It just so happens that I am to attend the funeral of a friend’s mother this weekend. This hymn was on my list for this week, but seems especially appropriate as I know this family are people of faith who hold, in their grief, to the comfort offered in these words. The idea that the rest beyond the river is real, and that their mother has found this beautiful peace.
Fanny Crosby wrote these words in 1869. She is a well-known hymn writer, and this is a very familiar set of words. The story goes that she became blind as an infant after receiving poor treatment of her eyes during an illness, an affliction that she felt resulted in having a fine memory and receiving a better education, one that she might not have had otherwise. Her first hymn, written at the age of eight, contained her lifelong philosophy: “O what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be.”
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain;
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
In the cross, in the cross
Be my glory ever,
Till my ransomed soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and mercy found me;
There the Bright and Morning Star
Shed His beams around me.
Near the cross! O lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day
With its shadow o’er me.
Near the cross! I’ll watch and wait,
Hoping, trusting ever;
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.
I have mixed feelings about this hymn. In some ways, the words are strikingly beautiful. The precious fountain, the healing stream, the starlight beaming around us, the idea of reaching the golden strand. The promise of something beyond death. Lovely. And, I can appreciate the comfort these words bring in times of loss. But, I do struggle with the preoccupation with the afterlife in these kinds of hymns, with the waiting for something as though this life is less than an unmatchable gift. There is a famous quote by Carl Jung that says, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”
There is something mysterious about how we define our own personal spirituality. Some of us are religious, others are not. Some rely on inherited or chosen beliefs to resolve their fear of death. Others ignore the inevitable, seeking fountains of youth. And, some choose to be content with the wonder that is our world, our neighbours, our creativity, our experiences, our very breath. They choose gratitude. Perhaps this comes from faith, from the Divine, from relationships, from knowledge – all sorts of sources. But I think, as Fanny Crosby understood even as a child, there is some element of choice in gratitude. A willingness to look beyond our circumstances and the inevitability of death, and seek that which is wonderful.
Our lives are not perfect. Far from it. They are filled with all kinds of despair and disappointment, fear and uncertainty. We require assistance – sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from professionals. There are endless bumps along the road. It can be incredibly difficult to find contentment in our darkest hours. I wonder if this idea of gratitude is some kind of key to all of this.
Gratitude is simply the act of being thankful, combined with the action of returning kindness. For me, this notion of returning the kindness is powerful. Even when all else is dark, to return a kindness is a source of light that is unexplainable. The smallest act can serve to provide a tiny flame that may just be enough to stave off the darkness – even if only for a moment. I am reminded of the paintings of the Dutch Masters. Very dark canvasses filled with detail that is difficult to see but for the portions lit by candles, or a sunbeam through a window. We don’t know what’s in the periphery, we can’t see everything, the subjects are sometimes engaged in difficult tasks, or may be poor or hungry or overworked, and yet there is a remarkable beauty in this smallest bit of illumination.
I don’t know what’s beyond the river. But I live in this world, in this life with the intention of being thankful for every breath I am able to take. Some are harder than others – that’s okay. Sometimes we need to help someone else find their breath – that’s okay. Sometimes our pain is so deep that we need to let someone else bring us the very air we need – that’s okay. But this life is wonderful in all its complexity. There are healing streams and precious fountains, and the river is beautiful – on this side and the next.