20 February 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(3): ‘There is no moment of my life’

‘ … if I should go where all is dark, / he makes my darkness light’ ... evening lights on the harbour in Skerries earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting to reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

This morning [20 February 2015], I have chosen the hymn ‘There is no moment of my life,’ by the late Father William Brian Foley (1919-2000), which is set to the tune ‘Newbury’ in the Irish Church Hymnal (No 19).

This arrangement of ‘Newbury’ by Vaughan Williams is also used in some hymnals as a setting for the hymn ‘Jerusalem, thou city blest’ (see New English Hymnal, No 228) and ‘Ye high and lowly, rich and poor’ by Anne Steele.

This tune is one of the folk melodies arranged by Vaughan Williams. He found the tune in a collection published by Miss MG Arkwright in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society. There it was used for a Christmas carol, ‘There’s six good days set in a week,’ also known as the ‘Hampshire Mummers’ Carol.’

Vaughan Williams harmonised the melody for the English Hymnal in 1906, and set it to ‘The Maker of the sun and moon’ by Laurence Housman (1865-1959):

The Maker of the sun and moon,
The Maker of our earth,
Lo! late in time, a fairer boon,
Himself is brought to birth!

How blest was all creation then,
When God so gave increase;
And Christ, to heal the hearts of men,
Brought righteousness and peace!

No star in all the heights of heaven
But burned to see Him go;
Yet unto earth alone was given
His human form to know.

His human form, by man denied,
Took death for human sin:
His endless love, through faith descried,
Still lives the world to win.

O perfect love, outpassing sight,
O light beyond our ken,
Come down through all the world tonight,
And heal the hearts of men!

This morning’s hymn, ‘There is no moment of my life,’ which is set in the Irish Church Hymnal to ‘Newbury’ by Vaughan Williams, was written by the late Brian Foley. He was born into an Irish family in Liverpool, where he later served as a Roman Catholic priest from 1945.

This hymn is based on the principal theme of Psalm 139, and is one of 14 hymns by Foley in the New Catholic Hymnal (1971). Foley once wrote that he tried to base all his hymn writing “as far as possible on scripture and theology.”

It has an elegant simplicity and a perfect rhythmical structure. In some hymnals it is set ‘My Life in God’ by Elizabeth Poston, but it has been set to other tunes, notably ‘Gerontius’ by JB Dykes (1823-1876).

There is no moment of my life,
no place where I may go,
no action which God does not see,
no thought he does not know.

Before I speak, my words are known,
and all that I decide.
To come or go: God knows my choice,
and makes himself my guide.

If I should close my eyes to him,
he comes to give me sight;
if I should go where all is dark,
he makes my darkness light.

He knew my days before all days,
before I came to be;
he keeps me, loves me, in my ways;
no lover such as he.

Tomorrow: ‘Jerusalem, thou City blest

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