As we prepare our tables for Thanksgiving and our hearts to be in a space and place of gratitude, a song that always rings in my head is Amazing Grace. I’ve never known a song to express such humility of spirit, and perhaps the association in my brain is because humility is the first step toward gratitude. Gratitude is about accepting one’s present, as opposed to resenting one’s past or coveting a certain future. It is about humbling oneself to being moved by the great fortune of being alive and being loved. I believe that gratitude cannot and does not exist when one’s legs and knees are stiffened in a kind of pride and entitlement. It takes humility first to experience an attitude of gratitude.
So, in preparing my own symbolic table this year, I decided to read up on my favorite hymn. Amazing Grace has often been associated with the American South, and I, for one, did think its origins were from the tradition of the Negro Spiritual. It was, in fact, written by an Englishman.
But here’s where my own mental association wasn’t completely off-base. John Newton was an English slave trader, trafficking thousands of men, women, and children from Africa to the auction blocks. In 1748 a violent storm threatened to sink his ship. Frightened for his life, he made a promise to God that if he survived he would change his ways. And sure enough around the age of 45, he had a crisis of conscience and became a minister and a composer of hymns. Yet it would be years later before he would give up his involvement in the slave trade, and a total of thirty-three years from the time of his “spiritual conversion” before he would break his long silence, a watershed moment in his life, and publish his brutal book on the subject, which included an apology for “a confession, which comes too late. It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He promptly became a prominent supporter of the abolition of slavery in England. As more years passed, Newton drew deeper and deeper inward to his monastic life, as he found himself haunted by what he constantly called his twenty-thousand ghosts. He bemoaned having been a part of the dehumanizing of these Africans who’d had beautiful names but were only ever referred to with grunts. He would say that while these captured were treated as beasts, it was the slave traders, him above them all, who had been the beasts.
It was fifteen years BEFORE his public confession, in the year 1772, that he had composed a hymn called Faith’s Review and Expectation. It became one of the most recognizable songs in the history of the world, and the most recorded, a song now known as Amazing Grace. And to have now learned of Newton’s spiritual journey and redemption, it is so clear to me that this hymn is his confession.
The song’s history has a wild and glorious path, as it has become associated with having the power to give hope where there has seemed none, and expresses a God of absolute mercy and forgiveness. Just a few points on the map of its presence in the hearts and minds of the global collective:
- It was used as a requiem by Native Americans on their Trail of Tears (the ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of Native Americans from the southeast parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830).
- It was sung by Civil Rights protesters during the freedom marches and rides.
- It held a prominent place in the proceedings when Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream on the steps of the Washington Monument.
- It was played the world over when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.
- It was sung when the Berlin wall came down.
- On 911, it rang out to comfort a world in mourning.
It is a song of such startling humility that I find myself privately conflicted whenever I’m obliged to sing it for jobs, as I recently did for one of the churches at which I periodically sing, and am requested to do the PC thing of changing the word wretch to soul . . . or something else, anything else! other than this awful word that only degrades us. That’s the subtext anyway. The reason I’m conflicted is because I maintain that wretch is absolutely appropriate, as it calls on, and calls out, the basest of our human instincts, to stand and be accountable, to bend our knees prostrate and humbly offer that we’ve been to Hell and back, or have given Hell to others (haven’t we all dealt, or been dealt, a little Hell at some point in our lives?), that we are human and therefore with flaw, and that ONLY in the owning of that truth are we able to rise, to heal, to transform and transcend. By the instinct to couch and cushion our delicate sensibilities in more conciliatory words like soul, we are basically saying that we don’t have the ability or the humility to own up.
We are presently in an era where, in an effort to be removed from the dogma of more traditional practices (an instinct I’m inclined to embrace), our modern spiritual movements seem largely to have, as their agenda, a reliance on salves and unguents for fragile souls, but without the crucial first steps in any authentic spiritual work of courting the caves for exploration and excavation. I believe this is as important a part of a heart-centered practice as a room buzzing with namastes. Yet as I make my way around the New Thought circuit (a movement I do regard fondly) as a vocalist, I find this particular feel-good bent more and more prevalent. The practice becomes precious rather than revolutionary.
And so, because I often find myself caught between self-governance and employment, both of which are important to me, I do sing soul instead of wretch when I am paid to sing the song, because it is the job required of me, but never when singing it for my own reward. I believe that John Newton understood the state of grace only because of how far down he had once sunk, and how much of a wretch he had been. He could not possibly have authored a more perfect set of words from any other internal place than his own lowest spiritual ebb. Why do we SO fear the personal investigation of such states? Isn’t that a fairly important step in the journey towards connecting to our greater god-realized selves? Joseph Campbell understood that when he said: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” So, too, John Newton, when he composed an efficient set of stanzas as powerful, timeless, and iconic as:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
Humility, grace, gratitude . . . these are all states of the heart and mind that we reflect on during this season. Frankly, it’s my favorite time of year, because I do tend to have a reflective sort of nature, and this song expresses the absolute largeness of that concept. And now I even know a little bit about its author, after all these years of singing it and loving it, which only makes me feel even more interconnected with this globe of beautiful, imperfect, sentient beings.
In any case, that’s my light bulb. Here’s wishing for us all a few breathtaking insights, perhaps a stunning illumination or two, and some amazing grace.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.