“It Is Well With My Soul”
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart
and bids it break.
~ William Shakespeare ~
In 1871, Horatio Spafford, a prosperous Chicago attorney and real estate investor,
and his wife, Anna, were living comfortably with their four young daughters. In that
year, the great fire broke out and devastated the entire city, much of which included
Spafford's real estate holdings and thus much of his fortune.
Two years later, the family decided to travel to Europe. At the last minute, Horatio
was detained by business, and Anna and the girls went on ahead, sailing on the ocean
liner S.S. Ville de Havre. On November 21, 1873, the liner was rammed amid ship by
a British vessel and sank within minutes. Anna was picked up unconscious on a
floating spar, but the four children had drowned.
Anna sent a telegram that read, "Saved alone. What shall I do..." Horatio
immediately embarked to bring his wife home. During the Atlantic crossing, the ship's
captain called Horatio to his cabin and told him they were passing over the spot where
his four daughters had perished. Horatio wrote the hymn "It Is Well With My Soul" as
he passed over their watery grave. The original manuscript is shown at the top of this
column, and the hymn is still sung today.
But misfortune had not finished with the Spaffords. Three years later, Anna gave
birth to a son, Horatio, Jr. He died at the age of four.
Cut to August, 2007. The news media report that, according to recently released
letters written by Mother Teresa, even this most overtly devout soul - even now on the
fast track to sainthood - at times felt abandoned by God and experienced painful
conflicts with her faith throughout most of her lifetime.
About the same time this troubling news was reported, I received an e-mail from a
man whose wife is battling a late-stage cancer. He had just viewed The Survivor
Movie for the first time. He said that my views are "naive," and then he shared with
me his re-written version of the text from The Survivor Movie. It spoke to the despair,
helplessness and isolation he feels. My heart broke as I read his words, recognizing
his anguish, and knowing that there was little - probably nothing - I could say or do to
comfort him in the slightest. I said a prayer for him and his wife and asked God to do
what we mere mortals cannot, to reach into the deepest place in this man's soul and
touch him there with perfect love and healing grace.
How are we to even try to understand the suffering this life sets on each person's
path? How do people like Horatio Spafford survive the most devastating of tragedies
and still state with conviction - even praise and song - "It is well with my soul"? How
did he do that when our friend whose wife is suffering so cannot find his way in the
dark and when even Mother Teresa struggled with her own spirituality and purpose in
I can't say I know the answers to these profoundly difficult questions. I have no
formal religious training or education. My only qualification for even attempting to
pose answers is the simple fact that I have been privileged - yes, I said privileged - to
walk to the edge many times as both a patient and a caregiver.
In each case, I have walked to the edge and, in despair, first looked down. There
was nothing. No hell, no raging demons, no pitchforks, no bonfires. Just nothing. This
vast nothingness was far more terrifying than any monstrous thing I might have seen.
But when I lifted my face and looked across to the other side, there was everything:
Light. Peace. Joy. And radiating through it all, Spirit/God/Allah/Jehovah/Whatever
your personal faith has named Him/Her/It.
Let me be more specific. I held my own brother in my arms as he died. I whispered
to him how much I loved him and that it was okay to let go. He squeezed my hand,
smiled the most beatific smile I've ever seen, sighed deeply and let go. I had walked
to the door with him, and while I could not pass through, he let me know that he was
already "there," already experiencing the perfect peace that awaits us all. He "said" to
me without words that "all is well with my soul" as he passed from this world to the
next. In spite of my grief at losing him, the joy his message brought me was profound
and has lasted to this day, more than 17 years later.
As a hospice volunteer, I have "walked to the door" with other patients (all of
whom, by the way, passed out of this world peacefully and - yes - many even with
joy), and as a cancer patient myself as well as my husband's caregiver when he was
diagnosed with cancer, I have walked to the edge more times now than I can count. I
do not think I am naive, but neither am I wise in the ways of God. I do not have a
quick mind and cannot cite Scripture. I have only a simple, childlike faith based on
the abiding belief that beyond this "veil of tears," perfect peace and joy await us all.
I also remind myself daily that it is normal, healthy and perfectly okay to have
doubts and to question the meaning of our existence and even the presence of God.
Mother Teresa continued to give and to love and to minister to the poorest of the poor
and the sickest of the sick in spite of her own spiritual turmoil. Her "dark nights of the
soul" were brightened by the joy she gave to others. She was the very light through
which God shone on the people she served. And even though she admitted to
sometimes feeling "abandoned by God," the fact that she never abandoned her faith in
Him was, in itself, a childlike surrender to belief.
I've learned that if we're angry with God, we're admitting we believe He's there. I've
learned that He's more than big enough to take it, to handle our anger, to tolerate our
tantrums. I've learned that when we've finished fuming and cursing and screaming,
He's patiently waiting, ready to calm and comfort us and love us back to peace.
And I've learned to look for joy and miracles every single day that I am alive. Even
on the day we thought our son might die, on that day when I was more frightened than
I have ever been and anticipating the most profound grief a parent can experience,
even on that day my eyes were drawn to the window of his hospital room and the
most perfect sunset I have ever seen. A miracle of orange, pink, purple and gold. God
reminded me with His spectacular, celestial artwork of His presence in that cold,
sterile hospital room. I turned from the window and looked at my son, unconscious,
fighting for his life. I looked back at the sunset, and back again at my son. All of life
and all of existence and all meaning came together for me in that moment:
We are all born to a purpose. We all know joy. We all suffer grievous loss. We are
all in this together. And, no matter what the outcome of any single experience, we will
all be okay.
It is well with my soul because I understand that, even though tomorrow may be
dark, light will follow. My prayer for you today is that it be well with your soul, too.
Dear God, thank you for the gifts of joy and suffering, for each has its lessons to teach
in this cosmic schoolroom that is life.