A few months ago, my son and housemate Nick responded to a request from the editor of our church's Parish magazine to write a piece about his favourite hymn.
To mark Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, I asked him if I could publish his piece as a guest post on my blog. With the country still giddy with excitement about the Royal Wedding, not least about the showstopping address by American Pastor Bishop Michael Curry on the power of love, it seems as good a moment as any to publish what I find to be a very powerful statement about Nick's brand of understated yet very real Christianity; it gives me great pleasure to know that it owes much to his father and late grandfather. I hope that those who feel that Christian faith is all about narrow-minded, dogmatic adherence to a set of beliefs irrelevant to the modern world will read this and see that maybe the timeless values expressed by Jesus of Nazareth are as valuable today as at any time in the past:-
When I was asked that I write about my favourite hymn for the magazine this month, I assumed my task was a simple one. But it has only dawned on me, in writing this, that I’ve never actually considered what my favourite hymn is. Now, having considered it for some time, I still don’t know. The choice, it turns out, is too hard.
What follows, then, is my thoughts on one of my favourites, amongst many. I’ve chosen to write about “Come Down, O Love Divine”.
Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardour glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.
O let it freely burn, ‘til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.
For me, “Come Down, O Love Divine” represents our faith at its most fundamental. It is a meditation on a simple, powerful concept: God is Love. The words – written by Bianco Da Siena in the 15th century, and translated by Richard Littledale in the 19th Century – explore what “God is Love” could mean for us in our lives.
Despite the hymn’s ancient provenance, the tone of the thoughts expressed feel very modern to me. There is no talk of sacred truths, nothing boastful, no sense of anything absolute or definitive. Instead there is something cautious in the “yearning”, “lowliness” and “seeking” described. It is a Christianity I understand.
What I perhaps like most about the hymn’s words, though, is the manifesto for living that the verses deliver. In four beautifully-crafted verses, we are gently invited to imagine a life that is led by love. Verse two, for example, explains exactly why Christian living is desperately needed in the modern age. In a world addicted to “stuff”, where we consume natural resources with impunity, where our short-term thinking is quite literally putting our planet’s survival in doubt, the call for earthly passions to “turn to dust” rings true. In verse three, the “lowliness of heart” described could be seen as an important antidote to any one of our numerous failings as a species, from our contempt for the natural world, to our obsession with the “self” over the collective, to the empty grandstanding that characterises all levels of our politics.
As I understand the final verse, it presents a daring speculation, a hope, as to the world that could exist if people were to follow this way of love, and “become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling”. It speaks, to me, of the prospect that we might one day come to see ourselves as one planet, and properly work together to create meaningful lives for everyone on it. That would, for me, be the true meaning of “Love divine”.
Let me write a final word or two on the music. I said at the beginning that my choice of hymn was a tough one. What swayed me was that this hymn’s music was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, my favourite composer. All of his work is infused with a traditional English folk influence, which means that – despite his music being relatively new (by the standards of sacred music) – it has a timeless quality. I can think of no better accompaniment to a timeless message.
Powerful stuff from a gifted writer if I may say so. And he's not a writer by trade. He's a Physics teacher. And just in case you have never listened to this hymn beautifully performed, here it is: