Last night K and I attended Ash Wednesday services at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. Among the readings was Psalm 51, which contains the line, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." The sentiment put me in mind of a Sacred Harp song that we sing quite frequently: "Give me a calm and thankful heart/From ev'ry murmur free..."
The lyrics were written by Anne Steele, an 18th century Briton credited with being the first woman to pen hymn texts that were widely reprinted in contemporary hymnals. A Baptist who published her works under the name "Theodosia," Steele's poetry can be found in the hymn-books of just about every mainline Protestant denomination; several are in 'The Sacred Harp.'
Anne's mother died when Anne was three years old. When she was 19, she sustained a severe injury to her hip that impeded her mobility and caused her health problems for the remainder of her life. She suffered perhaps the greatest blow at age 21, when the young man to whom she was betrothed was drowned. She never married. Despite these tragedies, Anne was described as a cheerful, friendly person with a generous spirit.
The poem that we Sacred Harpers sing as "A Thankful Heart" was actually composed on the occasion of her fiance's death. The stanzas printed in our tunebook are part of a larger work that includes the verses:
Is health and ease my happy share
Oh may I bless my God;
Thy kindness let my songs declare
And spread Thy praise abroad
While such delightful gifts as these
Are kindly dealt to me
Be all my hours of health and ease
Devoted Lord to Thee
In griefs and pains Thy sacred Word
(Dear solace of my soul!)
Celestial comforts can afford
And all their power control
When present sufferings pain my heart
Or future terrors rise
And light and hope almost depart
From these dejected eyes
Thy powerful Word supports my hope
Sweet cordial of the mind
And bears my fainting spirit up
And bids me wait resigned
Ever since I first read that story, I can't sing that song without a lump in my throat. The thought of someone writing words like those in the face of such hardships helps me to step outside myself, outside the pettyness of my own perceived troubles and anxieties, to catch a glimpse of the hope that glimmers on the far side of fear.
This Lenten season, I will fast from selfishness and feast on compassion. I will fast from anxiety and feast on gratitude. I will fast from despair and feast on renewal.