“ENDLESS noon-day, glorious noon-day From the Sun of suns is there.” Thomas à Kempis was a German monk who came from a poor village family near Cologne, and belonged to an order called the Brethren of the Common Life.
His life was dedicated to imitating Christ. He lived to be over 90, and wrote some beautiful poems, including “Light’s abode, celestial Salem”. He is describing a place where light lives. Jesus once called himself “the light of the world”.
There is a famous Victorian painting by Holman Hunt, The Light of the World. The original hangs in Keble College, Oxford, and a later version in St Paul’s Cathedral; but when some of us were young, copies of it hung everywhere; for it was enormously popular. One hung in my bedroom, but I didn’t like it much; the figure was so tall, so strange. It wore a shining robe, carried a shining lantern, and wore two crowns: one of shining gold, and one of thorns. I later discovered that it was painted in a London garden, and that the river that flows in the background is the Thames.
“Lead, kindly Light” was written years before Holman Hunt painted this picture. John Newman was far from home at this time, geographically and spiritually. Have you ever heard of the world going dark because some friend has gone away? You see them off and on, then you return to the house, and all the light which you both helped to create has drained away.
It is not only bereavement that causes this darkening of the scene: it can be the close of a holiday. You feel drained, and pull yourself together, give yourself a drink, and might switch on a favourite programme. The light is almost gone altogether, or dipped.
We had oil lamps when we were children, and one of Mother’s sayings was that she couldn’t bear what she called a dirty light. The lamp, a swan glass chimney, had to be polished and kept bright and the wick properly trimmed so that it didn’t flame or go into points. When you carried the lamp from room to room, you turned the wick low so that the draught didn’t make the flame blacken the chimney; so the light travelled from room to room, illuminating them and then leaving them black.
Why did Newman write “Lead, kindly Light”? For one reason, he was cast down, as the little holiday party he was with in the Mediterranean was broken up and he was left on his own. He had known that this would happen, because it was all planned, and at a certain point his young friends would go on, and he, the young Anglican clergyman, would make his way back to Oxford.
But no sooner had they left than all kinds of miserable things began to happen. He felt ill; he couldn’t get a passage on a boat; and a journey that would take us four hours took him several weeks. He wrote on the way “The night is dark, and I am far from home.” The night was dark because he and some other Oxford priests were in doubt whether they were on the right path. Soon after this, they would go into retreat, and he would go to Rome to find what he believed was the source of Christian illumination. He became a Roman Catholic in his searches, and shook off the Church of England. He took its beautiful liturgy into Roman Catholicism, and a marvellous poem, The Dream of Gerontius, about being old, emerged from this remarkable poet.
I think of him in these February days of drifting light, greyness and sudden streaks of sunshine, and the mists and the quietness of the Stour Valley.