One of the great and stately hymns of the Protestant musical heritage is “Abide With Me.” I love to play it at the organ, its rich chordal progression, and counterpoint in the pedal, create a very moving experience. The words too are a minor masterpiece that are a prayer of one approaching death with faith.
The author, Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) was an Anglican pastor in Devonshire England, for 23 years. In 1844, Three years before his death Lyte was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Despite this, he continued to work hard and was known to say, “It is better to wear out, than to rust out.” But his physical condition continued to deteriorate, until finally on September 4, 1847, at 54 years of age, he stood in his pulpit to deliver his farewell message. It is said, He was so weak that he almost crawled to the pulpit.
Later that day he retired to his room and wrote the words to this hymn: Abide With Me, as he meditated on the death he knew would soon approach. Advised by doctors to leave the cold, damp, coastal weather of England, he left for the Mediterranean. He died en route. A fellow clergyman who was with Henry during his final hours reported that Henry’s last words were: “Peace! Joy!”
Abide With Me was set to music by William H. Monk (1823-1889), and was played at Henry Lyte’s funeral service.
I have, when the situation was right, shared this him with the dying. Not all have fully accepted that they are dying, but for those who have reached the stage of acceptance, and when death seems certain, this hymn is very powerful, personal and poignant. It is a deeply personal prayer to the Lord to shepherd me through the valley of death and across chilly Jordan into the Promised Land of Heaven. As Catholics we can also see how it points to Jesus’ abiding presence in the sacraments and the liturgies celebrated for the dying.
The hymn opens with the approach of death described as the deepening darkness of eventide. At some point nothing, and no one in this secular world can help any longer. Only the Lord can help shepherd us through the valley of the shadow of death. And so the plea goes up: Abide with me.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The second verse poetically describes life as a “little day.” For in the end, how brief and how swift this life passes. And as it passes, all earth’s glories and joys seem so little. I have seen the dying with that look in their eye as they look through and beyond me. They see something and someone greater now.
As my Father lay dying and could barely talk in his final days he said, “I just want to be with God.” It was his way of saying, “Abide Lord with me!”
The third verse too begs of the Lord, not a mere passing word, but an abiding, a lasting presence, filled with patience, familial love and a mercy that stoops to raise us up to joys unending
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance, I beg a passing word;
But as Thou dwell with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
The fourth and fifth verses amount to a plea for mercy based on God’s constant mercy of the past. It is not unlike the mercy verses of the Dies Irae which say: Think, kind Jesus my salvation, caused thy wondrous incarnation, Leave me not to reprobation! Faint and weary Thou hast sought me, On the cross of suffering bought me; Shall such grace be vainly brought me? Through the sinful Mary shriven and the dying thief forgiven, thou to me a hope has given! But here Lyte makes the basis even more personal as he appeals to the Lord mercy for him in the past.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
The sixth verse calls to mind that at death’s approach some temptations increase. Perhaps it is despair, perhaps it is anger at God, perhaps we suffer unwillingly or with resentment, perhaps there is the tendency to be impatient with those who seek to help or console.
Here are some of the reasons we anoint the sick and dying. Surely we pray for healing, but we also seek, by the Lord’s mercy to stave off the effects of illness that can draw us into temptation.
We also pray that one will courageously face death and, by facing it, see in it no sting, but only victory in the Lord.
It is the abiding presence of Lord that is communicated to the soul in the anointing: Through this holy anointing, may the Lord, in his love and mercy, heal you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Yes, for the dying: may the Lord abide with you in these last and difficult moments.
Holy Communion too, for those physically able to receive it also brings the Lord’s abiding presence. And so the hymn beautifully says:
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Yes, here is the cross. But it is the tree of victory, for it is the key that unlocks heaven. And soon it’s “Friday” gives way, after the passage through judgement and purgatory, to an eternal Sunday for those who die with faith. Only the cross of Jesus can perfect us and bring forth the endless day of glory where we will abide for ever with God.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Pray for and with the dying.