But no song grips my soul and arouses my emotions the way “Amazing Grace” does.
[“…and grace will lead me home.”] is among the lines that give me hope during rough patches on my journey.
Tears come when I listen to the lyrics of this song.
Bagpipers playing it make me gasp for breath.
In those tearful, breathless moments I find hope; gritty patience leads to it—hope, that is—and then faith that divine grace can craft a better life and world occurs to me.
Kathleen Norris, in her thought-provoking book Amazing Grace, writes about the history of the word “wretch” evolving from “…a wanderer, an adventurer, a knight errant…an exile, a banished person” to “one who would be miserable anywhere. To some extent we have internalized the word to mean someone who is exiled from being at peace within the self.” She explores this further when she writes: “Is there a fabled ‘someone’ who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh-unforgivable things that he or she has done?”
Are we not, all of us, somewhere in our souls broken, beset by emotional pain, and yearning to be healed?
The author continues: “I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness—exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance—has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.”
Many have found the lyrics comforting in unbearable times—being lost, filled with fear, surrounded by “dangers, toils, and snares”—and then hope that they will prevail through divine grace.
Civil War soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, were given copies of the hymn. The Cherokee sang the song for strength along the Trail of Tears. Blind Willie McTell, Georgia blues legend, wrote, [“Amazing Grace”] was “a tune they used to hum back in the days when they’d be picking cotton.” During the Civil Rights Movement and protests over the Vietnam War the iconic hymn gave solace and strength to all who heard, hummed, or sang the verses.
Bill Moyers attended a performance at Lincoln Center, and observed “… the audience consisted of Christians and non-Christians [noting] that it had an equal impact on everybody in attendance, unifying them.”
Gospel singer Marion Williams said it best: “That’s a song that gets to everybody.”
Oh, how sweet the sound.
Look at this wonderful motley crew who’ve “covered” the hymn, and though this is a small sample from the thousands who’ve done so, what a group!
Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, Arlo Guthrie, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Harlem Gospel Singers, Jessye Norman, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and the Harlem Boys Choir, Juliette Hamilton and Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Linda Hopkins, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Sam Cooke, Soweto Gospel Choir, The Byrds, The Three Tenors, U2, Whitney Houston, Willie Nelson, and many of us who’ve sung or heard the song in various settings from street corners to cathedrals, public squares to mountain tops, great halls to alleyways, and always inspiring.
Years ago I was skiing in Aspen, Colorado, and on this particular day at Aspen Highlands I’d met and had a beer with the head of the ski school, who graciously invited me to ski with him. A significant snowfall had begun prompting his suggestion that we meet the next morning to take the first chairlifts to the top of the mountain for a pristine powder run. We met and proceeded to ride the chairs to the summit.
It was a bright day with only one cloud in sight, the one that obscured the peak—our destination. The air temperature had dropped, and wisps of clouds and dense fog rolled past us, limiting visibility as we ascended the final stretch. There was no stillness in my soul, and I became lost in fear and doubt considering the unthinkable—riding the chair back down the uppermost slope and into the sunlight. And then, from high above in the shrouded mountaintop we heard the plaintive tones of a bagpipe. At first the sounds were intermittent as the wind and moist air muffled them. And then he appeared off to our left, a lonely piper perched on an outcropping playing a familiar tune—“Amazing Grace.”
As we stood preparing for the descent, the sounds of the bagpipe persisted and gave me the courage I thought I’d lost. I remember my companion’s words.
“Gets me too,” he shouted, “every time.”
And then we descended the mountain.
(Photo courtesy of Munro Bagpiper)