The Secret Heart

The Secret Heart and the Shady Rill

As children, we are ready to believe in abundance; we are eager to believe that we are loved; and we are taken easily through the door of wonder. When I was a child, my parents attended an austere church in the Presbyterian tradition. The interior was plain and unadorned; the services seemed to consist of long words, intellectual argument and earnest sentiments. There was little colour, light, movement or story to attract and hold the attention of a child.

And yet I loved the hymns. Their words intrigued me, even when I did not understand them. And they built up pictures that fed my imagination, even when I was not sure what the picture was supposed to say.

At the beginning of the hymn-book was a section entitled "God, His Being, Works and Word" which contained hymns on the themes of "The Holy Trinity," and "God in Creation, Providence and Redemption." This was "high" theology – mysterious, cerebral, impenetrable, but for that very reason the minister would often choose one of them to begin the service. And as we children were only in church for a few minutes before we were dismissed to Sunday School, I got to know these hymns better than any others.

They included standards such as "Holy, holy, holy," "O Worship the King all-glorious above" and "Immortal, invisible, God only wise." I thought of them collectively as "the impossibles" because most of the words were so hard to pronouce, let alone define. And yet something got through: not an idea of what they might mean, but a picture that they evoked:

"Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes;
All gracious, all-glorious, the Ancient of Days;
All-mighty, victorious; Thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light;
Nor wanting, nor wasting; Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above;
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

In all life thou livest, in both great and small;
To all life thou givest, Thou true life of all;
We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree;
And wither, and perish; but nought changeth Thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light;
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render; O help us to see
Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee."[1]

That was it, the image that returned to me when I wanted to explain how God can be both light and darkness at the same time; revealed and hidden; the Revealer who nevertheless remains a Mystery. Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee. It was hymns like this that formed in me the understanding that God was a vast horizon, always there, always inviting, always receding before us as we explore.

But at the same time, there were hints of a reality closer to home, a companionship that might still inspire to adventure, might still leave room for expanding, experimenting, growing; but was nevertheless shaped to my scale, tailored to my needs, beginning where I found myself to be. The second hymn in the service was often chosen with the children in mind. Almost without exception, I found them patronising and dismissed them at once. The exception was the hymn we sang every time a baby was baptized:

By cool Siloam's shady rill
How sweet the lily grows!
How sweet the breath, beneath the hill,
Of Sharon's dewy rose!

Lo! Such the child whose early feet
The paths of peace have trod,
Whose secret heart with influence sweet
Is upward drawn to God.

O Thou whose infant feet were found
Within Thy Father's shrine,
Whose years, with changeless virtue crowned,
Were all alike divine.

Dependent on Thy bounteous breath,
We seek Thy grace alone,
In childhood, manhood, age, and death,
To keep us still Thine own.[2]

We sang this hymn so regularly at christenings that it may have been sung over me, when I was baptized in that church. Singing it at the age of seven, as a new member of the Junior Choir, I do not remember thinking about the words – other than to wonder whether Sharon was anyone I knew at school – but I did get hold of the idea that life was a journey that involved us all, even people like me; that it drew us towards that mystery we called God; and that the shady rill, the secret heart and the paths of peace were all part of the adventure. The mention of age and death in the last verse was a sombre note that I found rather thrilling because it hinted at realities that were off limits, never discussed in front of the children. And even at that age, I knew what it was to yearn for an ultimate belonging – although I did not yet know that this was what I felt.

When, during my turbulent adolescence, I stopped attending that church, the hymn and its imagery sank down below the horizon of memory. I have never sung it since.
My copy of "The Church Hymnary" – given in a solemn presentation when I graduated from primary to junior departments of the Sunday School – got lost in one of the many house moves that characterised that period of my life. A few years later, the church closed, its congregation diminished by deaths and by demographic changes in its neighbourhood. The building is now a mosque. The hymn-book itself – once widely used in Presbyterian churches across England, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as in the Church of Scotland - was superseded by the publication of more modern collections.

But years later, delving in a theological library, I found a copy of the hymnal, and with curiosity, recognition and delight, re-aquainted myself with the words. What had stayed with me was an image and an impression – an association that linked the "shady rill" with a sense of beginning, starting out on a great adventure, the implications of which could not be foreseen, nor limited. Looking back, I realise that the hymns I sang in my childhood were one of those many subtle influences that gave me a sense that there were new worlds out there in which I might become a pioneer.

But was there more than could be learned of this "secret heart," and where that "shady rill" might lead – what meadows it might water? In the infant class I had been taught to pray, in a "Hands together, eyes closed" fashion. I had been taught to say the Lord's Prayer, even to sing it to a slow, melodic tune that built to an awesome crescendo. But nothing else in the church's life suggested what prayer might be. Except for a hymn that I learned when I was a teenager, during the short period when, too old for Sunday School, I attended the whole service, all the way through.

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find;
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust, like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above;
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love.

Drop thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

With that great hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call;
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall,
As fell Thy manner down.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb; let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.

