Amid this ongoing season of plague and protest, my friend Kelly sent me two devastating texts: one of our friends had lost her brother-in-law in a car accident, while her sister (who had been recovering from a severe stroke) died just a few days later.
Between those messages, my parish’s music director sent a third, advising that a choir member had passed away.
Shortly after that, another friend received a layoff notice. Still another advised that her nephew, mired in heroin addiction for two decades, had relapsed after six precious months of sobriety.
And earlier in the week, as I sat drinking coffee and pattering at my laptop, the room began to spin from one of the strange dizzy spells I’d been having lately.
Even when I’d regained my equilibrium, I still felt uneasy. Actually, the world itself seemed off kilter, and I couldn’t find a foothold. Bright as the sun was outside my kitchen window, the sky in my soul felt clouded, looming over a sea in which there was, as the psalmist wrote, “no foothold” (Psalm 69:3).
To buoy my sinking spirits, I tried to distract myself one evening by tapping out a few tunes on my old spinet piano. As I sifted through sheet music, I came across a hymn I hadn’t sung in quite some time: “Lead, Kindly Light,” the text of which was originally a poem by a young Anglican priest who would later convert to Catholicism and, in 2019, be canonized as St. John Henry Newman.
Based on the biblical pillar of cloud by which the Lord guided the Israelites through the desert (Ex 13:21-22), Newman’s poem is a prayer for guidance in a time of distress and bewilderment:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
The hymn became the 19th-century version of “On Eagle’s Wings,” and Newman — worried that sentimental Victorians would overdo the piece — discouraged its use at funerals. But the lyrics have long struck a chord with listeners all over the globe, including Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, who was profoundly influenced by what he saw as the text’s plea for God to lead one “from untruth to truth.”
Far from fanciful, Newman’s words were born of real suffering. In 1833, then-Anglican cleric Newman was wrapping up a rather disastrous Italian vacation. During a three-week wait for a boat home, he battled physical illness and homesickness that drove him to tears. Once his return voyage finally got underway, the ship was stranded for a week in the Strait of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia.
And it was then, while stuck, sick and uncertain, that Newman perfected his prayer — not asking for anything more than to find and to follow the Lord in the present moment, trusting that the home he sought was not across an ocean, but in the heart of the One he implored.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence the waters that thwarted Newman’s vessel and inspired his popular prayer ultimately took their name from the Latin words for “good fate.” From ancient Israel to 19th-century Europe to a postmodern world in crisis, one step at a time behind an unfailing Light is the surest path to heaven, if we will but follow.
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