Celtic Spiritual Poetry (3)
Helper of Workers
Ah! Helper of all workers and
Blessed Ruler of all good; You stand
Continuous guard throughout the land,
Defending every faithful man,
Extending lowly ones Your hand,
Frustrating those who in pride stand;
Great Ruler of the faithful and
Hosts who in sin prefer to stand,
In justice ruling every man,
Condemning sin by Your command;
Cascading light on every hand,
Light and the Father of lights, and
Magnificent throughout the land;
No one will You Your helping hand
Or strength deny, who in hope stand:
Please, Lord, though I am little and
Quail wretchedly before Your hand,
Rowing hard against harsh winds and
Strong tumults and temptations grand,
That Jesus may reach out His hand
Unto me, I implore – His land,
Verdant and lovely, be my land!
Yes, make my life a hymn to stand
Zealous against those You withstand.
Please grant that paradise my land
In Jesus Christ by grace may be,
Both now and in eternity.
- Colum Cille (521-597 AD)
I will You, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer;
My God, my strength, in whom I will trust;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised;
So shall I be saved from my enemies.
- Psalm 18.1-3
Two sets of images make up the substance of the poem, “Helper of Workers” by the founder of the Iona community, Colum Cille (521-596 AD). The first cluster is in the ascriptions section of the poem, in which Colum describes the Lord to whom the poem is addressed. We will look at those last.
First, we want to pay attention to the images used to describe Colum himself, as a worker who is petitioning the Lord (line 1). He classes himself with all workers of every kind, not just those entrusted with the ministry of the Word, as he was. God is the Helper of all workers, all who exert themselves in any calling or any work, which they do as unto the Lord rather than unto men (Col. 3.23). All work has the potential to bring glory and honor to God. As we do our work unto the Lord, we draw on His help and strength, and thus engage more intimately with the Lord Himself, Who is our inheritance (Col. 3.24).
Colum knew that work has the potential to strengthen us in the Lord, that we might know His Presence with us as our Rock, Fortress, Deliverer, Stronghold, Strength, and Salvation. We may derive satisfaction from all our work, and we may also expect certain material benefits to come from it. But the primary benefit of all our work, no matter what our work may be, comes in knowing the strength of our Helper in the midst of our work, and of delighting in His love for us and our love for Him.
But work can be a hard slog. It’s like a lonely sailor, rowing against the wind and current, breaking his back on the oars, and seeming to make little progress (lines 16-19). Much of our work is like this, and Colum recognized that, as he watched his monks around the island of Iona, going about their daily tasks. He wrote this song to encourage his colleagues in their work, however menial or sublime their work might have been. Work is hard, and very often we see little progress or gain little immediate benefit. But we must do it.
So why not do it as unto the Lord? We want our work, and all our life, to be like a hymn to the Lord (lines 23, 24), so that how we work – the attitude and demeanor we bring to our work, and the excellence with which we pursue it – will sing the praises of the Lord and, at the same time, assure us that our labors are not in vain and we will reach our homeland’s shore and rest in due course (lines 20-22, 25-27). Singing as we work – which Colum no doubt intended with this poem – can help to make our work lighter (recall Snow White: “Whistle while you work…”), and can actually make our lives a song and witness (lines 23, 24) unto the Lord, which is an indication of the filling of the Spirit (Eph. 5.18-21).
But this is only possible by focusing as we work on the Helper of Workers Himself, which Colum does in lines 2-15). He piles up these ascriptions of greatness to God – Ruler, Defender, just Judge, Magnificent and radiant Light – so that his mind, while working, is tapping into the knowledge of God, and thus drawing on His strength for the task at hand.
We can imagine Colum teaching this hymn to his monks, and many of them singing it to themselves or one another as they undertook the daily chores of tilling the land, gathering water, preparing meals, cutting firewood, copying manuscripts, preparing rooms for guests, washing and mending garments, and all the other tasks that allowed Iona to be the great missions sending center it became.
Let God make your work a song, and you will delight in His Presence with you, and proclaim His magnificence to everyone who might hear you.
Questions for Reflection
1. Work is not a necessary evil, but a gift and calling from the Lord. How can we see all our work as a way to honor and glorify God?
2. Each of us has a Personal Mission Field which we are called to work for Christ and His Kingdom. What does this require of you?
Psalm 18.1-3 (St. Colum Cille: How Sweet and Awesome)
I love You, Lord, my Strength, my Rock, my Savior and my Fort;
my God, my ever-shelt’ring Rock, You shield my trembling heart.
My Stronghold, Lord, my Saving Horn, I call to You with praise!
From those who Your salvation scorn You save us all our days!
Lord, be present with me in my work today, so that I…
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Amplified translation, T. M. Moore