Pandemic inspires Father Joncas to compose hymn ‘Shelter Me’

| April 16, 2020 | 0 Comments

Typically, it takes Father Michael Joncas several weeks or a month to compose a hymn. His newest hymn took about seven hours.

Titled “Shelter Me,” the hymn was inspired by the novel coronavirus pandemic and aims to provide comfort and hope.

Father Joncas, a prolific liturgical composer whose best-known hymns include “On Eagles’ Wings,” said he woke up in the middle of the night March 25 with a “nagging idea.” He had been praying about the coronavirus, and wondered if music could play a special role in these uncertain times.

“What popped up was, maybe there is a way to pray about this that also involves song and that would touch people at a different level,” he said.

But, he wondered, what could people possibly want to sing at this time?
Then he thought of Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” The psalm has long been used as a reminder of God’s closeness to his people, even amid suffering.

“That’s so deeply ingrained in people’s consciousness,” he said. “By writing a paraphrase of Psalm 23, I could make it really, really connect to what we’re doing today. We know we have intimacy with God. We beg that we continue to have intimacy with God. But right now, we’re kind of walking though the valley of the shadow of death.”

Father Michael Joncas

For Father Joncas, 68, an artist in residence and a research fellow in the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, the short time it took for the hymn to go from an idea to a basic composition was a sign that “there must be something good about it.”

The next day, he sent it to his publisher, GIA Publications, which has helped him make it available for free.

The song includes three verses and a refrain: “O shelter me, O shelter me: the way ahead is dark and difficult to see. O shelter me, O shelter me, all will be well if you only will shelter me.”

The song is written in first person, which is unusual for hymns meant to be sung with others, Father Joncas noted. But he thinks it works, given the shared experience of the pandemic. The first verse speaks to the recollection of peaceful intimacy with God. The middle verse acknowledges a loss of that peace, while the third verse speaks to hope for that peace to return: “Within your house I’ll find my peace, trusting in your mercy you have sheltered me.”

“It’s about intimacy with God,” he said. “In the middle (of the hymn) you’re just really aware of the situation in which you live. … I know that God is there, but I don’t feel it, it’s a different thing. And not to be afraid of that. That’s part of prayer, too.”

While the hymn was written with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, it is widely applicable, Father Joncas said. “Scripture is always multivalent. It can apply in new and different ways depending on what your life situation is,” he said. “Just like people use ‘On Eagles’ Wings’ for funerals, but it’s also appropriate for baptisms and weddings and lots of stuff. … This is not limited to the pandemic, but it is certainly arising out of that experience.”

Father Joncas said he has been moved by news stories of nurses working on the COVID-19 front lines throughout the United States, and how they are overwhelmed, without enough personal protective equipment and unable to save their dying patients.

“That stuff is hard,” he said, emotion evident in his voice. “And I think in a way this prayer arises out of that.”

As is his habit, Father Joncas has continued to tweak the hymn, only finishing fine-tuning the arrangement of the basic score, with a melody line and piano, on Holy Thursday, April 9. But he’s already worked on an arrangement with parts for soprano, alto and bass vocalists with the addition of woodwinds, and is now working on a chamber music version, with instrumental parts appropriate for a small orchestra.

With a laugh, he attributed having time for composing multiple arrangements to being under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order. But, he noted, to his dismay, that his piano is out of tune, something he can’t have fixed until the order is lifted.

He hopes that people who sing and hear “Shelter Me” will experience God through it, and “that experience would be comforting to them,” he said. “This song is about tenderness.”

‘Shelter Me’

1. Shepherd and sheep, my God and I:
to fresh green fields you led my steps in days gone by.
You gave me rest by quiet springs
and filled my soul with peace your loving presence brings.

REFRAIN: O shelter me, O shelter me:
the way ahead is dark and difficult to see.
O shelter me, O shelter me:
all will be well if only you will shelter me.

2. Yet now I tread a diff’rent way;
death dogs my path with stealthy steps from day to day.
I cannot find your peaceful place
but dwell in dreary darkness, longing for your face.

REFRAIN

3. I will look back in days to come
and realize your faithfulness has led me home.
Within your house I’ll find my peace,
trusting that in your mercy you have sheltered me.

 

“Shelter Me” is available for use for free at One License

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