Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed
His tender last farewell,
A Guide, a Comforter bequeathed
With us to dwell.
He came in semblance of a dove,
With sheltering wings outspread,
The holy balm of peace and love
On earth to shed.
He came in tongues of living flame
To teach, convince, subdue,
All powerful as the wind He came
As viewless too.
He came sweet influence to impart,
A gracious, willing Guest,
While He can find one humble heart
Wherein to rest.
And His that gentle voice we hear,
Soft as the breath of even,
That checks each thought, that calms each fear,
And speaks of heaven.
And every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness,
Are His alone.
Spirit of purity and grace,
Our weakness, pitying, see:
O make our hearts Thy dwelling place,
And worthier Thee.
Sometimes a hymn doesn't have to be a great hymn, or brilliant poetry, to do what a really good hymn does - which is enable praise, inspire devotion, become a conduit of prayer, remind and recall the heart to its centre in God. The first time I sang this I was a recently converted teenager who up till then loved and lived in the music of the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beach Boys, The Hollies, and had been immersed in the dynamic diversity of 60's music, with its daring innuendo, unabashed celebration of sexuality as integral to love, and which moved to the persistent beat and rhythm of a culture in process of irreversible metamorphosis.
I've never forgotten the culture shock in those first weeks of going to a wee Lanarkshire Baptist Church, and of an organ playing slowly, a congregation singing fervently, and the discovery of a strange new world of music that did things to your head and heart that took you to quite different places of human experience. This is a sentimental hymn, the metaphors are soft and comforting, and in my experience nearer to Herman's Hermits than to Mick Jagger complaining in public with unambiguous body language that he couldn't "get no satisfaction".
This hymn was written by a woman who preferred seclusion and quietness to society and activity.This particular Guide and Comforter, of whom she writes, seems to go in for non-assertiveness, and gentle persuasion rather like a Quaker engaged in earnest well-meaning conversation with a pumped up tattooed biker about his language and drinking habits. The hymn is laced with the language of human sympathy - tender, sweet influence, gracious willing guest, sheltering, holy balm, gentle, soft, calm, weakness pitying. If you're not careful this could taste like condensed milk spooned straight from the tin. And where it could possibly resonate with 21st Century cultural idioms and musical lyrics, or how our far more unrestrained emotional and psychological patterns of communication could cope with this alien restraint and tentativeness, I don't know.
And yet. Every now and then I go back to this hymn. One of the reasons is the recurring Johannine echoes. The tender last farewell refers to John 14-17, and the scared desolation of disciples who had no idea how to cope with an announcement of death. The word "bequeath" is the last loving gesture of Jesus to friends he whose hearts he was about to break. The rest of the hymn is an exposition of that word "Comforter", in an older version, "Paraclete", the one who comes alongside to strengthen and suppport and help. In our language, the One who will be there for us. It's a hymn you have to be in the mood for, and maybe that mood comes seldom, and maybe the opportunity to sing it with a congregation is now a memory, and should stay that way, for it isn't used much now. Is it? But now and again when I come across this, I read it, and recognise underneath all the layers of my critical qualifications, a hymn that when allowed to speak on its own terms, bears witness to something important about God the Holy Spirit.