At the 7:45 a.m. Sunday service that I usually attend, music is rare. This week, however, at the end of her sermon and in anticipation of upcoming Fourth of July ceremonies and celebrations in our historic little village of Yorktown, our priest invited the congregation to stand and sing together, a cappella, Hymn #719—“America, the Beautiful.” We did—in three- and even four-part harmony. In addition to being Episcopalians, we were Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, all singing together!
“America the Beautiful” is a song I learned in childhood, and like many such songs, I sang it so frequently that it remains imprinted in my brain decades later. Often when I’m out birding in the nearby meadow and the wind ripples through waist-high grasses, the “amber waves of grain” phrase from verse 1 comes to mind. When I reflect on how that very same meadow, now a sanctuary for Meadowlarks, was once a bloody battlefield (it is the site of the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War), I know that I am standing squarely in the third stanza’s “patriot dream that sees beyond the years.”
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me to realize that, in reality, I had in my memory only two-thirds of Katherine Lee Bates’s lovely poem. When we sang verse 2 in church, I had to look at the hymnal. Here’s how that stanza goes:
“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life. America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
All three stanzas contain both thanksgiving and petition, but this second stanza takes on an extra element: Confession. It acknowledges that our nation is imperfect—and does so without the slightest fear of being thought unpatriotic. I find that humility refreshing as well as moving.
Many Americans, myself included, feel that the very soul of our nation is at risk in our current political climate. I wish more of us could sit down together and talk from differing points of view about that. About what we think the “soul” of our nation means. About what we hope and what we fear for it. About what we think “liberating strife” means, and what it means to love our country more than our selves, to love mercy more than life. About our nation’s flaws, and how they might be mended.
This is a conversation I’ve actually tried to start a couple of times with friends—yes, friends—whose political views differ from my own. We have talked about trying to talk about politics. To talk, not argue. To understand, not condemn. To listen, not speak over one another. But each time, we have not followed through. The conversation seems too risky, I guess. Too unmanageable. Too hurtful. Too dangerous in some way. Heartbreaking? Yes. But this is the reality right now.
And so, until such time as those conversations can commence, and continue, in confidence and good will, I think what I will do is sing “America, the Beautiful” to myself as often as I can, particularly when I’m out walking the battlefield, but maybe at other odd times, too. This month, when we celebrate the birthday of our nation, seems a good time for taking on such a practice. I will probably hum all of it, but if my time is limited, I will focus especially on the second verse. That verse in particular will be my prayer—my prayer for you, for me, for all Americans. Perhaps you’ll join me in making it your prayer as well.