I cannot look on Thee, to Love I said

*** The music of this hymn was composed during a Lee Abbey Mission in Holy Epiphany Bournemouth. The intensely devotional words came thirty years later.

COMMENTARY

“Love bade me welcome” wrote George Herbert in his poem ‘Love’, “yet my soul drew back…”

Following the tradition of the Gospel and Letters of John, Herbert names God in Christ as ‘Love’. At the same time, he echoes the reaction of the people of Israel when God spoke to give them the Ten Words (more commonly known as the Ten Commandments):

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid, and trembled and stood at a distance…

 This hymn is formed from reflecting on these two influences: the story of God speaking to the people directly (not through an intermediary, although the people pleaded with Moses that he rather than the Most High should speak to them), and the poem ‘Love’. In particular, the quotation in the first line of the hymn is taken from the poem, and the ‘I’ who sings the hymn would doubtless be recognisable to Herbert as the ‘I’ – “unkind, ungrateful” – who responds to Love in the poem.

The first three stanzas of the hymn meditate on the story of the giving of the Commandments. They are addressed to no particular audience, and anyone who is willing to receive God’s Words may acknowledge their Giver as the hymn does: ‘You are our God, unequalled sovereign Lord; by You all thrive; Your Name shall be adored.’ Yet such acknowledgement is not cost-free: polytheistic and idolatrous worship are both precluded by the commandment to have no other gods before me. Anyone is welcome (it can be argued that everyone is summoned) to become a member of God’s covenant community, but choosing to do so is not a lifestyle choice: it is to submit to sovereign authority and commit to order one’s life in accordance with the provision of the Commandments.

Verse three highlights the view that those who think of the Commandments merely as a series of prohibitions miss the point: the Commandments are given for the right ordering of relations with the Most High and with our fellow creatures.

Only the last verse is explicitly Christian, drawing on Paul’s passionate writing in the third chapter of the Letter to the Philippians. I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…;   this from a man who asserted that if anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more…

The first line of this last verse may be sung by anyone anywhere in the world. It is nonetheless targeted at the many who benefit from political and economic policies that exploit poor people everywhere. We are invited to consider that “Christ’s bread” – the ‘bread that we need for today’, as one paraphraser[1] rendered ‘our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer – is sufficient to meet all our needs. Quietly the hymn thus offers a critique of consumerism, and commends the way that seeks to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings… Like Paul, who hopes somehow (to) attain the resurrection from the dead, the hymn-singer prays to be enabled ‘with every living soul, to rise with Christ, and see Your Love made whole.’

The music was composed in 1973 as a setting to the hymn ‘Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round’. It was to be sung as part of a dramatic presentation during a mission at the parish of Holy Epiphany in Bournemouth. At that time the parish priest and his wife were David and Jean Warner; hence the music’s name.

The hymn would be best sung meditatively. Where resources are available, it would go well unaccompanied. Perhaps only a few congregations would welcome the chance to sing this hymn, but, if it were to be performed for them, it would be good that they be supplied with the words.

[1] Jim Cotter Prayer at Night Cairns Publications 1983

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