One weekday night in Manhattan, after a grueling stint at a busy law firm, I came home and decided to relax with my gorgeous new Yamaha guitar. This was in the post-divorce days, when I was determined to enjoy the strange experience (for me) of being alone. Well, I was singing away when I heard a knock on the door. In Manhattan, friends don’t just drop by without calling in advance, so you won’t blame me for being alarmed. I peered through the viewing aperture and spied the slender white-haired lady who lived at the end of my corridor, cradling her delightful poodle in her arms. I opened the door and she told me shyly that the sounds of live music had attracted her attention. Hesitantly, she asked if she could come in for a while to hear me sing. Although so far we had only exchanged smiles in the elevator, I had always instinctively liked her, and so I said yes. She made herself comfortable on a couch and so did her pooch, and then she asked me to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’
Now there are some who weary of that beautiful hymn, but not me; I love it, especially after I heard that it was written by a slave-trader who had been saved from a terrible death at sea by the almighty hand of the Divine. As a monster storm threatened to sink his ship, this cold-hearted devil had felt a fierce blast of remorse for the suffering he had caused to so many. He had begged the Divine to save him so he could make lifelong amends; his prayer was answered, and the storm abated. Fortunately he kept his word and went on to live a life of service, determined to make amends.
Anyway, I sang this hymn for her, and when I finished, there were tears streaming down her cheeks. She looked at me with deep sorrow then and related an extraordinarily tragic tale: Years ago, her only daughter, a beautiful woman with two young sons and a loving husband, had been raped and murdered by the crazy nephew of her neighbor, a lad obsessed by her exotic beauty. That same afternoon, her son (the murdered woman’s older brother) died in a New York hospital of AIDS. And just months before these ghastly tragedies, her wild hippie son had overdosed on heroin in San Francisco! I simply couldn’t believe my ears—this woman had lost three children in hellish circumstances, all in the space of a year. How does any mother survive this magnitude of trauma?
I listened with rapt attention, realizing that she really needed to spill her grief. “Well, I totally collapsed,” she said. “In fact I was doing so badly that my mother, then in her early nineties and who lived alone on the family farm down south, invited me to stay with her until I felt strong enough to once again tackle life in New York.”
She smiled faintly. “What the old darling didn’t know, of course, is that I agreed only because I thought the farm was a great place to kill myself. I flew down south, and made plans to end it all with an overdose of sleeping pills. But the night I planned to die, something told me to sit outside for a while. After my mother went to bed, I went out on to the porch and listened to the wind singing in the trees and gazed up one final time at the stars.
Then a miracle happened—I heard a voice say firmly: You will not do this terrible thing, do you hear? Don’t for a moment forget that your grandchildren are waiting for you to return. Their father has gone insane with grief and these heart-broken kids are counting on your support. Are you going to let them down? Then I was struck with a blast of love that shook me to the core. I sat there for hours in the sweet darkness, trembling with joy, knowing I had been saved by amazing grace. And although life has had its hard moments since, I have never forgotten that voice. And now you know why I love that song.
What a tragic tale, I thought, barely able to believe her. Later she told me that, when the lad who had murdered her daughter (he was barely twenty) was facing the death sentence, she had pleaded with the judge that he be given life imprisonment instead. The murderer was her best friend’s nephew, she explained to me, and since she herself had experienced the agonies of grief, she did not want her friend, a kind and loving woman herself, to go through the experience of watching her nephew being killed by lethal injection.
I myself had lost many loved ones and the knife of grief had almost finished me too. In my case, it was not a voice that whispered to me in a remote farmhouse in the deep south of America, but the Eastern teachings, which convinced me that physical death cannot even touch the immortal and blissful Spirit. I like the Eastern metaphor of the string of pearls, each pearl signifying a lifetime, and the string itself representing the immortal thread that runs through all our incarnations. We humans are born into an ephemeral world and, before we know it, we are trapped by an illusion of reality so powerful that only a handful of us ever discover our true nature, which is bliss.
Only a tiny fragment of humanity chooses to travel beyond the mundane. While I empathize deeply with those for whom life is a constant material struggle, and who therefore lack time and energy for inner work, when I see someone blessed with what is referred to as a “precious human life”— where one has the higher intelligence, resources and time for deeper investigation—but who still chooses not to wake up, it is when I feel most sad.
As Ramana Maharshi, the luminous south Indian sage who resurrected a direct path to moksha or freedom from suffering says, grace is ever-present, but it is we who must prepare ourselves to receive it.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who promises the genuine seeker to aid in the destruction of all that blocks us from knowing that we ourselves are amazing grace!
Note: I change certain details to protect anonymity, but the story itself is true.