AS A CHILD growing up on the island of Jamaica, it seemed to me that people, especially women, were always singing hymns as they went about their business. Women bending low over washtubs, or standing knee deep in swift-running rivers, would produce scrub rhythms from the friction of soaped cloth rubbed hard between fists, and over that wash-wash rhythm they would moan hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Women ironing would sing too, accompanying their hymns with the thump and slide of heavy clothes irons. One especially weighty iron was known as a “self-heater” because it had a hollow interior designed to hold hell-hot coals. Perhaps I imagined this, but the washerwomen seemed to favor hymns about sins being washed white as snow—something most Jamaicans had never witnessed firsthand—and the ironing women seemed to like hymns that lamented our trespasses and sins and the consequent fear of hell. I like to think that the island was girdled round by a kind of eremitical domestic holiness when those women sang.
On the streets of Kingston, preachers, often from revivalist or Pocomania groups formed from the syncretization of African and European religions, would rock out spirited versions of Christian hymns that married, as one of our philosophers Rex Nettleford said, the melodies of Europe with the rhythms of Africa. Salvation Army brass bands with their booming kettledrums contributed stirring renditions of hymns as they marched out from the Bramwell Booth Memorial Hall onto the streets of the city, there to lift up the fallen and convert the wayward.
Hymns were sung at political gatherings. “There Were Ninety and Nine” was raised at every meeting of the People’s National Party, because it was the favorite hymn of Norman Washington Manley, often called the father of modern Jamaica. Jamaicans call this hymn and others like it “Sankeys,” after the powerful revival-style hymns performed by the great American evangelist and baritone Ira D. Sankey.
Christian hymns were also routinely repurposed by Rastafarians, a religious sect who regard their main mission as the decolonization of the minds of African Jamaicans; so a Sankey like “If You Only Knew the Blessing that Salvation Brings,” sung at a Rastafarian gathering or “reasoning,” would become “If You Only Knew the Blessing Rastafari Brings.” Performed in a hypnotic chanting style and underscored by powerful, explosive drumming, such hymns became anthems of resistance, especially when delivered in the thunderous basso profundo of the great Rastafarian elder Mortimo Planno, who was Bob Marley’s spiritual advisor.
But my mother and her people were Anglicans—or, as she preferred to say, they belonged to the Church of England. Her father, in addition to being a village lawyer, was the catechist in the local Anglican church, and so my mother and her people all grew up entirely comfortable with the language of the Book of Common Prayer and very familiar with hymns written by some of the finest poets in the English language.
And my mother relied on hymns to get her through the daily rounds and numerous tasks involved in raising nine children on not a lot of money. She would sing these hymns in a funny out-of-breath style, opting to hum some lines low under her breath as if internalizing their deeper meaning, and singing others out loud, offering them up for all to hear in bursts of lament, praise, petition, or thanksgiving. Ironically, one of her favorite hymns, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” was written in 1867 not by an Anglican but by a Scottish Methodist minister, Reverend W. Chalmers Smith, and it has become my favorite hymn.
“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is a hymn I love and admire mainly because it is a triumph of a praise song that uses words to describe the indescribable, something to which any hard-grafting poet can relate.
It does so in what in the English moral philosopher Mary Warnock calls “beautiful unordinary language,” the only language fit to describe God, who cannot be seen through mortal eyes; who is immortal, most wise, most blessed and most glorious; and above all, most worthy of the ultimate honorific, “the Ancient of Days”; who is almighty and victorious and whose great name we praise.
When I was an art student I always used to pause as I sang that opening verse and picture William Blake’s fiery rendering of Urizen setting a compass to the earth; but some time ago something in me shifted, and now I see instead my mother, her hair gone completely white, contained in that bright circle of Blake’s making, and she is measuring yards of richly brocaded fabric with her worn dressmaking tape measure.
I love, just love, what happens in the second verse of this hymn, where one of the loveliest surprises I know of in all of writing occurs. The Immortal Invisible, who does not rest or make haste, is described as “silent as light.” Not night, but light. Lovely silent light which is invoked in every verse except verse three. And then the old adage “waste not, want not” becomes a divine attribute of a mighty God, who does not waste nor want. All throughout this hymn, there are graceful gestures connecting the divine to the daily in lovely numinous hints.
I sang this hymn at least one hundred times at morning assembly during the years I attended Saint Hugh’s School for Girls, founded for the education of young ladies by the Anglican church in Kingston, Jamaica, over one hundred years ago. I have sung it in churches in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, and at least once in Durham Cathedral in England. My husband Ted Chamberlin and I chose it as the hymn for our wedding, so it has a very special place in my worship life, but these days it seems to have taken on even greater significance as I watch the news and I find myself turning to the lines:
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
These words reassure me that no matter how much injustice there is in the world, there is an ultimate source of justice, one that can only be measured by the heights of mountains. I am reassured too, that there is a supply of goodness and love, which comes down from the clouds like rain, or snow, and because this hymn is powered by the unordinary, this cloud-source of goodness and love paradoxically flows like a fountain.
I feel the need to remind myself of the constant nature of the divine, which “naught changeth” these days as I watch the news. Even as we mortals blossom and flourish as leaves on a tree—and then, without a doubt, wither and perish.
In the original version of this hymn, the penultimate verse contains these lines, which were changed, perhaps by the Wesleys:
But of all thy rich graces, this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.
I wish they had kept those words; for the graceful turn of veil into vile—a hard, but so honest word which resonates with those of us who are painfully aware that we often are, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “most miserable offenders.”
But mostly this is my favorite hymn because it almost succeeds in describing what no one can ever fully describe: the greatest of all mysteries that is veiled in silent light.
Lorna Goodison is the poet laureate of Jamaica. Her most recent collection is Collected Poems (Carcanet). She is professor emerita of English and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan.
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.