In her career, Sarah Hart has written and recorded thousands of songs for worship, for liturgy, and for Christian music stars such as Amy Grant and Matt Maher. Her work and her worldview are so imbued with the spirit of God that she relates most to St. Catherine of Siena who, at the age of seven, walked into her kitchen and told her mother, “I see God in all things and all things in God.”
Sarah’s focus, therefore, has been on putting “beauty in the world” in both her home life and career. And now she has tried her hand at something a little different: writing a devotional booklet that explores the lyrics of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” Sarah joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss the booklet, as well as her own winding spiritual journey.
The seeds of Sarah’s faith were planted during her childhood. She recalled, “I had the most beautiful hippie-dippy childhood in the 70s. Vatican II was new, and there was folk mass and community. I grew up in southeastern Ohio, and there were potlucks and people who gathered to sing and to pray, so I grew up a very free spirit in the church. My experience of faith as a child was that I was deeply loved and that there was freedom in faith and beauty in faith. I feel very blessed that that was my experience.”
Even the best church experiences, however, don’t prevent someone from questioning and wandering as they get older. When she went to college, Sarah wanted nothing more to do with “church,” until she later found a non-denominational fellowship that she stayed with during her young adult years and where she met the man who would become her husband. A few years into their marriage, Sarah felt called back to the Catholic Church and has chosen to serve God through her music.
Sarah doesn’t regret her time away from the Church. In fact, she thinks God used it to make her better. She said, “My Catholic faith has always informed me, and that time away from the Church informed me as well in a very beautiful way, in a necessary way. That was definitely God trying to expand my horizon, help me fall in love with Scripture, help me recognize a couple of things that I hadn’t as a cradle Catholic…There are things that all of us have to learn and to glean from other faiths, other religions, other cultures, and other peoples. So, I really bless that time because I learned so much, and it made me embrace my faith all the more when I came back.”
One of Sarah’s strong points is that she doesn’t view the sacred and the secular as separate. Like St. Catherine of Siena, she sees God in all things and all things in God. She also cites Thomas Merton’s experience on a street corner in Louisville when he suddenly saw clearly “the face of Christ in all people, and how all things are interconnected.”
In our polarized world, Sarah hopes more people have this kind of revelation, and she hopes her music can enlighten others in this respect. She said, “Everybody has this universal sense of sadness, of happiness, of joy, of sorrow, of everything in between. Everybody has these universal themes. To write about the darkness leaning into the light is something that comes naturally to me. All I really want to do is put beauty in the world. I feel like that’s what I’m built for…And that is how we all can help God, creator God…Whatever we choose to do in our lives, we can choose beauty and good and kindness and light and mercy. To do anything less, I think, is to do a disservice to the Lord.”
Sarah’s latest way of bringing beauty into the world is through the devotional booklet “How Sweet the Sound: Lyrical Reflections Based on Amazing Grace.“
“Amazing Grace,” which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, was written by John Newton after he had a “come to Jesus moment,” as Sarah calls it, regarding his own sinfulness as a slave trader who didn’t respect the dignity of man. The opening line – “Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me” – feels especially meaningful to Sarah. She explained, “That word ‘wretch’ kills me every time because he is writing about his personal feeling about himself and knowing what God has rescued him from, and knowing what God has rescued his heart from. I think all of us can relate to that…Having been lost, but now found; having been blind, but now we see. Every single person who’s ever had any kind of spiritual experience can relate to those words.”
The song is also filled with other forms of wisdom that apply even to people who don’t have evil acts in their past. For instance, Sarah’s first reflection in the booklet has to do with listening for the sound of grace in our lives. It’s something we all have to learn to do ourselves based on our individual circumstances.”Because of the busyness [of my life],” she said, “I’ve learned to adjust my prayer life and my conversations with God accordingly. My life doesn’t afford me [time] to go to the adoration chapel for an hour every day. It just doesn’t, unfortunately. And what I’ve learned to do is, tend to the adoration chapel in my heart and take moments throughout the day where I’m talking out loud to God, or God is whispering to my heart. I’ll say that at this age in my life, I’ve never been more comfortable with God. I’ve never felt like we’ve had a sweeter relationship or a better relationship than right now.”
That level of comfort is enhanced for Sarah because she has also been through “desert experiences” with God. She believes this is also a normal part of everyone’s spiritual life: “There are little places in our lives that are little deserts, where we don’t feel accompanied or we don’t feel sure. We feel scared. There have been times that have been more prevalent than others where I felt like, ‘Okay, God, where in the world are You?’…I can’t explain why those times come and go, but I think we all have them. And I think simply trying to walk through them and let ourselves be accompanied is the answer. Not fighting those desert times, but rather embracing them as part of the spiritual process.”
Sarah also brings a different perspective to the word “fear,” as in the lyrics, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / and grace my fears relieved.” The idea of fear can be tricky in the religious world because if you overemphasize it, you might wind up practicing a fear-based religion instead of a love-based one.
The definition of the word is what can change our perception, explained Sarah: “We, in our modern society, take fear to mean being scared, being afraid. But fear, historically in terms of grammar and original meaning, can also mean to bend to something more authoritative than you are. I think what the author is trying to say is that grace gave me the ability to have a fear of the Lord. Not a dangerous fear, but a healthy fear. And what fear in that aspect means is a love and a willingness to bow before what is authoritative. The word ‘authoritative’ is born of the word author, creator. So all we’re doing is bowing in love and awe to a Creator, a force that is greater than us. So fear is not anxiety and being scared of God, but fear is [realizing] the Lord is so beautiful and so much bigger than me. I think that’s what [Newton] is talking about. And then with ‘grace my fears relieved’, he’s talking about the actual fears he faces, what he’s scared of, what he’s afraid of. Then the grace of this authoritative Creator, God, came in and allayed those fears. That’s how I interpret it.”
Ultimately, Sarah hopes that readers of “How Sweet the Sound” find wisdom in its insights – and in the questions it prompts them to ponder. She concluded, “My hope is that you’ll…understand the context of the lyric, see yourself in the context of the lyric…The book has places where you can write and reflect and journal, so I hope that everybody will have an opportunity to do that, to see the grace that the Lord has for us and thereby give themselves more grace in their own life.”
(To listen to my full interview with Sarah Hart, click on the podcast link):