Hymns and healing
-- some reflections

Abide with Me

In February this year I organized an event called Abide with Me which was the culmination of a five-year program addressing the issue of chronic illness in inner-city URC churches in London (http://www.urbanchurches.org.uk/chronicillness.htm). The program has been based around running workshops in churches using a booklet called Be Not Afraid -- this is something we created for ourselves and retells Bible stories of struggle, disappointment and trauma. People are invited to choose the stories which resonate with them as a way into telling their own stories of chronic illness. But this process grew out of a workshop we ran that used the hymn Abide with Me as a way to encourage people into telling their illness stories, this proved very effective and the old Victorian hymns have continued to be part of the resources we have used. We ran another event called Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go and used the hymn of the same name within it. These hymns particularly resonate within our constituency which has mainly been first and second generation Caribbean women, but I think there is also a theology in them which is about living with suffering, rather than expecting God to provide solutions that has been important in the underlying philosophy of the program.

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.

The hymn was written when Henry Francis Lyte was dying and it becomes particularly powerful when sung in the context of this biography. I find something in these hymns from another era which speaks to my own experience of debilitating chronic illness in a way which modern hymnody doesn't seem to do. Why is this? I have never favoured traditional hymns over modern hymns but when it comes to the deep trauma of my illness I find myself turning to them. Partly I think this is to do with the way modern medical technology has invaded our culture and consciousness with its conviction that all illness can and should be cured. We have grown deeply suspicious of a culture of acceptance of suffering but it is my conviction and experience that this is a crucial part of coming to terms with chronic illness -- and also finding a way towards healing. I believe this is an attitude also found in Ivan Illich's work with his analysis of the iatrogenic tendencies of modern medicine and emphasis upon coping.

The experience of Illness

This leads me into meandering somewhat off the immediate focus of this essay. There is a book by a philosopher called Havi Carel called Illness who suffers herself from a debilitating lung condition. Her book is an attempt to focus on the phenomenology of illness rather than its cure and very much echoes my own discoveries as I have lived with my own chronic illness and talked with people who have chronic illnesses. What we need is to explore the experience of being ill rather than always searching for a cure. Too often the search for a cure becomes oppressive and simply increases suffering. So too can the use of the word healing, although it is a better term, because it implies something more holistic and does not become so medicalized. I have found in my work that I must never ignore the need and longing for healing, but the quest for healing needs to allow illness stories to be told as they really are rather than censoring or curtailing them. A key influence on me has been Arthur Frank's book The Wounded Storyteller.

Rediscovering hymnody and the Psalms

For many years I didn't sing many hymns. I was part of an alternative worship congregation which didn't really sing traditional hymns and my illness made using my voice painful, so singing became problematic. My wife was then made curate of a liberal but fairly traditional Anglo Catholic church and I found myself experiencing a sung liturgy and traditional hymns. This turned out to be a significantly healing experience. I enjoyed the sung liturgy and found myself in my own private devotions singing the Psalms. I developed my own freeform melody for doing this and it has become an essential part of my spirituality, I think it has also been crucial in bringing healing to my voice and I now have much more freedom in singing. I also enjoyed rediscovering traditional hymnody particularly Anglo-Catholic hymns with which I was not familiar and found myself particularly enjoying the Lenten hymns with verses such as

Let us thine endurance share,
And a while from joys abstain,
With thee watching unto prayer,
Strong with thee to suffer pain  

There is, I suppose, a danger of this kind of theology becoming masochistic and I think previously I would've shied away from it, but within my own condition and experience I actually have found it deeply liberating. Yes it is about endurance, it is about learning to live with pain. This doesn't mean issues of justice and healing can be sidestepped but the primary experience of chronic illness is 'how do I get through today?' The medical establishment and, too often, the church gives us little help with dealing with this question.

Poetry and illness

I'm a poet rather than a songwriter but two of my poems about illness have been turned into songs and recorded by a friend of mine called Peter Napthine. The first is a kind of tragic gothic reflection on illness


Greetings to you sickness!
All Hail to you ill-health!
Great shadow;
Vampire of our fears.
I feel the touch of you upon my trembling body.
I remember,
I know the ecstasy of your kiss;
Dread lover you know no mercy
But possess us entirely.
Mother to the suffering world,
Father of despair.
War is your friend
And famine your brother,
Does your lust know no end?
Are you never sated?
Is this earth ever to be the bedchamber of your embrace?
I have known you in the days of my youth,
While I was still young, you came to me.
As I grew to the flower of my manhood,
Striding the world with strength, you lured me ...
And yet without you was I not a virgin -
Innocent of all we are, so steeped and soaked in sin?

The second is more explicitly theological and was set to a tender, lilting tune by Pete and the words were slightly adapted

My Original Face

Draw me Father to dance with you
in the Paradise of your world;
Where memories are new and shamings few
and the Kingdom is now unfurled.
Turn my limbs,
Weave my steps,
in simplicity,
in grace,
in the holy dance
Wherein we see your face.
    My feet are tired:
    Twisted and turned
    By the load on the road.
    My skin is thin,
    Raw and Thin,
    Frail in the din of life.
    And my hands now ache
    For they've tried to recreate
    The beauty of the Lord.
Let me dance for you a while
In the radiance of your smile;
Let me wheel and prance.
Let me skim and dance
In the silence of your sky.
Let me cavort for you a wilding Hymn
In the days before I die.

I continue to write poetry about my experience of illness, seeking to explore the full range of emotions that it evokes and the theological perplexities which it brings. But I find the old theological chestnuts such as why does God allow suffering rather irrelevant, they are just too abstract from my daily experience to be the stuff of poetry or song

And if you cannot walk
what then is the meaning
of pilgrimage
and journey
and the great dance of life?
And if you cannot speak
what then is the meaning
of dialogue
and conversation
and the singing of the holy joy?
And if there is only pain
what then is the meaning
of salvation
and liberation
and the weight of a man's life?

Hidden beneath these questions there is a weight of anger and violence. Can our hymns give voice to this anger? It is certainly present in the Psalms and is one reason why I find them so constantly nourishing. Does the adding of a tune to our words of lament make them too sweet and melodic to truly speak of the pain? Maybe this is not what congregations want, and such voicing is more appropriate to the personal space. How many people have written hymns based on Job? Our hymns often do hope and thankfulness, the old Victorian hymnody can do acceptance and resignation but can they do anger and anguish? Do we want them to? I have come to believe that voicing anger and anguish is part of the healing process, although a dangerous and uncertain part of that process. I think, perhaps, what hymns need to do more than anything else is to recognize the story and emotions of illness in this way they can ease us gently towards healing


I crawl into the solitude
Limp broken into the day
Craving that holy food
Which might stir a spiritual ray
My humanity burdens me
Hangs like a lumpen sack
But I will begin defiantly
There is no limply turning back
I hunger for the Spirit
Its illuminating light
Which presses at the limit
And makes the dark morning bright

But what use can our words ever really do? Can our music ever make heaven? Perhaps we are confined to silence; and yet we still speak, make music and, if we are able, dance our little dance of life.


My body skirls against the day
Rejects all wakefulness:
The morning and its newborn innocence
It delves an ancient dictionary
To dredge a word
That might drench pain
With meaning.
I use words this way
To fight against the peculiar pain:
Not overwhelming
But relentless and insubstantial
Fluttering in every part.
I seek words
That might pin it
Mount it, in a celebration of faith
But it shrieks and scowls
It's different way
Resenting all words
Archaic, fresh and cliched all alike.