Reflctions on “America, The Beautiful”:
On the “Gold” God That Would Refine, and On Becoming a Noble Success
By Ken K. Gourdin
Given that we United States citizens (and hopefully many of our residents, whether they be citizens or not) celebrate U.S. independence this time of year, my thoughts turn stirring patriotic anthems, and specifically to Katharine Lee Bates’ poem, America, later set to stirring music as our well-known patriotic anthem, America, The Beautiful. Earlier in the month, I reflected on Bates’s phrases, “Confirm thy soul in self-control” and “[Confirm] thy liberty in law.” (See the piece at the following address, last accessed today: http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/independence-day-2/). In this piece, I would like to reflect on the “gold” Bates wrote of, and on becoming a noble success. In her third stanza-verse, Bates writes:
May God thy gold refine
‘Til all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!1
When Bates writes of refining “Thy [that is, America’s] gold,” to what, exactly, is she referring? Is she talking about that yellow pricy metal? Bates certainly is capable of speaking for herself if she ever recorded any thoughts on the subject. If I find any such thoughts, I’ll certainly defer to her. In the meantime, here are my (admittedly less worthwhile) thoughts on the subject. I think that Bates, rather than speaking of mere (albeit precious) ore here, has something different in mind.
Don’t misunderstand. I believe God is all-powerful (even though He might choose when to intervene and when not to intervene in any given circumstance based on what best suits His purposes; and His intervention may not override man’s free will for the same reason). If such intervention suited His purposes, I believe God could lead men to sizeable deposits of ore, which they, using the knowledge and capacity with which He has blessed them, could then mine and refine. But again, I believe Bates has something different in mind.
If Bates isn’t speaking of precious metal here, of what is she speaking? I believe America’s “gold”—her most precious asset—isn’t an ore or any kind of refined precious metal or stone; rather, I believe it is her people. I believe God put us on this earth so that we could seek out and cultivate the best in ourselves, and so that we could help others seek out and cultivate the best in themselves, as well. In short, we are the gold which, according to Bates, God wishes to refine. A similar idea is expressed in Robert Keane’s How Firm A Foundation, borrowed and included among the hymnody of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, it is perhaps my favorite of the Church’s hymns. The fifth verse-stanza, which, resources permitting, I would like engraved on the headstone of the final resting place for my earthly remains, says:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply!
The flame will not hurt thee; I only design Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine!2
Perhaps the fact that I cling to many of my stubborn, shortsighted, mortal flaws and foibles has prevented God from refining me to the extent that He would like. Happily, though, the refining continues: I’m not finished yet. And flaws and foibles notwithstanding, I cannot deny that I have been through The Refiner’s Fire, and that it, indeed, has refined me to the degree to which my humility has allowed it. Dross, of course, is the rock (along with any other less-valuable substance) that is consumed in the refining process, leaving the pure, precious metal behind.
And what of Bates’ last two lines quoted above? Too often, we tend to equate (and to confuse) “success” with the considerable acquisition of material things. But the acquisition of material things, rather than making one noble, too often tends to have the opposite effect. Too often, it seems that the more well-to-do one becomes, the less noble he becomes! While I admit (and perhaps this is one of my mortal flaws and foibles) that it has been no small source of frustration to me that (thus far, at least) various factors have conspired to thwart my achievement of even modest material success, if I’m going to be any kind of a success, I’d like to be a noble one.
And to whatever extent I am (or will become) such a success, it has (and will have) little or nothing to do with how much “stuff” I have been (or will be) able to acquire. (As Christ put it, “The abundance of a man’s life consisteth not in the things which he possesseth.”3 Rather, it has more to do with the kind of person I have (and will) become (with the kind of character I exhibit), and with how I treat people. Happily, most of the people I know personally who have considerable means have learned those lessons well, and they would be the same person without those means as they are with them. Conversely, too many people (whether rich or poor, and whether covetous or not) love things and use people, rather than loving people and using things. I would rather do the latter than the former; and by so doing, I would hope to become a noble success!
To America’s “gold”—her people: may God refine us, and make of us noble successes!
1 Katharine Lee Bates (1893) “America, The Beautiful,” accessed on line at http://www.usa-flag-site.org/song-lyrics/america.shtml on July 6, 2013. See also Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1985) no. 338, also accessed on line at the following address on July 17, 2013: http://www.lds.org/music/library/hymns/america-the-beautiful?lang=eng
2 Text attr. to Robert Keene (ca. 1787), music attr. to J. Ellis (ca. 1889), “How Firm a Foundation,” Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1985) no. 85, accessed on line at the following address on July 17, 2013: http://www.lds.org/music/library/hymns/how-firm-a-foundation?lang=eng