The combination of a delightful tune and vivid images made this hymn a wonderful discovery. To pray is to share with God "The silence of eternity/Interpreted by love." It was a long time before I learned how to unpack those words, but even then, at thirteen or fourteen years old, I glimpsed what it might mean to live them. And the glimpse remained, as the dream of an abundance that would take me in and lead me out; that would welcome me and embrace me, but also set me on a road to that distant horizon; that would fill me and satisfy me, and yet always leave me with the vision of more to see, more to understand, more to discover.

Years later, I learned that the writer of these words, John Greenleaf Whittier, was a Quaker who had been active in the campaign against the slave trade in the United States. I was excited, because once again the horizon had moved: now it was no longer the limit of my sight that mattered. The "something more" that I reached towards was a mystery in which all human hurts would be healed; all wrongs righted; all rights restored. And I rejoiced, because it confirmed my conviction that prayer as Whittier describes it – prayer at depth - is not only about finding fulfilment and peace for ourselves, but about learning how to build shalom; an abundance that is available to all people, especially those who are at present denied it.

God wills abundant life for all. This is where the secret heart is going. This is what the shady rill is watering. Imagine what might happen if such an abundant grace were welcomed, accepted, received? Imagine what might be possible if a stream of this love were flowing through your community, down your street, into your home? Not a murky, destroying flood, but a cool, transparent, radiant river, fed by a fountain of light[3].

When, at last, I found words to express this wonderful possibility, it was in the work of another hymn-writer, Charles Wesley:

Thy ceaseless, unexhausted love,
Unmerited and free,
Delights our evil to remove,
And help our misery.

Thou waitest to be gracious still;
Thou dost with sinners bear,
That, saved, we may thy goodness feel,
And all thy grace declare.

Thy goodness and thy truth to me,
To every soul, abound,
A vast, unfathomable sea,
Where all our thoughts are drowned.

Its streams the whole creation reach,
So plenteous is the store,
Enough for all, enough for each,
Enough for evermore.

Faithful, O Lord, thy mercies are,
A rock that cannot move;
A thousand promises declare
Thy constancy of love.

Throughout the universe it reigns,
Unalterably sure;
And while the truth of God remains,
Thy goodness must endure[4].
Consider how life would be altered by the presence of such an abundance of purposeful love. See how all is refreshed and invigorated, revitalised and renewed. Think of the seeds that might germinate, the fruit that might grow, the harvest that might be gathered. Imagine blossoming, flowering, creativity, generosity, compassion, fullness, healing, wholeness. Enough for all, enough for each, enough for evermore.

Imagine abundance.

[1] Written by
[2] Reginald Heber, 1783-1826. The Church Hymnary, OUP, 1927.
[3] Psalm 36.9
[4] Charles Wesley.

What is the Gospel?

God loves us. God loves me. God who loves me has given me a message to proclaim - in season or out of season.

The good news is that Jesus shows us a way to build up our confidence, and with it, our creativity, compassion and courage. He commands us to re-focus on this vision of God's grace - that God has faith in us - and to keep faith with this vision as we create abundant life for all. God has faith in us. God has faith in me. This is my beginning and the point to which I must keep returning.

It is a long, hard road through the wilderness to the promised land. But Jesus calls us follow him on this journey, to learn from him how keeping faith with his vision and using his strategy encourages, enables and equips us to do what needs to be done to make the vision real where we are.

And while our "outer work" is important, there is another work which is more important still. The "inner work" of finding a way through our frustration, anger and fear. The secret of this "hidden journey" lies in the spiritual discipline of deepening honesty, attention and trust.

5.3.09, revised 8.3.09

I was eleven or twelve years old and just beginning to define myself as a writer when I fell in love with the possibility and potential of prayer as it is expressed in John Greenleaf Whittier's hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind". the pictures painted by the words. all images of silence: the disciples in "simple trust" rising up to follow Jesus "without a word"; the "noiseless" fall of manna in the desert night; the "still, small voice of calm" which had spoken to Elijah on Mount Horeb. And, above all, the image of Jesus kneeling on a Galilean hillside, sharing with God his Father "The silence of eternity, Interpreted by love".

This remains for me the best definition of the profound communion that prayer makes possible: a companionship in which words are unnecessary, superfluous, superseded by a love so complete, a trust so absolute that no explanations or justification or apology is required. Everything is known, received, understood, embraced, made holy and whole. Everything is turned to love till only love remains.

For me, the "silence of eternity" is not a void – airless, impersonal, cold - but a living, breathing silence, only quiet because the sounds that would alert us to its rhythms are so far beyond the threshold of our hearing. Above all, it is a silence warmed by love: by personality and relationship and a compassion which is individual as well as communal, general and universal.

This last point is important. God is love. To commune with God is to be immersed in love. The "silence of eternity" – the utter mystery and otherness of God – is interpreted to us by love. It contains nothing that is not love. So the test of any spiritual practice or discipline in the Christian tradition, including all ways and forms of prayer, is love. Does this way of praying generate love, increase love, focus love in action, make love fruitful?

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