Twelve Hymns Project: When peace like a river
Text: Job 29:1-5; 30:16-20
In May of 1373 Julian of Norwich was deathly ill. Close enough to death that she was given last rites. No one knows what Julian’s birth name was. She was an anchoress, meaning she had anchored herself, stationed herself, within a small church cell, itself attached to the larger building, like a barnacle on a rock, or a ship. This was common in the late Middle Ages. She had chosen a solitary life of prayer and contemplation, committed to staying in that particular place. It was a tiny world spent mostly inside the anchorhold, food and water handed in through a window. But it held a promise of opening one’s mind and soul to the vast expanse of Divine reality. This is the life Julian had chosen, or the life that had chosen her.
Her cell was attached to the Church of St. Julian, which is where she likely got her name. The church was in Norwich, England. Julian of Norwich.
Along with her physical ailments, Julian had been overwhelmed to despair by sin. It consumed her thoughts. She felt so deeply about this, she wrote there was no harder hell than sin. That sin itself was hell, inflicting its own awful suffering.
She was 30 years old, and deathly ill. While receiving last rites, the priest’s crucifix raised above her, Julian experienced a series of visions lasting several hours. During this time, she felt engulfed in the love of God. Just immersed in love. She saw a vision of Jesus saying to her the words she became most remembered for. Jesus said to Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
It was an overpowering mystical experience that stayed with her the rest of her life. She did recover, and lived another 44 years. Aside from becoming physically healthy, her circumstances changed very little. With 14th century England in turmoil all around her, reeling from the devastating effects of the Great Plague, engaged in a Hundred Years War with French rulers, she would go on to write about these revelations, living within the confines of her anchorhold on St. Julian’s church in Norwich. The writings were called “Revelations of Divine Love.” It’s the earliest known writing in the English language by a woman. Because of the vastness of Divine Love, which she often likened to that of a compassionate mother, Julian wrote to whoever in the wide world beyond her anchorhold might read her words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
We don’t know if Horatio Spafford ever heard these words from Julian of Norwich. Probably not. But he echoes their spirit when he wrote the hymn that includes the line, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
This is a hymn born out of tragedy. Chances are if you know the story behind just a couple hymns, this is one them. Or maybe not. Today is Father’s Day, and Horatio Spafford is remembered, through this hymn, as one who experienced great loss as a father.
He was a wealthy lawyer from Chicago, active in the Presbyterian church. He and his wife Anna had four daughters and a son. They used their home to host meetings of church evangelists and abolitionists, supporting many of them financially. He was heavily invested in real estate, and in 1871 the great fire of Chicago wiped out most of his wealth. The same year their son died of scarlet fever. Two years after the fire, the Spaffords had planned a family vacation to Europe, but at the last minute Horatio had business he needed to attend to. The rest of the family set off, and he planned to join them as soon as he could. In the Atlantic their ship was rammed by a British vessel also on its way to Europe. As their ship went down, Anna was able to grab on to a piece of floating debris and was rescued, but the four girls drowned. When she arrived in Wales nine days later, Anna sent Horatio a telegram that said: “Saved alone: what shall I do?”
He left Chicago immediately to be with Anna. On the way, the story goes, his ship passed near the spot where the other had gone down. Horatio was moved to write this hymn as they kept sailing. “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” The sea billows of sorrow in the first verse are more than metaphor. He was riding them as he wrote.
Phillip Bliss, who soon after wrote the musical composition, named the tune Ville du Havre, which I have no idea if I’m pronouncing right. It was the name of the sunken ship. And the sorrow continued. Horatio and Anna had another child, a son named after Horatio, who also died of scarlet fever, when he was four.
In brushing up on the details of this story, and deciding to make a link to Julian of Norwich, I hadn’t realized the time span between them is such a round number. The tragedy and the hymn of response were in 1873. It was exactly 500 years after Julian had her vision of Christ that all shall be well.
