Whatever our creed, and wherever we are, in whatever circumstances, there are always times during which we need to be comforted and guided.
One blink and I am there, decades away and in another world: the hot Wimmera day gasps to a close, moving into evening as twilight begins to fall. Dad is out watering the garden, but all the front windows are open on to the veranda, so he can hear the piano and his wife and two daughters singing.
He often hums along to our repertoire, which is a mixture of Anglo-Celtic songs such as ‘On the Banks of Allan Water’, and Australian numbers like ‘The Road to Gundagai’. And then there are the hymns. We have our favourites: ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, ‘To Be A Pilgrim’, and ‘Lead, Kindly Light’.
This last has recently been brought to my attention again, and I realised I knew nothing about the writing of it, and certainly wouldn’t have known, as a Protestant child, who the author of the hymn was, that it had been written by the recently canonised St John Henry Newman.
Nor would I have known that the hymn takes its inspiration from the biblical Old Testament book of Exodus 13, verses 21 and 22: the Israelites have left Egypt, and are wandering in the wilderness, but away from the darkness of exile in Egypt to the dawn and promise of a new, free life. God guides them all the way: a pillar of cloud leads them by day, and a pillar of fire lights their path at night.
The hymn was written in 1833, when Newman appears to have been in great need of inspiration and distraction. He had toured Italy with his Anglican priest friend Hurrell Froude, who suffered from tuberculosis, and was travelling in the Mediterranean for the sake of his health.
Froude and his father returned home, but Newman stayed on in Sicily, and in the event he was the one who became dangerously ill in Palermo, probably with typhoid fever. This was the third time he had fallen gravely ill, with his life in danger, and each time he attributed his recovery to his belief that God still had work for him to do.
But pity the traveller in 19th century Europe. I think it is still a trial to fall ill in a foreign land, for it is then that one most longs for home. So once even partially recovered, Newman was desperate to return to England, in order to keep on doing God’s work.
To his great frustration, however, he was stranded in Palermo for three weeks, as no westward-bound boats were available.
He finally obtained a passage on an orange boat that was destined for Marseilles. But more delay ensued, for the vessel was becalmed for a week in the Strait of Bonifacio, between the islands of Sardinia and Corsica.
It was there, with even more time on his hands, that Newman wrote a poem called ‘The Pillar and the Cloud’, which became the very popular hymn.
It has nearly always been popular, apparently, and is the school hymn for several prominent establishments in Britain.
As well, it has often been of great comfort to people in trouble, as when in 1909 a great disaster befell Durham coal miners: two underground explosions occurred at the West Stanley Colliery, killing 168 men and boys. But somehow 34 other men found a pocket of clean air and waited for rescue in almost total darkness.
They eventually began to sing ‘Lead, Kindly Light’: the lines ‘the night is dark and I am far from home’ must have seemed particularly apt. Rescue came to most of them after 14 hours.
The hymn was also sung by the people in one of the lifeboats launched after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and by troops in France before an assault in February 1915.
As well, I have learned the hymn was a particular favourite of Mahatma Gandhi. The friend who refreshed my memory also pointed out that the hymn is not specifically Christian, and can have meaning for Muslims, Jews, and those who have other beliefs.
I can see the truth of this. Whatever our creed, and wherever we are, in whatever circumstances, there are always times during which we need to be comforted and guided, led on by a kindly light.
Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.