Disruptive Spirit, do not speak

*** This hymn reflects on the call of Abram, and on St Paul’s comment on that call.



Essentially a Lenten hymn, singing it may give the worshiper a sense of struggling for faith. It acknowledges that faith is not an easy option for people who don’t like their presumptions to be challenged. It says that faith may entail being willing to be disturbed, to be pitched into deprivation and uncertainty.

It is an argumentative hymn, in two senses. First, it considers the content of Genesis 12.1-4 and Romans 4.1-5, 13-17 together, and tries to make sense of them. But second, not liking what it finds in these texts, the hymn takes issue with God who is the protagonist in both of them. The presumed singers of the hymn detect that to take the texts seriously could lead them into situations they wouldn’t ordinarily choose to be in. In the hymn they are offered a voice with which both to resist the promptings of God’s Spirit, and to complain.

Each stanza addresses God as “Disruptive Spirit”. If that seems impertinent, impious, it nonetheless fits with a way of praying that is familiar through one of the best-loved of Christian hymns:

‘O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing…

‘O let it freely burn till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming…’

When we bask in the broad and expansive lines of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music to that hymn, we may properly ask whether we are considering the implications of having our ‘earthly passions’ turned to ‘dust and ashes’, and to what extent, or in what sense we mean these words. The difference between “Come down, O Love divine” and “Disruptive Spirit” is that, whereas in the one case worshippers volunteer to have their passions immolated by spiritual fire, worshippers in the other as good as ask to be left alone.

The structure of this hymn, seen in each verse, involves on the one hand a look back at the story of Abraham and at what the apostle Paul said about him and, on the other, a response from today. Specifically, each verse is structured thus:

TODAY Disruptive Spirit, do not…

THEN  The story of Abraham’s obedience to the Spirit

TODAY For some of us at least, our faith does not match the faith of Abraham.

So this hymn is, essentially, an act of confession, an admission of reluctance to travel the way of the cross. It’s particularly evident in verse two, where, I suggest, in order to ‘save the faith we’ve got’, we would ‘make a slum of faith’; that is: since caring for the gifts faith has already bestowed on us uses up most or all of our present energy, there’s no point in embarking on new adventures of faith; and to do so might even be destructive.

And yet, we do not mean to say an outright No to God. Our faith may be feeble, wraith-like; we may be spiritually rebellious people; we may behave meanly and fearfully: yet we keenly identify with the desperate man who cried out to Jesus, I believe; help my unbelief; or, in another translation: I have faith, help me where faith falls short (Mark 9.24). Thus, after a febrile and perhaps embarrassing (I have allowed myself some quirky and smirk-worthy expressions) struggle against the Spirit, worshipers submit, acknowledging that we need no more in life than to go resolutely on our way in company with the Spirit of Jesus.

The music, written on St Matthias’ Day 2001, is cast in a mould that to western ears may sound bare and thin. It is intended to evoke near emptiness, a sense of being exposed to one knows not what. Only one line of music accompanies the unison melody. Musicians are encouraged to not fill in other harmonizing parts, for the effect would be to domesticate and even silence the “disruptive Spirit” who is the chief communicator throughout this hymn.