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Haddon Willmer tells how one particular hymn brings back one particular memory

1 March 2020

We sang this hymn this morning at our early service and it brought back certain memories. It did not so much bring back memories, nostalgically, but rather gave me another chance to be thankful that I was early rooted in the good news of God and remain so, despite all the powers of darkness. 

When morning gilds the skies,
My heart awaking cries:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Alike at work and prayer
To Jesus I repair:   May Jesus Christ be praised!

To Thee, my God above,
I cry with glowing love,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The fairest graces spring
In hearts that ever sing,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

When evil thoughts molest,
With this I shield my breast,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The powers of darkness fear,
When this sweet chant they hear,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

When sleep her balm denies,
My silent spirit sighs,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The night becomes as day,
When from the heart we say,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

Be this, while life is mine,
My canticle divine,
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this th’ eternal song
Through all the ages long,   May Jesus Christ be praised!

This hymn I heard first at primary school, East Howe in Bournemouth, when I was 10 and in Miss Dibden’s class. We had no religious education that I remember, although this was in 1947-8, after the 1944 Education Act had mandated non-denominational religious instruction in state schools. Miss Dibden was a spinster in her fifties probably, maybe left single because so many men had been killed in WWI, a good Anglican, not at all religiously soppy, and a very effective teacher of a class of about 50. She had us singing – British folk songs, John Peel and Trelawny and Over the seas to Skye, with no historical explanations offered, and we also sang this hymn quite often, so I got to know it by heart.   I was exhilarated by its repeated outburst, ‘May Jesus Christ be praised!’ And I was instructed and formed by its prodding me to awareness of the phalanx of human evils and sufferings, the powers of darkness coming close, and its confident determined opposition to them, by praising Jesus Christ. And the last verse invites the singer to life-long commitment, ‘my canticle divine’ joining with the song of ‘all the ages long’.

I am grateful to her for giving me this hymn, and also the prayer, which she had us stand for at the end of each day, as she said, without comment:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord

And by thy great mercy, deliver us from all the perils and dangers of this night,

For the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

I don’t think it meant much to me then, though it was a dignified and orderly way to ending.   But, when later, I went to Anglican services more often, especially in Emmanuel College Chapel, it did not come to me as something unknown, and over the years, it has come to mean more and more to me. How much it means depends on how one interprets it, of course. I do not think cornily about bogeys and things that go bump in the night, but about all the serious troubles which beset human beings in our lives.

Both the hymn and the prayer have an unfussy, succinct but profound realism about the world and God in Christ.


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