Christopher Trundle on the work of Ray Palmer

It is often said that one of the most important elements of Anglican Patrimony is our hymnody. In contrast to much modern music often sung in churches, the content of our various hymnals presents us with means of communal and deeply personal devotional response, which nonetheless avoids any hint of ‘dumbing down’.

We are also blessed with many properly liturgical hymns specially suited for singing at certain points in specific liturgies. Many of our favourites are sung at communion, a point when the combination of this individual reaction and corporate address to the Blessed Sacrament is particularly powerful.

One such favourite of mine is the hymn ‘Jesus, these eyes have never seen’, written in the nineteenth century by Ray Palmer, an American Congregationalist.

Now you may think it odd to focus an article on Anglican Patrimony on a hymn written by such a writer, but the oft-forgotten truth is that many of our well-loved hymns are not strictly ‘Anglican’ in their origins at all. Many come from Scotland; take, for example ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ by Horatius Bonar, a minister of the Church of Scotland and later of the Free Church, or ‘Immortal invisible’ by Walter Chalmers Smith.

Some are translations of German Lutheran hymns; ‘O Sacred Head, sore sounded’ by Paulus Gerhardt (tr. Robert Bridges) and ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation’ by Joachim Neander (tr. Catherine Winkworth), are two examples. ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ and ‘Immortal love, forever full’ were written by American Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier.

This itself says something important about our Anglican character: we have a certain freedom and confidence in assimilating elements from outside our tradition and taking them to our hearts.

The words of Palmer’s hymn, particularly when sung in the context of communion, speak of the paradox between the reality of Real Presence of the Lord and the weakness of our senses in perceiving it; here we are charged to look beyond the outward sign and acknowledge the invisible reality.

It looks forward also to the time when “the rending veil shall thee reveal”, the time when we shall experience, we pray, the Beatific vision.

Jesus, these eyes have never seen
That radiant form of thine;
The veil of sense hangs dark between
Thy blessed face and mine.

I see thee not, I hear thee not,
Yet thou are oft with me;
And earth hath ne’er so dear a spot
As where I met with thee.

Like some bright dream that comes unsought,
When slumbers o’er me roll,
Thine image ever fills my thought,
And charms my ravished soul.

Yet though I have not seen, and still
Must rest in faith alone,
I love thee, dearest Lord, and will,
Unseen, but not unknown.

When death these mortal eyes shall seal,
And still this trembling heart,
The rending veil shall thee reveal
All glorious as thou art.

Ray Palmer (1808–87)

Palmer wrote many of his hymns for communion services, and this is reputed to be his favourite. We shall never know if he ever understood it any deeply Eucharistic sense, but there is clearly a yearning after the vision of the divine, and to Catholics to think of the Eucharistic host comes naturally.

The vision of God, found in Scripture, theology and literature, is a common theme. This Beatific Vision is different, though, to what can be attained during our earthly lives. Bound by time, we can attain only knowledge of God.

This, then, serves to put the very possibility of the vision of the divine in this earthly realm–the sight of God himself here on earth–on an altogether different and more incredible plain.