The one hymn in my repertoire is “Amazing Grace.” Part of what’s lovely to me about “Amazing Grace” is the melody, those smooth waves rising and resolving. Partly it is the sweetness of an achieved serenity, in which a “lost” and “blind” past has been absorbed, into a present that ripples with goodness and peacefulness.
It’s not the repeated alleluia. It’s not the catalogue of earthy beauty. It’s not the open-throated Ptolemaic chime. What undoes me is the single minor chord.
I am one who from his middle years onward has chosen to believe in grace, by which of course I mean unmerited favor. That the opening of the most famous hymn composed by Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, came to mind strikes me in retrospect as oddly unsurprising, though in my all-white, Vermont Congregational church this is not a hymn much heard.
I liked the words, translated into a version of English that was more or less Victorian, and must have seemed elevated to my young ears. But I liked much more the strange rhythm of the hymn. There is such a brief pause between the phrases they nearly fall on top of each other. While the melody moves forward it also jumps or bumps—it isn’t a sweet or smooth movement. I can think this way as an adult; as a youngster I expect I just noted there was something strange in the music of this hymn and I liked it for that. And “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a melody I’ve hummed to myself often through the years.
“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 fitting 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.