A song and a secret

She is a very large woman. Her face and hair make her look ancient, but she still exudes the memory of great strength. She sits by the piano, and as I play the hymns, she rocks to their rhythm. Her eyes are closed.

She comes only occasionally to the music hour at the Senior Center, and sits quietly away from the others, listening.

''Would you like a songbook?'' I ask her softly.

''No,'' she answers, ''just play, play.''

I am strangely moved by her demeanor and keep stealing glances at her, as the regulars in the room sing their spontaneous harmony. The great body sways. Her face is lined with scars of profound suffering. Her hands lie very still on her lap, and I find myself wanting to reach out and touch them.

No one at the center knows much about her. Every time she comes, near the end of the singing session, she asks, ''Now play 'How Great Thou Art,''' and I do.

The people in the room are mostly black. They enjoy singing gospel songs, but I love Negro spirituals. They are almost surprised when I suggest ''Deep River'' or ''Go Down Moses.'' They would rather sing ''Amazing Grace,'' but they humor me with a magnificent ''Just a Closer Walk with Thee.'' They all love ''How Great Thou Art,'' treating it in style and rhythm as a spiritual, never realizing its northern European origin.

''Play it now,'' she says, and on this song alone, she sings. Still she keeps her eyes closed, but great tears roll down the cheeks spotted with age.

I am profoundly moved. Her face becomes transformed by that inner ''peace that passes understanding.'' I, who run away from stereotypes, see her at this moment as the mother of a whole race of women - those black women in America who looked after white people's babies and learned to love them, all the while worrying about their children left untended back home . . . . black women who dressed their own in the employers' castoffs, who cooked food for families who would send leftovers with them considering it enough payment for hard work . . . black women who raised their young, and their children's children, and many times a third generation.

I know such women intimately, and she, the mother who sings with eyes closed, becomes the reality of all of them. I look at her with awe and see the light which bathes her face as she sings: Then sings my soul, my Saviour, God, to Thee How great Thou art, how great Thou art .

And I know beyond sociological treatises and theological arguments what it is that gives beauty, dignity, and strength to these women she shows me.

Hard work, with a pittance for compensation, has not deprived them of their dignity, for they served, doing ''all things as unto their Lord.'' Responsibility for large families has not bowed them, for as they gave off strength, they increased in grace and power. Bitterness has no room in them, for they have been filled with love.

I do not recognize all this in order to salvage my white woman's guilt. I am not ignoring all the sophisticated derision which exists among many blacks and some whites on the subject of black churches and the faith of the people who fill them.

But the sophists and the cynics do not know women like her and the others who sing with me each week. They have not seen the light on those long-suffering faces, the smile which reflects a knowledge no cynic will ever experience. They have not listened to them laugh without a trace of rancor, they have not heard the glory of their singing.

In such women of faith, this enormous trust in the goodness of their Creator comes from knowledge, not ignorance.

It is the knowledge which is the secret of people who have truly suffered and have endured; the assurance which is given to those who have come face to face with reality, with ''the Ground of our Being,'' the ''Holy Other'' - from experiencing their God.

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