‘His compassions fail not; they are new every morning’
The commemoration of John Keble in the Anglican Communion is held on 29th March, the anniversary of his death in 1866. As this occurred at the start of the lockdown prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, I have had plenty of time to reflect on Keble’s hymn ‘New Every Morning’, which was recorded for a service on Passion Sunday at Holy Trinity, Brussels.
This hymn is an extract from the first poem in Keble’s The Christian Year (Oxford: 1827), entitled ‘Morning’, with the quotation ‘His compassions fail not; they are new every morning’ (Lamentations iii.22-23). The book was sub-titled ‘Thoughts in Verse for the Sundays and Holydays throughout the Year’, with the quotation ‘In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. Isaiah xxx.15’. It became an essential part of a devout Anglican family’s library and was phenomenally successful, with 95 editions published by the time of Keble’s death. The original poetic impulse for the poetry came from Keble's own desire to express himself as an individual soul addressing His God, often out of a need for comfort.
One of the reasons for the hymn’s popularity at the outset and its longevity is its simplicity and ecumenical appeal. Before I sing the hymn, verse by verse, a brief word on the tune MELCOMBE. This was first used as an anonymous chant tune (with figured bass) in the Roman Catholic Mass [and was published in 1782 in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant]. Despite the harmonisation in Hymns Ancient and Modern, there is no mistaking the simplicity of the plain chant melody, which is a steadying influence as we prepare for the day ahead.
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
The first verse encourages us to acknowledge God’s love as new with each morning: we do not take this love for granted; the proof of it is our waking and uprising together with the simple truth that we have been saved from the perils and dangers of the night, restored to life and thought. The rhythm of these coronatimes is defined by Morning and Evening Prayer (or Compline). As we celebrate the daily office, I am encouraged by the thought that new mercies are hovering around us, waiting to be grasped by our prayer intentions. In our timely use of the Prayer Book, our sins are forgiven and our hopes of heaven restored:
New mercies, each returning day,
hover around us while we pray;
new perils past, new sins forgiven,
new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.
The third verse encourages us to train our eye to hallow all we find, as we do when we say ‘hallowed be thy name’ in the Lord’s prayer. All of these things will become as treasures of God. Keble held that material things, from sunlight to the fall of autumn leaves, provided a system of signs that could dimly show forth the qualities of God, illustrate each Christian’s experience, and correspond with the spiritual truths revealed in Scripture and guarded by the Church. This is distinct from reciting formulae or doctrine.
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.
The final verse of the hymn appears in the poem ‘Morning’, but the preceding verse, I feel, would be worth restoring to Hymns Ancient & Modern, if only for the new perspective we might have on ‘cloistered cell’.
Keble recommends 'simple piety' and reverent Christian living in the verse 'we need not bid for cloistered cell/ our neighbour and our work farewell'. As J.R. Watson explains, ‘We are a part of the world, and we should not try to avoid that.’ (J.R.Watson, Awake My Soul: Reflections on Thirty Hymns, London SPCK, 2005, p.15.) Perhaps this is just as relevant in our day?
We need not bid, for cloistered cell,
Our neighbour and our work farewell,
Nor strive to wind ourselves too high
For sinful man beneath the sky:
But what about when we have the opportunity to inhabit our cell, life within the restrictions of Covid-19? Curiously, we must accept our enforced retreat situation in a way that monks who choose the religious life do not. But we can learn and grow through this experience. One of the desert fathers, Abba Moses, advised those who sought him out, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”. Like the monks, we have the daily office, our family, our community, as well as the chance to enjoy his Creation and…finally, some recreation in the open-air at Le Rouge Cloître. As part of our confinement we learn to accept the daily trials, growing in holiness. In this situation, to paraphrase Keble, we have a unique opportunity to pay attention to God’s presence and to be closer to him. This idea is reinforced in the next verse:
The trivial round, the common task,
Would furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God.
We don’t need the Religious or Academic life to come closer to God, but rather the ‘trivial round, the daily task’ will suffice. This may be especially true in our current situation if we are struggling to get through our daily demands, such as balancing work and childcare. But embracing these tasks of service somehow will bring us closer to God.
Keble practised what he preached, since for all the academic brilliance demonstrated in his poetry and as founding father of the Oxford Movement, he followed the calling of the parish priest, supporting his father and two sisters at Fairford, Gloucestershire.
150 years ago, in 1870, Keble College was opened at Oxford to ‘provide an inexpensive education for earnest young men in strict conformity with the Church of England and its principles’. Its motto: ‘Plain living and high thinking’. Nowadays, it is open to men and women and my own sister is an alumna of the college. The final verse of Keble’s hymn, beauty in simplicity, would make a good family prayer:
Only, O Lord, in thy dear love
fit us for perfect rest above;
and help us, this and every day,
to live more nearly as we pray.
Why is it a hymn for our times?
- In times of suffering and isolation, it is encouraging to recognise God’s small mercies and to count our blessings each day.
- The hymn also proposes a simple pattern of behaviour to follow each day, focused on prayer and the Daily Office.
- The injunction to ‘hallow all we find’ encourages us to find God in everything, which is particularly important in confinement.
- The ‘cloister’d cell’ speaks anew to us in this situation, as we have an opportunity for spiritual growth in our enforced retreat from the world.
- Finally, the ordinary character of our present existence, the ‘trivial round, the common task’ provides us with all we need to grow closer to God.