Safe in the shadow of the Lord

The hymn I selected from Sing Praise for 17 November was ‘Safe in the shadow of the Lord’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith. It’s based on Psalm 91, which is traditionally used at Compline (night prayer) as it speaks of trust in God at the end of the day.  The gentle tune by Norman Warren is also well suited to the end-of-the-day feel of the hymn.

The third verse is most specific about this: ‘From fears and phantoms of the night, from foes about my way, I trust in him, I trust in him, by darkness as by day’. This refrain ‘I trust in him, I trust in him’ comes not at the end of each verse but before the final line, which is then a reason (different each time) for such trust. God is ‘my fortress and my tower’, the one who ‘keeps me in his care’ and ‘hears and answers prayer’.  The last verse concludes this trust with ‘Safe in the shadow of the Lord, possessed by love divine, I trust in him, I trust in him, and meet his love with mine’.

From the deep places

Plainchant of Psalm 130

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “From the deep places, hear my cry”, a setting of Psalm 130.  The full text is available online.

Lent seems to attract psalm settings, perhaps because it’s the part of the Bible where there is the largest amount of honesty with God about our fears and failings, which is where the Lent journey starts.

There are also, it seems, more ‘evening hymns’ here, again perhaps because evening worship tends to be more reflective, including looking back at the day and seeing what we could have done better (the fashionable word for this is ‘examen’).  Psalm 130 is one of the Bible passages traditionally associated with the late evening service of Compline.  In the more literal translation it begins “Out of the depths have I cried to you, Lord”, but TDS’s version is close to that.  The second half of that first verse moves on logically to ask God not to keep account of our failings.

The second verse acknowledges God’s glory that we cannot behold without the grace that also comes from God himself.  The third asks him to draw near to me in love, and the last one reminds us that God’s love acts like a night-watchman through the night to protect us from harm.  As we have heard today that it will be at least another four months before Covid-19 restrictions on movement in England will be fully lifted, the importance of committing ourselves into God’s care is all the more important to our mental and spiritual health. This pattern of reflection, confession, absolution,  receiving God’s love, and  committing ourselves to his care through the night is matched by most forms of night prayer.

Musically, this is another ‘long metre’ hymn with several possible tunes to be found in any hymn book. The suggested one is ‘Breslau’, a 15th century German melody (the first line certainly has resonances of later Lutheran hymns). When John sang this at morning prayer, he sensibly changed the first line to “From deepest places…” to align the linguistic stress with the musical one.

Now as the evening shadows fall

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Now as the evening shadows fall”.  The words are a paraphrase by the 20th century composer Michael Forster of an ancient text, the medieval Compline hymn usually rendered in English as “Before the ending of the day”.  Compline was the last of the monastic prayer times and so the psalms, prayers and hymns that are regularly used in the service are intended to help us put ourselves right with God and relax into his presence as we go to bed.  Forster’s paraphrase is a comforting one, asking God to help us to trust his grace, and to find “in sleep’s release, bodily rest and inner peace”.

What it is missing is the edginess of the older translations where the darkness of night is seen as the domain of the evil one, from whom we need protection: the words of verse two “Help us to find in sleep’s release, bodily rest and inner peace; may the darkness of the night refresh our eyes for morning light” is a far cry from the traditional rendering “From evil dreams defend our sight, from fears and terrors of the night; tread under foot our ghostly foe, that no pollution we may know”.  The Latin originals (there is more than one version) are even starker, one of them referring to ‘phantasms’ and asking ‘ne polluantur corpora’ – let not my body be polluted.

Funfair on Blackheath, 2012

The tune is called Blackheath, which is an area of London close to where I used to live.  I have happy memories of evenings on the heath, whether sitting on the grass in summer with a pint of beer in a plastic tumbler from one of the pubs along the edge of the heath, watching fireworks, or during the 2012 London Olympics, with hundreds of other people sitting on deckchairs watching the action on a big screen.  But I’ve chosen this image of Blackheath in the evening with a funfair.  People go on funfair rides to scare themselves, or at least work up excitement  (these rides of a travelling fair aren’t as scary as those in a permanent attraction such as Alton Towers).  But the fun is perhaps more about coming off the rides at the end of the evening, celebrating having survived the scary experience (maybe with that drink from the bar) and going home happy. 

Perhaps that is what Compline is about: we bring to God our excitement, the emotional rollercoaster of the day and sometimes maybe even fear of what the night or the next day might bring, and ask him to take those from us so that we can relax into him and into sleep.  At the end of this translation are the lines “Grant us the faith that sets us free to praise you for eternity”.  Amen.