In looking for a biblical companion to this story, one need look no further than Job. The scripture declares Job a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil. Job is wealthy. He is generous with his wealth. He has many children, seven sons and three daughters. But Job becomes a pawn in a rivalry between The Lord and the Satan. In Hebrew, The Satan means “The accuser,” and the Satan accuses Job of being righteous only because of his prosperity and the relative ease of his life. The Satan challenges the Lord to take away Job’s wealth and his children, and see if the righteous Job still praises God. The Lord accepts the challenge, and Job loses everything, but still blesses God’s name. The Satan comes up with another challenge, and the Lord takes away Job’s health, such that he’s confined to a bed, miserable. Most of the book of Job is poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends, with “friends” in heavy quotes. These friends spout the prevailing theology of the day to explain Job’s circumstances, which Job eloquently, and sometimes sarcastically, rejects.
And here’s a thread that runs through all three stories – Julian, Horatio and Anna, and Job. Julian had been loaded down with fear and guilt associated with sin. Job’s friends defend the orthodox theology of their time, that good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing, and tragedy is a sign of God’s punishment for sin. What have you done wrong Job, to offend God? As best I can tell, in what’s been written about their lives, Horatio and Anna were confronted with similar accusations. When they returned to the US, church leaders suggested to them that their daughters’ fate at sea was God’s punishment against their family for sin. It was enough to cause them to leave the church. They eventually formed their own sect, called the Overcomers, and moved to Jerusalem to found the American Colony. That’s a fascinating story in itself, if you want to look into it.
One wonders if these questions of sin and punishment were already haunting Horatio in the writing of the hymn, or, if not haunting, if he was already pre-empting his “friends” in the writing of verse three. Our verse three starts with “Redeemed, O the bliss of this glorious thought…” and then sticks with the original lyrics after that. But the original writing says this:
“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
I’ve always thought it strange that a song born out of grief goes so quickly in this theological direction. Why did Horatio feel compelled to write an entire verse about sin? But now knowing this additional part of the story, I’m guessing this is what is going on. This was perhaps Horatio’s way of expressing what Julian of Norwich and Job also felt they had to declare. That the pain in their lives was not a punishment from God. That God was fully aware of whatever sin might be in their lives, but wasn’t counting it against them.
One of the potential challenges of a hymn like this, or a story like Julian, is that it can make the process of grief and sorrow appear too clean, too easily resolved. One minute you’re on your death bed and wracked with guilt, the next minute you’re caught up in blissful communion with the love of God which alters your consciousness for the rest of your waking days. One minute sorrows like sea billows are rolling all around, the next minute you declare with gusto “It is well, it is well with my soul.” The entire life-long work of grief gets condensed into a few lines.
It’s one of the reasons the book of Job is so compelling — Job’s grief, his exasperation with his lousy friends, his wrestling with God, his protests and shaking his fist at the universe. This is most of the book of Job. It is real and it is raw. And when God finally does appear, it is not a revelation of all-encompassing love. It is a revelation of the utter tininess of Job’s life and troubles in the vast creation. The Lord appears to Job in a whirlwind. It’s not exactly comforting, but it tells another dimension of the human journey through loss and sorrow. Our ego confronts the vastness of the world outside the tiny anchorhold we thought was the whole of reality, and slowly we come to terms with our small place in the huge unfolding mystery.
To Julian of Norwich, God says “You are everything.” To Job, God says “You are almost nothing.” And Horatio and Anna Spafford likely lived between these two revelations their whole life. And so do we. I am everything. I am almost nothing.
We do not come lightly and easily to the place of saying “It is well with my soul.” But in singing the words over the years, we might come to experience them in new depths each time.
So, just one more thing to tie in here. And now I invite you to be aware of the comforter that you’re leaning against. Feel it against your back, look around at others in front of you. These lovely works have been pieced together and knotted by many of you over the last year. Today we will end our service by blessing these comforters and singing another of our Twelve Hymns, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” We’ll send them up to Mennonite Central Committee which will send them where they are most needed. Often they go to refugee camps. The Spafford family story of losing children en route has been re-lived by many of these refugees desperately fleeing violence. The places that receive the survivors, like our own country, serve as an anchorhold onto something solid. These comforters are a small revelation in themselves. That there is love and compassion, and we all need it.
May it be well with your soul, and may these comforters, wherever they end up, do the very thing they are named for.