Pillar of Cloud

November 12, 2013

Portrait of John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais, 1881 via Wikipedia

Portrait of John Henry Newman
by John Everett Millais, 1881 via Wikipedia

Lead, Kindly Light

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
 I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

This profound poem by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was written in 1833, a plea for docility to God’s will at a time when he was frustrated by not being able to get back to England and to his work after a sojourn in Italy. Its original title was “Pillar of the Cloud” with a fourth verse added by someone else later.

Various composers through the 1800s set it to melodies suitable for traditional congregational singing, but in the 21st century something new happened that elevated this poem beyond the usual church service to something even more compelling to a meditative listener, and this is exactly what sacred music should do – make the words and music inseparable as a cry of the heart to God.

"He led them by a pillar of cloud", illustration from a Bible card published between 1896 and 1913 by the Providence Lithograph Company, via Wikipedia

“He led them by a pillar of cloud”, illustration from a Bible card published between 1896 and 1913 by the Providence Lithograph Company, via Wikipedia

It was prior to his entering into full communion with the Catholic Church that Newman already, unbeknownst to him well on his way to embracing the entirety of Catholicism, wrote this poem. This fact is important to understand along with his situation when the poem was written if we are to appreciate fully the irony of God working in our lives.

Newman had fallen seriously ill in Italy and was burning intensely to get back home to continue his work at the time. Who among us has not felt that kind of burning?  In his own words he wrote:

Before starting from my inn, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, “I have a work to do in England.” I was aching to get home, yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed for whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead, Kindly Light, which have since become so well known.

How often are we single-mindedly pursuing ends we have defined for ourselves, even considering them as holy purposes, assuming that what we are focusing on is within God’s will for us at this exact time? Blind to the loving roadblocks God places before us and not understanding what He is doing with us, we itch to get moving towards our goal, deceiving ourselves into believing that we are ready and that what we seek to do is what He desires for us.

Look at Newman, a great saint and gift to all seekers of the Truth. This is what I love about the saints – their humanity, their imperfectness, yet desiring above all to spend themselves for God and needing to conform themselves to the will of God.

First he becomes deathly ill while in Italy. God is saying, “Slow down, stop, listen to Me. I want to prepare you for My intentions, the salvation of many souls. I have work for you, indeed, but you are not yet ready.”

But Newman does not see the gift of his illness. God persists by delaying him for three weeks at Palermo. Then when he gets on the ship to Marseilles the poor man is stuck in the middle of the sea for a week going nowhere. At this point Newman turns and looks at God and makes a full act of submission. He sees that he is like the Israelites in the desert led by the pillar of cloud and out of this reflection he composes what has become a pillar of cloud for many Christians. Moreover, that pillar eventually led him, a devout and committed Anglican clergyman, into the Catholic Church with one of the greatest and most inspiring conversion stories of recent times to come out of England.

The full irony of this is that Newman had no idea at the time that he was leaving words of peace and consolation to many who are just like him. He did not know that in the frantic madness and ungodly pursuits of the coming centuries one of his great gifts to Christians would be a heartfelt poem of submissiveness to the will of God, a reminder to reorient ourselves to our Maker. He did not know that God’s plan for him was to lead him to Catholicism and that he was to be a formidable witness for the Faith. He simply poured out his heart to God and the Lord used him and his gift for his time and ours, and probably ages to come.

Newman also does not leave us on earth amidst our woes. The eschatological dimension of the final four lines remind us of our final destination. All we need do is follow that pillar of cloud fearlessly even though we cannot see what is in it just as Newman could not, and we arrive at the purpose for which we were created. As humans, we need constant reminding of it in as many ways as possible.

Let us stop and listen for a few minutes amidst the fracturing demands of the day. Invite the children and the grandchildren to hear this prayer. Consider its meaning for ourselves and our family, our friends walking with us on the way of salvation. Let us ask ourselves once again, are we watching for God’s intentions in our lives? Are we seeking His will? Are we looking fearlessly at the Pillar and willing to follow it docilely no matter where it takes us?

The embedded video is the premiere on April 5, 2012 of Dan Forrest’s composition, commissioned by the Tennessee Tech’s University Chorale conducted by Dr. Craig Zamer.  That it was the second premier of music set to this poem in six months, a composition by British composer Alex Patterson having debuted at St. Barnabas Cathedral on December 11, 2011, attests to the continuing inspiration of  Newman’s words.

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V. Praised be Jesus Christ!

R. Now and forever!

(Click on the link above to read why I end my posts this way.)

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Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 Catholic culture, conversion, spirituality

4 Comments to Pillar of Cloud

  1. Hi Barbara. I hope and pray you and yours are well. God bless.
    Victor S E Moubarak recently posted..Events at St Vincent

  2. Victor S E Moubarak on November 13th, 2013
  3. Anointed poetry, wonderful post, beautiful music. Thank you, Barb.
    Joann Nelander recently posted..Benghazi Rescue: High Military Honors For Two Special Forces Heroes

  4. Joann Nelander on November 17th, 2013
  5. John Newman, what an inspiring guy! I never heard this poem before! So beautiful! Thanks for sharing!
    Jennifer @ Catholic Inspired recently posted..Thankful Heart Worksheet and Art Project

  6. Jennifer @ Catholic Inspired on November 17th, 2013
  7. I didnt know much about John Henry Newman. Thank you!
    Colleen recently posted..Light in the Darkness – Hero

  8. Colleen on November 18th, 2013


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