Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.
I began singingly almost facetiously, wondering if we were ever going to find the water we had driven so far to see. Technically, it was a mountain spring, not a “fount” that had inspired our trip, but as Rachel, Keith and I wandered through a graveyard in the Tennessee mountains, a hymn seemed the most appropriate mode for deciding which way to go next.
One week earlier, my friends and I had attended a reading by the poet Jeff Daniel Marion at our college’s Appalachian Center. First-semester freshmen, we were eager to attend any campus event, and our English Professor, Dr. Ernest Lee, had arranged the reading. Mr. Marion shared several selections from his most recent book, Ebbing and Flowing Springs, and spoke about the actual Ebbing and Flowing Spring, near Rogersville, Tennessee, which had inspired the title poem. I had loved poetry since I learned to read, but in all my adolescent sighing over “Tintern Abbey,” it had never occurred to me that poems could be connected to, or rooted in, actual places. I had always valued poems because they took me away from the uninteresting landscape of Terre Haute, Indiana, but here was a poet who drew his words from the land around him. Rachel and Keith seemed struck by this, as well, and we decided that at our first chance, we would drive to Ebbing and Flowing Spring ourselves.
We set out on a dark and misty day in late November, headed towards Rogersville, but we soon learned that poets, whatever their other verbal skills, cannot be counted upon for precise driving instructions. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the drive; I was still very new to Tennessee and was fascinated by the winding roads, the twang of the voices at the gas station, and the way my companions, one from further east in the state, and one from the mountains of North Carolina, responded to the landscape. As we drove further and further from our college town, whose foothills still seemed Alpine to me, Keith and Rachel would say, “Now we’re coming near the real mountains. Now I feel safe again.”
By the time we reached the gravel road and clearing where we were supposed to find the spring, twilight had passed into proper night. The area was encircled in trees, but in the darkness we could not tell how large the clearing was. We peered through the windows of an old church, and read the inscriptions on the tombstones surrounding it, but we saw no sign of the spring house. For a time we stood apart, silently, each hearing the sound of rushing water, but unsure of its direction or source. When a light rain began to fall, we linked arms and I began humming “Come Thou Fount.” To my surprise, voices on either side of me began to sing along, each harmonizing with my melody.
Aside from a few peers in my tiny home church, I had rarely met people my own age who knew hymns, yet here were two other teenagers who not only joined, but enriched, the songs that were most precious to me. All my ideas about what it meant to know a place or a person shifted: I was standing in the dark, on an unfamiliar mountain, with people I had known hardly three months, and yet I knew I was home.
That night is my emblem for the home I found in college, a home I treasure not from nostalgia, but for the life it trained me to love, a life that challenges the isolation and petty ambitions of mainstream adulthood. In coming entries, I will write more about how my time at Carson-Newman challenged and deepened my understanding of home, relationships, community, and church. Tonight, however, I am content to dwell in this memory, and to invite you to join me there.
We never did find the spring that night, but I think we might have stumbled upon the Fount.