2019)
Tune: DREAM ANGUS (Scottish lullaby arranged by John L. Bell)
Copyright © 1989, 1996 Wild Goose Resource Group
c/o Iona Community, Glasgow, G2 3DH, Scotland.
www.wildgoose.scot Email: email@example.com
Used by Permission CCL Licence No. 1372640
The opening line, ‘Christ’s is the world in which we move’, affirms that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; then we’re reminded of the call of Jesus to love our neighbour and to care for people in need. Other verses dare to name those who can’t find employment, women abused by men, people riddled with doubt. Michael Hawn has spoken of Iona Community hymns offering a rare combination of realism and mystery, potentially disturbing and disquieting. The Community has a particular concern for justice, and for solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the suffering. Its hymns often focus on the earthly life of Jesus – and the Gospels frequently tell of him touching someone to heal or to bless. In Mark 10, for example, Jesus takes young children in his arms and blesses them. In Matthew 8, Jesus stretches out his hand to touch a leper, then later touches the hand of a sick woman, healing them both.
And my aesthetic reasons for loving this hymn? John Bell and the late, much missed Graham Maule set their words to a traditional Scottish melody, DREAM ANGUS: a beautiful lullaby. In an interview, John once said that folk tunes in worship help address domestic situations, not in a patronising way, ‘but as the stuff of human existence which deserves to be recognised in prayer and song’. The music may introduce people to ‘a Jesus they can talk to’. And to me, the way the hymn ends has a sense of something left hanging in the air, unresolved: not everything is tied up neatly (just like life).
The poetry, full of repetition and alliteration, reminds me of ‘Christ be with me, Christ within me’ from St Patrick’s Breastplate, and of the Celtic Rune of Hospitality: ‘I saw a stranger yestreen:/I put food in the eating place,/Drink in the drinking place,/Music in the listening place ...’ It’s satisfying rhythmically that the repeated ‘Feel for the ...’ matches the three-note dotted motif from each line of the melody, reinforcing the rocking rhythm. Such a close marriage of text and music is hard to find in traditional hymnody.
At this time of pandemic and social distancing, it’s poignant to be reminded of the potency of touch. Kathy Galloway, a former Leader of the Iona Community, writing about prayer with laying-on of hands says that touch, received in a non-threatening way, ‘comes as a real liberation ... an experience of grace, a moment of making whole’. We all understand the value of a sympathetic hug. How hard for many bereaved during this pandemic to have to keep their distance from those who longed to comfort them physically. Yet what a wonder, that staff in busy hospital wards sat holding the hands of the dying. As churches reopen for worship, we may not be able to share the Peace with each other physically, but as the people of God we know ourselves embraced by Christ and called to share his healing touch in imaginative ways.
What memories or associations does this hymn evoke? For me, it has a sharply fresh association with the funeral, in January, of Graham Maule, who wrote this hymn – and many others – with John Bell. Graham’s mother, having sung him the Gaelic lullaby in his early years, sang it again in hospital shortly before he died of cancer. A soprano soloist sang the same lullaby exquisitely in the Glasgow church where we expressed our sorrow, gave thanks for Graham’s life, and entrusted him to God’s loving embrace.
I also have happier memories: of learning about the Iona Community’s Wild Goose Resource Group and their sung repertoire; of hearing this hymn sung by a choir; and of reading the words in a book compiled by a dear friend. So let’s ponder anew how we, the friends of Christ, can show his love, comfort, and care to the lost, the unloved, the grieving or despairing.
And so we pray: O Christ, forgive what I have not felt; and so enlarge my heart that I never shrink from contact with your loved ones rejected by the world. Instead, teach me to care rightly, in your name. Amen.
(Adapted from a prayer by Ruth Etchells)