The first time I heard this song, I was sitting at my grandfather’s funeral. He had died a long, slow, agonizing death from cancer. I had grown up next door to him. I learned to garden from him. My family lived with him and my grandmother during part of his last two years on earth. I watched him transform from a robust, earthy, tough, silent, serious old man, to a frail, tender, humorous, sweet human being. He was the first significant human being in my life lost to death. I was 15. And I didn’t know he had a favorite hymn. The soloist at the funeral who had known my grandfather longer than I said that it was. And he sang it. To this day, it takes me into a tender, sweet, transcendent space.
Two weeks ago, we sang it at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett with adapted words. The adapted words brought me to that same tender, sweet transcendent space as the original. The author of the song, Horatio Spafford, wrote the song after several tragedies: He and his wife Anna lost their son to typhoid. They lost his business as an attorney in the Chicago fire of 1871 followed by an economic down turn three years later. He sent his wife and four daughters by ship ahead of himself for a European trip. A collision with another ship resulted in its sinking. All four of their daughters drowned. His wife sent the ominous telegram: survived, alone–what shall I do? He wrote these words as he journeyed to meet his wife while passing the spot in the ocean where his daughters died.
Given this story, I understand my grandather’s love of the song, this man in my life who lost his father at age 7, dropped out of school to run the family farm, and supported his mother and two sisters by himself. Life was hard, and yet, through all of the loss, he learned to sing: It Is Well With My Soul. It is worth noting that Spafford and his wife, with two subsequently born children, settled in Jerusalem where they, through intense efforts to live honorably among others, built trust between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Most recently, the song was used at the moment of intense tragedy and loss by the community gathered at the funeral of Rev. Clemente Pickney, the minister of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, one of the nine murdered in that horrible racially motivated killing of people in a prayer and bible study meeting.
The religious imagery is in many respects outdated. The events are long past. And yet, the sense and feelings of this song speak clearly to human souls. We can and do face tragedy and loss, and we can and do find a wellness, a peace, a way through that sustains us. We call it Transcendence. We call it Human Endurance. We call it Faith. We call it a knowing rooted deeply in the Interdependent Web of All Existence. We call it Enlightenment. We call it Peace. By many names, it can be well with our souls.