July 4/5: “Amazing Grace” & Other Hymns

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 2Cor 12:7-10.


Saint Paul tells us, his grace fills us even in our weakness. Two great Christian hymns, “Amazing Grace,” and “Let Us Break Bread Together” are on my mind. Permit me to reflect on both President Obama’s recent eulogy; and my Mass-going on July 5th at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, CA. The July 4th holiday makes us more reflective of our country, our history and roots, as well as our greatness and our weaknesses.

No set of words, simple gestures of grief, or formal eulogy have been more powerful in recent days than President Barak Obama’s eulogy at the funeral service for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney at the AME Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C.


Whenever we hear the familiar sounds of the old stand-by hymn “Amazing Grace,” we will not forget this particular moment in time as part of our collective national memory.

While politicians or office holders might have something important to say on occasions of great sadness, President Obama’s eulogy may have defined his presidency, as well as this solemn occasion — in a particular house of worship, and in the very sanctuary where a terrible crime took place.

When I taught Political Communication during the 2008 presidential election cycle, I assigned Obama’s “Dreams of My Father,” alongside John McCain’s “Faith of My Fathers.” In typical teacher-fashion, I asked my students to write a short compare/contrast review of the two autobiographies.

What my students came up within their conversations and in papers was the idea that McCain had a co-author to assist him in writing his own memoir. Clearly, Obama had the genuine advantage and as a compelling writer, the book demonstrated how he dug deep into his own identity and uncertainty about his roots, and in order to discover a father that he had little knowledge of.

So we witness this eulogy for Clementa Pinckney and the other eight martyrs, and ask how the author of this speech may help shape our historical memory? We will read about this eulogy for years to come in the press and media, history, and all those interested in race relations. Already there is recognition of how Barak Obama is his own best wordsmith.

Take note of Michiko Kakutani, the NYT critic, and essayist, her article entitled “Obama’s Eulogy, Which Found its Place in History,” (NYT 7/3/15) states: “It is remarkable because the eulogy drew on all of Mr. Obama’s gifts of language and empathy and searching intellect.” She goes on to suggest that Obama’s grasp of history mirrors a panorama from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King.

E.J. Dionne in his Washington Post column, “Liberated by Grace,” (WP 7/5/15) states that the “African American Christian tradition has been vital … as a seedbed of freedom and a reminder that the Bible is a subversive book.” Dionne considers the context of the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” and concludes: “No shootings, no bombings, no fires can destroy this faith.”

On the PBS Newshour (7/3/15), John Larson gives further evidence to the power of “Amazing Grace” as the key metaphor and in President Obama’s words: “If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”

On Sunday, July 5th, I drove from Monterey down to the Camaldolese hermitage in Lucia, on the Big Sur coast. There is no better coastline in all of California, and the dazzling, crystalline seascape is as spectacular as the Amalfi coast; and just as treacherous a drive. I have been behind the wheel of automobiles on both roads, and still, talk about it!

The one-hour and a half drive to the monastery on CA Route 1 South, is on the perilous single-lane highway; and time in the car depends on the number of Winnebago Motorhomes, Range Rovers, cyclists, and especially distracted tourists from foreign lands taking selfies off cliffs and with little regard for on-coming traffic. Well, these are the people you pray for.

The hermitage campground is set high on the mountain that overlooks the Pacific Ocean – the largest single entity on the planet Earth. The Mass began at 11AM.

The Prior of the community, Father Cyprian presided at the Mass and collected there were twenty-or-so monks, and guests on retreat as well as people like me – just coming for a day of reflection.


Cyprian’s style as a presider is understated with careful gestures, and tender contact with his eyes focused on the congregation. He appeared to know everyone in the small chapel including those visiting for the first time. His opening blessing of water was a welcoming sign of refreshment and hope, in which he simply mark his own forehead, and that of the acolyte, and sprinkled the holy water on the congregation.

The ceremony always reminds of the power of the automated car wash – in which everything becomes suddenly clean and clear.

Drawing on the words of Saint Paul, he explained how we possess this divine energy even as weak “earthen vessels.”

His message for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary time stressed the idea that we, as Christians, have a capacity for fellowship with God, we are these frail earthen jars in which contains the power of God.

Cyprian told of a woman from Santa Cruz who asked him once, why we come to communion just after having voiced the bible verse: “Oh Lord, I am not worthy.” His reply drawing on Saint Paul: “Your grace is sufficient for all my weaknesses. Oh yes, you are meant to contain the presence of God,” despite our weaknesses.

Music is a central feature in the liturgy at the hermitage, simple direct and polyphonic chant falls into place with none of the complications of rehearsals. The assumptive idea is that, after a few verses, you catch on. For the offertory and Eucharistic prayer, the congregation moved into a circular rotunda. Where the Mass is celebrated in the round.

At communion, two singers appeared, almost out of nowhere, and sang the old hymn “Let Us Break Bread Together, on our Knees.” Ernie Rettino and his wife Debby Kerner Rettino’s prayerful conviction resonated in those last moments of the Mass.

Afterward, I introduced myself, and discovered the obvious, they were professional singers from Orange County whose impressive credits include the writing of liturgical songs for young people.

As I was leaving the chapel, I met Father Jeff “Skip” Thompson, ordained by Bishop Richard Garcia on June 29th. We spoke about our interests in politics and his past career in Sacramento, but mostly, we discussed his new priestly ministry and work in seminary education. He’s a big man who possesses all the energy for the important work ahead. Let’s pray for him and for that grace of God so essential to his new priestly tasks.

Monterey, CA.

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