A Hymn Tune as a Worm

Among the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s many books (and many interests) is one on music. From him I picked up the term “brainworm” for the phenomenon of a tune looping over and over in our mind; the tune arrives unsummoned and just keeps on playing. When it’s a bad tune this can be frustrating. But whether frustrating or not, it is interesting to note that we have these tunes playing in our heads without our intending to think of them.

So: I had been on my daily pre-coffee jog and I realized there was a tune repeating in my mind—a piece of an old hymn. Once I started focusing on it I was able to summon up the words. It began, “Teach me, my God and King,” and gradually the rest of the stanza, “in all things thee to see,” then finally, “and what I do in anything to do it as for thee.” The tune in my head was “Carlisle,” which I later looked up. It’s #592 in The Hymnal 1982, which also identifies the words as George Herbert’s.

The tune had brought me to a text—and this was still before I looked it up, while I was still jogging. The amazing thing was how it fit a problem that was bothering me at the time. Out from the depths of the grey matter came a tune and a fragment of words, as if my own heart were praying God to teach me to trust him in all things, including this present problem—and to make it even more amazing, my heart was offering this prayer before it got into words via that tune and then via my (partial) memory of the text.


Once at St. John’s College I was assigned to pick up our Friday night lecturer from the Albuquerque airport. On the drive back she pried out of me my interest in the church. She responded by telling me that, although she was not presently an active Christian, she had learned many of the Psalms in German in her Lutheran childhood. She stated an amazing thing: that still, even decades later, a verse or two of these psalms would sometimes come to mind without her thinking. And then, on reflection, she would discover that they fit the situation at hand.

She was Beate Ruhm von Oppen (online is her 2004 obituary from the Guardian).


Behold the marvel of it: The unbidden tune brings me a text that is a prayer to see God in everything, and there is God, giving me the tune and the text to pray to see him in everything! I am asking God to teach me what he is already teaching me!


On the Web. A theologian-friend of mine has reviewed my Friendship: The Heart of Being Human. He confesses to our friendship; I hope his reputation survives. Here’s a recent essay by yours truly: “Children Are Not the Future (They Are the Present)”

Whatever you think of the content, both of these were put online with great illustrations.

Out & About. This Sunday, May 14, I am to teach and preach at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff in Dallas. The class, at 9am, is on the parish as a school of friendship. The Eucharist follows at 10am.

The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be at Incarnation in Dallas on Sunday, May 21, on War in Heaven by Charles Williams. Williams was an Inkling—part of that group that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. His novels are unlike anything else you’ve read. The seminar runs from 5 to 6:30pm. Everyone is welcome to attend; if you’ve read the book, you’re also welcome to talk.

The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: