Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.
After the sun, the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.
All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.
I wonder if, like me you used to enjoy singing this hymn at school? At the time, its appeal for me lay in Martin Shaw’s imaginative musical setting, but what strikes me now from an adult perspective is that Lizette Reese’s text contains no “God” words. Some editors, clearly unhappy about this, have (perhaps surprisingly) changed the last line “nearer the sky” to “nearer to God on high”.
It set me thinking about other examples of religious texts that avoid addressing the “person” of God directly, such as George Herbert’s The Call
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.
No doubt the capital letters indicate the special meaning attached to these words for believers, reminding them of Jesus’ saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
William Blake’s “The Divine Image” also sung as a hymn is another example with very few overtly religious words.
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
One striking common factor is that all these hymns use simple, uncomplicated language – “killeth” is the only word in Herbert’s poem that has more than one syllable – but their thought is profound. Clearly it is possible for religious believers to speak about their faith without using theological language and this ought to be no surprise to us since Jesus taught in parables, through common everyday tales. The irresistible conclusion we might draw is that if Christians are able to describe their experience of God in this way, then the difference between believers and unbelievers is not as great as we think.
If it is possible to speak of God without specialised language, then this narrows the gulf between the secular and the profane. After all, Christian belief tells us God is everywhere, as the life of all life dwelling amongst us. The experience of hope, new life and love is open to us all whatever name we choose to give it.
I would be fascinated to hear from any reader with further examples of “Godless” hymns; one other notable example with few specialised words is “Come down O Love Divine”.