O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Many of us who grew up in the United States know this song. It is America the Beautiful, and this is the first verse. It is a song that often makes me cry, and I sang silently to myself along with the choir before the church service.
I love that first verse. It seems to hold so much promise and hope: The beauty of the earth, a yearning for grace, and a hope for brotherhood throughout all the land and all peoples, the same spirit of hope that is evident in the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
But that first verse does not stand alone. It is the combination of the promise in that first verse, with the verse I learned as the last verse that always makes me cry, combining as the two do together the beauty and majesty of the world we live in with toil and effort of our struggle to live up to this glory in brotherhood and peace.
O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!
Or at least I remember it as the last verse. Looking it up yesterday, I found that it is a variation on the second verse of the actual poem written by Katherine Lee Bates, which starts with pilgrim feet but ends differently. In some versions of the song, the second verse of the poem is the second verse of the song, and the version above is the sixth verse. Other versions have eight verses. In the 1982 Hymnal used by the Episcopal Church there are only three verses, and the pilgrim feet have been excised. It is somewhat intriguing to realize the way the things we learn as children and hold to be true prove to be just another tangled web in a world of tangled thoughts and messages. But that makes the intent no less true.
I still think it is a shame that this verse is not in the hymnal; to me it seems to be the most relevant to the mission of the church. Perhaps the problem lies in the usage, which is strange to modern ears. And yet it speaks so eloquently of the efforts of many people, working over many generations, people working through strife and opposition, often through stressful times, with passion to bring freedom to all. Wildernesses come in many forms, as do wild and tangled thoughts, but the hope and promise of a better tomorrow, and the struggle to achieve it despite our shortcomings, is always worth celebrating.
Fourth of July Fireworks at the Washington Monument, Washington, District of Columbia, USA.
Photo by By Camera Operator: SSGT. LONO KOLLARS -[public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, here.