Lord Jesus, think on me: Michael Garland

Synesius of Cyrene c365-414
tr. Allen William Chatfield 1808-1896
Public Domain

Michael Garland
Michael Garland

It is twenty years since Common Worship was introduced by the Church of England to stand alongside The Book of Common Prayer, forming an official liturgical resource for churches and congregations wishing to use services in contemporary language. Five years after its launch came a volume of Daily Prayer which makes provision for morning and evening services in Ordinary Time as well as during the great seasons of the Christian year. One of the features of Evening Prayer in seasonal time is the inclusion of a hymn which may be said or sung before the reading of scripture. Here are the words of the hymn appointed for the season of Lent, which I have chosen for this reflection today:

Lord Jesus, think on me,
and purge away my sin;
from earthborn passions set me free,
and make me pure within.

Lord Jesus, think on me
with care and woe opprest:
let me thy loving servant be,
and taste thy promised rest

Lord Jesus, think on me,
amid the battle’s strife;
in all my pain and misery
be thou my health and life.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
nor let me go astray;
through darkness and perplexity.
point thou the heavenly way.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
when flows the tempest high:
when on doth rush the enemy
O Saviour, be thou nigh.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that when the flood is past,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share thy joy at last.

Μνώέο Χριστέ
Synesius of Cyrene c365-414
tr. Allen William Chatfield 1808-1896

I always find it a moving experience to voice this deeply personal hymn, as it prayerfully acknowledges our human frailty and our need of forgiveness. Notice how, in each verse, the opening line is the same, ‘Lord Jesus, think on me’ (or ‘remember me’). We might bring to mind the words of the penitent thief to Jesus, recorded in Luke’s gospel, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’, a text carried by a Taizé chant which is often used in worship today. The hymn is particularly suitable for the season of Lent. The time of testing in the desert place which Jesus faced is well mirrored in these verses. For all of us, caught up amid a pandemic, the pleas for healing and guidance are full of meaning. Lockdown came when we were half way through Lent and, for many people in these challenging times, security and spiritual comfort has been found by returning to scripture, or tuning in to streamed services, or perhaps, by reading and praying through well-known hymns. Well might we say that we have been oppressed with cares and woes, facing a battle against an invisible enemy, and seeking the assurance of the heavenly way through darkness and perplexity. It was a stroke of genius on the part of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) to have included ‘Lord Jesus, think on me’ at the beginning of his 1958 work Noye’s Fludde, where its message of hope shines beyond the tragedy of destruction:

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that, when the flood is past,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share thy joy at last.

Britten uses William Damon’s simple tune SOUTHWELL to good effect. ST PAUL’S by Sir John Stainer is the other Short Metre tune most often associated with the hymn. At Evening Prayer in Lent, I often alternated their use.

The story behind this hymn is an interesting one and takes us back in time to the beginning of the fifth century. Its author was Synesius of Cyrene, a contemporary of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Synesius was a man of many parts: soldier, athlete, statesman, poet, and philosopher of the neo-Platonic school. It was with some reluctance that he accepted the nomination as Bishop of Ptolemais, because of the unorthodox views which he held in his pre-Christian years. In the last of his ten odes he admitted that he had given his creative spirit more liberty, and here he describes himself bowing, humbly, in the presence of Christ. The hymn that we sing today is a free paraphrase of that final ode, crafted by the Anglican priest and scholar, Allen William Chatfield (1808-1896). Chatfield was Vicar of Much Marcle in Herefordshire for very nearly fifty years. Whilst he was Vicar here, he published Songs and Hymns of Earliest Greek Christian Poets (1876) in which ‘Lord Jesus, think on me’ appears.

The work of translation is a very great art, and one for which we have cause to be grateful, as so many of our best-known hymns have come to us this way. In the 1930s, the Revd Harold Costley-White, Headmaster of Westminster School and subsequently Dean of Gloucester,  left us with the following literal prose translation of the ode by Synesius. In times of darkness and uncertainty, it can become our heartfelt prayer.

Be mindful, Christ Son of God
who rules on high, of thy servant,
sinful of heart, who wrote these words.
And grant to me release from passions breeding death,
which are inborn in my unclean soul.
But give me to behold, Saviour Jesus,
thy divine brightness, wherein appearing
            I shall sing a song,
            to the healer of souls,
            to the healer of limbs,
            with the great Father
            and the Holy Spirit.

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