Rae E. Whitney

By Neva Rae Fox

A tiny thing we cannot see
or taste or feel or hear,
has shut down nearly half our world
and brought distress and fear.
We’ve read about the plagues of old:
now a virus gone astray
has caused much sickness, death and grief,
with new reports each day.

Poet Rae E. Whitney boasts an extensive and impressive career as a writer of Anglican hymns and texts. Her most recent contribution reflects today’s world and goes to the heart of the common thread currently weaving through humanity. “A Tiny Thing We Cannot See” directly addresses the coronavirus.

While her topics are usually “a Bible story, personal faith,” she quickly pointed out “but there is no ‘usually.’”

In the 500+ plus texts I have written, I have covered almost all areas I have been interested in,” she explained. “But I felt this was a text that HAD to be written. How could such a tiny thing have such an impact on the world?”

The 93-year-old Whitney wrote “A Tiny Thing We Cannot See” while sheltering in place in her Nebraska retirement community home. She conceded that while life goes on, life is, indeed, different.  In an email exchange, she shared: “We are doing much the same as most other people. Some residents drive to the store, etc. (I got rid of my 1985 car a couple of years ago!) We help each other. We have a Care Center attached to our main building and residents there are very much confined, no visitors, and we can’t enter there either.”

 Nonetheless, this current confinement did not stifle her creativity or the time required to write her text. “I never think of time because a text goes on working in one’s head until one knows ‘that’s it!’”

She didn’t set out to use “A Tiny Thing We Cannot See” as a way of memorializing the people affected. “I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it is obviously speaking to people,” she said.

But many helpers brave this plague
and serve those most in need,
and offer comfort, help and care
through many a word and deed.
We thank our true and gallant ones
who risk their lives to bring
relief and help to sickened folk
touched by that tiny thing.

Whitney also doesn’t see “A Tiny Thing We Cannot See” as different from her other works.  “I try and use simple language, avoid adjectives and adverbs unless really necessary, and make sure it’s singable to a familiar tune,” she said.

Born and educated in England, she was a schoolteacher and co-secretary of The Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, an organization devoted to dialogue between Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Christians. She moved to Nebraska when she married the late Rev. Clyde E. Whitney, and they served together for decades at St. Andrew’s Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and in other churches across Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming.

Whitney’s hymn text writings can be found in The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal), The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), and The Baptist Hymnal, as well as others.  Her best known hymns include “Myrrh-bearing Mary from Magdala Came,” “Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s Ashes,” and a paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord God,  You Now Have Set Your Servant Free.”  Several collections of her hymn texts have been published, titled Under the Fig Tree: More Hymns and a Few Poems; Fear Not, Little Flock: Hymns of Rae E. Whitney, Vol. I and Vol. II; and With Joy Our Spirits Sing: The Hymns of Rae E. Whitney.

Her conclusion speaks to the world with a confident hope.

Yet there are other tiny things
to cheer each anxious heart,
a smile, a wave, a caring note,
though we must stay apart;
a phone call, email, Facebook, skype,
can curb anxiety,
while faith and hope and love abound
to keep our spirits free.

 Rae E Whitney © 2020 selahpub.com

Suggested tune:  ST LOUIS #79, “O Little town of Bethlehem